One of the most common misconceptions about the New Testament canon (the list of books the church recognizes as authoritative) is that early Christians didn't have any Scripture until hundreds of years after the life of Christ and the Apostles. The church then examined all the books they had and "picked" the ones they thought should go in the canon. However, this is not how it happened.
Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, so they had the Old Testament Scriptures, but concerning the 27 books of the New Testament, there wasn't an official canon until three or four hundred years later. That doesn't mean they didn't have New Testament Scripture. In fact, the word "canon" does not need to be confined to a formal and final list, but rather reflects "the entire process by which the formation of the church's sacred writings took place." (1) Here are 5 facts that point to an early canon:
Fact #1: Early Christians differentiated between canonical and non-canonical books.
Christians divided books into four categories:
Recognized books: Certain books like the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul were regarded as canonical by early Christians and were not disputed. In the 4th century, church historian Eusebius noted that this core canon had existed in Christianity for some time. (2)
Disputed books: Other books such as James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, were disputed by some, yet accepted by many. These books weren't officially canonized until later. (3)
Rejected books: Some books were acknowledged to be helpful for spiritual growth, but were not regarded as having the same authority as Scripture. Among these books were the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, and the Epistle of Barnabas, to name a few. (4)
Heretical books: A few books were never considered for canonical status and were rejected as outright heresy, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Acts of Andrew and John. (5)
Fact #2: Certain New Testament writings were cited as Scripture not long after they were penned.
The earliest mention of a New Testament book being referred to as Scripture comes from the New Testament itself. That's as early as it gets! In 1 Timothy 5:18, the Apostle Paul writes:
For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages.
The first part of Paul's quotation comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second part comes from the New Testament—Luke 10:7 to be exact. In other words, Paul quotes Luke's Gospel and calls it "Scripture."
Another example comes from 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Peter mentions "all of Paul's letters," and warns believers to not be deceived by people who twist them "as they do the other Scriptures." He obviously believed Paul's epistles were on equal footing with the Old Testament, and expected this to be uncontroversial among his readers.
When the original Apostles were still alive, they discipled younger converts. One such convert, Polycarp, was believed to be a personal disciple of the Apostle John. (6) In the early second century, he wrote a letter to the church at Philippi, referencing the book of Ephesians as "Scripture." (7)
Fact #3: Church Fathers began to compile lists of New Testament books long before any councils met to finalize the canon.
22 of the 27 books of the New Testament were listed in what is called the Muratorian Fragment, dated from about 180 AD. This list includes everything but Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and possibly 3 John, indicating that the bulk of the New Testament canon was established at an extraordinarily early date.
The first complete list of the New Testament canon is often attributed to Athanasius, around AD 367, but Dr. Michael Kruger argues that all 27 books were affirmed by church father Origen more than a hundred years before that. This means that most likely by the 3rd century, the complete canon was recognized and in place.
Fact #4: Early Christian manuscripts were intended for public reading.
Manuscripts of the Greco-Roman world were made to be appreciated as works of art and not necessarily to be read in public. However, early Christian manuscripts were unique in that they were made for functionality, not beauty. Compared with their cultural counterparts, they had fewer lines per page, an exceptionally large number of reader's aids, and spaces between sections—all of which suggests they were meant for public reading.
In the early church, and even going back to the Old Testament synagogues, almost all the writings that were read in public worship services were Biblical books. (For example, 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr tells us that in church gatherings, portions of the Old Testament and the Gospels would be read, followed by a sermon. (8)) This indicates that the scribes who copied the manuscripts believed them to be Scripture and intended them to be used as such. (9)
Fact #5: Early Christians primarily used a codex rather than a scroll.
Centuries before it was broadly employed in Greco-Roman culture, early Christians mainly used a codex (similar to a modern book, bound at the spine) rather than a scroll, which was the primary form of written document in the ancient world. The switch to the codex was sudden, early, and widespread among Christians. This may indicate the church’s need to combine several books into one volume, which only a codex was able to do. Many scholars believe this supports the idea that a canon was beginning to be established as early as the end of the 1st century. (10)
What did the councils actually do?
The councils that eventually convened to established the canon did just that—they finalized the list of books that were already considered canonical and settled a handful of disputes surrounding the remaining texts. However, the evidence suggests that early Christians had a functioning New Testament core canon long before that.
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(1) Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (SCM, 1984) p. 25
(2) Eusebius, Church History, 3.25.1-2
(3) Ibid., 3:25.3
(4) Ibid., 3.25.4
(5) Ibid., 3.25.6
(6)Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 32.2; Iranaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3
(7) Polycarp, Epistle to the Phillipians, 12.1
(8) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, LXVII
(9) Michael J. Kruger, "The Origin and Authority of the New Testament Canon," Reformed Theological Seminary, 4 August 2016, Lecture #20 (Kruger also notes in his article Were Early Christian Scribes Untrained Amateurs? that this fact is well supported by a number of modern scholars.)
(10) Andreas J. Kostenberger & Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010) p. 194-195