Selecting the books of the New Testament canon was an ongoing process that wasn’t complete until hundreds of years after the time of Christ. In this interview, biblical scholar Thomas A. Wayment explains how the New Testament came to have the texts that are in it today.
Learn more about the establishment of the New Testament canon in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints.
Table of Contents
- Textual Canon
- New Testament canon
- Excluding books
- Athanasius of Alexandria
- Athanasius’s list
- Council of Laodicea
- Charismatic teachers
- Open canon
What is a textual canon?
A textual canon, or scriptural canon, is nothing more than the intentional, agreed upon list of books that a faith, church, or religious community holds to be binding for their faith.
The vast majority of Christians hold to the same canon, namely 39 books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and 27 books of the New Testament.
Some Christian communities hold wider canons of scripture, such as the Catholic deuterocanonical or apocryphal texts (books such as Baruch, Sirach, and Maccabees, etc.), while books such as Revelation were late comers accepted into the canon. Some early Christians felt that Revelation should be rejected while others accepted it as canonical. It is considered the final book to officially make it into the canon.
Latter-day Saints hold to an expanded canon, meaning that they accept many books beyond those from the Bible. One might even say that they hold to an expanded canon because their scriptures have fuzzy boundaries. That is, they can be added to and corrected at times.
While adding to the canon has not taken place with great frequency in modern times, early saints often engaged new revelations that were considered to be potential additions to the Doctrine and Covenants. Thus, those revelations became part of their new scriptural canon.
Because the boundaries of our scriptures are weakly demarcated, modern prophetic speech is often placed alongside and equal in authority to the writings found in the scriptural canon.
Why are textual canons important in faith communities?
I think that scriptural canons serve primarily as a communal experience reflecting shared identity. Those communities that accept the traditional books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have a strong common bond that sets them apart from communities that expand or limit the canon in differing ways. So, in one way the canon is community.
A second way that the canon is important for a faith community is that it represents the boundaries of salvation discourse. Terms, ideals, beliefs, and teachings arise out of and are in turn defined by the texts of the scriptural canon.
The canon acts as a stabilizing force for the discourse of a faith community. Believers can rightly push back against claims that do not arise from scripture, or they can at least interpret ideas through the scriptural lens. And, on the other hand, faith leaders can use the scriptural texts to offer teachings that are binding upon the community.
How long did it take to agree on a Christian canon?
A messy process
One of the key points of conversation about the canon is the idea that it took several centuries for the church to firmly establish its own textual canon. The process was messy in many ways, and as one might expect, problematic statements were made about specific scriptural texts.
It seems to me that much of the interest in this topic is to destabilize the notion of a binding scriptural canon because the process itself was not direct.
A peripheral concern
Another problem in the conversation is that the duration of the conversation seems to give the impression that Christians were widely diverse in their opinions about the canon. The issue with this notion is that Christians simply didn’t address the problem directly for quite some time.
In other words, they did not directly convene councils to decide the matter. Instead it was initially a matter of peripheral concern for the early church councils.
Official canon vs. unofficial canon
Finally, there is something akin to an official canon and an unofficial or functional canon. We all recognize this most obviously in the way we give weight to certain books of scripture over others.
Within the Latter-day Saint canon, the Song of Solomon has been functionally decanonized as a result of prophetic statements about its contents. The book still exists in the canon, but it does not really appear in curricular materials.
This approach to canon is less pronounced in other ways when communities favor texts, such as the Gospel of Matthew over the Gospel of Mark. The process manifests itself in early Christianity as well. The Gospels of John and Matthew were always part of the conversation about canon, as were a corpus of Paul’s epistles.
We don’t know a great deal about the functional canon that existed prior to the official canon being decided upon in the mid-fourth century, but the reality is that people were reading a widely distributed corpus of Christian books that looked similar, but not exact, in almost all Christian communities.
Why were texts selected for the current New Testament canon?
The way I see the issue is that the official canon followed the functional canon—and it eventually solidified the scriptural preferences of the communities which believed in Christ. Certainly there were moments when specific texts were called out as a result of their teachings (the Gospel of Peter comes to mind), but as Christian communities came together for the purpose of churchwide councils, they were able to see similar usage patterns across other communities. Those shared texts formed the agreed upon scriptural canon.
Another key point, and one that has been repeated in print on numerous occasions, is that early church leaders applied certain rules of authorship to determine whether a text qualified to be in the canon.
One of those was apostolic authority or authorship. This terminology can be confusing to a Latter-day Saint audience, which sees the word “apostolic” as a determination of authority.
That word apostle, in its most basic sense, means someone sent out—in this case, someone sent with the message of the risen Lord. It wasn’t a word signifying a priesthood office (to use a modern anachronistic term), but rather anyone carrying the message of the risen Lord.
These early missionaries were valued by the church and their words became the basis of the scriptural canon. If a writer was determined to belong to a later generation of believers, or perhaps even one who wasn’t an apostle sent out to declare the Lord, or even the potential that a book was written in the name of an apostle, then those works could be excluded from the canon.
Why were books like The Shepherd of Hermas or the epistles of Clement rejected?
For the most part, these books were likely excluded for a couple of reasons. Both enjoyed wide readership, and key early church fathers (patristic writers) quoted from these letters without signaling a canonical concern or reservation.
This can lend the impression that authors of the first two centuries had a much larger canon than the one agreed upon in the fourth century and beyond. It overlooks a reality that these same authors drew upon a wide variety of sources and cultural influences, not all of them canonical.
What is more significant is that these early authors drew upon the Shepherd and Clement to shape their theological beliefs. That lends these texts an additional layer of influence beyond just being a source they quoted.
I believe that this occurrence, namely quoting from books outside of the canon to express beliefs, is not at all different than a modern believer quoting C.S. Lewis in the shaping and expression of their own beliefs.
To say all of this in a different way, I think these texts failed the requirements of canonization on several levels:
- Authorship. They were not written by the first generation of apostles.
- Distribution. They were perhaps not circulated widely enough to be recognizable as books like the four gospels that we now possess.
Concerns about authorship—particularly for the Shepherd—may also have influenced the decision to keep them out of the official canon. It is, however, unsurprising that books like the Shepherd did make it into some early canon lists.
Who was Athanasius of Alexandria?
Athanasius of Alexandria (died 373 CE) was an early church father who promoted a certain popular or commonly held viewpoint on the canon, among other matters.
He penned a famous Easter letter—a letter meant to determine the proper date for celebrating Easter—in the which he shared his view of the canon. The letter was a watershed moment for the canon in that it established a Hebrew Bible canon and a canon for the New Testament.
Athanasius of Alexandria was a staunch opponent of Arius and Arian beliefs, and he himself suffered five different periods of exile for his own beliefs. In other words, he was a controversial figure at times, and his beliefs landed him on the wrong side of church practice and policy.
Athanasius is a towering figure in Christian intellectual development, and he is remembered for being a champion of ecclesiastical and hence Catholic authority and belief. He was also influential in pushing a conversation about the boundaries of canon.
Why is Athanasius’s list of canonical books important?
Athanasius of Alexandria’s canon list—if indeed it can be called such—was outlined in what is known as his thirty-ninth Festal Letter (367 CE), and the canon was peripheral to his overall agenda in drafting the letter. After establishing the proper date for celebrating Easter for that year, he responded to questions about books then in circulation such as the Epistle of Barnabas.
In the letter, Athanasius also mentioned such books as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and others, and raised the question of whether these books should be read in the church (the official canon) or whether they could be allowed to be read for Christian edification (the functional canon).
I think it’s incorrect to say that Athanasius established the canon. Rather, by formalizing the list and drawing up boundaries, he pushed Catholic-minded Christians and Arian-minded Christians to make decisions about the canon.
There is a healthy debate regarding whether Athanasius’s thirty-ninth Festal Letter is really ground zero for the canon of scriptural texts most widely accepted today. I think it’s likely more accurate to say that he forced a conversation on the topic. By sharing his own convictions about canonical and non-canonical boundaries he forced his successors to either agree or disagree with his list.
What role did the Council of Laodicea play?
The Council of Laodicea, which took place in the city of Laodicea (in Phrygia) in 363–64 CE, specifically engaged the question of the canon. The council was not convened to decide which books of scripture should be included in the canon, but several of its consular decrees did detail which books were acceptable to be read in the churches.
New Testament canon: Canon 59
During the same council, liturgical practices were also discussed, among other things, which helps situate the discussion about the canon. In the two decrees (called canons) that deal with which scriptural texts were to be accepted for use in the churches, canon 59 specifically forbade psalms composed by private individuals from being read in the churches.
New Testament canon: Canon 60
Canon 60 then set out the canonical books of scripture. Fortunately, the modern reader can read the decrees issued at this council. In doing so, they will discover that the council rejected the book of Revelation, thus demonstrating that even as late as 363–4, after Athanasius had already staked a claim in the conversation about the canon, the scriptural canon was still a matter of debate among Christian believers.
Why did Athanasius believe that Christian disciples should read the New Testament?
In my chapter, I felt that it was important to shift the narrative away from the idea that the canon debate took place in an environment of attacks on the pure faith or pristine faith of early Christians.
Popular narratives often frame the canon debate in terms of manipulating priests who wish to erase truths from the historical record. In reality, much of the conversation surrounding the debates about canon took place in an environment of concern regarding whether the charismatic preachers—those who espoused visions, dreams, and other types of prophetic speech—should be allowed to have a place in, or even dominate, the churches.
The Pauline churches, as demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 12, had a thriving charismatic tradition where people spoke in tongues, where men and women prophesied, and where people interpreted their prophecies.
Paul attempted to offer counsel that would govern those practices, and as late as the fourth century the church was still grappling with these phenomena. So in one sense, the canon is an attempt to regulate the faith and practice of the church through written text rather than through current prophetic voices that were democratically distributed throughout the churches.
Why were the ecumenical creeds never added?
I believe that the creeds—the consular decrees of the early church councils—were never intended to exist in a canonical space, but rather they were deliberative by nature and democratic by design.
The early councils were both regional at times and church wide at the others, and they brought together leaders from many of the most populous Christian communities.
Councils and the New Testament canon
Those councils attempted to:
- Work through the thorny issues of Christian practice,
- Offer guidance to preachers,
- Establish liturgical readings and other affairs of the church.
They were transparent in their efforts. In particular, they left behind written records of their proceedings in most cases. While their decisions became binding—which may appear problematic to modern Latter-day Saints—their decisions created a shared Christian identity.
That was a difficult process because many early Christians were deeply divided over Arian beliefs, Marcionite editing of texts, and the Trinity.
The councils, if accepted, could offer a unifying moment in their history so that while divided on small issues they could be united on issues that matter.
What are the effects of an open canon?
Many Latter-day Saints I meet are confused why we are not more readily accepted as mainstream Christians or why some people don’t even consider us to be Christians. Part of the issue will always be the open canon that we espouse—and the expanded canon that we have accepted.
We are also not creedal Christians. Indeed, our own tradition has vocally condemned the creeds, councils, and other moments of major importance in the history of Christianity. Our desires to differentiate ourselves from our Christians sisters and brothers has led us on occasion to condemn their history as corrupt.
But now there is some interest to be accepted by those who have defined their beliefs in ways that are foreign to us.
One of the most fundamental points that separates us from other mainstream Christians is the acceptance of the Book of Mormon as canonical scripture, which offers a starkly different representation of Jesus than that presented in the New Testament and in creedal statements.
I don’t intend to overly simplify a complex conversation, nor do I wish to criticize our beliefs, but I do hope to draw attention to the fact that Jesus in the Book of Mormon is different from what many people have come to expect in their own faith traditions.
A few examples might help:
- Trinity. Jesus is known by name many centuries before his birth, thus raising Trinitarian questions.
- Mercy. He is destructive to the Nephites and Lamanites moments after the resurrection, thus raising the question of grace, mercy, and forgiveness for sin.
- Physicality. The Book of Ether raises key questions about the physical body of the Lord prior to his birth.
I don’t think that mainstream Christians are unaware that we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I think those who are informed on the issue are attempting to articulate the idea that our Lord and Savior is different from the one they worship.
This will always be a partial consequence of our open canon. But the open canon also allows prophetic speech into the conversation—which could in turn reveal new things to help mend this gulf.
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About the Interview Participant
Thomas A. Wayment is a professor of comparative arts and letters as Brigham Young University. He joined the faculty of Religious Education in June of 2000 after completing a PhD in New Testament studies at the Claremont Graduate School, and he later joined the faculty of Comparative Arts and Letters at BYU in 2018. His recent research interests focus on Christian literary papyri, Oxyrhynchus, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. He served as the publications director of the Religious Studies Center from 2013 until 2018.
- How Did Ancient Christians Understand the Divine Nature of God?
- Thomas Wayment Translates New Testament
- When Did Brigham Young Receive His Canonized Revelation?
- Come Follow Me 2023: New Testament Resources
- N. T. Wright on the New Testament in Its World
- What Do We Know About Christ in America?
New Testament Canonization Resources
- Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints (Maxwell Institute)
- The Canonization of the New Testament (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford University Press)
- The Earliest “New Testament” (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- False Gospels: An Approach to Studying the New Testament Apocrypha (BYU Religious Studies Center)