Can We Trust the New Testament Canon?
This is the second installment in a two-part series taking a look at the biblical canon. Last week, we took a look the formation of the Old Testament canon.
Throughout biblical history, the God of the Bible used ordinary means to achieve His purposes just as often as miraculous means. God did not supercharge the Assyrians when He used them to enact judgement on the northern kingdom of Israel, nor did he give Ruth magical powers to integrate into Israelite society. God commands every aspect of life, whether that comes in the form of geopolitics or keeping the Messianic line of David alive.
So it is with the formation of the New Testament canon. The God of heaven did not give Peter or John a tidy list of the divinely inspired texts that would outline the New Covenant. Rather, God used regular human processes to organize and relay the Gospel message to the entire world.
Let’s see how He did that.
How do we know early Christians correctly decided which books would make up the New Testament? How do we know they didn’t “mess up?”
To be recognized as God’s Word and therefore authoritative, two general rules emerged. If a text contradicted the already accepted and verified teachings of Jesus or the Apostles, it was easy – throw it out.
What if a text didn’t directly contradict the teachings of Jesus or His Apostles? This is where the second rule comes in. Christian leaders required texts to originate from 1st century A.D. eyewitness sources who walked and talked with Jesus and the Apostles, whether that came in the form of the authors themselves or eyewitnesses within the text.
Outstanding examples of this rule come in the form of the four Gospels. Written at different times between 60 and 100 AD, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John received immediate acceptance as reliable accounts of Jesus. Why?
The answer lies in the dates of authorship. All four books were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses – remember, Jesus died and rose again between 30 and 33 A.D. If Matthew’s account, for example, contradicted the accounts of still living eyewitnesses around the Galilee area, it would have been discredited.
Accounts from first and second century Christians testify to the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. According to Papias of Hierapolis, Mark served as Peter’s translator and “wrote down accurately” whatever the Apostle “remembered to of the things said or done by Christ." Irenaeus of the second century questioned a person’s “common sense” if they disputed the historicity of the Gospel of Luke.
What of the other books of the New Testament? Along with the four Gospels, Christians immediately recognized Acts, the thirteen Pauline epistles, 1 John, and 1 Peter as trustworthy. Around 110 AD, Polycarp of Smyrna referred to the Pauline epistles as Scripture: “As it is written in these Scriptures, ‘Be angry and do not sin, and do not let the sun go down on your anger." Peter himself recognizes Paul’s writings as Scripture before he died around 67 AD.
This leaves the books of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. It took longer for these writings to become well-known throughout the Christian community, and some Christians debated the authenticity of the texts.
In the end, Christians kept those texts because they could be traced back to apostolic testimony in the first century AD. By the end of fourth century, the New Testament canon was complete. In a letter dated to 367AD, Athanasius of Alexandria lists off the twenty-seven books that serve as “springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them."
After thousands of years, God had finished His written revelation to mankind.
The “Lost Gospels”
Any discussion of the formation of the New Testament canon would be incomplete without a brief overview of the so-called “lost Gospels.”
A collection of writings describing events and teachings that supposedly happened in the time of Jesus, the lost Gospels vary in their purpose and theme. Some like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James expand the New Testament in “fanciful and problematic ways.” They assert that Jesus used his divine powers to aid himself in childhood.
Some others, like the Gospel of the Lord and the Gospel of the Ebionites, seem to have been written to promote a distinctive Gnostic theology. Gnostics believed they possessed a deeper knowledge of God, viewing the Old Testament God as evil (thereby making all of his creation innately evil). Many viewed Jesus as spirit who merely looked like a man,[8 as opposed to God incarnate.
It is unfortunate that these manuscripts – many of them found in Egypt in 1945 – have been dubbed the misleading “lost Gospels.” The “false Gospels” would be a far more accurate name, as they failed to pass the authenticity test the other books in the New Testament did. Early Christians excluded the lost Gospels because they could not be connected with people who walked and talked with Jesus.
Similar to that of the Old Testament canon, the formation of the New Testament did not involve hundreds of medieval scholars gathering at an ecumenical council debating the authenticity of different texts. There was no need for that. All of the New Testament books were written in a tight, 50-year time frame when eyewitnesses of the works and teachings of Jesus still lived, and most gained immediate recognition as reliable and authoritative.
There is nothing particularly sensational about the formation of the biblical canon. A church father did not see a striking, clothed-in-white figure rattle off the 66 books of the Bible.
The lack of sensational pomp and circumstance related to the canon does not make it any less miraculous, though. The God of the universe used sinful, mistake prone human beings to write down and then organize his written Word, so that future generations of humanity may be saved by the sacrificial blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.
What could be more miraculous than that?
 Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, 3:39
 Iranaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.3-4. Cited in John Walvoored, ed., Inspiration and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 20.
 Jones, Timothy Paul. How We Got the Bible. Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2015. Pg. 92.
 2 Peter 3:15-16
 Jones. How We Got the Bible. Pg. 87.
 Athanasius, Easter Letter
 Jones. How We Got the Bible. Pg. 95.
 Ibid. Pg. 96