Michael Kruger has provided a series on the New Testament canon at his site Canon Fodder. The series is entitled, Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize. I have provided excerpts from each article below:
1. The NT books are the earliest Christian writings we possess.
“They are the earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.”
2. Apocryphal writings are from the second century or later.
“Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century… apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.”
3. The NT books are unique—they are apostolic.
“One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles… the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself. They were his mouthpiece. As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church… If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles… The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship. These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon. The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.”
4. Some NT writers quote other NT authors and refer to it as Scripture.
“If the NT writers were citing other NT writers as Scripture, then that suggests the canon was not a later ecclesiastical development, but something early and innate to the early Christian faith.”
5. The four gospels are well established by the end of the second century.
“‘It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are…’ (Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons). Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church.”
6. At the end of the second century, the Muratorian Fragment lists 22 of 27 NT books.
“One of the key data points in any discussion of canon is something called the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). This fragment, named after its discoverer Ludovico Antonio Muratori, contains our earliest list of the books in the New Testament. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list it contains was originally written in Greek and dates back to the end of the second century (ca.180)… the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.”
7. Early Christians often used non-canonical writings.
“It is important to note that while Christians often cited and used non-canonical literature, they only rarely cited them as Scripture. For the most part, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying writings. This is not all that different than practices in our modern day.”
8. The NT canon was not decided at Nicea—nor any other Church council.
“The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament canon (nor did Constantine). Nicea was concerned with how Christians should articulate their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. Thus, it was the birthplace of the Nicean creed… councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there… The shape of our New Testament canon was not determined by a vote or by a council, but by a broad and ancient consensus… the canon is not just a man-made construct. It was not the result of a power play brokered by rich cultural elites in some smoke filled room. It was the result of many years of God’s people reading, using, and responding to these books.”
9. Christians have disagreed about the canonicity of some NT books.
“God, for his own providential reasons, chose to deliver the canon through normal historical circumstances. And historical circumstances are not always smooth… these disagreements amongst Christians are sometimes used as an argument against the validity of the 27-book canon we know today… God sometimes uses normal historical processes to accomplish his ends. And those historical processes are not always neat and tidy. But, this should not detract from the reality that the ends are still God’s.”
10. Early Christians believed that canonical books were self-authenticating.
“It is interesting to note that the early church fathers, while agreeing that apostolicity and church-reception are fundamentally important, also appealed to another factor that is often overlooked in modern studies. They appealed to the internal qualities of these books… they argued that these books bore certain attributes that distinguished them as being from God… the early church fathers believed that evidence for the canonicity of books can be found in the books themselves. In other words, canonical books are self-authenticating… In the end, the church fathers teach us a very important truth. The NT canon we possess today is not due to the machinations of later church leaders, or to the political influence of Constantine, but due to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities.”
For the entire series, check out Canon Fodder.
For more on this subject, please visit the Exegetical Theology page.