(Investigator 127, 2009 July)

"Canon" means measuring rod. When used of the New Testament (NT) the Canon measures and limits what Christians believe.  

The oldest known manuscripts that contained all the NT books of modern Bibles are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus both written about 350 CE.

Because these are the oldest, critics presume the NT was "thrown together" only slightly earlier — by bishops who attended the Nicene Council in 325 CE. The bishops supposedly decided which books are inspired, doubtful, or heretical by show of hands.

Critics accuse the Nicene bishops of ignorance, cite stories of implausible miracles at the proceedings, and write of the New Testament's "forged" origins. Bushby (2007), for example, claims there was no NT "until the 4th century" and cites disagreements between manuscripts to argue for "forgery", "fabrication", "misrepresentation".

Dr Potter (#126) lists 23 "gospels" that never made it into the Bible. We also have books written after the Nicene Council, for which believers claim "inspiration". These include The Koran, Book of Mormon, writings of Ellen White (Seventh Day Adventist founder), and others.

There is also the Apocrypha — 14 extra Old Testament (OT) books in the 2nd century BC Septuagint version — but the present article deals with the NT.

How, then, was the NT Canon determined? Are there criteria by which we can test whether modern Bibles have the correct books?


The Twelve Apostles were selected from "eyewitnesses" of Jesus:
…men who have accompanied us…beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he [Jesus] was taken up from us… (Acts 2:21-22)

…we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (II Peter 1:16)

We declare to you what we have seen and heard… (I John 1:3)
With this emphasis on eyewitness testimony, a rational criterion for establishing a "Canon" of accepted documents is whether written by  Apostles or their associates:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the world, I too decided, after investigating everything very carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account… (Luke 1:1-3)  
That Luke knew some Apostles is clear from Acts where he uses the pronoun "we", thereby including himself in the company of Paul. (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5 to 21:18; 27:1-28:16)

The main events about Jesus were widely known (Acts 10:37-41) and any "gospels" would have had to agree with such general knowledge.

The NT identifies Paul as writer of 13 of the NT's 27 documents. No writer is named for Hebrews, but Hebrews is generally attributed to Paul. Matthew, an Apostle, wrote one Gospel, Mark wrote one, and Luke wrote one in addition to writing Acts. The Apostle John wrote five books, the Apostle Peter two, and James and Jude, both brothers of Jesus, wrote one each.

Paul's letters were accepted as the "word of God" (I Thessalonians 2:4, 13) and as "the Scriptures" by 60 CE. (II Peter 3:15-16).

So that's our first criterion — written by apostles or their "eyewitness" associates.

And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)
The NT does not have a letter named "Laodiceans". This letter, however, is not necessarily a "lost gospel" but another of Paul's letters, probably Ephesians, which was in Laodicea when he wrote Colossians.

The point to note here is that the writings that became "Scripture" were circulated among Christian congregations and accepted as authoritative by the earliest congregations.


When Jude wrote his letter the faith was finalized but false teachers were seeking to subvert it:
I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you… (verses 3-4)
Jude 17 speaks of the Apostles in the past as if deceased: "But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus…"

The words "once for all entrusted" written when the Apostles were dead imply that no more should be added to the written foundation of Christian faith.

Jude identifies "intruders", who subvert the faith, by their "sexual immorality", speaking "harsh things" against Jesus, and "indulging their own lusts". (7, 8, 15, 16) This agrees with earlier NT letters that condemn immorality and urge Christians to be examples of good conduct. (Ephesians 5)

Therefore, ruled out as "inspired Scripture" or as "Canonical" are writings of immoral men. By NT standards Joseph Smith, who wrote the Book of Mormon, was a fornicator and adulterer, and his Book of Mormon, therefore, not "Scripture" or  "inspired".

That this method of assessment is valid can be checked in the case of the Book of Mormon by investigating the content of the book itself — which we did in #107. We found many historical errors, and could substantiate almost nothing of the content.


The OT was written by Israelites (of the ten tribes of Israel) and by Jews (of the two tribes). In 722 BCE the nation of Israel was destroyed and surviving Israelites were absorbed by the Jews. In NT times, therefore, the term "Jews" often includes Israelites.

With this in mind we read: "The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God…" (Romans 3:2)

Jews wrote and preserved the OT. The NT too was written by Jews. The exception is Luke, since Colossians 4:10-14 seems to exclude Luke from those "of the circumcision". This could still, however, allow for one Jewish parent.

Luke was not an eyewitness "from the beginning" (Luke 1:1-3) but was an eyewitness from about 50 CE when he joined Paul. (Acts 16:10)

Other than the borderline instance of Luke the NT Canon is limited to Jewish writers.


Another way to assess books promoted as equal to the NT is to check whether they agree with the Bible and contribute to its themes. The Koran, for example, denies the crucifixion of Jesus, and much else, despite calling the Bible inspired! (#107)

When discussing "additional gospels" skeptics often also consider alleged errors in the NT. The idea is that if the NT has errors then the NT is not "inspired" and its safeguards to exclude non-Canonical writings are therefore invalid and can be ignored. And with the safeguards ignored the critic can accept later "gospels" as Christian and has more material with which to attack the NT!

Potter (#126), for example, mentions the corpses who left their tombs and walked into Jerusalem. (Matthew 27) The "miracle" is unbelievable to skeptics and unhistorical, and Matthew therefore unreliable. The verse, however, is a mistranslation. (See #105)  What happened is that an earthquake threw corpses out of tombs and people who observed this event walked into Jerusalem, not the corpses!

Potter also claims the NT predicted the world's end within one generation: "…there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power." (Mark 9:1)

The "kingdom of God" came "with power" at the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 1:4) followed by Pentecost and the growth of Christianity. (Acts 1:8) An alternative interpretation is that Jesus was referring to "the transfiguration" seen by Peter, James and John six days later. (Mark 9:2-8)

The NT predicts the Gospel must reach "all nations" and the "ends of the earth" — clearly a long time, not one generation! Peter implies several thousand years. (II Peter 3:8)

The NT has many true predictions fulfilled after the 1st century such as:
•    Jesus to be preached worldwide. (Matthew 28:19)  
•    A nameless woman to be proclaimed worldwide. (Mark 14:9)
•    Jesus' mother to be blessed by all generations. (Luke 1:48)
•    Paul would "witness to all the world". (Acts 22:15)
•    Christians would outnumber the Jews. (Galatians 4:27)


Quotes from the NT appear in writings of Church Fathers from the 2nd century onwards and are quoted as final authority. Therefore criteria, like the five above must have been in operation.

Ignatius (35-107), Bishop of Antioch, authored seven letters which quote Matthew, John, Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, I & II Timothy and Titus, and allude to Mark, Luke, Acts, Colossians, II Thessalonians, Philemon, Hebrews, and I Peter — 19 of the NT's 27 books.

Clement, fourth Bishop of Rome, authored two letters to Corinth, c100 CE, and quoted Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Papias (c.60-130), Bishop of Hierapolis, referred to Mark, Peter and John and also claimed John dictated the fourth Gospel.

Polycarp (69-166), Bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to Christians in Philippi which has 40 allusions to the NT — from Acts, Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Hebrews, I Peter and I John.

Tatian (born c.120), a Syrian Christian, authored Oratio ad Graecos in which he defended Christianity. He also wrote the Harmony which combined the four Gospels into one continuous narrative.

Marcion (died 160) rejected the Old Testament and was therefore a heretic. However, his list of the NT Canon is the oldest extant list and includes ten of Paul's letters, and Luke.

Irenaeus (130-200), Bishop of Lyons, authored Against All Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in which he accepted the four Gospels, Paul's letters, Peter and Revelation.

Origen (185-254), a theologian of Alexandria, wrote that all Christians acknowledged the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's 13 letters, I Peter, I John, and Revelation. Accepted by some were Hebrews, II Peter, II & III John, James and Jude.

Eusebius (260-340), Bishop of Caesarea and "Father of Church History", mentions James, Jude, II Peter and III John as disputed by some but the rest of the NT as accepted.

The "Muratorian fragment" which dates from the late 2nd century is the oldest list of NT writings. Of the 27 books it omits only Hebrews, James, I & II Peter.  

The Chester Beatty papyri are 3rd manuscripts (kept in Dublin) of eight OT books, the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, Hebrews, and Revelation.

In Alexandria in 367 CE, Athanasius listed all the NT books used today. The Eastern Church officially accepted the same in 508 CE.


The Nicene Council and subsequent meetings did not invent the NT. Rather they made official what was long accepted. We can corroborate their decisions through the five criteria listed above and also by considering what documents 2nd and 3rd century Christian writers quoted to substantiate doctrine.

The paucity of extant, pre-Nicea, NT documents is because Emperor Diocletian (245-313) instigated the "Great Persecution" (303 CE) during which Scriptures were burned, churches destroyed, and clergy and laity imprisoned or killed.

Nevertheless, pre-Nicene-Council manuscripts of most NT books still exist, which proves they originated long before that Council met.

The Bodmer papyri (located in Geneva), for example, include an almost complete manuscript of John from c.200 CE and 80% of a 3rd century copy of Luke. Church Fathers like Irenaeus sometimes quoted large slabs from the NT — proving that manuscripts now unavailable existed then.

Some critics note the absence of 1st century originals and claim some NT books originated as 2nd century forgeries. If, however, the criteria I presented above were followed such forgery was impossible. In the case of John's Gospel the late-date-forgery claim is refuted by P52, a John Rylands papyrus (in Manchester), dated 120-150 CE, which has verses from John 18. Its discovery refuted scholarly argument that John was forged around 200 CE.

The ancient Scripture-manuscripts, as skeptics note, collectively have thousands of differences in the text. In recent centuries, however, "textual critics" have compared all surviving NT manuscripts to re-establish the original 1st century wording. (see #107)


Bruce, F.F. 1983 The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Hodder & Stoughton.

Bruce, F.F. 1960 The New Testament Documents, Inter-Varsity.

Bushby, T. 2007 The Forged Origins of the New Testament, Nexus, June-July 2007, pp 55-61, 82.

International Sacred Text DVD-ROM (2006)

Livingstone, E.A. (Ed.) 1977 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press.

NRSV Reference Bible 1993, Zondervan.