Note: This is the fourth installment of a blog series announced here.
The date of the NT canon is one of the most controversial questions in biblical studies today. As a prior post indicated, part of the answer to the question of date is dependent upon one’s definition of “canon.” But, even if we take the functional definition of canon—books are canonical when they are being used as Scripture—there is still debate about how early this took place. In recent years, however, somewhat of a quasi-consensus has been building that the canon was first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century (c.200). McDonald is representative of this view, “[New Testament] documents were not generally recognized as Scripture until the end of the second century C.E.”
The reason for this focus on the end of the second century is not hard to find. It is at this point that the major figure Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (see inset picture!), offers some of the clearest and most comprehensive statements on the canon to date. Most notable is his affirmation that the four gospels were so certain that their existence is entrenched in the very structure of creation, “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are.” Because of Irenaeus’ confident language about the NT canon, Scholars have sought to paint Irenaeus as an innovator. Up to this point, supposedly no one else was concerned about such things. Ireneaus broke new ground and, in essence, single-handedly created the NT Canon.
But, was Irenaeus really alone? Was he the innovator scholars have made him out to be? Let us consider a number of historical sources which show that others during this same time frame (and earlier) also regarded NT books as Scripture. As we briefly examine these sources, we should remember that we are concerned here not with the extent of canon but with the existence of canon. Although the boundaries of the canon had not yet solidified at this point, it is still clear that many of these books were viewed as Scripture long before 200 AD.
In terms of Irenaeus’ contemporaries, two key sources tell us that he was not alone. The Muratorian fragment (c.180) is our earliest canonical list and affirms approximately 22 of the 27 books of the NT, remarkably close to Irenaeus’ own position. Moreover, writing just slightly later than Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria (c.198) had a remarkably similar position, affirming the 4 gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation. Such a widespread affirmation of these books could not have happened overnight (sort of a “big bang” theory of canon), but would have required some predecessors. Let us examine who some of those predecessors were (and here we must be brief):
- Justin Martyr (c.150): He refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels. The fact that he actually cites from the Synoptics and John shows that he had a fourfold gospel in mind.
- Papias (c.125): As mentioned in another post, Papias tells us that the early church had received the gospels of Mark and Matthew and valued because of their apostolic status. In fact, Papias even affirms that Mark received his information from Peter himself—a very ancient tradition of the church. Although Papias writes c.125, he actually refers to an earlier time (c.90) when he received this information from “the Elder” (who is no doubt John the Elder, one of Jesus’ disciples). Papias also knew 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and some Pauline epistles.
- Barnabas (c.130). The Epistle of Barnabas (4.14) explicitly cites Matt 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Barnabas clearly regards Matthew as Scripture because he introduces his citation with “It is written” (the same language he uses when citing OT books).
- 1 Clement (c.95). 1 Clement charges the church to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… To be sure, he sent you a letter in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos.” Scholars agree that Clement is referring here to the letter of 1 Corinthians which he said Paul wrote “in the Spirit,” no doubt showing the high authority he gave to the book. 1 Clement also makes likely allusions to other epistles of Paul including Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians; and also Hebrews.
- 2 Pet 3:16 (c.65). One of the earliest examples comes from the well-known passage in 2 Pet 3:16 where Paul’s letters are regarded as on par with “the other Scriptures” of the Old Testament. Most notably, this passage does not refer to just one letter of Paul, but to a collection of Paul’s letters (how many is unclear) that had already begun to circulate throughout the churches—so much so that the author could refer to “all his [Paul’s] letters” and expect that his audience would understand that to which he was referring.
This is a very brief sampling of the use of NT books as Scripture within the first and second centuries. But it is sufficient to show that the NT canon did not pop into existence at the end of the second century in a “big bang” sort of fashion. Instead, we have solid evidence that NT books were used as Scripture from a very early time period (according to 2 Peter, even in the first century itself). Despite the fact that boundaries of the canon were not solidified until a later time, it is clear that a “core” canon was present from nearly the very beginning.
If so, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this. First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books. Books like 2-3 John, Jude, 2 Peter and so on. Early Christianity was not a wide open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything. Instead there was an agreed-upon core that no one really disputed. Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or Jude, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
 L.M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Orgin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 359.