The word "canon" (Greek kanōn) is derived from a Semitic word for stalk or reed that came to be used for a measuring rod and thus a "standard" or "rule." A literary canon is simply a list of titles of various works or the actual collection of documents itself. Applied to biblical writings, "canon" refers to the list and compilation of books recognized as genuine, authoritative, and divinely inspired.While most scholars propose that the New Testament canon was settled sometime around the fourth century (cf. F. F. Bruce, Canon of Scripture : 256-63), Wayne Walden maintains that it was not until the sixteenth century that the final details were complete ("Luther: the One Who Shaped the Canon," RQ 49 : 1-10), whereas David Trobisch argues that it was confirmed as early as the mid-second century (First Edition of the NT ). What does a straightforward assessment of the historical facts reveal?
The earliest Christians did not possess a New Testament canon. They relied instead on the verbal instruction of inspired teachers (1 Corinthians 12:28-31), oral accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds (e.g. Acts 20:35), the Old Testament scriptures (Acts 8:30-35; 17:11; et al.), and other inspired writings as they were produced and circulated (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16).
The first record of an official canonical list is from the heretic Marcion (ca. 144), only a few decades after the New Testament writings were completed. Although Marcion’s canon consisted merely of an abbreviated version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s letters (minus the parts with which Marcion disagreed), Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 160-225), in his five volumes Adversus Marcionem, sternly criticized him for having cut out the majority of books from the New Testament. This demonstrates that at the time, the generally recognized Christian canon was considerably more extensive than Marcion’s limited version. While Marcion’s list may have been the first to be publicized (as far as we know), he was certainly not the first to consider the concept of a compendium of authoritative writings.
Very early on, even within the New Testament era itself, Christian documents were used, circulated, collected, and quoted. The apostle Paul wrote his letters over a period of at least fourteen years, sending them hundreds of kilometers in numerous directions. By the year 56 multiple writings of Paul were known and acknowledged by his critics (2 Corinthians 10:10). In the spring of 62 Paul’s expressed intention was that his letters be circulated rather than kept isolated in their respective localities (Colossians 4:16). Not long thereafter, writing to Timothy in Asia Minor, Paul quotes Luke as "scripture" on the same level as the Hebrew Bible (1 Timothy 5:18). By the mid-60s Paul’s writings were recognized (at least from Asia Minor to Rome) as a well-known collection and regarded as "scripture" (2 Peter 3:15-16; cf. 3:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 5:13). Sometime after this Jude apparently had access to and quotes from the epistle of 2 Peter (cp. Jude 17-18; 2 Peter 3:2-3) (see The NT Epistle of Judas).
We simply do not have enough available information to reach any definitive conclusions about exactly how and when the documents of the New Testament were first collated. It is not improbable that before his death Paul preselected which of his letters to include in a published collection. It was common in the Greco-Roman world for authors to keep copies of their works, and there is no reason to assume that Paul (a man of his time) would not have done this. In 2 Timothy 4:13 he mentions his collection of ta biblia ("the scrolls") and tas membranas ("the parchments"), which potentially refer to papyrus scrolls and parchment codices or notebooks, including copies of his letters. Rather than requiring years to collect the apostle’s writings from multiple locations, they could have easily been made available to the brotherhood all at once by Timothy, Mark, and/or Luke soon after Paul’s death (2 Timothy 4:11-13). This possibility is made even more plausible by the fact that all extant manuscripts comprising the Pauline writings are remarkably consistent in the number of epistles they contain and even the order in which they are arranged.
–Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: Collection & Canonization NT Part 2
Related articles: Joshua Hames, What Books Belong in the Bible?