Basic Knowledge: Students should know the major issues involved in the formation of the canon, the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration, the textual transmission of the NT, and translations of the Bible. They should have a basic grasp of the major figures and documents involved and issues addressed, including key dates.
Intermediate Knowledge: In addition to mastery of the core content identified in Basic Knowledge above, students should be able to discuss more thoroughly the canonization process and the criteria of canonicity. They should be able to identify developments in the collection of the Gospels and the Pauline Letters. They should also be able to defend the reliability of the Bible on the basis of their knowledge of the relevant issues regarding the transmission and translation of Scripture.
Advanced Knowledge: In addition to mastery of the core content identified in Basic Knowledge above and beyond the Intermediate Knowledge noted above, students should be able to provide definitions of inerrancy and inspiration on the basis of the major NT passages on the subject. They should be able to provide an overview of the history of the English Bible. They should also be prepared to discuss formal and functional equivalence in Bible translation.
B. F. WESTCOTT noted long ago that a "general survey of the History of the Canon forms a necessary part of an Introduction to the writings of the New Testament." For many students the discussion of the canon—the question of which books should be included in the Bible—seems moot: the canon is closed and limited to the books found in the Bible. But a study of the canon does more than merely determine the books of the OT and NT or furnish material for scholarly debate. It provides a basic orientation to how the Bible came into existence and therefore connects students more firmly to the foundations of their faith. In the context of the present volume, this opening chapter also serves the purpose of laying a basic framework for dealing with each NT book in more detail later on in this book.
This chapter begins a journey through the NT. The very idea of a NT is traced along the lines of the historical development of this body of literature. As in the case of each individual NT book in the remainder of this volume, the discussion of the canon of the NT in the present chapter proceeds under the rubrics of history, literature, and theology. First, the discussion of history scrutinizes the process of canonization in order to answer the question, Why these 27 books? Second, the treatment of literature deals with the reliability of the Bible and seeks to adjudicate the question, Is the Bible today what was originally written? Finally, the canon is also significantly a function of the church's theology. Hence the chapter closes with an inquiry into the question, What is the nature of the canon?
The present investigation regarding the scope and extent of the NT—the NT canon—is concerned not so much with the production of these writings but with their recognition as Christian Scripture to the exclusion of all other possible candidates. What is a "canon"? Put succinctly, the word canon comes from the Greek word kanōn, which in turn derives from its Hebrew equivalent kaneh and means "rule" or "standard." The term eventually came to refer to the collection of the Christian Scriptures. This modern concept of canon is clearly attested in the fourth century. How far the notion extends back beyond this to even earlier centuries is the subject of vigorous scholarly debate.
The composition of the various NT writings themselves took place starting in the late 40s and proceeded through the latter half of the first century. Subsequently, these books were copied and disseminated among the growing number of Christian congregations all over the Roman Empire, as is attested by the available manuscript evidence. The papyrus fragment 52 contains John 18:31-33, 37-38 and most likely dates to the first half of the second century. Its discovery in Egypt, many miles from the Gospel's origin in Asia Minor and only a few short decades after the Gospel was written, bears telling testimony to the speed with which the early Christian writings spread to various locales across a network of churches that one writer has called a "holy internet."
Generally, the main subject of debate today is not whether the NT canon is closed (i.e., fixed and therefore unchangeable). The discussion centers rather on the questions of how and when the closing of the canon occurred. The broad time frame during which this process of canonization took place spans from the period of the early church to the ecclesiastical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries that declared the canon to be closed. Whether the canon was set earlier or later in this period is disputed. The limited evidence from second-century patristic literature and differing assumptions regarding the nature of Christianity and the Christian canon make the investigation into the process of canonization "a narrow path, roughly paved and poorly lit."
The NT canon can be viewed from both a human and a divine perspective. The traditional evangelical view affirms God's activity in the formation of the canon. From this vantage point, it can be said that, in one sense at least, the NT canon was closed the moment the last NT book was written. According to this view, God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the NT writers, generated holy Scripture (a phenomenon called "inspiration"; see further below); and the church's task was not the creation of the canon but merely the recognition of the Scriptures God had previously chosen to inspire. This, in turn, has important ramifications with regard to authority: if the church's role is primarily passive in determining the Christian canon, then it is inspired Scripture, not the church, which is in the final position of authority.
Traditionally, the second century has been viewed as the pivotal period for the canonization process of the NT writings. By the end of that century, the books of the NT were largely recognized throughout the churches. In the two subsequent centuries, all that remained was a final resolution regarding the canonicity of smaller or disputed books such as James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation. What is more, the fact that the church's canonical consciousness appears to have left traces even in the NT itself suggests that the NT writers were aware that God was inspiring new documents in their day. In two important NT passages, the term "Scripture" (graphē), used about 50 times in the NT to refer to the OT, may refer to the emerging NT writings.
The first such passage is 1 Tim 5:18: "For the Scripture says: 'You must not muzzle an ox that is threshing grain,' and, 'The laborer is worthy of his wages.'" The text uses the word "Scripture" with reference to two quotations. The first, the prohibition against muzzling an ox, is taken from Deut 25:4. The second, "The laborer is worthy of his wages," is in fact an exact verbal parallel of Luke 10:7. While it is debated whether Luke's Gospel was the source for this quotation, it is clear that (1) the author used a written source (demanded by the word "Scripture," graphē); and (2) the source was considered to be authoritative on a par with Deuteronomy. Whatever one's view is regarding the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, this furnishes a significant piece of evidence regarding the emerging canonical consciousness in NT times.
The same is true of 2 Pet 3:15-16. With reference to the apostle Paul, Peter writes that "[h]e speaks about these things in all his letters, in which there are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures" (emphasis added). By implication, it follows that Peter viewed Paul's letters as "Scripture" on a par with the writings of the OT. Strikingly, while NT writings were still being produced, 2 Peter thus indicates the acceptance of the Pauline letters as Scripture and hence equally authoritative as the Hebrew Scriptures.
Given this kind of NT evidence, the conclusion lies close at hand that almost before the ink was dry, the earliest Christians, including leading figures in the church such as the apostles Paul and Peter, considered contemporaneous Christian documents such as Luke's Gospel and Paul's letters as Scripture on the same level as the OT. From this it is not too difficult to trace the emerging canonical consciousness with regard to the formation of the NT through the writings of the early church fathers in the late first century and early second century. In fact, prior to the year 150, the only NT book that was not named as authentic or not unequivocally cited as authoritative in the extant patristic writings is 3 John.
A survey of the early patristic literature reveals that the early church fathers had no hesitancy whatsoever to quote the various NT books as Scripture. Four examples must suffice. The author of 1 Clement, the first extant nonbiblical Christian document (c. 96), tended to quote Scripture organically (i.e., without introductory formulas). Clement cited the OT and the NT equally in this manner. He referred to the canonical Gospels, the book of Acts, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and perhaps James much as he did to the OT. Most likely, the earliest citation of a NT passage using the term "Scripture" in the subapostolic period (the period following the apostolic era) is 2 Clem. 2.4: "And another scripture says, 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'" This reference includes a clear citation of a passage in one of the canonical Gospels, most likely Mark 2:17, as early as at the end of the first century.
Polycarp (c. 69-c. 155), whom Irenaeus called a disciple of the apostle John, also frequently referred to various NT writings in his letter to the Philippians. P. Hartog categorized Polycarp's use of NT documents according to three levels of certainty: (1) Polycarp certainly quoted Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter; (2) he probably quoted Matthew, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and 1 John; (3) he possibly quoted Luke, Acts, and 2 Thessalonians. B. Metzger added an allusion to Hebrews to the list. Thus Polycarp may have cited as many as 15 NT books. By far Polycarp's most intriguing comment comes at Phil. 12.1: "For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred scriptures.... Only as it is said in these scriptures, 'be angry but do not sin,' and 'do not let the sun set on your anger.'" The clear implication is that there was a body of literature called "the Scriptures" of which the book of Ephesians was a part. Beyond this, it is more than likely that Polycarp viewed Paul's letters in their entirety as Scripture.
Papias (c. 60-130), a contemporary of Polycarp and fellow disciple of John, wrote five books entitled Expositions of the Lord's Sayings that are no longer extant. From quotations in other books ("fragments") and reports from ancient writers, it is possible to ascertain that the books were a commentary on the words and deeds of Jesus from the canonical Gospels. From these fragments it can be gleaned that Papias approved of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Revelation. Reportedly, he also made use of 1 Peter and 1 John. Since the word "sayings" or "oracles" (logia) is Paul's euphemism for the OT Scriptures (see Rom 3:2), it is likely that Papias considered his work an exposition of Scripture.
It follows from these observations that most NT documents were recognized as authoritative, even Scripture, as early as at the end of the first or at least by the end of the second century of the Christian era. The four Gospels, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John were universally recognized. With the exception of 3 John, the early church fathers cited all NT books as Scripture. Toward the end of the second century, the major contours of the NT had clearly emerged, setting the framework for the subsequent final resolution of the canonical status of several remaining smaller or disputed books.
Most likely, in the late second century, an unknown writer composed a defense of the NT books that seems to corroborate the conclusion that most NT writings were recognized as Scripture by that time. The writer referred to these writings as "held sacred," and he stated that pseudonymous works could not be "received" in the church because "gall should not be mixed with honey." At the very least, the writer saw the books listed as a firm canon. The Muratorian Canon, which was named for the eighteenth-century Italian historian and theologian who discovered it, lists at least 22 of the 27 books in the NT canon.
These works included the four Gospels, at least two of John's letters (and possibly the third), the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's 13 letters, Jude, and Revelation. The books are not in a particular order, and the manuscript is fragmentary at the beginning and, most likely, at the end. Other books may very well have been included in the church's canon at the time the Muratorian canon was written, such as Hebrews, the Petrine Letters, or the letter of James.
From the third century to the fifth century, the ultimate recognition of the rest of the General Epistles and the book of Revelation took place. During this period the remaining questions regarding the NT canon were resolved.
We have considered the witness of the NT and of the early church fathers as well as the testimony of the Muratorian Canon, which is likely the earliest extant canonical list that in all probability documents the existence of the concept of canon already toward the end of the second century.