Which Books Belong in the New Testament — and How Do We Know?
The formation of the New Testament was messier than many Christians seem to think.
For more than a century after the New Testament began to be written, there were differences of opinion about these texts. Unlike the books in the Old Testament, the contents of the New Testament can’t be decisively determined by anything that Jesus declared. That’s because none of the New Testament was written in the days when Jesus walked the hills of Judea and sailed the Sea of Galilee. The earliest texts in the New Testament were composed two decades after Jesus took a flying trip into the eastern sky from which he has yet to return.
So when did Christians agree on the twenty-seven books that appear in the New Testament today? And how was the list finally settled?
According to bestselling biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, the New Testament was in flux at least until the late fourth century A.D. According to Ehrman:
We are able to pinpoint the first time that any Christian of record listed the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as the books of the New Testament — neither more nor fewer. Surprising as it may seem, this Christian was writing in the second half of the fourth century, nearly three hundred years after the books of the New Testament had themselves been written. The author was the powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius. In the year 367 C.E., Athanasius wrote his annual pastoral letter to the Egyptian churches under his jurisdiction, and in it he included advice concerning which books should be read as Scripture in the churches. He lists our twenty-seven books, excluding all others. This is the first surviving instance of anyone affirming our set of books as the New Testament. And even Athanasius did not settle the matter.
Although Ehrman is incorrect about the first surviving list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament coming from the pen of Athanasius, much of what he has to say here is true. Questions about a few texts did persist well into the fourth century. At the same time, there are also significant aspects of this process that Ehrman’s reconstruction omits.
The Centrality of Eyewitness Testimony
In the first place, it’s not as if the contents of the New Testament remained in total flux for centuries, with no foundation to determine which books might be authoritative. Even when the books that became the New Testament were being written, a clear standard already existed to determine the type of messages that Christians recognized as authoritative. Words from eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus and their close associates carried a distinct and unique authority (see Acts 1:21–26; 15:6 — 16:5; 1 Corinthians 4 — 5; 9:1–12; 15:1–8; Galatians 1:1–12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26–27). Thus the standard for which books belonged in the New Testament was shaped from the very beginning by the resurrection of Jesus. When witnesses of the resurrected Jesus began to send written exhortations to the churches, these written teachings carried no less authority than their spoken instructions (see, for example, 2 Thessalonians 3:14). By the end of the first century, apostolic writers were already referring to Paul’s writings as “scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16), and Paul himself had cited a line that later appears in Luke’s Gospel as “scripture” (1 Timothy 5:18; compare Luke 10:7).
Whether or not the first generations of Christians were right about the writings they selected, their goal at every stage was to recognize and to receive texts that could be connected somehow to eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus.
Texts that Were Never Questioned
The pedigrees of some compositions were well-known, and these texts were accepted immediately. Of the twenty-seven books that comprise the New Testament today, at least nineteen texts — the four Gospels and Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, and the first letter from John — seem to have been recognized as testimony from eyewitnesses or their close associates from the moment that these books first began to circulate.
A Final Consensus
So when did Christians arrive at a final consensus about the twenty-seven texts in the New Testament?
An initial consensus about nineteen or so books seems to have emerged around the time that these texts first began to circulate. As late as the fourth century A.D., a few church leaders still had doubts about Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. Nevertheless, the consensus was growing clearer, and the standard for this consensus was already clear. The very fact that fourth-century Christians were still concerned with whether every text could be traced to an apostolic authority reveals that the formation of the New Testament was far from arbitrary. The standard for which texts belonged in the New Testament wasn’t the word of any emperor or bishop; it was the question of whether each text could be traced to testimony from men and women who had witnessed the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.