The Development of the New Testament Canon

How the New Testament Was Formed


    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 were included in the NT. 

    In the first century approximately 100 books were written which claimed to have a connection to Jesus in these.  So, for instance, the NT contains four Gospels, but many more Gospels were written than those four.  The early church leaders had to work through all those books and settle on the ones which everyone agreed came from God and which ones 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.  Everyone 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.  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 (and one of John), the Letter of Peter to Philip, and others.  These books all derive from the same idea that God sent a messenger to earth instead of coming himself.  

    So the early church leaders developed standards for which books made it into the NT.  The main criterion was that it had to have originated 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 didnít 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.  And 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 as a man named Marcion, who denied the Old Testament and created his own scripture consisting of the Gospel of Luke (without any Jewish references) and ten of Paulís 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 teachings (like the Gnostics). 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 closing of the 300s closed the NT canon to those 27 books only. 


Questions/comments contact Mark at


©2013 Mark Nickens