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Oct 15, 2018

How the New Testament Canon Was Chosen

Nicholas LaBanca

Many Catholic Christians are familiar with the disagreements between other Christians regarding the Old Testament canon. Protestants typically ask why Catholic and Orthodox Bibles are bigger, whereas Catholics and Orthodox turn the question around asking why their Bibles are smaller, deleting several books of Sacred Scripture.

Thankfully when it comes to the New Testament, Catholics and Protestants alike are of one mind. The twenty-seven book canon can be found whole and entire with no deviations. However, just as the debate on inspired Scripture has been going on for hundreds of years regarding the Old Testament, many Christians will be surprised to know that there was quite a bit of debate regarding the New Testament canon as well in the early Church, which also spanned a few hundred years. Not to mention, many would have us believe that the Church has hidden certain “Scriptures”, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, from the rest of the world.

We typically see this happen each Christmas when the History Channel and Discovery Channel run special documentaries on the subject. But is there any merit to this contention? And how did the early Church settle on what made up the inspired New Testament canon in the first few centuries A.D.? Let’s take a dive into history, going back first to just a few decades after Christ’s Ascension.

No New Testament for First Christians

Now while there certainly is room for speculation on when each book of the New Testament of the Bible was written, we can confidently state that these twenty-seven books were written over the span of about fifty years. Between the years 50 A.D. and roughly 100 A.D., we see evidence for each book being circulated not only among its immediate target audience, but the entire universal Church. And keep in mind that at that time, the Catholic Church had yet to expand to all corners of the earth. But as we well know, it was certainly on its way to doing so.

Generally it is believed that the Epistle of James is one of the earliest (if not the earliest) books of the New Testament to be written, usually dated about the year 50 A.D. St. Paul’s two Letters to the Thessalonians are typically dated between 51-52 A.D. , whereas Revelation, the Gospel of John and the three Letters of John are dated somewhere around the last decade of the first century. Probably the latest date for the completion of St. John’s Letters is 100 A.D.

This means that for nearly half a century, we had a Catholic Church, but no complete Bible. Think about this. In the year 70 A.D., all Christians had the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, seven sacraments, a hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, but no Bible as we know it today.

The Holy Spirit Was Sent

First and foremost this shows that Jesus did not build his Church on a book, or rather, a collection of books. Instead, he founded his Church on the rock (Matthew 16:18) and gave to this Church a real teaching authority (Matthew 18:18; Matthew 28:18-20).

Despite not having a complete Bible, the apostles and their disciples were able to spread the gospel through word of mouth, and were able to reference the Scripture that they already had, i.e., the books of the Old Testament. Of course, God’s revelation to the world was not yet complete, and the Holy Spirit was able to guide the writers of the Gospels and the various letters just as he did in Old Testament times. As our Lord Jesus said to his apostles:

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

The footnote to this passage in the Revised Standard Version, concerning “all things” reads:

“After Jesus has gone to his Father, the Holy Spirit will complete his revelation to the world.”

Councils Discussed the Canon of Books

We see this concretely through the Sacred Tradition that was passed down from the apostles to their successors, as well as in our modern day with said successors exercising their authority through the Magisterium of the Church. That covers the first two legs of the so-called “stool”, but it would be fitting to also apply our Lord’s words to Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit continued his revelation to us through the writers of the New Testament. And when the time came, the Holy Spirit guided the Magisterium of the Catholic Church to proclaim which books were indeed Sacred Scripture and which were not.

Now this prompts the question: just when were these inspired texts canonized and who placed them into the table of contents we all find at the front of our Bibles today? It’s interesting to ponder the following, first. Oftentimes, our Protestant brethren forget that the Bible is a Catholic book. It was Pope St. Innocent I that had authoritatively confirmed the declarations of local councils in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The New Testament that the various Protestant denominations have received, and still use today, was decided upon by the successors of the apostles; that is, the bishops of the Catholic Church. It’s ironic to note that the same Protestants who would rather rely on the opinions and decisions of first century Jewish rabbis for their Old Testament canon (see Gary Michuta’s “Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger” for a lengthy treatment) would also reject the opinions of many early Christians. Believe it or not many early Christians, including saints and early Church Fathers, rejected books such as the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation.

On the flip side, books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Letters of Clement, and even the Didache, were accepted by many as truly inspired Scripture. Today we recognize those books as apocrypha, but still receive spiritual benefit from reading these writings. But especially during those first two centuries of the Church’s existence, the canon of the New Testament was very murky. The earliest surviving list of books comes from the Muratorian Fragment, dated between the years 170-190 A.D. This canon excluded the Letter to the Hebrews, James, and both letters of Peter, yet included the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter. Clearly this was an issue that wouldn’t be going away, and councils were convened to discuss the matter.

The Councils Went Unchallenged 

As time went on, the various canons floating around became more and more streamlined. By the late fourth century, many canons which mirror the definitive canon we have today had fully emerged. One criterion for determining authenticity was whether or not the work was apostolic. But another important criterion for determining the inspiration of the writings being discussed by local and regional councils was what has been called the “testimony of the ancients”. Certain spurious writings had become lesser read in churches, while those that we recognize as authentic Scripture continued to be used throughout the sacred liturgy. These factors helped lead to the solemn declarations of canonicity at such gatherings as the Council of Hippo in 393 and the Council of Carthage in 397. The Council of Hippo’s affirmation of the canon of Scripture was reaffirmed by the Council of Carthage, and did not reflect something new by any means. At this point in history, the canon had already been met with unanimity by virtually all of Christendom, but these two councils solemnly defined the canon.

One might note that neither of the above councils were ecumenical councils. As mentioned above, Pope St. Innocent I ratified the canon promulgated by these councils, as can be seen in his letter to St. Exuperius, the bishop of Toulouse. But why didn’t an ecumenical council make a decree regarding this? Gary Michuta makes a salient observation:

“Although the North African councils were local, their … decisions reflected the common usage of the Christian Church and were later reaffirmed by Popes and other local councils. We find no decrees on the canon from the major ecumenical councils (such as Chalcedon and Ephesus) because none was needed; no large scale assault on the traditional canon occurred at this time and the decrees of these local councils went unchallenged for the most part.”

Protestant Reformation Challenged Canon

The reason the Church had made dogmatic and solemn definitions on issues such as Christ’s divine and human natures, the veneration of images, and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God” was because each of these doctrines were directly challenged. The canon of Scripture was not directly challenged until the Protestant Reformation. While we can clearly see that the canon of Scripture was well defined before the sixteenth century, the canon was not solemnly and infallibly defined until the Council of Trent. All that the Council of Trent did was exactly what Pope St. Innocent did; the decrees of Hippo and Carthage were reaffirmed and formally ratified. The Fourth Session of the Council could not be clearer in its authority to confirm the faith passed on from the apostles (emphases mine):

“Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.

“It has thought it proper, moreover, to insert in this decree a list of the sacred books, lest a doubt might arise in the mind of someone as to which are the books received by this council.

“They are the following: [lists the 73 books of the Bible]…

“If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, and knowingly and deliberately rejects the aforesaid traditions, let him be anathema.”

About Those Gnostic Gospels

But then, what do we make of the supposed Gospel of Thomas, or even the Gospel of Judas, both of which are trotted out during major Christian holy days by the secular media? Has the Church suppressed these various other Gospels and Acts? Any student of history would know that the veracity of such Gospels has been doubted since the second century. The so-called Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, and Mary Magdalene are completely false and heretical, written by the Gnostic sects, and this is why Christians have always rejected them. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, around the year 180, witnessed to this in his third book of “Against Heresies”. He writes:

“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ (1 Tim. 3:15) of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.”

The various Gnostic gospels were never considered for the canon because they all appeared well after the times of the apostles. For a quick overview of these various Gnostic Gospels, along with dates of their composition, see the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Suffice it to say, the legitimacy of the four Gospels were something all Christians could agree on. While there was some back and forth in determining the rest of the canon, the Church was able to utilize the charisms given to her by our Lord Jesus in reaching a consensus and determining the truth of the matter. By imparting his Holy Spirit as was promised, the Church has been led into all truth, including those matters regarding Sacred Scripture.

You May Also Like:

The Great Adventure Catholic Bible

Commonly-Challenged Catholic Beliefs Defended (Using Not Just Scripture)

St. Jerome, the Vulgate, and Our Biblical Heritage

About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.


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