To gain canonical recognition, a book was expected to pass two basic tests. First, it had to have a history of “continuous and widespread approval amongst Christians” (J. W. Wenham, Christ And The Bible). Second, it was expected to demonstrate that it had either been written by an apostle or specifically approved by the apostles.
The fact that the Muratorian Canon (approximately AD 170) listed all of the books presently in the New Testament except for Hebrews, James, and the two epistles of Peter, is another demonstration of the early, broad-based support for the Canon.
Another example (and many others could be given) is provided by the brilliant theologian Irenaeus who also wrote in the second century. He quoted the four Gospels extensively and included quotations from all of the New Testament books except Philemon and 3 John. Actually,the fact that a few books were received officially by the church at a later date is more a demonstration of the church’s discretion and caution than it is an indication that these books are in some way unreliable.
A well-known theologian once said that the church no more created the New Testament Canon than Newton created the basic principles of physics. The earliest writings of the church fathers demonstrate their confidence in the authority of the New Testament Scriptures.
The 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament are the only writings Christians consider fully inspired. The books that are in our present Old Testament were universally accepted at the time of Christ and endorsed by Him. In fact, there are nearly 300 quotations from the Old Testament books in the New Testament.
A number of books that are considered valuable but not inspired are found in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Bibles. These books are called the Apocrypha (which means “hidden,” “secret,” or “profound”). The Apocrypha was accepted by the council of Carthage, but was not accepted by many important church leaders, including Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. 1
Although the New Testament Canon was officially confirmed in its present and final form by the third council of Carthage in 397, the 27 documents it contains were accepted as authoritative from the very beginning.
The New Testament is solidly rooted in history. It revolves around the death, burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not even the rationalist critics of the 19th century could find reason to question Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians, and it has been acknowledged as the earliest written testimony of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declared:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been rasied, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (vv. 16-19).
First-century Christians circulated documents—either written or approved by the apostles—which contained an authoritative explanation of the accounts concerning Jesus’ life and teaching. These documents often quoted from each other and presented the same gospel message from different perspectives and in different styles. Hundreds of other documents were written and circulated, but the church quickly rejected spurious documents and established the authority of those that were genuine.
- “Augustine alone of ancient authors, and the councils of Africa which he dominated, present a different picture. Augustine specifically accepted the apocryphal books and gives the total number as forty-four. He is the only ancient author who gives a number different from the twenty-two or twenty-four book reckoning. The list includes Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras (the book composed of part of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus. The Local councils of Carthage and Hippo, dominated by Augustine, included the same books. This listing prob. agreed with the ideas of Pope Damasus who dominated the local council of Rome at 382. It will be remembered that it was Damasus who urged Jerome to translate also the apocryphal books for his Vulgate. Jerome did so with the explicit declaration that they were not canonical.
“Green (op. cit. 168-174) discusses the witness of Augustine and points out that Augustine seems to vacillate. Green quotes Augustine; ‘What is written in the book of Judith the Jews are truly said not to have received into the canon of Scripture’ (Augustine, City of God xviii, 260). ‘After Malachi, Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra, they had no prophets until the advent of the Savior’ (id. xvii, last ch.). He was well aware that Maccabees were after the cessation of prophecy. Green concludes that Augustine was using ‘canonical’ in the sense of books which may be read in the churches without putting them all on an equal plane.” Excerpted from an article by R.L. Harris (“Canon of the Old Testament”) in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Back To Article
The New Testament is the best documented literary work from ancient times. Over 5,000 manuscripts have survived. Fragments now available date back to the beginning of the second century. Even liberal scholars acknowledge the early dates of many New Testament books. Consequently, there is no reasonable basis for believing that Christ’s teachings were distorted by the apostolic church. To the contrary, it is only logical that the apostles would be the ones most likely to remain faithful to the teaching of their Lord, and that they, in turn, would select documents on the basis of their reliability.
It’s one thing to deny the authority of the New Testament, but quite another to be able to justify one’s denial. The following books offer a good overview of early church history:
- A History Of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette
- A History Of The Christian Church by Williston Walker
- New Testament History by F.F. Bruce
Each of these books is a “classic” in its own right, and can be ordered through most bookstores.
Also visit our 10 Reasons To Believe In The Bible site.