Did the Early Christians Choose the Right Books to Put into the Canon of the New Testament?

I've noticed a fundamental mistake that is repeatedly made when historians ask this question. It might seem purely semantic, but it is deeper and has great implications.

There are 27 documents (we will call them 'books') in the New Testament ('NT'). The first recorded instance of someone listing exactly these 27 books as the books of the NT is the 39th festal letter of the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in 367 AD. Prior to this, on account of an inability to convene and determine the canon, different areas of Christendom used different sets of books.

There was great overlap among the books used and few, if any, disputes existed about most of them: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, and 1 John.

The 7 under scrutiny were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. So when someone argues that the New Testament might contain books that it shouldn't, the are referring to these 7. As a quick aside, I would like to point out that no essential doctrine, not even a remotely essential one, would be jeopardized if these books had not been included the canon. Of course, I'd be really sad to see Hebrews and James go, and most of my Baptist friends would be really depressed about losing Revelation :-) But there would be no effect on essential orthodox Christian theology.

The Importance of Clarifying Semantics
During a class discussion about the canon this January, my professor, Bart Ehrman, emphasized that no ecumenical council in antiquity ever convened to officially canonize these books. I immediately responded that the Council of Hippo in 393 presented and approved the canon. Without skipping a beat, Dr. Ehrman responded by saying "I said 'ecumenical council'. I smiled. Semantics :-)

Though he was technically correct, the impact of his statement was quelled with a proper understanding of the semantics. The same can be said for the question "Did the early Christians choose the right books to put into the canon of the New Testament?" My answer is simple: "No. God did."

Before you get upset with me for wasting your time, hear me out. The concept of a "canon" refers to a list of someone's works. The canon of William Shakespeare includes all the works he has written, period. But what we recognize as his canon may differ from his true canon. For example, if Shakespeare were to write a sonnet he never shared with anyone, that sonnet would still be a part of his canon. If we discovered it in 2012, and we debated its authenticity day in and day out, it would not change the fact that it is a part of his canon simply by virtue of the fact that he wrote it. Even if we incorrectly concluded that it was not Shakespeare's, that would not change the fact that Shakespeare wrote it. Our "recognized canon" would inaccurately reflect the true canon, but at no point could anyone do anything to alter the canon of Shakespeare. Other than Shakespeare, that is.

So let's go back and apply this semantic clarification to the history of the NT. The early Christians were not "choosing the books that belong in the canon of the NT". They were setting out to recognize which books were written, or inspired, by God. God determined which books belong in His canon. At no point could anyone do anything to alter the canon of the New Testament. Other than God, that is.

Therefore, the question cannot be "did the early Christians choose the right books to put into the canon?" but rather "did they correctly identify the books which were written by God?" In order to even ask that question, we have to presuppose the existence of God. A methodologically agnostic historian might object:

  • Methodologically Agnostic Historian: "But we can't presuppose the existence of God when doing history. Even if we could, we can't assume that he inspires books!"
  • Me: "Correct."
  • Historian: "So how are we supposed to determine, historically, whether the early Christians correctly identified the books that belong in the New Testament?"
  • Me: "You're not. That's a theological issue that presupposes the existence of God."
  • Historian: "Well what if God does not exist?"
  • Me: "Then of course the canon is flawed; you can't have an accurate list of books written by someone who never existed."
  • Historian: "So how can I, as an historian, investigate whether Christians put the right books in the New Testament?"
  • Me: "You can't."

When historians even question the accuracy of the New Testament canon, let alone when they cast aspersions, they are trespassing in foreign territory and their conclusions are necessarily illegitimate. This is a question for theologians.

The correct formulation of the question is "Did Christians accurately recognize books written by God?" There are two options: either God does not exist (at which point no question remains) or God does exist. In the case of the latter, we must necessarily ask more questions:
- Is God a being who would inspire books?
- Could we expect Him to inspire books at this juncture of history?
- Has He inspired books in the past?
- What is His purpose for inspiring books?
- If He has a purpose, would He see it to completion?
- Would He guide the early Christians into collecting the right ones?
- Would He allow non-inspired works to be collected by His people?

I'm not even going to begin to answer these questions here :-) But let's be clear where the work of an historian ends and the work of a theologian begins. And let's be clear with our semantics: If there is a canon as the early Christians envisioned it, then it can only be God who chooses what books go in it, and no one else.


  1. This article describes the compilation of the New Testament and will look into the basic facts as what books it contains, when were they written, who were their authors, how they were copied and transmitted down through the ages, and lastly how they were collected together into a canon of scripture.

    The New Testament contains twenty-seven separate books arranged in four groups, according to genre. It begins with the gospels, including four accounts of the life, ministry, death and assumed resurrection of Jesus. Next is the book of Acts, a historical account of the life of the Christian Church and its missionary efforts after the resurrection of Jesus. The third group contains twenty-one Epistles, which are the actual letters written by Christian leaders, most prominently the apostle Paul to Christian communities and individuals, dealing with the problem of faith and church administration. The New Testament ends with an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world as we know it, the Revelation of John.

    The New Testament consists of four gospels named after their alleged authors as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The first gospel written was the gospel of Mark in 65-70 AD probably written a decade after the Pauline letters, the next were the gospels of Mathew and Luke written 80-85 AD and lastly the gospel of John was written in 90-95 AD. Even though the gospels go under the name of authors mentioned above but in fact, they were written anonymously. These authors' titles were included in the English bible in later additions and were not original to the gospels themselves. The gospel narrations are always written in the third person. The earliest gospels were written in Greek and the writers seems to be well educated, literate, Greek-speaking Christians, in contrast to the apostles of Jesus, who were uneducated, lower class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants. The bottom line is that we don't know the identity of the real authors of the gospels and it seems probable that none of the gospels were actually written by any of Jesus' closest followers.

  2. Millions of people worldwide consider the New Testament to be the true word of God. However, recorded history tells a somewhat different tale of forgeries, debates, and a countless exchange of derision. How exactly did this New Testament come about? Who wrote it and who put it together? Was the New Testament agreed upon by all Christians? Bart D. Ehrman illustrates the world of Christianity in the first three centuries after the death of Jesus Christ leading up to the formation of what we today know as the New Testament in his book "Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew."

    The book itself is conveniently organized to tell a story utilizing factual evidence (for the most part). The book is divided into three parts. The first part explores different written texts and works that didn't make it into the New Testament. The second part focuses on the forms of Christianity that eventually disappeared and became "lost." These forms were declared heretical by the 'proto-orthodox' Christians (those Christians whose beliefs became the mainstream beliefs of Christianity). The third part explores the rise of the 'proto-orthodoxy' and the eventual formation of the New Testament and Christianity.

    Ehrman explores various written works and Gospels that were never included into the canon (a collection of written works) of the New Testament. The Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas are just a few of the numerous other written works that some early forms of Christians believed in. The book presents an overview of what these early written works discussed and why they weren't included in the canon of the New Testament.

  3. For more details....

  4. Despite All facts that Gospels are really untouched word of God... Simply two methods of judging its authencity is enough...
    1. There should be no contradictions. ie internal proof...
    2. And the external proof of those who compiled or i say wrote it...

  5. Imran -

    Thanks for your comments. In the future, just the link to the article should suffice :-)

    I'm glad you're delving into deeper matters of New Testament study. You quote Bart Ehrman in your article, and as you were sure to glean from the article I wrote, Bart was one of my professors this past year.

    As Ehrman and virtually all other NT scholars would say, the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas are later than the four canonical Gospels. The Gospels we find in the New Testament are the only ones that were written in the first century. The authority and relevance of the other gospels fade exponentially, especially when considering the fact that these books were not considered authoritative by much of anyone, especially in contrast to the Synoptics.

    The one sentence in your review that I take issue with is "it seems probable that none of the gospels were actually written by any of Jesus' closest followers." This is a stretch. If you said "possible", I'd say you have a case.

    I hope you can think about it for just one moment in the context of your own faith as an Ahmadi. One of the criteria you suggested that makes it unlikely that the disciples wrote the Gospels is that they were not literate. While I take issue with this, I'll grant it for a moment. Could they not have simply dictated the work, just as Muhammad dictated the Qur'an to scribes? If you think that they could not have, should you not be consistent and say that Muhammad could not have dictated the Qur'an, and therefore that some later Muslims wrote the Qur'an?

    Consistency will be your enemy, my friend, if you engage in deep criticism of Christianity and not of Islam. I pray that God will open your mind to see things clearly. Your friend,

  6. Thanks brother,
    The last pray u have given me i must say will be more helpful for u... :)
    May Allah enable us both to go on the right path... Ameeen
    As to ur reply.. I really enjoyed talking to my christian brothers that they take one point from whole discussion and make it pin point. The whole proofs i present were put aside... And second thing they rapidly start talk on Islam... If u do then i'll go deeper in christianity and will start a long discussion..And can challenge u cannot even stand on basics of ur beliefs by holding ur Bible.... :)
    The only food for thought for u brother from me that if these gospels are really word of God and as u said dictated then why there are so many contradiction among the very four gosples?? Want them say yes and get alot...
    And it is proved that last verses containing Elimination of Jesus،of if i m not wrong luke were later added to it.
    And second thing that the most authentic scripture u have of new testiment is in greek... But u knw well that the language of Jesus and his apsotles was hebrew... So how can u say it is dictated??
    Rather than that Quran is in Arabic was dictated in Arabic and still every word of it is saved and same as it was without any contradictions and additions....

  7. Sorry its Mark 16/9-20 not Luke... And u can check the reference from Britanica ie written by christian scholars....
    Its u that says its free from contradictions but i think u r familiar with Textual Criticism... What pope says about it is:
    "In the present day indeed this art, which is called Textual Criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books because of that very reverence which is due to the Divine Oracles. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruption due to the carelessness of the copyists and be freed , as for as may be done, from glosses and omissions, for the interchange and repetitions of words and from all other kinds of mistakes, which are wont to make their way gradually in to writings handed down through many Centuries ."

    (Pope Pius XII letter naming Divino Afflante Spirtu 1943 AD)
    And a well known scholar of Bible says:
    "It may be thought in the case of the Bible there is no need for textual investigation; that God would not allow textual errors to creep in to it during the years it has been handed down. But that is simply not true. God did not choose to exercise such a miraculous providence over the books of the Bible".

    (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible by Ronald E. Murphy,O. Cram. p37-38)

  8. And last thing that its well known that among four Gospels two are not of any apostles.. ie Mark and Luke.... But nowadays Christians researchers says that the other two are also not of Apostles....Want proofs, have many.....
    Sorry dont have any harsh feeling for u or christianity but its all what ur own scholars prove...

  9. And Brother very happy christmas to u all.... Stay blessed.... Its nice to exchange views with u... :)

  10. I have to disagree with you on this, Nabeel. Since you say the canon of the New Testament depends on which ones God inspired, then wouldn't one be able to find the inspired books by determining which ones were written by the apostles (the inspired ones)? In that way, an historian could answer that question because he can determine if a work was written by an apostle or not.

  11. Imran--

    It seems you have done some basic studies on these issues, which is commendable. I pray you will continue your studies. The key is to do so with as much objectivity as you can muster; simply trying to attack other positions without critically and consistently examining your own is the mark of an immature intellect, surely something which ought not afflict you.

    As far as "whole proofs" I put aside, I'm not sure what you mean. I think you're assuming I believe things which I don't. For example, I'm absolutely not bothered by the longer ending of Mark; and I agree with the vast majority of text critics who say it's inauthentic. The same can be said of John 7:53-8:11, and the faulty rendering of 1 John 5:8.

    You might respond "Aha! You admit flaws in your own book!" but such a response would be short-sighted. In fact, I admit something far more noble: that the science of textual criticism can be applied to the New Testament since no one even attempted to uniformly edit, alter, or destroy the earliest manuscripts. Such a tragic event would render impotent any attempts to reconstruct the text with certainty. I praise God that this is not the case, and we can be assured of the tenacity and integrity of the text.

    As a side note, that is not unfortunately the case with the Qur'an. All manuscripts predating Uthman were rooted out and immolated. As such, we can never be sure of the text of the Qur'an that Muhammad dictated. That is a far worse predicament than the New Testament will ever encounter.

    As far as contradictions in the Gospels, you are inaccurately imputing an Islamic view of inspiration and exegesis to the NT. An informed Christian perspective of inspiration and exegesis yields no contradictions in the text of the New Testament. I suggest you watch Licona on this issue: http://bit.ly/rIxxYP

    Regarding Mark and Luke, Mark contains Peter's testimony (watch my video here: http://blog.creed26.com/2011/08/marks-gospel-does-it-contain-peters.html) and Luke contains detailed research from interviews of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:3).

    Also, you ought to be careful with terms like "your own scholars". This for a few reasons: 1- It indicates a combative attitude on your part, and that attitude is not beneficial to dialogue; 2- Encyclopedia Britannica is not written by a group of Christian scholars, you ought not lean towards a racist view of all Westerners as Christians; 3- I own no scholars, and no one speaks for my beliefs but myself.

    Finally, a personal exhortation: be reverent as you discuss matters of God, not for the sake of any person, but for the sake of the One True God. If you are researching with sincerity, you have to leave open the potential that the facts you are attempting to disqualify may very well be the truth of God. Just an encouragement from one friend to another :-)

    May the Lord broaden your mind and heart as you seek to learn truth for the sake of building up yourself and your fellow man. Sincerely,

  12. GAP--

    You missed a crucial step in your logic. An historian cannot assume that the books written by the disciples were inspired by God; any such assumption requires a theological conclusion, namely that God would inspire the disciples.

    Make sense? :-)

  13. Nabeel,
    Very interesting article. Had never heard this argument before. And excellent job responding to Imran's arguments.

  14. That is food for thought, Nabeel. I have never approached the matter that way; but, I did start off with the same point: that God made the choices; that it was not the Church or Christians who decided upon them, although no doubt that God used them in the process of recognizing what they were.

  15. Thanks for the blog on this issue Nabeel. I think you make some excellent points here. It's never occurred to me the inconsistency of those who don't believe in God questioning the NT canon. Keep it up!

  16. Thanks for the blog on this issue Nabeel. I think you make some excellent points here. It's never occurred to me the inconsistency of those who don't believe in God questioning the NT canon. Keep it up!

  17. Great article brother Nabeel thanks.