The Canon Of The New Testament

Some claim there are many lost books of the New Testament, that we don't have all the books we should have, and that what we do have is corrupt and unreliable. Do we have all the New Testament as God intended for us to have? Are there really portions of it lost? Should some of the New Testament books not be included? Answers to these questions are obtained by a study of the canon of the New Testament.

The word "canon" is derived from a term indicating an old carpenter's tool. It was a tool used to measure and, therefore, designates the rule or measure. In theology, "canon" simply means the books that are inspired by God. There have been many books and letters written by men of God over the years. We must be able to examine these writings to see which ones are inspired and should be included in the Bible. So, when we talk about the canon of the New Testament, we are talking about the collection of books that comprise the New Testament, the books that are inspired by God. "Canon Law" are the guidelines used to determine which books are to be included in the canon and which are not.


Some claim the Catholics decided which books are inspired and which books are not, thereby giving us the Bible. This is based on the Council of Trent held in 1546 by the Catholic church. At this council, there was an intense study of the canon to determine which books should be considered scripture. However, there are complete copies of the New Testament canon, as we have it today, predating the Council of Trent by centuries. This shatters the myth that the Catholics gave us the Bible. By examining this manuscript evidence and the internal evidence of the New Testament, we can verify the authenticity of the New Testament text.


First, let's look at the manuscript evidence available. There are Greek manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament that date as far back as the second century. These contain the same books we have today, just as we have them today. There are also translations of these into other languages that date from the third and fourth century. From these several versions, we have the same twenty-seven New Testament books as in our modern canon. Furthermore, these books, when translated into English, read essentially the same as the King James Version and other credible translations of today. This is true because the texts behind our modern English translations are based on Greek New Testaments that were constructed from these earlier manuscripts and their later Greek copies. In all, there are thousands of manuscripts and translations, some dating close to the time of Christ. These form a powerful testimony to the legitimacy of the New Testament canon.


History further verifies the New Testament canon in the writings of the Anti-Nicean Fathers. These were Christian men who lived before the council of Nice (hence the name Anti-Nicean) who wrote articles and commentary on the Bible. A few of them were contemporaries of the Apostles. Others followed in the second and third centuries. In their writings they often quoted passages from the New Testament. The entire New Testament canon, as we have it today, can be compiled from these quotations!

How can people question the authenticity of the New Testament documents when we have such impressive facts as evidence we can search ourselves? Rather than being subject to doubt, the New Testament is the best verified ancient document known to man. No other ancient document can boast so many manuscripts. No other ancient document has manuscripts that date back so close to the original writings. Other ancient writings aren't even close. The evidence from history is overwhelming in substantiating the New Testament canon.


The canon of the New Testament can also be verified from the internal evidence. When one inspired author refers to the work of another, that is a solid endorsement of that work. For example, in 2 Peter 3:15-16 the Apostle Peter says, "And account [that] the longsuffering of our Lord [is] salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as [they do] also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction." So Peter confirms the authenticity of the Paul’s epistles.

Also, New Testament writers sometimes referred to other letters they had written. Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, alludes to his gospel in Acts 1:1 when he says, "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach." In 2 Corinthians 7:8 Paul refers to his previous letter, 1 Corinthians. In 2 Peter 3:1 Peter says, "This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in [both] which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance." By calling this his second epistle, it acknowledges the validity of I Peter.

But how were these books collected into one volume? This happened over a few decades, and was probably fully accomplished before the end of the first century. When the inspired writers penned their letters, they instructed that these letters be shared with other Christians and other congregations. In 1 Thessalonians 5:27 Paul says, "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren." In Colossians 4:16 the Bible says, "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea." The New Testament congregations shared and copied these letters until they had them in one book. They knew which letters were inspired and which ones were not because they were working under the direction of the inspired apostles. Also, Paul signed his letters so the church would know they were authentic. This fact is noted in 2 Thessalonians 3:17 where the Bible says, "The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write."

This kind of internal evidence, coupled with manuscript historical evidence, makes it obvious the New Testament is a well-preserved ancient document. The twenty-seven books we have are the books God wants us to have. God has preserved his word for us. Why would God go to the trouble to inspire the New Testament writers, allow many of them to die for preaching their message, and then fail to protect it's content through time? Since God could inspire these writers, he can also insure their message, his message, is preserved and available for mankind to read and study today.