New Testament Canon.
Muratorian Canon. The oldest extant list of NT writings, discovered by L. A. *Muratori in an 8th-cent. *Ambrosiana MS (J. 101 sup.). It is generally held to date from the (later) 2nd cent., because *Pius I, *Hermas, *Marcion, *Basilides, and *Montanus are mentioned as contemporaries of the author, though it has been argued that it dates from the 4th cent. The list comprises 85 lines; the beginning and probably also the end are missing, for it starts with what must be the conclusion of a notice on St Mark and continues with accounts of Luke and John, enumerated as the third and fourth Gospels respectively. It mentions all the NT books except Heb., Jas., and 1 and 2 Pet., and also the *Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of *Solomon, though with a caveat. It rejects the ‘Shepherd’ of Hermas, the Marcionite Epistles of St *Paul to *Laodicea and *Alexandria, and a series of other *Gnostic and Montanist writings. The Canon is written in very bad Latin, full of orthographical and grammatical errors. Some scholars believe it to be a translation from the Greek.
Summary and Conclusion
God is the source of canonicity, and in His providence He utilized several stimuli that finalized the recognition and ratification of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Those stimuli—practical, theological, and political in nature—were instrumental in the collection and transmission of the New Testament Scriptures. It should be remembered, however, that the canon was actually completed when the last New Testament book was written. Within the New Testament itself may be seen the process of selecting and reading the prophetic and apostolic writings that were then being circulated, collected, and even quoted in other inspired writings. In support of this view of canonization, the apostolic Fathers may be cited as referring to all of the New Testament books within about a century of the time they were written. Individuals, translations, and canons show that all but a very few books were generally recognized as canonical before the end of the second century. During the next two centuries the controversy over those Antilegomena books gradually erased all doubts, and there was a final and official recognition of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament by the church universal.
The formation of the NT canon is no less enigmatic than that of the OT, being, like it, a process rather than an event. Authority was inherent in the commission to the apostles (Mt 28:18) but was not accepted without question by all (1 Cor 9:1–3). Not all the books written by apostles and those closely associated with them were eventually included in the canon. Paul’s former letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9) and his letter to the church of Laodicea (Col 4:16) have never been identified, although some argue that the Corinthian letter is redacted into the canonical epistles, and Marcion thought Laodiceans were actually Ephesians. Polycarp, in the mid-2nd century, mentions a plurality of letters written by Paul to Philippi (Phil 3:2). Devout believers accepted any teaching by an apostle, whether oral or written, as authoritative, of course. By the late 2nd century Irenaeus considered apostolicity to be the fundamental criterion of genuineness. Nonapostolic authors were termed apostolic men.
Just when the idea of gathering together all the important and authoritative works of these early writers was conceived is not known. The Second Letter of Peter (3:16) speaks of several letters known to be by Paul. Polycarp, writing to the church in Philippi (mid-2nd century), sends at their request, all the letters of Ignatius in his possession (Phil 13:2). The death of Ignatius about 40 years earlier had not resulted in the destruction or loss of his letters by the various churches. Goodspeed’s hypothesis that the Pauline Letters had “fallen into obscurity, as most old letters do,” and were collected only after the publication of Acts prompted it, creates more problems than it solves. Letters were expensive to produce (on parchment or papyrus), and letters from apostles were rare blessings in a time when no NT existed and churches functioned largely through local charismatic leadership (1 Cor 14). The Colossian church was instructed to read the letter Paul wrote to Laodicea and vice versa (Col 4:16). Clearly such letters were deemed valuable and authoritative. They would not “fall into obscurity” by neglect as Goodspeed suggested. The failure of any of the Gospels or Acts to cite any of Paul’s letters has no bearing on the question of when they may have been collected. Individual letters, if known, could have been cited had they been considered germane to the work being composed. Clement of Rome, for example, clearly referred to 1 Corinthians about a.d. 90 when he wrote: “Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What did he first write to you at the beginning of his preaching? With true inspiration he charged you …” (1 Clem 47:1–3). Clement then refers to matters in 1 Corinthians 1.
By the late 2nd century, collections of early Christian documents would certainly have been well underway. Marcion was already making a limited collection of Paul and Luke (accepting only 10 of Paul’s works). Gnostics were amassing a huge library of aprocryphal Christian documents that were found in 1945 in upper Egypt and published as The Nag Hammadi Library by James Robinson. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian show extensive knowledge of a wide assortment of NT books. If the Muratorian canon is to be dated in the 2nd century rather than the 4th, it provides clear evidence at this time of a canonical list (in Rome?) which contains many NT books, but also “several others which cannot be received into the Universal Church.” A difference is further made between documents among the apostolic books that can be read in public service and those that cannot.
A papyrus manuscript, commonly dated to about a.d. 200 and containing some of Paul’s letters was found in 1931 in Egypt and subsequently purchased by Chester Beatty. Although it is not an ecclesiastical list of approved books, it is evidence of a collection in the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century. The manuscript is fragmentary but contains portions of Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians, in that order. Another manuscript, among the 12 that were found, contains the Gospels (in the familiar order) and Acts. It dates to the first half of the 3rd century. No lists of authoritative books have yet been found in the 3rd century of which this author is aware.
The Canon of the New Testament in the First Few Centuries
Eusebius mentions several writings of Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd century containing discussions of books which he calls (for the first time among early authors, I believe) “canonical.” However, Origen gives us no authoritative list of such books (Euseb, Hist Eccl 6.25).
The 4th century, on the other hand, contains several. Eusebius of Caesarea differentiates several categories of books. These are (1) accepted, (2) disputed, (3) rejected, and (4) heretical. The accepted books contain most of our present NT books. The disputed group contains James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. The only NT book listed in the rejected group is Revelation, but with a note that many put it in group one, where Eusebius himself has already placed it. The fourth group consists primarily of pseudepigraphical books (Eccl Hist 3.25).
Two of our oldest and best manuscripts of the Bible in Greek come from the 4th century, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. The former contains all the NT from Matthew to Hebrews, where it breaks off in chapter 9 with missing leaves. The order is: the four Gospels (in the the familiar order), Acts, General Epistles, Pauline Epistles. The latter contains the Gospels (in the familiar order), the Paulines, with Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians, followed by 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, then Acts followed by the General Epistles, Revelation, and the Books of Barnabas and Hermas. The last two books indicate a broader local canon than might be found in some communities. Codex Alexandrinus in the 5th century also includes 1 and 2 Clement. These manuscripts seem to represent the locality of Egypt.
The first actual list of canonical books that contains our 27 exclusively, dates to a.d. 367, appearing in the festal letter (#96) of Athanasius of Alexandria. The order, however, is different. The Gospels are followed by Acts and then the General Epistles. Next are the Pauline Letters with Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians, followed by 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. In a.d. 380 we find our 27 books in the familiar arrangement (taken from the Latin Vulgate) listed in the writings of Amphilocius of Iconium.
This means that no list containing just our 27 books in their familiar order appeared until the end of the 4th century. This seems to be the time when the process of canon formation was reaching its conclusion in the West. Lists appear in the writings of Chrysostom, Cyril, Philastrius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Epiphanius, Rufinus, and Jerome, as well as in the apostolic canons and the apostolic constitutions. Two important councils from this period, Carthage and Hippo, issued lists affirming the generally accepted books in the empire. Some of the eastern churches, Syria for example, still have a short canon of only 22 books. The old Syriac manuscripts do not have the General Epistles and Revelation. The former were not even translated into Syriac until the 6th century.
There is no “correct” order of books in the NT. The order we have is simply taken over from the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church from which the earliest translations were made. The oldest Greek manuscripts have varying arrangements of the books. The one that predominates is: Gospels, Acts, General Epistles, Pauline Epistles, Revelation. The Gospels appear in our order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in most ancient manuscripts and authors, but also in the order Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark (Codex Bezae, 5th century); Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke (Cheltenham List, 4th century); John, Matthew, Luke, and Mark (Chrysostom, 4th century).
The arrangement of the Pauline corpus varies considerably as well. In addition to our familiar arrangement, it also appears after the General Epistles, which follow Acts, in Codex Vaticanus (4th century), Codex Alexandrinus (5th century), and Codex Ephraemi (5th century). In some manuscripts Paul’s Letters are placed after the Gospels (Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century) and Codex Bezae (5th century), as well as in Jerome and Augustine (late 4th century).
The arrangement of the Pauline Letters themselves vary greatly. I have observed more than 20 different arrangements in early authors and manuscripts. Further variations exist in Coptic and Latin manuscripts as well. More than 284 different sequences of biblical books have been found in Latin manuscripts alone.
The Book of Hebrews has fluctuated in relation to Paul’s Letters, appearing most often after 2 Thessalonians (at the end of the letters written to churches) and sometimes after Philemon (at the end of the letters to individuals). In the two oldest collections of Pauline Letters, however, it appears among the first books. The Chester Beatty papyri, around a.d. 200, places it second after Romans, and Codex Vaticanus, in the 4th century, originally had it between Galatians and Ephesians. This is evident because the numbering system for paragraphs in this manuscript ends Galatians with number 58 and starts Ephesians with number 70. The sequence then follows without break through 2 Thessalonians and number 93. Hebrews next appears, but is numbered 59 rather than 94. It continues from 59 to 64 in 9:11, where the manuscript becomes defective at 9:14 and the rest is lost. Obviously an ancestor of Codex Vaticanus placed Hebrews between Galatians and Ephesians. A later scribe removed it without changing the numbering system.
These paragraph divisions in Vaticanus are the oldest known in the Greek NT. Our modern chapter divisions were introduced by Stephen Langdon for the Latin Vulgate NT as well as the OT at the beginning of the 13th century. Modern verse division is the work of Robert Stephanus, who published a Latin edition of the NT in 1551 in Geneva with the text of the chapters divided into verses.
A fresh effort is now being made by some scholars to interpret NT books in relation to their canonical status rather than in isolation, insisting that the books have come to us as a collection and must be treated as such. This approach to “canonical criticism” is being led by Brevard Childs, among others, in his most recent book The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Fortress, 1985).
John R. McRay
There are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament.1 If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity.2
Almost all biblical scholars agree that the New Testament documents were all written before the close of the First Century. If Jesus was crucified in 30 A.D., then that means that the entire New Testament was completed within 70 years. This is important because it means there were plenty of people around when the New Testament documents were penned who could have contested the writings. In other words, those who wrote the documents knew that if they were inaccurate, plenty of people would have pointed it out. But, we have absolutely no ancient documents contemporary with the First Century that contest the New Testament texts.
Furthermore, another important aspect of this discussion is the fact that we have a fragment of the gospel of John that dates back to around 29 years from the original writing. This is extremely close to the original writing date. This is simply unheard of in any other ancient writing and it demonstrates that the Gospel of John is a First Century document.
Below is a chart with some of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts compared to when they were originally penned. Compare these time spans with the next closest which is Homer's Iliad where the closest copy from the original is 500 years later. Undoubtedly, that period of time allows for more textual corruption in its transmission. How much less so for the New Testament documents?
(Total New Testament manuscripts = 5,300 Greek MSS, 10,000 Latin
Vulgates, 9,300 others = 24,000 copies)
What one notices almost immediately from the table is that the New Testament manuscript copies which we possess today were compiled very early, a number of them hundreds of years before the earliest copy of a secular manuscript. This not only shows the importance the early Christians gave to preserving their scriptures, but the enormous wealth we have today for early Biblical documentation.
What is even more significant however, are the differences in time spans between the original manuscripts and the copies of both the biblical and secular manuscripts. It is well known in historical circles that the closer a document can be found to the event it describes the more credible it is. The time span for the biblical manuscript copies listed above are all within 350 years of the originals, some as early as 130-250 years and one even purporting to coexist with the original (i.e. the Magdalene Manuscript fragments of Matthew 26), while the time span for the secular manuscript copies are much greater, between 750-1,400 years! This indeed gives enormous authority to the biblical manuscript copies, as no other ancient piece of literature can make such close time comparisons.
Because of its importance to our discussion here a special note needs to be given to the Magdalene Manuscript mentioned above. Until two years ago, the oldest assumed manuscript which we possessed was the St. John papyrus (P52), housed in the John Rylands museum in Manchester, and dated at 120 AD (Time April 26, 1996, pg.8). Thus, it was thought that the earliest New Testament manuscript could not be corroborated by eyewitnesses to the events. That assumption has now changed, for three even older manuscripts, one each from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have now been dated earlier than the Johannine account. It is two of these three findings which I believe will completely change the entire focus of the critical debate on the authenticity of the Bible. Let me explain.
The Lukan papyrus, situated in a library in Paris has been dated to the late 1st century or early 2nd century, so it predates the John papyrus by 20-30 years (Time April 26, 1996, pg.8). But of more importance are the manuscript findings of Mark and Matthew! New research which has now been uncovered by Dr. Carsten Thiede, and is published in his newly released book on the subject, the Jesus Papyrus mentions a fragment from the book of Mark found among the Qumran scrolls (fragment 7Q5) showing that it was written sometime before 68 AD It is important to remember that Christ died in 33 AD, so this manuscript could have been written, at the latest, within 35 years of His death; possibly earlier, and thus during the time that the eyewitnesses to that event were still alive!
The most significant find, however, is a manuscript fragment from the book of Matthew (chapt.26) called the Magdalene Manuscript which has been analysed by Dr. Carsten Thiede, and also written up in his book The Jesus Papyrus. Using a sophisticated analysis of the handwriting of the fragment by employing a special state-of-the-art microscope, he differentiated between 20 separate micrometer layers of the papyrus, measuring the height and depth of the ink as well as the angle of the stylus used by the scribe. After this analysis Thiede was able to compare it with other papyri from that period; notably manuscripts found at Qumran (dated to 58 AD), another at Herculaneum (dated prior to 79 AD), a further one from the fortress of Masada (dated to between 73/74 AD), and finally a papyrus from the Egyptian town of Oxyrynchus. The Magdalene Manuscript fragments matches all four, and in fact is almost a twin to the papyrus found in Oxyrynchus, which bears the date of 65/66 AD Thiede concludes that these papyrus fragments of St. Matthew's Gospel were written no later than this date and probably earlier. That suggests that we either have a portion of the original gospel of Matthew, or an immediate copy which was written while Matthew and the other disciples and eyewitnesses to the events were still alive. This would be the oldest manuscript portion of our Bible in existence today, one which co-exists with the original writers!
What is of even more importance is what it says. The Matthew 26 fragment uses in its text nomina sacra (holy names) such as the diminutive "IS" for Jesus and "KE" for Kurie or Lord (The Times, Saturday, December 24, 1994). This is highly significant for our discussion today, because it suggests that the godhead of Jesus was recognised centuries before it was accepted as official church doctrine at the council of Nicea in 325 AD There is still ongoing discussion concerning the exact dating of this manuscript. However, if the dates prove to be correct then this document alone completely eradicates the criticism levelled against the gospel accounts (such as the "Jesus Seminar") that the early disciples knew nothing about Christ's divinity, and that this concept was a later redaction imposed by the Christian community in the second century (AD).
We have other manuscript evidence for the New Testament as well:
(3) Versions or Translations:
Because Christianity was a missionary faith from its very inception (Matthew 28:19-20), the scriptures were immediately translated into the known languages of that period. For that reason other written translations appeared soon after, such as Coptic translations (early 3rd and 4th centuries), Armenian (400 A.D.), Gothic (4th century), Georgian (5th century), Ethiopic (6th century), and Nubian (6th century) (McDowell 1972:48-50). The fact that we have so many translations of the New Testament points to its authenticity, as it would have been almost impossible, had the disciples or later followers wanted to corrupt or forge its contents, for them to have amassed all of the translations from the outlying areas and changed each one so that there would have been the uniformity which we find witnessed in these translations today.
(5) Early Church Father's Letters:
Sir David Dalrymple sought to do this, and
from the second and third century writings of the church fathers he
found the entire New Testament quoted except for eleven verses
(McDowell 1972:50-51; 1990:48)! Thus, we could throw the New Testament
manuscripts away and still reconstruct it with the simple help of these
letters. Some examples of these are (from McDowell's Evidence...,
1972 pg. 51):
So what comparisons are there between the manuscript evidence for the Qur'an and the Bible? We know from the historical record that by the end of the seventh century the Arabs had expanded right across North Africa and up into Spain, and east as far as India. The Qur'an (according to later Islamic tradition) was the centrepiece of their faith and practice at that time. Certainly within that enormous sphere of influence there should therefore be some Qur'anic manuscripts which still exist till this day. Yet, there is nothing from that period at all. The only manuscripts which Islam provides turn out to have been compiled in the ninth century, while the earliest corroborated manuscript is dated 790 A.D., written not 1400 years ago as Muslims claim but a mere 1,200 years ago.
While Christianity can claim more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, 10,000 Latin Vulgates and at least 9,300 other early versions, adding up to over 24,000 corroborated New Testament manuscripts still in existence (McDowell 1990:43-55), most of which were written between 25-400 years after the death of Christ (or between the 1st and 5th centuries) (McDowell 1972:39-49), Islam cannot provide a single manuscript until well into the eighth century (Lings & Safadi 1976:17; Schimmel 1984:4-6). If the Christians could retain so many thousands of ancient manuscripts, all of which were written long before the Qur'an, at a time when paper had not yet been introduced, forcing the dependency on papyrus which disintegrated with age, then one wonders why the Muslims are not able to forward a single manuscript from this much later period, during which the Qur'an was supposedly revealed? This indeed gives the Bible a much stronger claim for reliability than the Qur'an.
Furthermore, while the earliest New Testament manuscripts as well as the earliest letters from the church fathers correspond with the New Testament which we have in our hands, providing us with some certainty that they have not been unduly added to or tampered with, the Qur'anic material which we have in our possession abounds with stories whose origins we can now trace to second century Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature. We know in some cases who wrote them, when exactly they were written and at times even why they were written; and that none of them were from a divine source, as they were written by the most human of Rabbis and storytellers over the intervening centuries after the Bible had been canonized.
 Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (1133). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
 Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996). A general introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded.) (295–297). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (302–304). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (304–305). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (305–306). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.