The Coming of the Canon
Since the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, a great deal of misinformation has been circulating concerning the New Testament’s origins, namely, how its books were collected, when, and by whom. Despite the book’s opening disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, its fabricated history has come to be believed by many as true, and is now frequently cited as grounds for distrusting the New Testament’s witness concerning Christ and the early church. It is not within the scope of this article to expose all the errors—many, egregious, and obvious—that undergird the The Da Vinci Code’s storyline, but rather to answer with facts the very important question the novel has raised: “How did the New Testament come to be?”
Before getting into the meat of the answer, it may do us well to take a moment to familiarize ourselves with a frequently used term related to this subject — “canon.” This word comes to us from Hebrew (qaneh) via Greek (kanon), and originally had the basic meaning of “reed” (our word “cane” is derived from it). Since a reed was sometimes used as a measuring rod, kanon came to refer to a “standard” or a “rule.” And since a measuring rod might be marked in units of length (like a modern ruler), kanon came to mean a series of such marks, and hence, finally acquired the general sense of a “series” or “list.” And so, when we speak of the “canon” of Scripture (as many do), we are speaking of the “list” of writings that is regarded as inspired, and therefore, the “rule” or “standard” for our lives.
Contrary to the thinking of some, authority precedes canonicity. That is to say, the writings of the apostles and New Testament prophets did not come to possess authority because they were included in the canon, but were included in the canon because they possessed authority. Simple, but very important. And the recognition of their inspired authority did not take hundreds of years to develop. Rather, the writings of the apostles and prophets were both presented and received as authoritative at the time of their composition. Consider the following:
Paul claimed that his writings contained “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthains 14:37), and said that Christ spoke through him (2 Corinthians 13:13). Peter acknowledged these claims, referring to “all [Paul’s] epistles” (his accumulated body of work) as part of “the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15, 16).
Peter wrote that “scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts” (2 Peter 3:3). Jude acknowledged Peter’s inspiration, citing this very prophecy, exhorting his readers to remember it (Jude 17, 18).
Luke recorded Jesus saying, “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7). Paul quoted this statement, introducing it with the phrase, “For the Scripture says” (1 Timothy 5:18), leaving no question where he stood concerning Luke’s gospel.
Paul acknowledged Luke. Peter acknowledged Paul. Jude acknowledged Peter. And other similar examples could be cited. It was known very early on that a new covenant canon was in the making and whose writings God was using to make it.
And uninspired history offers further testimony to this. The earliest Christian document we have outside of the New Testament is 1 Clement, a letter sent from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth around A.D. 95 while the apostle John was still walking the earth. Its antiquity is evidenced by its reference to Corinth’s plurality of elders and its interchangeable use of the terms bishop and presbyter. The second century false doctrine of distinguishing between the two had not yet taken hold. In the letter, the Romans exhort the Corinthians to turn from their divisive behavior, and refer—either through citation or allusion—to 12 different books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter. Clearly, it was known among these churches that these books were inspired (i.e. “canonical”). Why else would they have been appealed to? And, furthermore, the letter would not be expected to contain quotations from every book they knew to be inspired, just as lessons and articles, today, do not contain quotations from every book we trust. These 12 were only a portion of their recognized canon.
All this is telling testimony. Brethren in the first century didn’t need an “official” “Church council” to tell them which books were from God. They knew by other and better means. They could “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). They could test those who claimed to be apostles (Revelation 2:2; 2 Corinthians 12:12) and those who claimed to be prophets (Deuteronomy18:21-22; 13:1-3). They could “test the spirits, whether they [were] from God” (1 John 4:2). Like the Bereans, they could weigh the unproven against the proven “to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They could even inquire of an actual apostle if needed. And who knows what role spiritual gifts may have played in this work? (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:8, 10)
Still, did it take time for all churches in all places to be certain about all the books? Yes. In a world where geographic isolation was a profound reality, where no message could travel faster than a horse, where a man like Apollos could still have not heard about baptism into Christ even though it had been taught 20+ years before, where the limitations of scrolls and codices may not have allowed all the books to be gathered into one volume…where a government would seize and burn your Scriptures…yes, in a world like that, it took time for knowledge of the complete New Testament canon to become universal.
But it did happen. By A.D. 170, every book of the New Testament had been acknowledged as inspired by multiple voices. And two centuries years from that time, every book would be acknowledged by all. Later Catholic councils did not determine the parameters of the canon, but only acknowledged the canon that was already in existence, the same canon of 27 books we trust today.