Things I’m Asked: How were the books of the New Testament chosen?

Some who scorn Christianity have made the claim that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life lack credibility. One of these was the 18th-century literary wit of the Enlightenment, Voltaire. Despite claiming to be a rationalist with at least a passing respect for truth, he invented and promoted the myth that the early Christian church had fifty different gospels of Jesus’ life, before they settled on just four that matched the narrative the church wanted to teach.

In recent years, the Oxford biologist and militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, has continued the theme. In his book, The God Delusion, he wrote: ‘The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen.’[i]

While Dawkins’ ignorance is surprising, behind his anti-Christian attack lies a good question, and it is this: How were the books now included in the New Testament chosen?

The writings collected in the New Testament were written 20 to 80 years after Jesus died. In historical terms, this is very soon after the event. (The first reference to Buddha was made by Ashoka (269-232BC) over 200 years after Buddha died!). But the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were not the first books of the New Testament written. The first were the earliest letters of the apostle Paul. His letters were copied and circulated amongst the early church and were very quickly held in high esteem. The apostle Peter even referred to them as “Scripture” in his second epistle (2 Peter 3:16).

Paul’s letters display a deep understanding of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. At one point, he quotes what most theologians recognise as an early creedal statement that summarises Jesus’ ministry (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Paul makes the claim that he ‘received’ his revelation directly from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). This may have been by direct revelation but it may also mean that he received the words of Jesus from Jesus’ disciples. He speaks of ‘receiving’ this truth and of passing it on (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul was at pains to point out that his teaching did not differ from that of the apostles (Galatians 2:6). He even travelled to Jerusalem twice and stayed with some of the apostles to make sure of it (Galatians 1:18; 2:14).

In the early decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the story of Jesus was told by word of mouth, notably by Jesus’ apostles and by Paul. However, as time went on, the apostles knew that their witness to Jesus would end when they died. It therefore became important to write down an orderly account of Jesus’ life.

The Gospel of Mark was the first to be written (c. 60AD), followed by Matthew and Luke (c. 80AD), both of whom borrowed some of their material from Mark. John’s gospel was probably written about 90-100AD. Each of the four gospels told the story of Jesus to a different audience. Each, therefore, has a slightly different emphasis and perspective. (Incidentally, it is these very differences that lend authenticity. Fictitious accounts would not have them.)

Inevitably, the early church began to be plagued by heretics who wanted to use Jesus to promote their own spurious ideas. One of the earliest of these was the Gnostics. They believed God to be totally distant from us, and that you could only get closer to God through being taught secret knowledge (the Greek word for which was gnosis, from which they got their name). They thought God was far too holy to come to earth and die on a cross. Their philosophy echoed some of Plato’s ideas of the physical world being totally corrupt and different from the spiritual world. The physical world should therefore be viewed with disdain.

Some of this emphasis on gnosis can be seen in the Gospel of Thomas which was part of the Nag Hammadi collection of largely Gnostic works discovered in Egypt in 1945. This fictitious gospel was written about 100 years after the New Testament gospels. The other spurious gospels mentioned by Dawkins were written even later.

It is significant that the early church had no difficulty in spotting these frauds. The early church academic, Origen of Alexandria, (c. 184 – c. 253), listed the “Gospel according to Thomas” as being among the heterodox (heretical) gospels known to him. Similarly, Philip of Side (380-431) wrote that the ancient church leaders absolutely refused the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, which they considered to be the work of heretics.

It is significant that Origen’s list of books he believed to be Scripture included all the books in the current New Testament except for: James; 2 Peter; 2 and 3 John. He also included the “Shepherd of Hermas” which was later rejected by the wider church.[ii]

In his Easter letter of 367AD, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books we now have in the New Testament. However, it was not until the Council of Carthage in 397 AD that the New Testament canon (the official list of authoritative Scripture) was closed, i.e. could not be added to. (The Greek word “canon” literally means “measuring reed”, i.e. a stick that measures the worth of something.)

The early church decided on which books would comprise the New Testament canon on the basis of two things:

1)      How closely they were associated with Jesus’ apostles (the first eyewitnesses to Jesus).

2)      How revered a piece of writing was by the early church because of the integrity, usefulness and power of its content, e.g. the book of Hebrews.

And now this truth has reached you.

[i]     Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (NY: Bantam Books, 2006), 121.
[ii]    Irenaeus also considered this a canonical work.

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net.

Nick told his life story to Eternity in ‘Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith.