I want to start our time together tonight with a story from one of your own, Professor Bart Ehrman. In a book Dr. Ehrman published in 2009 titled




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Part 1: Historical Survey of the development of the NT Canon42


100-150 AD (Early to Mid 2nd Cent.)


  1. Period of the Apostolic Fathers: Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome.

    1. All we have from the Apostolic Father are scattered references and allusions in their writings to the authority of the NT, but no extended discussions.

    2. We need to be careful about what conclusions we draw about the idea of canon from these writings as they weren’t specifically talking about the Canon. It would be similar to listening to sermons in a church today and drawing conclusions from what books were used to draw conclusions about the canon.


150-200 AD (Mid to late 2nd Cent.)


  1. Period of the Apologists: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria.

    1. These men were more self-conscious about the idea of canon due to the presence of heresy, particularly Marcion and Montanus.

    2. While scholars are largely agreed on the importance of heretics, like Marcion and Montanus in forcing the church to give specific attention to the question of canon, there is significant difference of opinion as the nature of their influence.

      1. Did Marcion create the idea of the NT Canon?

      2. Did Marcion’s canon force the church to give a more specific account of the books it already possessed?




  1. Marcion (c. 80 - c. 160)

    1. Marcion was the first figure we have record of to draw up an exclusive list of canonical books. However, due to his theological commitments, he rejected the entire Old Testament and all of the New Testament except for a highly edited form of Luke’s Gospel and edited forms of Paul’s letters.

    2. Marcion was excommunicated from the church in 144 A.D.

    3. Point: It is generally believed that Marcion’s effort to limit the canon accelerated a process, which was already underway in the church. In other words, the churches reaction to Marcion tells us that the church had a working idea of canon demonstrated in their handling of Marcion’s views.

    4. Marcion is significant for us because he illustrates the concern of “How do we know a book hasn’t slipped into the canon that doesn’t belong there?”




  1. Irenaeus (c. 178-200) and Marcion

    1. Irenaeus, realized that Marcion was right in one thing: that it was necessary to have a fixed list of authoritative writings of the New Testament.

    2. In response to Marcion, Irenaeus was the first writer to create a list of books for the New Testament, which virtually corresponds to the traditional New Testament.43




  1. Muratorian Fragment (late 2nd Cent.)

    1. A list of books considered as canonical, at the very least, in the Western, Latin speaking, church at the time.

    2. This list includes 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament as we have it today.




  1. Montanus (late 2nd Cent.)44

    1. Montanus claimed to receive ‘new prophecy’ from the Holy Spirit, which he believed was new revelation in addition to any written documents there might be.

    2. In a similar way to Marcion, Montanus and the controversy he is known for “greatly [reinforced] the conviction that revelation had come to an end with the apostolic age, and so to foster the creation of a closed canon of the New Testament.”45




  1. Conclusion:

    1. Marcion and Montanus

      1. When we take Marcion and Montanus together we can see that as early as the 2nd Cent. the church was already dealing with fundamental issues related to the idea of the canon: the taking away from the received writings of the Apostles (Marcion) or the adding to the received writings of the Apostles (Montanus).These two viewpoints are still around today but are by no means new.

      2. In light of some discussions today about the inclusion or exclusion of certain books in the New Testament Canon (e.g. Gospel of Judas) we need to remember that these issues are not new in the history of the church.




    1. Irenaeus and Muratorian Fragment

      1. When we take the writings of Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment together we can conclude that by the end of the 2nd century (c. 180 A.D.) 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament were considered canonical: four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John were widely accepted throughout the church as canonical.46


300-399 AD (4th Cent.)


  1. The Testimony of Eusebius (c. 260-339 AD)

    1. He wrote an Ecclesiastical History, which attempted to chronicle the history of the church as far back as he was able to. It covers the life of Christ to the great persecution in the beginning of the 4th Cent. and ends with the conversion of Constantine (c. 315).

    2. Book 3, Ch. 25 we find a very important statement47

      1. Recognized books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, 13 Epistles of Paul and Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation

      2. Disputed books (i.e. not rejected): James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2,3 John

      3. Spurious books: Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Letter of Barnabas, Didache, Revelation of John if this view prevails

      4. Point: For 21 of the 27 NT books there is no dispute.

    3. His purpose in presenting this list was to document what the church as a whole was saying about these books. He was heavily dependent on the writings of Origen from a century earlier.




  1. Athanasius’ Easter Letter (367 AD) from the east

    1. This letter supplies us with the first formal, ecclesiastical description of the limits of the NT canon that corresponds to ours.

    2. Some areas of the church, like the Syrian church, didn’t accept this.

    3. This letter gives expression to a growing consensus of the church as a whole over the centuries.


400-499 AD (5th Cent.)


  1. A number of official gatherings that agree with Athanasius’ list…

  2. In the Western Church (Latin Speaking) the question of the canon was basically closed after 400 AD.

  3. In the Syrian church disputes continued over minor catholic letters. But by 550 AD the matter had been resolved.


Conclusions


  1. The information we have from the 2nd and 3rd Centuries presents us with a picture of how the immediate generations following the apostles used and viewed the writings from the Apostolic period, especially in light of the controversy surrounding heretics like Marcion and Montanus.

  2. Based on the writings of Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment, it is generally agreed that by the end of the 2nd century (c. 180 AD) the four gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John were widely accepted throughout the church as canonical (20 of the 27).48

  3. Eusebius and Athanasius (4th Cent.) present us with our earliest testimony as to what the church as a whole was saying about the writings from the Apostolic period.

  4. The Canon of the NT as we have it today was settled by the end of the 4th Cent. in the Western, Latin speaking, church and by the middle of the 6th Cent. in the Syrian church.


Part 2: The problem of the canon49


  1. Review of the definition of canon

    1. “Canon refers to the authoritative collection of books, which forms the “standard” or “rule” of the Christian Church.”




  1. Review of what we are attempting to do in Part 2

    1. We are trying to make a case for the New Testament as the foundational word of God through which God in Christ continues to assert himself as the sovereign gracious Lord of history and savior of sinners.




  1. The problem stated50

    1. “Why does the church accept this concrete collection, just these twenty-seven books and no others?

    2. “How do we know that there is not some document, now unknown, which may some day be discovered and consequently deserve to be included?” (Montanus)

    3. “How do we know that something has not slipped in which really does not belong?” (Marcion)

    4. “How do we know that in accepting the present New Testament—and the authority that goes with it—we are not simply following well-intentioned but nonetheless fallible decisions of people like ourselves?”


First approach to the problem: criteria of canonicity


By criteria of canonicity we mean, “a distinguishing mark that would identify these 27 books and these alone as the Canon of the New Testament.”


  1. Four basic proposals for criteria of canonicity




  1. Apostolicity

      1. Definition: Each New Testament book is written by an apostle of Jesus or originates from a circle associated with an apostle.

      2. However, this criterion fails for the following reasons.

        • Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, Jude, and most likely James are not written by apostles.

        • Expanding the idea of apostolicity to an apostolic circle fails too.

        • Luke 1:1 seems to suggest a wealth of material that would qualify as apostolic in an expanded sense but have not been included in the New Testament.

        • Hebrews 2:3 seems to indicate that the writer of Hebrews saw himself as distinct from an apostolic circle.

        • 1 Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16; and perhaps Phil. 3:1 speak of other letters that Paul wrote and evidently were on a par with the canonical letters of Paul but yet not included in the canon.




  1. Antiquity

  1. Definition: Only the earliest documents have been included in the canon.

  2. However, this criterion fails for the following reason

        • 1 Cor. 5:9 again states that Paul wrote a letter prior to 1 Corinthians, which means the previous letter would be dated c. 55 A.D. or earlier and would be older than Hebrews or all four of the gospels.




  1. Public Lection (or usage in the life of the church)

  1. Definition: Only those documents which were first read aloud in public worship are canonical.

  2. However, this criterion fails for the following reason.

        • “At an early point, documents like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were used in public worship, while no evidence exists for such early usage of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, or Jude.”51




  1. Inspiration

  1. Definition: Though necessary to canonicity, it does not coincide with it.

  2. However this criterion fails too for the following reasons.

        • 1 Cor. 5:9 and Col. 4:16 both refer to letters Paul wrote and as such carry full apostolic authority and are therefore presumably inspired. At the very least this suggests that Paul along with at least some of the other apostles produced other writings that have not been included in the canon.

        • If inspiration is to be a criterion of canonicity we would need to demonstrate inspiration for each New Testament document, which would be virtually impossible.




  1. Conclusion to the search for criteria of canonicity

  1. As the church has reflected on the historical process of how it has come to possess the New Testament it is clear that the church has not been able to discern a mark or criteria that would identify the 27 books of the New Testament and only those 27 books.

  2. Initially this might be rather discouraging. However it need not be if we recognize that to insist that we must find an all-embracing criterion would be to undermine the authority of the New Testament itself. In other words, to attempt to demonstrate a certain mark or criterion of canonicity would be to subject the authority of the New Testament to our own fallible insight and historical study.

  3. So if the church has not established any all-embracing criteria of canonicity and ought not, then what can we do?

  4. We must turn to the New Testament itself to see if it has anything to teach us about God in Christ continues to assert himself as the sovereign gracious Lord of history and savior of sinners.

  5. What this means is that we must look to the New Testament itself to see if it argues for it’s own unique authority.52

  6. So we need to ask, “How does the New Testament demonstrate its self-validating and self-establishing character?”


Second approach to the problem: self-establishing character of the NT canon


As you may recall the first part of our seminar asked the question, “What’s the Bible’s view of Jesus?” But in this second part of our seminar we are asking the question, “What’s Jesus’ view of the Bible?” The way in which we answer this question has a direct impact on how we understand the problem of the New Testament canon.


  1. Jesus’ view of the Old Testament (in brief)




    1. Jesus believed the Old Testament was written about him.

      1. John 5:39-47 (read)

      2. Luke 24:13-27, 44-47 (read)

    2. Remember what we said at the beginning of the seminar. As we are exposed to Jesus we begin to see and understand not only who he was and what he did but what he understood to be true about the Bible. In the case of the passages we just read we learn in no uncertain terms Jesus’ view of the Old Testament.




  1. Jesus’ view of the New Testament


For the purposes of this seminar we need to see if and in what way we can discern Jesus’ view of the New Testament and therefore the collection of books now called the New Testament from the New Testament itself. There are three very important strands of teaching that will help bring to light Jesus’ view of the New Testament and as a result point the way for how we can trust that the books now called the New Testament are in fact the books he intended for the church to have.


  1. Two essential principles for understanding the development of the NT Canon




    1. The Apostolate

      1. From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he surrounded himself with twelve disciples whom he also appointed to be apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” (Mk. 3:14)

      2. For our purposes it is important to understand what it meant to be an apostle. In all likelihood the definition of an apostle “was derived from the Jewish legal system, where one person could be given the legal power to represent another person…. So unique was the relationship to the person…represented that the [apostle] was regarded as that person himself. Therefore to receive an apostle was to receive the person who sent him.”53

      3. We see Jesus applying this basic structure to His relationship to his appointed apostles.

  • Matt. 10:40; cf. John 13:20 (read)

      1. What this means is that Jesus commissioned and empowered his apostles to bear authoritative witness to Him, which form the rock or foundation of the church. (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20) “The apostles were not simply witnesses or preachers in a general, ecclesiastical sense. Their word is the revelatory word; it is the unique, once-for-all witness to Christ to which the church and the world are accountable and by which they will be judged.”54 In other words, “their witness is the foundational witness to the foundational work of Christ; to the once-for-all work of Christ is joined a once-for-all witness to that work” (Eph. 2:20).55

      2. Furthermore Jesus guaranteed the witness-bearing activity of the Apostles by sending his Holy Spirit who would guide them into all the truth.

  • John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15

      1. What is important to see is that Jesus himself established a fully authoritative mechanism through which he could guarantee the communication and transmission of his life and ministry.




    1. Apostolic Tradition

      1. Building on the idea of the apostolate and their witness-bearing work we just discussed, it is important to recognize that before any of the New Testament books were written, the Apostles “exercised their authority orally, by preaching rather than by writing.”56

      2. However, as soon as the Apostles began to write they presented their oral proclamation and their written words as carrying the same level of authority.57

  • 2 Thess. 2:15 (read)

  • 2 Thessalonians written c. 50 A.D.

      1. The importance of the New Testament idea of tradition becomes all the more important as the Apostles die. As those who have been commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to him and his work pass from the scene the preservation of that witness becomes vitally important.

      2. We see the concern for this preservation of Apostolic Tradition within the New Testament itself.

  • 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 15:1-3

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:15 again

      1. In addition, Paul instructs his protégé, Timothy to guard and preserve the authoritative witness he has received and look to pass it on to reliable men.

  • 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14 (guard and preserve)

  • 2 Timothy 2:2 (pass on)




  1. Conclusions




    1. The Trajectory of the New Testament

      1. The New Testament itself sets a trajectory or a trend for the transition from the living apostolic witness (both oral and written) to only the written apostolic witness and its perpetual importance for the life of the church.

      2. The result of this trend is that written apostolic witness becomes increasingly important and central to the life and practice of the church, until it exclusively is recognized to be the foundational word of God (Eph. 2:20; 1 Thess. 2:13) in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to build his church (Mt. 16:18) upon the apostolic witness.58

      3. The intention of Paul, that the authoritative deposit of truth would be preserved and maintained, is reflected in the process of the churches recognition of the New Testament Canon. And if we may say that this intention is an apostolic intention, then we are bound to say that it is also the intention of Christ. In other words, “no one less than the exalted Christ himself is the architect of that process whereby the church has come to recognize the canon of the New Testament.”59

      4. Therefore, the trajectory set by the New Testament itself must become the overarching perspective in which we try to understand the process of recognizing the canon up through the fourth century and beyond.

      5. In the words of F.F. Bruce, “The historic Christian belief is that the Holy Spirit, who controlled the writing of the individual books, also controlled their selection and collection, thus continuing to fulfill our Lord’s promise that he would guide his people into all the truth.”60




    1. The Closed or Complete Canon

      1. Finally, with the passing of the apostles, as the foundational once-for-all authoritative witness to the once-for-all work of Christ, we can say that the canon is closed or that it is complete at least until Jesus returns at the end of history.




    1. The Persistent Question

      1. I fully recognize that this understanding of the New Testament Canon does not answer all difficulties most notably the exact number of books. “Why, of all the inspired apostolic writings, just these twenty-seven? Why not twenty-eight or twenty-six, or some other number?”61 To this question we must admit that these twenty-seven books are what God has chosen to preserve, and he has not told us why just these twenty-seven.




    1. Living By Faith

      1. However, to admit that we don’t know why the New Testament is 27 books, no more and no less, does not mean we have no reason to trust that God has given to us what he intended to give us.

      2. Along with the biblical evidence we have been surveying there are two passages are particularly important in this connection.

  • Matthew 28:18,20 “The authority and presence of Jesus”

  • 2 Peter 1:3 “The provision of Jesus”

  1. What this means is that, like everything in the Christian life we must walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). But at the same time we also must remember that the New Testament provides us with very good reasons for believing that God in Christ is the architect of the historical process through which he preserved for his church exactly what he wants his church to have in the 27 books of the New Testament.

1 Bart Ehrman,
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