The New Testament canon is the list of books that belong to the New Testament, the Christian part of the Bible. The Catholic canon of 27 books, now accepted by most Christian churches, took shape between AD 140 and 367.
By the late 100s there were four main Christian sects:
- Marcionites – said only Paul understood Jesus, that his other Apostles were too Jewish in their thinking. Over a hundred years after Jesus, c. 140, they made the first New Testament: an edited gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul.
- Gnostics – said Jesus had a secret message for the chosen few – and had “secret” gospels to match.
- Montanists – followed the prophet Montanus of Phrygia, who was receiving new messages from God!
- Catholics – said its churches were founded by the Apostles, that it was universal.
The Catholic Church:
- To fight the Marcionites it created its own New Testament, one that featured several Apostles.
- To fight the Gnostics it said Catholic teachings and writings were public, claimed the Gnostic gospels were made up, forgeries!
- To fight the Montanists it claimed that revelation from God ended with the Apostles.
This led to a New Testament made up of writings that were:
- ancient – no new revelations!
- apostolic – written by Apostles and their hangers-on, like Peter’s Mark or Paul’s Timothy.
- universal – widely accepted by its churches.
- orthodox – supported Catholic teaching and practice.
In practice “orthodox” mattered most.
For example, if a writing did not fit Catholic teaching, it was suspected as a forgery – surely no Apostle would write such stuff! Goodbye Gnostic gospels! On the other hand, it may have accepted the letters of Titus and Timothy too readily because they beautifully supported Catholic teaching. Scholars now say they are forgeries.
By 200 these 19 books were pretty much accepted in Catholic circles:
- 4 gospels:
- Acts of the Apostles
- 13 letters of Paul:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- 1 John
In the 200s and 300s the following books appeared in some but not all Catholic New Testaments (the eight in bold now appear in all):
- Epistle of Barnabas
- 1 Clement
- 2 Clement
- Book of Hebrews
- Shepherd of Hermas
- Epistle of James
- 2 John
- 3 John
- Apocalypse of John (Revelation)
- Epistle of Jude
- Acts of Paul
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- Apocalypse of Peter
- Wisdom of Solomon
The most hotly disputed books were Revelation and Hebrews. Revelation was championed by churches in the west but was suspected to be a forgery in the east. Hebrews was the other way round. In time both were accepted, east and west. As it turns out, both were forgeries!
In 367 the list of the 27 books appears for the first time, in the Easter letter of Athanasius. It became generally accepted.
But it was not the last word:
- Churches in Syria in the 400s still did not accept Revelation, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude.
- Luther in the 1500s did not accept Revelation, Hebrews, James and Jude.
- Churches in Ethiopia added:
- Sirate Tsion
- 1 Dominos
- 2 Dominos
Source: Mainly Bart D. Ehrman, “Lost Christianities” (2003), Henry Chadwick in “The Oxford History of Christianity” (1990) and ethiopianorthodox.org.