Canon of the New Testament

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When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left a body, not a book.

The gospel came first. The gospels came later. Oral tradition produced the communities that produced and preserved the scriptures of the New Testament.

The 27 books of the New Testament

The canon ("official list of books") of the New Testament was not settled until 382-419 AD. Up until then, there were disagreements about which books to include and which to exclude from the official list of books inspired by God. It took time for the Church to decide which books to include in or exclude from the New Testament. The Church reached agreement on the four gospels and the seven undisputed letters of St. Paul early in the second century; other books were disputed for the next three centuries.

The first column in this table, the Biblical order of the books, follows the Catholic canon rather than the Lutheran, which puts Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation at the end as apocryphal works.

All of the other columns are illustrative, not definitive. The Church has no dogmatic teachings on the date, author, or genre of the books of the New Testament; scholars disagree on these things. The more you learn about Biblical criticism, the more you may enter into these debates, if you wish to do so. I have followed the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the New American Bible in constructing this table, for the most part.

Biblical order Date Author Genre Luther
01Matthew 1370s to 80s 23 Jewish scribe? 17Gospel undisputed
02Mark 0860s 15 disciple of Peter? 16Gospel undisputed
03Luke = Luke vol. 1 1470s to 80s 24 Syrian Gentile 18Gospel undisputed
04John 2090-100 26 The Beloved Disciple 20Gospel undisputed
05Acts = Luke vol. 2 15after Luke 25 author of Luke 19History undisputed
06Romans 0657-58 06 Paul 06Epistle undisputed
071 Corinthians 0454-57 04 Paul 04Epistle undisputed
082 Corinthians 0554-55 05 Paul 05Epistle undisputed
09Galatians 0254 02 Paul 02Epistle undisputed
10Ephesians 17after Colossians 10 not Paul? 23Treatise? undisputed
11Philippians 0354-58 03 Paul 03Epistle undisputed
12Colossians 1670-80 09 not Paul? 22Treatise? undisputed
131 Thessalonians 0150-51 01 Paul 01Epistle undisputed
142 Thessalonians 1851-100? 08 not Paul? 09Epistle? undisputed
151 Timothy 26circa 100 12 Author of Titus 25Pastoral epistle undisputed
162 Timothy 27circa 100 13 Author of Titus 26Pastoral epistle undisputed
17Titus 25circa 100 11not Paul 24Pastoral epistle undisputed
18Philemon 0756-63 07 Paul 07Epistle undisputed
19Hebrews 10before 70? 14 Jewish Christian? 21Treatise disputed by Luther
20James 1960s to 90s? 17 James of Jerusalem 10Epistle disputed by Luther
211 Peter 0965? 16 disciple of Peter? 08Epistle undisputed
222 Peter 29after Jude 22 Not Peter 15Epistle? disputed by others
231 John 22circa 100 18 Not John the Apostle or Beloved Disciple 11Epistle undisputed
242 John 23circa 100 19 Not John the Apostle or Beloved Disciple 12Epistle disputed by others
253 John 24circa 100 20 Not John the Apostle or Beloved Disciple 13Epistle disputed by others
26Jude 28circa 100 21 Not the apostle Jude 14Epistle? disputed by Luther
27Revelation 2195-96 27 Not John the Apostle or Beloved Disciple 27Apocalypse disputed by Luther

Development of the Canon of the New Testament

Early controversies

  • imitations
  • counterfeits
  • later writings

Sequence of decrees

In 382 AD, Pope Damasus and the Council of Rome (a local, not worldwide or ecumenical council) listed the books of the Old and New Testament exactly as they appear in today's Catholic bibles. This decision was reaffirmed four times over the next forty years and again in two ecumenical councils of the Church.

date authority
382 Council of Rome under Pope Damasus
393 Council of Hippo
397 Council of Carthage
405 Pope Clement I
419 Carthage
1442 Ecumenical Council of Florence
1546 Ecumenical Council of Trent

Luther's Attempt to Discard New Testament books

Luther treated four books of the New Testament as "antilegomena," literally, books that had been "spoken against" or disputed in the patristic era. By contrast, Luther called books that were spoken of with the same reverence "homologoumena." The four disputed books that Luther separated from those that he thought were undisputed were:

  • Hebrews
  • James
  • Jude
  • Revelation

These books were placed at the end of the New Testament, lacked page numbers, and did not appear in the index. This is exactly how Luther denigrated the seven extra books of the Septuagint. Luther's rejection of the Septuagint material caught on with most Protestants; his rejection of the four New Testament books did not. Some Protestants add 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John to the list for a total of seven "doubtful" books of the New Testament.

Early Non-canonical Christian Writings

date work comments
1st or 2nd century The Didache "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." Catechism, Baptism, Eucharist.
1st or 2nd century Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians "The epistle was publicly read from time to time at Corinth, and by the 4th century this usage had spread to other churches. It was included in the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus, which contained the entire Old and New Testaments."
1st or 2nd century The Shepherd of Hermas "The work comprises five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables. It relies on allegory and pays special attention to the Church, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed it."
1st or 2nd century The Epistle of Barnabas After destruction of the Temple (70 AD) and before Bar Kochba Revolt in 132 AD. "In no other writing of that early time is the separation of the Gentile Christians from observant Jews so clearly insisted upon. The covenant promises, he maintains, belong only to the Christians (e.g. 4.6-8), and circumcision, and the entire Jewish sacrificial and ceremonial system are, according to him, due to misunderstanding."
4th century Pseudo-Clement Alleged first-person account of a companion and disciple of Peter. Not quoted until the 4th century by Eusebius, who notes that it was unknown among the ancients.