What is the canon?
Simply put, the canon refers to the books found in the Old and New Testaments, that is, the Bible. The focus here is how the process of canonization played out for the New Testament. Why are some books in the New Testament and others not? How were they recognized as being authoritative for the Church? Why is the canon “closed?”
You might be wondering why discussing the canon even matters. Isn’t the issue settled? Yes, it is, but as a follower of Jesus, knowing something about the history of the canon can bolster your confidence in the Scriptures and the foundations of your faith.
The books and letters of the New Testament were written between the 40s and the end of the first century. In the second half of the first century, as the Apostles and other earliest followers of Jesus began to die, there was question about where authority rested as the next generation of Christians took up the mantle of the faith.
The Apostles’ teaching
Even though Jesus was not physically present with the early Church, the Apostles provided a direct connection to His teaching and instruction as they led the Church. They were viewed as authoritative in Jesus’ place (see Luke 6:12-16; Acts 2:42, 4:32-37, 15:1-35). But as the Apostles died off, where was the early Church to go when they had questions about doctrine or disputes about practice, or needed guidance?
The answer is the same as in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.” This meant the written teaching and instruction left by the Apostles became the authoritative source for life and practice in the early Church. Thus, the letters and Gospels written by the Apostles, or their associates, circulated in the Church even more than before. It made perfect sense those who were personally with and selected by Jesus would convey His authoritative instruction. And when they died, the written form of their teaching maintained the same authoritative influence.
The Spread of the New Testament
We can see this in the earliest Christian document we have outside of the New Testament, 1 Clement. It was written sometime around the 70s or 80s AD from Christians in Rome to Christians in Corinth. The author regularly cites the Old Testament Scriptures (already recognized as holy Scripture in the early Church) right alongside the New Testament writings as if they were on par with one another, using both for instructing the Corinthians.
What’s even more amazing is 1 Clement clearly references many of the New Testament writings: The Gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. What makes this amazing is the fact that toward the end of the first century (the 70s or 80s AD), these Apostolic writings had already circulated across the Roman empire among the early Church. Keep in mind, the journey across the vast Roman empire was no small feat for everyday people in the first century. This demonstrates how the Apostolic writings were vital to the early Church in our earliest records, so much so they could be used in 1 Clement in such a way that assumed the Corinthians also knew of them.
Be sure to read the next post, The New Testament Canon Part 2.
Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Holmes, Michael. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., Scott L. Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.