Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.
This new blog series is designed to help the lay believer learn some basic facts about the New Testament canon—the kind of facts that might be helpful in a conversation with a skeptic or inquisitive friend. The first of these facts is one that is so basic that it is often overlooked. It is simply that the New Testament books are the earliest Christian writings we possess.
One of the most formidable challenges in any discussion about the New Testament canon is explaining what makes these 27 books unique. Why these and not others? There are many answers to that question, but in this blog post we are focusing on just one: the date of these books. These books stand out as distinctive because they are earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century. Sure, there are a few scholars have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success. After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.
Now, a few qualifications are in order. First, it should be noted that there are disagreements about the dating of some New Testament books. Some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century. Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books. This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.
Second, some may point out that 1 Clement is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, and it is not included in the New Testament canon. True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c.96 A.D. This date is later than all our New Testament books. The only possible exception is Revelation which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D. But, some date Revelation earlier. Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.
Just to be clear, we are not arguing here that books are canonical simply because they have a first century date. Other Christian writings existed in the first century that were not canonical—and perhaps we will discover some of these in the future. Our point is not that all first century books are canonical, but that all our canonical books are first century. And that is a point worth making.
In the end, every Christian should remember one basic fact, namely that the New Testament books are distinctive because, generally speaking, they are the earliest Christian writings we possess. None are earlier. If so, then it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe. On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.