By: William Jackson
If you asked most Christians when the books of the New Testament were canonized, or simply said “when was the New Testament (as we know it) officially followed”, the majority will answer shortly after it was penned, around the first century. When you reply to their answer “No, the New Testament was accepted around the fourth century1”, you will receive mystified looks in retort. What they even find more amazing is that the New Testament wasn’t inspired by the church’s desire to organize and scrutinize these crucial documents. The inspiration of the New Testament canonization was from heretics.
In the beginning, Christianity had many different beliefs and understandings. These various theologies with their unique interpretation of God and the Christian messiah caused other Christian sects to be formed and followed. Creating much of Christianity’s mayhem was the additional books beyond what would be later known as the 27 books of the New Testament. Many of these additional books were considered just as important. There were at least fifteen Gospels, five non-canonical Acts of the Apostles, thirteen additional Epistles, a number of Apocalypse and Secret Books2. Many Christian groups used a variety of all these books in their observances.
In about 144 CE Marcion, the son of a Bishop, started Marcionism. This was another version of the Christian religion. Marcion thought the Tanakh God was evil and inspired his flock to following a loving God full of grace, Jesus’ God of the New Testament. Marcion was the first to canonize the New Testament out of a need to fit his new doctrine. He accepted only the gospel of Luke, and he accepted all of Paul’s writings but he would “cut out” any Old Testament quotes or anything else that contradicted his theological views3. Ironically, the first canon of New Testaments books would come from this person the Orthodox Church would label a heretic.
Now enters Saint Irenaeus, a Bishop from France, who would gain a reputation for battling heresy. At this time heresy was anything that didn’t side with the Orthodox Church. He established the four gospels as the only gospels4. It is understandable that Saint Irenaeus needed to establish a fix set of books to launch debates against heresy from, but the set of 27 (as we know) them were not combined, yet. The process of canonization would still take centuries. Along the way Christian theologians would continue to filter books.
So, over a 180 years after Saint Irenaeus committed to the Gospels, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, completed the list of books that would become the New Testament canon (367 CE). Thirty years after that, at the Councils of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo considered the canon to be completed.
When we study out this process that lasted over 300 years to galvanize books to become part of the Christian doctrine we have to factor in many of things. For starters, Christianity had many theologies and the Orthodox (Catholic) Christians won out in the end. As Winston Churchill once said “History is written by the victors.” Secondly, politics had a lot of influence in the canonization process. The Roman Emperor Constantine in an effort to stop end fighting forced a conclusion to many theologies at the counsel of Nicaea in 321. Those Bishops that remained in power had the greatest influence on the canonization process. Thirdly, the Councils of Carthage appears not to have been a conclusion. What the church terms as heresy would return in later years and other books would be added and subtracted from the bible (i.e. Apocrypha). Also, when we investigate the current New Testament we discover that there have been verses added and removed6. Unlike the Pentateuch given to Moses from God, the New Testament birth and life are very convoluted.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament, September 15, 2005
- Lienhard, Joseph T., The “Arian” Controversy: Some Categories Reconsidered, Theological Studies, Vol. 48, Issue 3, Sep 87, 415-437