The Real History of the New Testament Canon
By Nate Sala
The canonization of Scripture came at a crucial moment in early Christian history. An exhaustive treatment of the historical considerations for canonization will not be achieved in this short essay but, rather, several key factors will be investigated that played decisive roles in the eventual outcome of the New Testament as we know it.
A brief synopsis of those key factors are: 1. There was an overall acceptance of the three Synoptic Gospels, the major Pauline epistles, and Revelation based on traditional, liturgical readings going back to the Apostolic Period; 2. Marcion of Sinope would arrive in the early second century with one of the first collections of “Scripture” – a modified book of Luke and ten epistles — promoting his own brand of theological interpretation; 3. Gnosticism would grow in popularity as its adherents would also collect New Testament “Scripture” and write their own apocryphal texts; 4. Montanists would seek to establish an ecstatic form of new prophecy basing their ideas on an esoteric hermeneutic of the Gospel of John and Revelation.
In response to such influences debates arose to counter heretical claims and assert genuine documents of New Testament Scripture. Irenaeus spoke out against the Gnostics in his Against Heresies. Athanasius circulated his thirty-ninth Festal Letter to counter heretical canon. And, finally, the Councils of Carthage (AD 397), and Rome (AD 382) would recognize the form of the New Testament that we have today.
From the authorship of the New Testament documents to the second century, church liturgy held that portions of Old Testament Scripture and available New Testament texts would be read aloud to the body. This was a time of “embryonic orthodoxy” where Christians revered the Old Testament while already being versed in the Synoptics and many of the Pauline epistles. While not all of the New Testament texts were accepted in a closed collection at this early period, there is evidence that the Apostle Peter regarded the Pauline epistles as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). Even the Gnostic Basilides, Theophilus of Antioch, and Irenaeus were beginning to refer to the New Testament books as Scripture by the second century…
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