The question on how the bible was formed has attracted immense scholarly research, which has lead to the emergence of an incredibly large scholarly body of knowledge attempting to explain both the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) canon.
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Much of this literature also endeavors to explain the factors that were considered in the listing of various books in the bible considering that some writings believed to contain inspirational writings about Jesus Christ were omitted from inclusion in some versions of the New Testament canon.
For instance, Tenney Merrill, in his text, New Testament Survey, published in 1961, established the criterion used in the listing of books in the NT1. The first criterion is that the writing needed to have been authored by an apostle or a person considered as a close associate to an apostle2.
The writing should not have contradicted with other inspired writing with regard to its doctrinal teachings. Thirdly, writing should have similar ‘feel’ coupled with character while compared to other writings which are inspired3. Lastly, writings were supposed to have been cited by some early Christians and also receive acceptability among many churches4.
While this criterion may explain the inclusion of some books in the NT canon, as revealed by the historical considerations of the NT canon in this paper, this criterion fails to apply in some instances. The aim of this paper is to explore how the New Testament was formed through historical research, the influence of the church, and how Marcion’s edited canon impelled the early church Christians to move toward formally approving the books that were accepted as the official New Testament canon.
Historical perspective in formation of New Testament
Historical studies on the development of the NT claim that the inspired writings that forms books in the NT were first spread orally. However, Christian scholars disagree with this account. They argue such a theoretical perspective “would threaten the integrity of Jesus’ message, and thus threaten the validity of the gospel tradition”5. The implication of this on arguments of formation of the NT is that historical accounts of NT canon become problematic.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that presentation of historical accounts of NT canon entangles dealing with delicate information while still ensuring that history is presented objectively in the context of happenings that took place more than 2000 years ago. Evidence for the validity of such historical accounts also becomes hard to evidence especially by noting that the writing art was not well developed in this time due to limitation of writing materials.
Historians such as Metzger claim that oral traditions that carried the Jesus’ word were written first in the early 40’s AD6. The author further argues that this was done to ensure that an authoritative order of the sayings was kept intact so that integrity of the word could be kept live across generations to come. This historical perspective is developed further by Nag Hammadi text as documented in the Nag Hammadi Library.
This library is “a collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945, sealed in a large clay jar”7. Carried in this jar was the Thomas’ gospel. This gospel encompasses collections of various sayings that are not chronologically arranged or carrying any thematic order. Some of saying documented are parallels which are almost identical to the verses appearing in the gospels of Luke, mark and Mathew. Gospel of Thomas Saying 11 quotes Jesus saying:-
“This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. In the days when you consumed what is dead, you made it what is alive. When you come to dwell in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?”8
Historians contend there is a high probability that leaders in early times found such saying valuable and found it necessary to record them down in the form of writing to retain their authoritative voice of command. Majority of religious historical scholars also contend that the first NT gospel to be written was the Gospel of Mark (in 60’s AD), followed by gospel Mathew and then gospel of Luke (80’s AD).
Dating of NT inspired writing is incredibly difficult because some of their believed authors did not quote from various writings. A good example of such writers is Paul, whose writings do not carry quotations from the four main gospel books of the NT. The main argument developed for this by historian is that during the early times in which some of the NT books are believed to have been written, there was slow copying speed coupled with low circulations speeds9.
This perhaps explains why clear quotations from the past inspired writings only appeared in the writings completed in the second century. It is in this century that Papyrus also become available for use in writing outside Egyptian region.
1st Clement and Barnabas are some of the non-NT Christian early documentations which in the second century made reference to NT as an allusion while quoting OT principally as a scripture. In this line of argument Harry reckon “Ignatius of Antioch (107 -120 AD) is full allusions to and paraphrases of the New Testament”10. Later, in the second century, writers begun to have quotations verifiable to have been obtained in what people refer to NT canon.
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In the same time Marcion’s NT canon appeared. Marcion’s NT canon was done in 140’s AD. The NT canon only carried epistles of Paul coupled with the Gospel according to Luke. Marcion argued that other Gospels were not accurate and hence invalid for inclusion in the Canon since Jews had tampered with them. This suggests according to Marcion that oral tradition was not accurately recorded in the books. The work of Marcion pushed hard the early church to come up with a listing of the NT.
Between 170 AD and 175 AD, Tatian came up with the Diatessaron. This was collection that contained the four main orthodox gospels. The text received acceptance to the extents that it almost replaced the four gospels books in the modern NT. Unfortunately, this acceptance lived only shortly. Nevertheless, this makes it clear that at the time of Tatian, the church had already begun to embrace the four Gospels as opposed to rejection of three of them by Marcion.
Towards the end of the second century Clement of Alexandra, and Tertullian works carried quotation from many of the NT. However Clements included many inspired writings in his works which never made it in the NT. According to Shelley One can develop the entire NT by use of the Clement and Tertullian works with the exception of a few epistles11. The questions that arise here is- did these two authors have access to the NT canon to quote from?
The oldest orthodox canon is the Muratorian Canon. This manuscript is believed by many scholars to have been written between 170 AD and 200AD. Discovered in the Italian library, the manuscript has its first fragments missing. It mentions four main gospels: Luke, John, Mathew and Mark. However, these last two books are merely assumed to be mentioned in the missing fragment.
Other books mentioned as forming part of the NT canon includes Acts, the 13 Pastoral Epistles, revelations to John and Jude12. The canon also fails to mention books such as Hebrews 3rd John coupled with 1st and 2nd Peter. Some documents which are not included in the orthodox NT are also mentioned in the canon. By the end of the second century many of the 27 NT documents had gained incredible acceptance.
During the 3rd and 4th century the magnitude and the frequency of quotation from the inspirational writings that form NT increased while mention of the inspirational writings which are not incorporated in the modern NT decreased tremendously. Prolific religious writers in the third century included “Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage”13.
Christian literature citing acceptant of the 27 inspirational writing forming the modern NT exploded in the 4th century through the works of scholars like Cappadocian fathers, Lactantius and John Chrysostom among others. All these scholars marked the way for proclaiming on the NT cannon officially.
Some historians contend that NT was officially accepted during the Nicea council meeting, where 20 church rules were voted for. However, the first reference, which provides whole list of 27 NT writings, was a letter sent by Athanasius during Easter in 367 AD. Additionally, Shelley notes “the first time a church council ruled on the list of “inspired” writings allowed to be read in the church was at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD and no document survived from this council”14.
This decision is only known to by historians is because it was referenced in 397 AD during the Carthage of the 3rd Synod. Nevertheless, this Carthage never mentioned all the writings individually. Rather, phrases like- ‘four gospel’ are common. The main purpose of the Carthage was to declare which writings were considered sacred. Hence, they needed to be read in church. The reason in support for inclusion of any particular or group of writings in the canon of NT was also not given.
Based on the above discussions, it is arguable that NT canon evolved and developed between 250 and 300 years marking the early Christian history. The decision to include certain writings and not others in the NT canon was neither arrived at by an individual nor made during any church council meeting. Specific wrings which formed the NT canon developed gradually through the power of being trusted as precise representations of the beliefs of early Christians.
Influence of the church in formation of New Testament
Church played central roles in the formation of the NT. However, it is crucial to note that the formation of NT never took place at a single consensus meeting. Indeed, there was no single time that all churches meet and universally agreed on the books that should be included in the canon. The whole process took more than one century in which proliferation of various writing was done before people begun to select which writing to include in the NT.
The whole process was “cumulative, individual and happenstance event, guided by chance and prejudice more than objective and scholarly research, until priests and academics began pronouncing what was authoritative and holy, and even they were not unanimous”15. All churches had established lists of the books which they favored.
This is because no orthodoxy that was clearly defined existed in the years preceding 4th century. Several literarily traditions that were simultaneous existed. Only the churches that came up at the top had its texts preserved while texts that were opposing to its got vanished. This implies that the modern orthodoxy is merely a compilation of texts of the church that emerged the winner.
In the processes of the formation of the NT canon, there were different doctrines having different canons such as the eastern churches. These doctrines were also divided internally for instance “Ethiopian and Coptic and Syrian and Byzantine and Armenian canons all riding side-by-side with each other and with the Western Catholic canon, which itself was never perfectly settled until the 15th century”16.
This means that a way of unifying churches to ensure that all churches accepted specific writings was necessary. Thus, church had to come up with acceptable list of inspirational readings. However, this was incredibly difficult since different churches had different roles in contribution to the final listing of the NT books.
In the events of high influences of heretics during mid century, church was in the process of producing a list of NT which presents the world of God in a unique way. Considering the roles of the church in the development of the NT, it is evident that the idea of heretics was not the only driving force for development of a new list of NT opposed to the Marcion’s canon.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the church in the development of the NT canon is Jewish canonization during 90AD during Jammia council. In this context, Stephen notes, “This obvious example of canonizing scripture could only have been a decisive influence of the church”17. Church made substantive efforts to influence the formation of NT in 150 to 170AD.
In this time church played the roles of collection followed by subsequent standardization of inspired writings, which would later form the NT. Irenaeus of Lyons moved away quickly from the tradition of use of only OT to accommodation of the NT documents as part of scriptures in an attempt to defend the strategic effort of the church to disregard the Gnostics coupled with heresies.
Muratoran fragment formed one of the well known lists of acceptable inspirational writings. This fragment is considered by many religious historians’ scholars to have been authored in 170 AD18 by the western church. It was written as part of introduction of the list of texts that formed the scriptures.
In the words of … “The significance of the fragment with regard to the formation of the New Testament canon is found in its list of what was considered in the latter second-century to be the –scriptural books”19. While reading this fragment, there arises the feeling for common agreement and or rejection of views of the church on the acceptable listed books.
After the Muratorian Fragment, as the second century came to an end, Theophilus of Antioch also came up with various pieces of writing which defended the position of the church in influencing the official readings in the church. Based on this assertion, it is arguable that church believed that it has the final say in matters of the inspirational writing that were to be incorporated in the NT.
How Marcion’s edited canon impelled the early church Christians to move toward formally approving the books that were accepted as the official New Testament canon
Marcion believed in Jesus Christ as the savior sent by God while Paul was his immediate apostle. In the founding years of his school of religious belief, Marcion received several followers but later lost them due to several criticism related to his approach of NT listing. Mercion argued other gospels, apart from Luke, were interfered with by Jews20.
Hence, they did not represent the actual message of Jesus Christ. This explains why he omitted them in his NT canon. The early church was opposed to this position, making Marcion’s teaching irrelevant. Thus, his theology did not last for a long time.
The rejection of the Marcions NT canon was based on erroneous teachings that the early church considered as misleading. For instance, he claimed the God of NT was different from the God of the OT in that the OT God was essentially evil while the God of NT was loving, caring, and had no intentions for harming His creations21.
This made him reject in totality the OT and embraced some inspired writings of the NT that he claimed were dominated by overtones of Judaic teachings. According to him, some Jews interpolated some portions of the NT in the effort to ensure that the gospel of Jesus Christ was corrupted in the effort to serve their own interests and promote their own religious doctrines.
This prompted him to extract some of the portions of NT he claimed were Gnostic in nature. This move was not embraced by the early church which held that the inspiring writing incorporated and approved for reading in the church presented the actual revelations of apostles by God.
The changes made by Marcion were interpreted by the early church as intentional alteration of the true gospel. This compelled it to approve the gospel books to form part of the NT canon. Marcion’s list of NT was divided into two main groups: apostle and gospel canon. The gospel was only made of the book of Luke which was also incredibly altered to remove Judaic doctrinal elements.
Apostles such as Galatians, Romans, Colossians and Corinthians among other were also immensely altered to suit the Marcion’s doctrinal school of thought. However, it is important to note that Marcion canon was the first ever attempt to list various inspirational writings that form the current modern NT canon. It was also the first time in the development of the early church that a list of books for readings was declared as the final authority.
The discontents associated with the teachings of the Marcion doctrine compelled the church in Rome to seek efforts to define itself in a new way.
This included declaration of inspired writing that was authorized for reading in the church because “Marcion formed his bible and declared opposition to the Holy Scriptures of the church from which he had separated; it was in opposition to his criticism that the church in its turn first became rightly conscious of its heritage of apostolic writings.”22 Since the church opposed the Marcion doctrines, declaration of the accepted books for reading the church was almost inevitable.
The arguments raised above make several religious scholars to raise a lot of questions on the validity and acceptability of the declared lists of inspirational writing forming the NT canon used to day. For instance, Roger seeks to know “if the teachings of Marcion were unsound, what was the sound teaching, and how could it be defended?”23 .
The church responded by opposing the attempts of Marcion to disregard scriptures. The aim of the church was to include as many scriptures as possible. The church categorically said that it did not reject the OT as Marcion did, rather is accepted it just as Jesus and apostles accepted it. For the case of scriptures forming the new order, the church said it did not only accept one gospel, but instead four of them. In case of the epistles of Paul, the church said it never recognized ten but thirteen of them.
Opposed to the Marcion’s’ approach of only including apostolic letters of Paul in his canon, the church considered other letters in its declared official listing such as acts of apostles, which acts as the link between apostolic letters and gospels. This list was compiled in Rome. It was then called Muratorian canon. It is dated to the 2nd century.
It forms the “list of New Testament books recognized as authoritative in the Roman Church at the time”24. Hence, it is arguable church moved in to declare officially the acceptable scriptures of the new order in the effort to set the record straight about unacceptability of doctrines that it considered as misleading such as the Marcion’s doctrine.
The establishment and formation of the New Testament (NT) took the process of proliferations of various inspirational writings. In the process there was a valid disagreement among various people on what needs to constitute readings in the church.
One of such person was Marcion who came up with his own listing only considering one gospel book (Luke) while claiming that other gospels were characterized by immense modifications by the Jews who sort to reframe inspirational writings to fit their doctrinal beliefs. On the other hand, early church sought to include, as opposed to excluding, as many inspirational writing in the NT canon as possible.
The Marcion’s position that OT and some parts of the NT inspirational writings were not appropriate also attracted hefty criticism from the church making the Marcion doctrine to die. This and other arguments that the church considered as misplaced propelled it to officially declare the official list of readings during the church service. These readings came in hardy to form the NT canon.
Bruce, Shelley. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995.
Carson, Aurthur, and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Leicester: Apollos, inter-Varsity Press, 1999.
De Jonge, Johnson. The New Testament Canon. Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003.
Gamble, Harry. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. Michigan: Book Crafters, Inc., 1995.
Glenn, Davis, “The Development of the Canon of the New Testament.” Journal of Evangelistically Theological Society 23, no.11 (2008), 77-91.
Knox, John. Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
McGrath, Alister. An Introduction to Christianity. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Metzger, Bruce. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
Nicole, Roger. “The canon of the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelistically Theological Society 40, no.2 (1997): 199-206.
Voorwinde, Stephen, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon.” Vox Reformata 60, no.4 (1995): 127-131.
1 John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon, (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1980), 107.
2 Ibid, 107.
3 Johnson, De Jonge, The New Testament Canon, (Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003), 315.
4 Knox, Marcion and the New Testament, 108.
5 Davis, Glenn, “The Development of the Canon of the New Testament,” Journal of Evangelistically Theological Society 23, no.11 (2008): 77.
6 Bruce, Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 23.
7 Ibid, 24
8 Alister, McGrath. An Introduction To Christianity, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997), 123.
9 Metzger, The New Testament, 24.
10 Harry, Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts, (Chelsea, Michigan: Book Crafters, Inc., 1995), 19-81.
11 Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language, (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1995), 11.
12 Gamble, Books and Readers, 21.
13 Bruce, Church History, 15.
14 Bruce, Church History, 16.
15 Bruce, Church History, 29.
16 Stephen, Voorwinde, “The Formation of The New Testament Canon,” Vox Reformata, 60 no.4 (1995), 127
17 Ibid, 127
18 Gamble, Books and Readers, 26
19Arthur Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Leicester: Apollos, inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 34
21Glenn, The Development of the Canon, 88.
22 Roger, Nicole, “The canon of the New Testament,” Journal of the Evangelistically Theological Society 40, no.2 (1997), 199.
23Nicole, The canon of the New Testament, 204.
24Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 52.