How Did Canonization of the New Testament Happen?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Canonization of the New Testament did not happen overnight.  The books of the New Testament were written over several decades, with the final books probably being completed just before A.D. 100.  However, documents traveled slowly 2,000 years ago, and it took many years for the books, later to be recognized as the New Testament, to circulate throughout the Roman Empire.  It was a long and gradual process.

The early church, using several criteria, worked through the process of recognizing the inspired books of the New Testament during the first few centuries after Christ’s death.  For a brief summary of the process, I quote church historian J. N. D. Kelly from his book Early Christian Doctrines:

The main point to be observed is that the fixation of the finally agreed list of books, and of the order in which they were to be arranged, was the result of a very gradual process. . . . Three features of this process should be noted.

First, the criterion which ultimately came to prevail was apostolicity. Unless a book could be shown to come from the pen of an apostle, or at least to have the authority of an apostle behind it, it was peremptorily rejected, however edifying or popular with the faithful it might be.

Secondly, there were certain books which hovered for long time on the fringe of the canon, but in the end failed to secure admission to it, usually because they lacked this indisputable stamp. . . .

Thirdly, some of the books which were later included had to wait a considerable time before achieving universal recognition. . . . By gradual stages, however, the Church both in East and West arrived at a common mind as to its sacred books. The first official document which prescribes the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as alone canonical is Athanasius’s Easter letter for the year 367, but the process was not everywhere complete until at least a century and a half later.

Not only did the process take a while due to practical communication obstacles, the early church was trying to be extremely careful about recognizing the canon.  Their desire was to get it right, and for that reason alone, we should be thankful for their approach to this process.

One final comment about the canon.  For some of you, this information may seem dry and even boring.  After all, you might be thinking, how does this impact my Christian walk today?  Aside from the fact that you should just want to know about the origins of the Bible, there is another more practical reason.  If you don’t know what really happened, then you won’t be able to recognize revisionist historians who grossly distort or outright lie about Christian origins.

When The Da Vinci Code was published, one of the biggest misrepresentations of Dan Brown was the claim that the church Council of Nicaea voted on which gospels (he claims there were 80 or so to choose from) to include in the New Testament, based on the council’s desire to make Jesus a god.  First of all, this never happened, and secondly, it completely fails to accurately portray the actual process of canonization.  Brown got it completely wrong, but the Christian ignorant of church history would never know that.

C. S. Lewis once said that good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, to counter bad philosophy.  Likewise, true church history must exist, if for no other reason, to counter false church history.

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  • Teriann

    When did the Protestant church remove books from the cannon?

  • Don Sciba

    Very valuable information, Bill. There is a lot of misinformation out there about the origins of the canon and hopefully your post will correct some of that.

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  • E

    Dan Brown thinks himself some amazing scholar, but he is just a mediocre writer peddling urban legends and myths to the ignorant populace. I had to read the Da Vinci Code for a college course, it was horribly written and full of outright lies. The only reason it was so popular is because the “world” will eat up anything that denies God.

  • Andrew R

    “The only reason it was so popular is because the “world” will eat up anything that denies God.”

    I thought the ‘world’ was majority theistic? I don’t know any atheists who enjoy Dan Brown books – my sister and mother read the Da Vinci Code and they’re both church-going Christians.

  • Beeshapp Aaron Kamdiee

    how was the pauline epistels canonised