How we got the New Testament
The Story of New Testament Canonization
A. Definitions: The word “canon” means “standard” and is used to describe the sacred writing of different religions. For example, the Bible is the canon of Christianity and the Koran/Qur'an is the canon of Islam. The word “canonization” refers to the process of determining or deciding the canon or sacred writings of a religion. For Christianity, it means the process of determining or deciding which books go into the Bible. This article examines NT canonization, or how the books of the NT were decided.
B. Choosing the New Testament books: This process of determining which books should go in the NT took approximately 300 years. Some letters were quickly accepted as being from God: the 4 gospels, Acts, and the 13 letters of Paul. Other letters took the early church leaders longer to decide. This process involved 7 different major parts (this is a very short summary):
- AD 100-150: The future New Testament books were shared and slowly formed several collections
- The future New Testament books were shared amongst the many house churches within Christianity (see Colossians 4:16 as an example).
- Two separate collections developed early on: the Four Gospels and Paul's letters.
- But the early church leaders did not see a need to develop a New Testament yet (although Christians did use the Old Testament).
- Marcion lived in the mid-100's.
- He believed in at least two gods: The god of the Old Testament and the god of Jesus. The Old Testament god was violent and the god of Jesus was loving.
- He believed that only Paul understood Jesus, and so decided to create a "scripture" that only contained letters connected to Paul: the Gospel of Luke (because Luke traveled with Paul) and 10 of Paul's letters (for some reason he didn't have the pastorals: I & II Timothy and Titus).
- This helped cause the early church leaders to consider creating the correct New Testament, mainly because Marcion created a false "New Testament" that explained his false understanding of Jesus.
- Montanus lived just a decade or two after Marcion.
- Montanus believed that God continued to give new revelations about Himself to Montanus and his main followers.
- This helped cause the early church leaders to consider creating the New Testament in order to recognize that God's revelations about Himself ended with the Apostles.
- Some Roman persecutions of Christians involved Christians handing over their sacred books to be burned. Therefore, Christians needed to know which books were sacred (and worth dying for) and which books were false and could be turned over to be burned by the Romans.
- In the late-100's, an unknown Christian leader decided to list the books that were accepted as from God in his area. It is known as the Muratorian List.
- In the mid-200's, a Christian leader named Origen wrote a list of books that were accepted in his area.
- Around 300, a Christian leader named Eusebius wrote a list of books that were accepted in his area.
- You can see these three lists here. (You will also see a fourth list, which I describe below.)
- Athansius was one of the main church leaders of the 300's, and he was a bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.
- He wrote a letter in 367 that listed the books used in the churches in his area.
- He listed the 27 books that are in the New Testament. This is the first listing of the 27 New Testament books that has been discovered.
- The Councils (or Synods) of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) declared that only those 27 books could be used or read in the churches.
- This "closed" the New Testament to only those 27 books.
- Note: all branches of Christianity use only the 27 books of the New Testament: Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, and other smaller groups. The differences come in the books used in the Old Testament. (For more information about the additional books Catholics and Orthodox have, go here.)
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