By the mid-second century at the latest, all four canonical Gospels were circulating together in the form of Tatian’s Diatessaron (ca. 150-170). That they were collectively known much earlier is indicated by their respective titles: "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," "According to Luke," and "According to John." There is no evidence that the Gospels ever circulated without these designations, and book distribution in antiquity necessitated that any work to which any reference was made have a title for identification purposes. As soon as more than one Gospel was distributed, there had to be some way to distinguish between them (see Authorship of NT Gospels). Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-140) was familiar with all four Gospels, as was Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 125-200).Clement of Rome, in the final decade of the first century (ca. 95-96), in his letter to the Corinth church, refers to, quotes, and/or alludes to Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and James (perhaps also to 1 Timothy and Titus). Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69-155) incorporates into his letter to the Philippians numerous passages from the New Testament, especially from Paul’s writings and from 1 Peter. From Rome in the latter part of the second century (ca. 170), the Muratorian Canon presents a list in Latin (albeit fragmentary) of recognized books not very different from our current New Testament. While Matthew and Mark are missing, their original inclusion is presupposed by the fact that Luke and John are referred to as the "third" and "fourth" Gospels respectively. Also missing are James, one of John’s epistles, and 1-2 Peter.
Allusions to a number of New Testament passages are found in the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 80-120) and the Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 100-160). Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165) quotes from the Synoptic Gospels and mentions the Revelation of John. Besides his harmony of the four Gospels (mentioned above), Tatian also makes use of a number of Paul’s letters (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.29.6). Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 125-200), in his treatise Adversus Haereses, quotes 1,075 passages from all the New Testament books except the brief epistles of Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude.
The Chester Beatty Papyrus I or P45 (ca. 150) consists of the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, and Revelation. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (ca. 150) contain sayings of Jesus that have parallels in all four Gospels, and the Bodmer Papyrus XIV/XV or P75 (ca. 150-200) is comprised of Luke and John. P46 (ca. 200) contains Romans, Hebrews, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians(?), but only eighty-six of the 104 original leaves survive today.
Origin (ca. 240) refers to all the books of the New Testament, although he simply alludes to Paul’s letters without listing them. Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 324) mentions the twenty-seven New Testament books, and though he notes the disputed nature of some of them (viz. James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John), he acknowledges their use in many churches at the time (Eccl. Hist. 3.25; cf. 2.23). Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 350), in his Catechetical Lectures 4.33, lists all the New Testament books as canonical except Revelation, due to a general reaction against Revelation in the East after excessive use was made of it by the Montanist cults. In 367 Athanasius (Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter) lists all twenty-seven books as canonical. The earliest extant copy of an entire New Testament text is Codex Sinaiticus, produced around 375. The twenty-seven-book New Testament was promoted by Jerome, Damascus, and the Roman synod of 382 and was formerly pronounced by the Council of Carthage in 397. Note, however, that this pronouncement was merely a public recognition of the books which Christians had already accepted as divinely inspired for three centuries.
The New Testament canon was formed, not by any individual or congregation or council deciding which books belonged to it, but by a general recognition of the inspired documents. Just as the conveyance of the biblical writings entailed both divine and human involvement (see Biblical Inspiration in Perspective), their preservation surely included the same. The recognition, collection, and perpetuation of scripture were accomplished through the human process of critical thinking and reasonable faith, while the providential working of God has no doubt ensured that nothing essential has been omitted and nothing uninspired has been incorporated (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:2; 3:16-17; Jude 3; Revelation 22:18-19).
–Kevin L. Moore
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