The Criteria for the New Testament Canon

This is part of my classroom lectures handouts

Key Terms

  • Biblia (βιβλία): the plural Greek term for “books”
  • kanōn (κανών)/canon: a reed used as a measuring standard; the criterion used to make a judgment (“rule of faith”); a list of authoritative or canonical writings

Quotations of the New Testament as Scripture

  • References/Allusions to the Gospels or Epistles in the Apostolic Fathers, but it is difficult to tell whether they cited NT texts or oral traditions.
  • … but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” (Didache 8:2)
  • …as it is said in these Scriptures, “Be ye angry and sin not,” and “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath [Ephesians 4:26].” (Polycarp, Philippians 12.1)
  • So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
  • …on the day called Sunday… the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.3)

Competing Christian Movements

  • “Gnostics”: an ignorant or evil Demiurge (craftsman) created matter rather than the highest divine being in the divine realm (pleroma). Salvation is liberation from the material world through knowledge (gnōsis) of one’s divine origins. The Gnostics composed texts or decoded the New Testament ones to expound upon their pleromatic myth and interpret Jesus as a revealer of esoteric teachings. Some famous Gnostic teachers include Basilides and Valentinus.
  • Marcion of Sinope: a rich ship owner who believed that the loving Father of Jesus was a different god from the Old Testament god of justice (the Demiurge). He accepted only 10 letters of Paul and a single Gospel most akin to Luke’s Gospel as authoritative and composed a text entitled Antithesis. According to tradition, he was excommunicated from the Roman church in 144 CE.
  • Some Jewish Christians (the “Ebionites”, from ebionim or poor ones) believed in Jesus as the Messiah, though they denied Jesus’ divinity and some rejected reports of his Virgin birth, and remained Torah observant. They preferred the Gospel of Matthew (or a “Gospel according to the Hebrews”) and despised the apostle Paul as an apostate from the Law. Epiphanius and Jerome describe another group of Torah observant Jewish Christians (“Nazoraeans”) whose Christology was more aligned with the larger fourth century Church.

Apocryphal (“Hidden”) Gospels

  • The Gospel of the Hebrews/Ebionites/Nazoraeans, The Gospel of the Egyptians, Papyrus Egerton 2 Unknown Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Saviour, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the Secret Gospel of Mark (cf. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2003], v).
  • These Gospels may be harmonies of the NT Gospels, expansions on the events of Jesus’ birth/childhood/death, or revelatory discourses that depict Jesus as a gnostic revealer figure.
  • The Gospel of Thomas Movie
  • Cartoons of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Irenaeus of Lyons on the Four Gospel Canon

“For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel… It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” (Against Heresies 3.11.7-8)

Criteria for Canonicity

  • Council of Carthage (397 AD)
  • Affirmed the current NT Canon of Scripture
  • Criteria for Canonicity
    • Apostolic Origin (written by one of Jesus’ chosen apostles or a close associate of an apostle)
    • Catholicity (i.e. widespread Christian usage of the text)
    • Antiquity (i.e., long history of use by ancient authorities)
    • The Rule of Faith (theological content)

Canon Lists

Muratorian (late 2nd cent) Eusebius (ca. 265-340) Athanasius (ca. 298-373)
[Matthew?]

[Mark?]

Luke

John

Acts

1/2 Corinthians

Ephesians

Philippians

Colossians

Galatians

1/2 Thessalonians

Romans

Philemon

Titus

1 & 2 Timothy

Jude

1 & 2 John

Apocalypse of John

Apocalypse of Peter

Wisdom of Solomon

Shepherd of Hermas

 

Acknowledged

Most of NT

 

Disputed

Hebrews [?]

James

Jude

2 Peter

2 & 3 John

Revelation [?]

Hebrew Gospel

 

Spurious

Hermas

Didache

Barnabas

Acts of Paul

Apoc. Peter

 

 

 

 

4 Responses to The Criteria for the New Testament Canon

  1. GeoffSmith says:

    Doesn’t Carthage also rely an an earlier council of hippo?

  2. Thanks Geoff Smith for catching that.

  3. […] The Criteria for the New Testament Canon by Michael Kok […]

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