The New Testament and Canon

Many people who read and study the NT today are aware that there are 27 books generally divided into gospels and letters (epistles) and that most of them were written in the first century by such notable authors as John, Luke, Paul, Peter, James, etc. Bible studies generally focus on issues of interpretation rather than on a critical history of the text. In other words, what did the text mean to the original hearers and how can we apply that meaning to our individual and corporate life in the church today?

For Further Reading: The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2nd edition, 2011)

By Arthur G. Patzia
Fuller Theological Seminary
December 2011

Other individuals, however, desire to know much more about the NT and often raise the following questions:

  • How did we get this text?
  • Who are the authors, and why did some write narratives and others letters?
  • What were the logistics in using a secretary and coauthor?
  • How were the books dispatched, received, and used by different congregations?
  • Who was involved in the collection of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the rest of the New Testament, and how so?
  • How were the manuscripts produced, circulated, and canonized?
  • Why are the books arranged the way they are?
  • Why are there only twenty-seven books?
  • Why did it take so long to finalize the canon of the New Testament?
  • How was the text preserved throughout the centuries?1


The answers to these questions are not easy or universally accepted because we do not possess all the necessary information to reconstruct the history of the NT and the process of canonization. Hence we proceed with caution, realizing that there are a number of different assumptions, hypotheses, and methodologies at work. What follows is a historical account of the NT and Canon that seems to make sense out the many theories that have been proposed by NT scholars throughout the centuries.

Although the NT begins with the four Gospels, it is important to realize that they were not the first books to be written. This distinction belongs to the apostle Paul who wrote between 50/51 CE and the time of his death c. 63/64.2 The Gospels, on the other hand, were not written until thirty to fifty years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In many circles, it is common to date Mark c. 65 CE, Matthew and Luke c. 85 CE, and John c. 95 CE.3

The Gospels: In this section we want to consider how the words and deeds of Jesus were passed on until the time they were recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus gathered his twelve disciples, he communicated with them orally. The crowds who heard his message retained it by applying it to their daily lives, retelling, and memorizing it. After Pentecost, the early Christians continued to pass on the traditions of Jesus in their preaching and teaching, relying on their memory, collaboration with eyewitnesses, and oral traditions current in their communities.

Eventually, some of the random sayings of Jesus became more stereotyped and were organized into units, such as the parables, miracles, the passion narrative, the Sermon on the Mount, and the controversial stories in Mark 2:1-3:6. Although contemporary scholars continue to debate the nature, classification, and function of these forms (Form Criticism), they provide a helpful way of suggesting how certain sayings of Jesus were organized and used by the evangelists when they composed their Gospels as we know them today.

As time passed, the church realized that it could not depend on oral traditions about Jesus forever. By the middle of the first century, most of the original eyewitnesses had passed away (see Acts 1:1-2; Lk 1:1-4). The spread of Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world required a written record of the life and saying of Jesus for the evangelistic, educational, and pastoral needs within each congregation. The church also needed such records to defend its faith from external (other religious and philosophical systems) and internal (false teaching) threats.

With the publication and circulation of four individual Gospels, the church had to decide whether it would acknowledge all four Gospels instead of just one as authoritative witnesses to the traditions of Jesus. Separately, each one had such authority; but when they were brought together and compared, a new problem emerged over diverse accounts and apparent contradictions.4 Other Gospels also appeared on the scene claiming authenticity and seeking authority (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, etc.). Now a decision had to be made which Gospels were to be regarded as authoritative. Eventually a conscious decision was made to retain only those that were apostolic in origin or could be associated with the apostolic age. The church also had to respond to a so-called canonical list published by Marcion c. 140 CE, which included a rather mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel and ten letters of Paul.5

Early church history records a number of additional testimonies that led to the fourfold collection and canonization of the Gospels. Papias (c. 70-140/160 CE) indicates that the written documents about Jesus are associated with the names of either apostolic authors or individuals linked with the apostles—such as Mark with the apostle Peter and Luke with Paul. The writings of Justin Martyr (c. 100-163) show that he was acquainted with the Synoptic Gospels. Tatian, a Syrian Christian (c. 110-180), attempted to alleviate the problems caused by comparing the Gospels (the Synoptic Problem) by writing his Diatessaron (c 150), a kind of harmony of the four Gospels to create one single definitive Gospel. Further evidence for the existence of a fourfold Gospel collection comes from Irenaeus (c. 130-202) in his work, Against Heresies (3.11.8).6

From early Christian sources it seems reasonable to conclude that the fourfold Gospel collection was a well-known and accepted fact by the end of the second century. Tertullian (c. 160-220), Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215), Origin (c. 184-235), and Eusebius (writing around 325-330 CE) are acquainted with a fourfold Gospel collection. Their testimony and opinions played an important role when the Council of Carthage in 397 CE finally canonized the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament books.7

Paul and His Letters: The process whereby Paul’s letters were written, circulated, and canonized is not that different from what happened with the Gospels. In Paul’s case, his ministry as an apostle began at the time of his conversion and commission on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9; 9:15; Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8). His public missionary activity begins when Barnabas summons him to Antioch from Tarsus (Acts 11:25-26) and from where the two of them begin their missionary journeys to take the Gospel to Jews and Greeks (Acts 13:1-14:28).

Paul’s pre-literary collection included revelations from God (Gal 1:12), information through the “passing on” (paradidomi) and “receiving” (paralambano) oral traditions, and insights from conversations with early church leaders (Acts 9:26-30; Gal 1:18-24) and worshipping communities (e.g., 1 Cor 11:23-25; 15:3-4). His letters also contain elements of early Christian creeds and confessions, liturgical expressions, and paraenetic (moral/ethical) instructions. What this means is that Paul accepted such truths and traditions as revelatory and authoritative and would pass them on through his preaching, teaching, and writing.

Any discussion about the composition, collection, and canonicity of Paul’s letters takes place between two certainties: one is that the apostle Paul wrote letters to a number of individuals and churches; the other is that by 397 CE, the church had canonized fourteen epistles (including Hebrews) attributed to Paul. Major scholarly research is centered on issues of authorship, editorial activity, circulation, and the collection and canonization of Paul’s letters.

A number of letters identify Paul and the sole author (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit 1:1). In other letters, Paul follows the literary conventions of his day by employing a secretary (amanuensis). Thus in Romans 16:22, we read: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” In other letters, Paul makes a point to mention writing and/or sending greetings “in his own hand” (1 Cor 16:21; 2 Thess 3:17; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; Philem 19). The implication could be that the rest of the letter was crafted and written by a secretary with various levels of involvement.

In addition to this, there are some letters which suggest joint authorship when Paul mentions his brothers and coworkers such as Sosthenes, Timothy, and Silvanus in the salutation (1 Cor 1:1-2; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; I Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; Philem 1). Apparently these individuals had some specific role in the composition of the letters or Paul would not have mentioned them by name. They also may have been responsible for the final edition and redaction of a letter before it was sent out to the recipients. Because these letters came from the apostle Paul, they were accepted by the church as authentic and authoritative regardless of whether he wrote every word and supervised their publication.

In the case of letters attributed to Paul but where his authorship is questioned (especially the Pastorals and Ephesians), proponents of pseudonymity would argue that after Paul’s death certain individuals—possibly a disciple(s) of Paul—felt compelled to write in Paul’s name in order to commend Paul’s theology and apostolic authority to later generations of believers.8 At this point it doesn’t matter whether one agrees or disagrees with this concept. The significance is that by the end of the first century letters written by the apostle Paul or in his name were regarded as authoritative for the church.

After Paul’s letters were written and edited, they were dispatched, received, and read to or by the congregations for whom they were intended (1 Thess 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13; on reading letters see also Rev 1:3 and possibly 2 Pet 3:15-16). In Colossians 4:16, Paul instructs the congregation “that when this letter has been read among you, have it read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicia.” This is the first indication in the NT that some letters circulated among churches in close proximity to each other. There is no evidence that this happened elsewhere in the first century.

The status of Paul’s letters after they reached their intended destination is unknown. Luke does not mention them in Acts even though he focuses on the life of the apostle Paul. Clement, an early bishop of Rome (c. 64-96), appears to have been acquainted with several of Paul’s epistles—particularly Romans and 1 Corinthians (1 Clement), but there is no evidence of a collection at this point. 2 Peter 3:15-16 mentions “all of his [Paul’s] letters,” but the “all” could refer only to those letters that were known at the time and not the entire Pauline corpus.9

Given that Paul’s letters were ultimately circulated, collected, and canonized, one has to assume that there was an increasing awareness and appreciation of Paul’s letters near the end of the first century. If Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he personally may have made copies of his letters and initiated some kind of collection. While in prison c. 64 CE, he writes to Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books [biblia] and above all the parchments [membranas].” After Paul’s death, it is possible that some of his disciples/coworkers/coauthors continued to collect all of his letters.

It appears that Paul’s letters were gradually collected over a period of time.10 The “particularity” of his letters—i.e., that they were specifically written to certain congregations—gave way to their universal value for other churches. Initially, copies would be made and circulated among congregations in certain geographical regions such as Asia Minor (Colossae, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Laodicea), Macedonia (Thessalonica, Philippi), Achaia (Corinth) and Italy (Rome). Later, these regional collections came to constitute the Pauline corpus.

It is difficult to imagine that this early circulation and collection of Paul’s letters without the guidance of some significant individuals such as Luke, Timothy, Tychicus, or Onesimus.11 According to David Trobisch, there may have been a seven or even thirteen letter collection by the end of the first century.12 While this may a bit too ambitious, a number of Church Fathers between Clement and Justin (96-165) knew of and used many of Paul’s letters.

The first extant list of Paul’s letters—a corpus of ten—first appears in Marcion’s Apostolicon (c. 140 CE). Additional lists are found in manuscript Π46, the Muratorian Canon/Fragment, and some later Church Fathers (Tatian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen). The consensus among most scholars is that these church leaders recognized and accepted either thirteen or fourteen (if Hebrews is included) epistles of Paul. Thus one can safely say that by the middle of the third century CE there was a fairly uniform consensus concerning the contents of the Pauline corpus. The Council of Carthage declared these letters of Paul, along with the Gospels and the other letters that make up the New Testament, “canonical” in 397 CE.13

Apart from the Gospels and epistles attributed to Paul, the “other letters” in the NT include The Acts of the Apostles, Hebrews, the Catholic Epistles (1 and 2 Peter, James, Jude, 1, 2, and 3 John), and Revelation. Many of them quoted by the Church Fathers (such Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origin, Eusebius, and Athanatius) indicate that they were known and used in a number churches. In the end, it was their usage in the church and conformity to apostolic teaching that led to their canonicity at the Council of Carthage in 397 CE.14

Finalizing the Canon: The idea of canonicity is implicit in all the material that we have discussed above. Right from the beginning, the followers of Jesus and the early Church Fathers regarded the words of Jesus as possessing ultimate authority for their faith and practice. After the Gospels were written and accepted as the written words of Jesus, they also were regarded as authoritative for the church.15 Much the same holds true for the letters of Paul. At first, they were authoritative for each church to which they were written because they came from a legitimate, inspired, and authoritative apostle of the church. These letters were gradually given canonical status when they were collected as a corpus and appear in various lists. Much the same is true for the other documents that make up the New Testament.

In examining the criteria used in the formation of the New Testament canon, several observations should be kept in mind. First, the most important criterion appears to be whether or not a document was a trustworthy witness to the apostolic faith. Second, for the most part, the other criteria should be understood as operating interdependently or concurrently rather than independently or sequentially. This means that one should not attempt to rank them in importance. Third, certain criteria were given different weight by some churches and leaders—a phenomenon that explains why a few books took longer to gain universal acceptance.

In summary, the main criteria considered for canonicity involved the authority of Jesus, apostolic authorship, usage in the church, and orthodox teaching.16 Initially, the concept of inspiration was not crucial to the canonicity of the NT because every believer and congregation possessed and was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It appears that inspiration was attributed to a document by the church only after it was recognized as canonical; it was considered a corollary of canonicity rather than a criterion of canonicity.17


1 These questions are taken from the Preface of the author’s book, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2nd edition, 2011), pp. 13-14.

2 Thirteen letters in the NT bear Paul’s name. A number of scholars claim that some of these were actually written after Paul’s death and thus are pseudonymous. These include the Pastorals (1, 2 Timothy and Titus), Ephesians, and possibly even 2 Thessalonian and Colossians. For further comments, see below.

3 There are, of course, exceptions to this traditional dating. Many years ago, Bishop John A. T. Robinson suggested that all the books in the NT were written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE (Redating the New Testament. London: SCM, 1976). Two studies challenge the traditional approach to the Synoptic Gospels. Eta Linnemann, Is There a Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), questions the literary dependence of the Synoptics; John Wenham, Re-dating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992), argues for a high degree of verbal independence for each Gospel, the priority of Matthew, and the composition of the Synoptics before 55 CE. More recently, James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity, JSNTSup 266 (London: T & T Clark International, 2005), appeals to the internal evidence of Mark’s Gospel to argue for a date in the late 30s or early 40s.

4 This is known as the Synoptic Problem and the issues are addressed by a discipline known as Source Criticism.

5 For additional comments on Marcion see discussion on the Pauline literature below.

6 Although the Muratorian Fragment/Canon is another witness for the fourfold Gospel, its date is disputed and probably reflects circumstances from the fourth rather than second century.

7 For additional discussion and references, see The Making of the New Testament, pp. 88-99.

8 The concept of pseudonymity in the NT and the deutero-Pauline hypothesis is not without its critics. For issues related to this topic, readers are encouraged to consult The Making of the New Testament, pp. 116-123, especially the extensive references on p. 118, notes 28 and 29.

9 This reference in 2 Peter may make more sense if the epistle is pseudonymous and written in the second century CE.

10 This theory makes more sense than the so-called “Big Bang” or “Lapsed Interest” theory proposed by Edgar J. Goodspeed in his book, The Formation of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927). Goodspeed suggested that Paul’s letters lay dormant in church libraries or closets and thus fell into obscurity. It wasn’t until the publication of The Acts of the Apostles” that interest in Paul exploded (hence “Big Bang”) and people began a search for his letters. Most scholars dismiss Goodspeed’s proposal in favor of a gradual collection because Paul’s letters always had meaning and significance for the churches.

11 See Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 101 and E. Randolph Richards, ,i>Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 217.

12 David Trobisch in Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origin (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

13 For an extensive presentation of lists and catalogues of NT collections see Lee M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), Appendix C, pp. 445-451; The Making of the New Testament, pp. 251-53.

14 Time and space do not permit more discussion on these letters. For additional information, documentation and bibliography, see The Making of the New Testament, pp. 146-65.

15 The word “canon” comes from the Greek, kanon, meaning “reed” or “straight rod,” was used by the early church as a norm or rule of faith. By the fourth century CE it is applied to all the books that were given authoritative (canonical) status by the church.

16 All of these criteria are discussed at length in articles and monographs dealing with the canon of the NT. Some of the most helpful include: F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988; Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); Lee M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Rev. ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007); Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Most of the arguments in these, and other volumes, are challenged in books written by Bart D. Ehrman. In addition to those listed in The Making of the New Testament, pp. 186-191, see his latest book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

17 Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament p. 257

Comments (1)

A challenging point of view is in the beginning of Bart Ehrman's "The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings"; also, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings".

#1 - Tim Solon - 12/19/2011 - 03:24

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