Was the New Testament Canon Assembled Hundreds of Years After Jesus?

Often folks think the New Testament was written and assembled hundreds of years after the fact. I have been responding to the Newsweek article from 2014 that makes this claim, and so rejects the Christian church’s understanding of the Bible. You can find previous posts here and here and also here.

But in this blog, I’m talking specifically about the New Testament canon. Newsweek say that life in the first century Christian church was pretty chaotic. The claim is, there were “no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels,”[1] and these sects argued amongst themselves about what was true Christianity.

In fact, Newsweek say, it was not until the fourth century when the sociopathic Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion, that Christianity became clear. Writings that met Constantine’s standard were compiled into the New Testament canon and the ones that didn’t meet the standard were destroyed. So – Newsweek say – who knows what Christianity actually was. We will never know, because the only writings we have were chosen hundreds of years after the fact.

Let me respond to their claims by saying the following.

We DO know very clearly what first century Christianity was. First century Christian beliefs are not confused and historically impenetrable at all. And – the New Testament canon was NOT imposed in the fourth century, rather, it emerged in the first century to guide the growing Christian Church. How do I support these claims?[2]

Evidence from the First Century

1 – The early Church were Jews, and so their beliefs were rooted in the original Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) which meant their belief system was not open to anything at all. Rather – they were Jewish monotheists, so this cuts out the majority of supposed uncertainty in belief right there.

2 – The first Christians believed Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew scriptures. The Israelite nation worked in the contest of Ancient Near Eastern covenant, a written agreement between parties. The Hebrew scriptures were the written treaty between God and Israel. The Jewish Christian people were therefore waiting for an additional written document to explain the terms of this New Covenant. So – they were already thinking in terms of Canon in the first century.

3 – There is evidence from 2 Peter 3:16 (dated to first century) that the Apostle Paul’s letters were already being gathered up and treated by the church as scripture, the terms of this New Covenant.

4 – In 1 Timothy 5:18 (dated to first century), Paul refers to both Deuteronomy (a book from the original Hebrew scriptures) and also appears to quote Luke’s gospel. This suggests Luke’s gospel already existed in the first century and was held in high esteem, just as the Hebrew scriptures were.

5 – In 2 Peter 3:2, Peter holds up the first century apostles to be just as authoritative as the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures. This supports the notion that apostolic writing was forming the terms of the written New Covenant documentation in the first century. Can was already forming.

6 – Paul insisted his letters were read in public in 1 Timothy 4:13, just like the Hebrew scriptures were. This practice is further evidenced by Justin Martyr in the second century.

7 – The first Christians were Jews and that made them highly literate, bookish people.

 

So – in the first century alone, there is substantial evidence for an emerging New Testament canon composed of apostolic documents that were held by the churches to be as authoritative as the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures.

 

What about After the First Century?

When we widen the time period to include the second century, even more evidence of an early New Testament canon emerges in the writings of the Church Fathers such as Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, the Didache, etc. They all appeal to and quote a canonical body of text that we recognise as the New Testament even today.

Also after the first century, we see evidence of early book publishing technology, the codex. Codex may actually have been a Christian invention for holding the New Testament writings together – much more portable than scrolls. And in these early writings, we find sophisticated scribal techniques. Nomina sacra involves scribal abbreviation of the sacred words Jesus, Christ, Lord and God.

Further, the Muratorian Fragment[3] is (so far) the oldest surviving document that defines the contents of the New Testament canon. This shows that, by AD 180, the church had received and had already been using the following books for decades of time:

  • all four Gospels
  • all thirteen epistles of Paul
  • Acts
  • Jude
  • at least two Johannine epistles
  • Revelation

“The Muratorian Fragment does not appear to be establishing or ‘creating’ a canon, but is expressly affirming what has already been the case within the early church.”[4]

 

Summary Response to the Newsweek article

Did the early Christian church lack documents that documented what Christianity was? No they didn’t.

Did many sects exist with their own gospels? No. Although isolated cases of heretical teaching is challenged in the New Testament, the major challenges to the church (like Marcion) did not emerge until the second century and beyond, well after the core canonical books were established.

Did Constantine define the Christian canon? No he didn’t. This is just false. While later ecclesiastical authorities recognised the New Testament canon officially, and decided upon fringe books that were not part of the core, the core of the canon had emerged in the first century and was already being used as the terms of God’s new covenant.

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, published 23rd December, 2014, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.

[2] These points summarised from Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),

[3] The Muratorian Fragment, Wikipedia, accessed 23rd October, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muratorian_fragment.

[4] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 150.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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