Christian History: How the New Testament was formed

Mar. 14, 2013 @ 04:40 PM

The word “canon” is from the Greek and means “standard.”  Canonization is the process of determining the standard or accepted books in any academic or religious field.  In NT studies, canonization refers to the process of determining which books to include in the NT.

In the first century approximately 100 books were written which claimed to have a connection to Jesus.  For instance, the NT contains four Gospels, but other Gospels were written.  The early church leaders had to work through all those books and decide which came from God and which were made up.

Of course the question arises, why would anyone make up a Gospel?  The answer is that in the First Century many people liked part of Jesus’ message but not other parts.   Many people liked the idea that people should love each other and that God helps people out, but not everyone liked the idea that God came to earth in physical form and lived among people, or the Trinity idea, that there is one God and three persons or roles, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So other ideas developed, such as God sending a messenger to earth who was physical, or even sending a messenger to earth who was not physical but appeared to be physical; in both cases the messenger was Jesus.

Those people who believed that God sent a messenger are known as Gnostic Christians or Docetics.  In 1945 Egyptian farmers discovered a clay jar which contained 13 books that Gnostic Christians had compiled.  This is known as the Nag Hammadi Library.  These books contained writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Secret Book of James, the Secret Book of John), the Letter of Peter to Philip, and others.  Being Docetic, they are based on the idea of Jesus being a messenger instead of Jesus being God.

So the early church leaders developed standards in deciding which books made it into the NT.  The main criterion was that it had to originate from an Apostle.  That only helped some, though, because a number of the writings claimed to have been written by Apostles, for example, the Gospel of Thomas.  Therefore the early church leaders decided that any writing also had to match up with the basic teachings about Jesus.  Therefore any writing from the Gnostics was automatically discarded because they didn’t hold to the basic Christian ideas.

Other books also included made up stories, such as the Arabic Infancy Gospel of the Savior.  This gospel supposedly tells stories of Jesus when he was a little boy.  For example, in one of the stories, little Jesus was walking along and another boy accidentally ran into little Jesus and knocked him down.  Little Jesus then killed the other boy.  So you can see how some books were easily discredited.

This process of determining the books of the NT took a long time.  Remember this was a time before computers, cars, etc. One person who helped the process along was a man named Marcion, who hated the Old Testament and created his own scripture consisting of the Gospel of Luke (without any Jewish references) and ten of Paul’s letters.  But the early church leaders knew that the OT should be a part of the sacred writings.  This caused the early church leaders to decide to create the proper NT partly in order to fight against heretical (false) teachings (like Marcion and the Docetics). Their Bible would also include the OT.

The first listing of the 27 books of the NT is from the year AD 367 (I said it took a long time!) by a bishop named Athanasius.  And several councils at the end of the 300s closed the NT canon to those 27 books only.


Questions/comments contact Mark at the New Testament Was Formed