THE CANONIZATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
by the late Ernest L.Martin
The Authority to Canonize the New Testament
The apostles of the first century had in their midst the
complete and final Old Testament scriptures. This canon, with its
various books and divisions, served as a model for any further
canonization involving New Testament books. The environmental
background inherently governing the outlook of the Jewish people
of the first century was created on account of the social and
religious standards which were established at the time the Old
Testament was canonized. Though there were some differences, of
course, the basic framework of society was retained from this
earlier time. This common religious heritage allowed the New
Testament to develop along similar lines to the Old. Prof.Souter
"The idea of a canon, or exclusive selection of sacred books for
use in public worship, is ultimately derived by the Church from
Judaism, and some account of the formation of the Jewish Canon of
the Old Testament seems necessary as a model on which,
consciously or unconsciously, the later New Testament Canon was
formed" (The Text and Canon of the New Testament, p.149).
This belief was also shared by the eminent textual critic
Prof.Gregory (Canon and Text of the New Testament, p.13). If this
is the case, then we should look for some high-ranking priests or
a prophet with the rank of Moses having a hand in the creation of
the New Testament, because this is certainly the manner in which
the Old Testament came into existence.
Some historians would have people believe that the church of
the early second century probably formulated the final New
Testament. There has always been a problem with this appraisal
because there is not a sliver of evidence that such a thing took
place. The truth is, when the early church fathers began to talk
about the canon of the New Testament near the end of the second
century, it is assumed that it was already in their midst. The
first recorded discussion among Catholic scholars about the books
of the New Testament only concerned whether certain books in the
canon were of lesser rank, not which books were needed to form
the official canon (Eusebius, Eccl.Hist, 111.25).
"What is particularly important to notice is that the New
Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary of any Church
Council. When at last a Council - the Synod of Carthage in
A.D.397 - listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it
did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already
possess, but simply recorded their previously established
canonicity. As Dr.Foakes-Jackson puts it: "The Church assuredly
did not make the New Testament" (Bruce, "The Books and the
Actually, if one will read Second Peter carefully and
analyze it for what it says (as we did in the last chapter), it
shows that it was the apostles Peter and John who officially
canonized the New Testament books! And those two apostles
possessed the authority of Christ himself as well as the
testimony of the Old Testament to accomplish this important task.
Christ even informed his disciples that he was going to complete
the revealed word of God to mankind. Look at Matthew 5:17:
"Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets: I
am not come to destroy, but to fulfill."
This verse should be noticed carefully. Though Christ
assured the disciples that the Old Testament would remain
steadfast in its sanctity, he did say he would fulfill the Law
and the Prophets. What does the world "fulfill" actually mean?
Charles B. Williams, in his translation of the New Testament,
provides a footnote to this verse which reflects its intention.
He said that the word signified "the picture of Old Testament
teaching as an unfilled cup, but filled by Jesus" (footnote g).
Williams provides the accurate meaning of this word. "To
fulfill" signified to bring things to the brim - to the very top!
It is like having a glass half-full of wine. By adding more wine,
one could fill the glass to the top! Thomas Newberry, the editor
of the Englishman's Bible, shows Matthew 5:17 as meaning: think
not that I am come to unbind the Law, or the Prophets: I am not
come to unbind, but to fill up" ("Footsteps of Truth," New
Series, XI.p.281). It simply means that Christ thought of himself
as responsible for bringing the revelation of God to its complete
fulfillment - to the very brim! In effect, his adding to the Law
and the Prophets was an authority for attaching his written
messages to those of the Old Testament! Jewish scholars have long
understood this to be the meaning of Christ. In the Talmud they
regarded Matthew 5:17 as reading. "I came not to destroy the Law
of Moses, but to add to the Law of Moses" (Shabbath 1166; cf.
A.Edersheim, "Life and Times," p.537,n.2).
Christ did not mean that he would personally add to the Law
and the Prophets by composing books of his own. A reading in the
Old Testament itself revealed to the apostles that it was they
who were to be responsible for the writing and selecting of
documents which would comprise the New Testament. In a section of
Isaiah which the apostles understood as applying directly to the
life of Christ on earth, they found a prophetic responsibility
also given to them. It was written in the long prophecy of Isaiah
chapter 7 to chapter 12, and the section pertaining to the
apostles themselves was in 8:13-17.
"Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear,
and let him be your dread. And he shall be to you for a
sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence
to both houses of Israel, for a sign and for a snare to the
inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and
fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. Bind up the
testimony, seal the Law AMONG MY DISCIPLES. And I will wait upon
the Lord that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will
look for him" (Isaiah 8:13-17).
Though the above message was written in the eighth century
before Christ, the apostles interpreted it as having a
contemporary reference to them! There can be no doubt of this
because both Peter and Paul referred to Isaiah 8:14 as having an
application to their times. Peter Taught that Christ had become
the chief corner stone, but to the disobedient of Peter's day, he
had become "a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence"
(I Pet.2:6-8). Paul, speaking of the Jews' rejection of Christ,
wrote: "As it is written, behold, I lay in Sion a stumbling stone
and a rock of offence" (Rom.9:33).
Understanding that the apostles thought that Christ
fulfilled Isaiah 8:13-17 in their time, they were able to learn a
great deal about their own responsibilities. Isaiah told his
readers that this "stone" and "rock" would "bind the testimony
and seal the Law among my disciples" (Isa.8:16). The actual
"binding" and "sealing" which could once have been accomplished
by Isaiah's disciples in that time was no doubt interpreted by
the apostles as typical of what the Rock of Israel (Christ) was
to do through his own disciples (verse 18).
What do the words "bind" and "seal" signify? The Hebrew for
the word "bind" means "to close, to seal up." The word "seal"
means practically the same - "to cap off, to enclose." This is
exactly what the apostles did with the message which the "Stone"
and "Rock" gave them! They were to complete it! Bind it up! Close
it shut! The authority to perform such an important job may have
been reflected in Christ's teaching that the apostles had power
"to bind on earth" (Matt.16:19). The word "to bind" has the
significance of authorization or giving judgment, just as the
word "to unbind" means "not to receive or accept." Recall again
the intention of Matthew 5:17: "I am not come to unbind the Law
or the Prophets." Christ did not wish to undo the Old Testament,
but his disciples were commissioned to add to and complete the
Bible. In a word, they were to bind, seal, authorize and canonize
the Law and Testimony of Christ.
When one reads through the New Testement, it is possible to
observe a number of important statements which indicate that
further scriptures beyond the Old Testament were destined to
emerge. Just before his crucifixion, Christ gave his disciples
some instructions regarding their role in receiving new and
significant messages from God.
"I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them
now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide
you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but
whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show
you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of
mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath
are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall
show it unto you" (John 16:12-15).
The above scripture has Christ telling the disciples that
the Spirit would "show you things to come" (verse 13). This
indicates that the understanding of prophecy would be afforded
them. Was this a reference to the Book of Revelation? That book
is wholly devoted to prophecy - to "things to come" (Rev.1:1). In
the next chapter we will show information that will demonstrate
that Revelation was prophesied by Christ to be written by the
There is another point about the section of scripture
transcribed above. Christ said that all the truth was going to be
given to the apostles back in the first century. In John 16:13
the text actually says that the Holy Spirit "will guide you into
all THE truth." The definite article indicates that the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth would be dispatched to
them! This is an important point because it shows that the
Christian church did not have to wait until the third or fourth
centuries before all the truth could be given. This is quite
different than is usually taught today. It is normally assumed
that the canon of the New Testament came into existence sometime
in the early or middle second century, and was finalized in the
fourth century. This is patently not true! Augustine, one of the
most ardent supporters of the organized church of the fourth and
fifth centuries believed that the New Testament canon came into
existence in the time of the apostles themselves! He stated:
"Distinguished from the books of later authors is the excellence
of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments; which,
having been established in the time of the apostles, hath through
the succession of overseers and propagators of churches been set
as it were in a lofty tribunal, demanding the obedience of every
faithful and pious understanding" (Contra Fausturn Man. 11.5).
How different from what is generally accepted today! In our
present age, it is common to hear that the second, third, or
fourth century church canonized the New Testament in some of its
church councils. This is in no way true.
"The striking fact that the early councils had othing whatever to
do with forming the Canon of the New Testament, has been so
emphasized by a number of writers that one is astonished that it
is not more widely known" (Urquhart "The Bible," p.37).
Christ, however, made it clear that the disciples would
receive "all the truth" back in the first century. This truth was
then written down and finally canonized by Peter and John.
"We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made
known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but
were eyewitnesses of his majesty.... We also have a more
confirmed word of prophecy" (2 Pet.1:16,19).
The apostles had the word of prophecy more confirmed. What
does the word "prophecy" mean in the context in which Peter used
it? Most people would automatically assume that it means they
could foretell the future. But in the way Peter meant it, it did
not have that meaning in the above reference.
All Jews of the first century understood the word "prophecy"
in a much broader sense. There were three different ways of
looking at it. It certainly signified the classical meaning of
being able to tell the future, and the person able to do this was
customarily called "a prophet" But the apostle Paul also used the
word as meaning one who spoke forth the word of God no matter if
the message was about the future, the present, or the past
(I Cor.14:5,24,25). This latter usage simply signified one who
preaches the Gospel! Yet there was a third meaning, and this is
what Peter had in mind when he said that he and John had "the
word of prophecy more confirmed." This usage meant that the
people who could be called such "prophets" were those under the
prophetic spirit and able to write inspired scripture! Josephus,
the Jewish historian, was well acquainted with this type of usage
for the word "prophet" or "prophecy." He said that no succession
of prophets had come on the scene within Judaism from the time of
the Persian king Artaxerxes (the fifth century B.C.) - at the
close of the Old Testament canon - until and including the first
century (Contra Apion, I.8). In a word, Joeephus thought that
"the spirit of prophecy" had ceased with Ezra, Nehemiah, and the
Great Assembly who canonized the Old Testament.
The fact is, all the writers of Holy Scripture were called
prophets even if they did not possess the prophetic office as did
Elijah, Isaiah, Malachi, etc. For example, David, Solomon and
Asaph the psalmist were called prophets though their writings
were not in the Prophets' Division of the Old Testament
(Matt.27:35; Acts 2:30; 7:48; Matt.13:35). Indeed, the use of
prophecy by holy men of God reached back to the very beginning of
history. Abel, the son of Adam, was called a prophet (Luke
11:50). And in Acts 3:21 and Hebrews 1:1 we are told that the
practice of prophecy extended back to all past time, to the very
beginning of the world!
The Jews in Christ's time simply believed that all holy men
of God were prophets and that all their writings were prophecies.
This, of course, did not mean that they all foretold future
events (cf. John 4:19; Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; I Cor.12:28,29,
37; Eph.2:20; 4:11; Tit.1:12). And, most significantly to our
present study, any holy man of God who wrote any part of Holy
Scripture was called a prophet. Prof.Lee remarks that it was an
"invariable rule that all witnesses of the Old Testament should
be prophets" (Inspiration of the Holy Scripture, p.60). Whitaker
also recognized that any writer of Scripture was thought to be a
prophet and to possess the prophetic spirit (Disputation,
pp.49,50). This indication was followed throughout the New
Testament. When Christ said: "Abraham saith unto him, they have
Moses and the Prophets" (Luke 16:29), he was not referring to the
Prophets' (i.e. the Second Division of the Old Testament). He
meant all the writers of Scripture who followed Moses. Luke noted
this: "Having begun from Moses and all the prophets, he [Christ[
expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning
himself" (Luke 24:37). When Paul reasoned with the Jews out of
the Law and the Prophets (Acts 28:23) he was teaching from the
whole Old Testament. And these prophets of the Old Testament
ceased their activities when the canon was completed. Like
Josephus, Jews were well aware that "prophecy ceased" when the
canon was finally established (cf. Ecclesiasticus 36:15; I
Peter, however, said the prophetic word was restored with
him and John. This clearly shows that he and John were informing
their readers that they were going to present them with a new
batch of inspired scriptures to accompany the books of the Old
Testament. (For a further demonstration of this use of the words
"prophet" and "prophecy" in the first century, see Lee pages
53-60 and Whitaker pages 49-52.)
The Prophetic Spirit Restored With the Apostles
When one reads Second Peter in the proper way, it shows that
he was telling his readers that the prophetic spirit had been
revived and that the apostles had the authority to use it for the
production of inspired scriptures. That is what he and John were
going to leave to the Christian church before they died. The
reason for writing Second Peter was to tell Christians of this
fact! Their writings (and the other documents which they
sanctioned) were not going to be like the fables of others
because Peter and John had "the word of prophecy more confirmed."
The books they were selecting were God-ordained and as inspired
as the Old Testament. "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of
the scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Pet.1:20). The
word interpretation in the King James' Version actually means
"origination" or "evolvement." Peter was indicating that the
prophetic scriptures which he and John were giving to the church
were not their own private ideas and words. They were nothing
less than the direct teachings of God! This dogmatism of Peter is
reflected also in his evaluation of the apostle Paul's epistles
which he mentioned as being on an equal par with "the other
Scriptures" of the Old Testament (2 Pet.3:15,16). Certainly, if
Paul's letters were in A.D.66 being reckoned as Scripture, the
letters of James, Jude, Peter, and John were as well. The
apostles were assured by A.D.66 that "the prophetic spirit" had
returned to earth in the persons of Peter, John, and Paul. This
was a signal that more Holy Scriptures would be written to
present the final messages of God to the world.
As anyone can see, I have emphasized (and re-emphasized
almost to ad nauseam) the matter that Second Peter records the
power of Peter and John to canonize the New Testament, but I do
not apologize for it. This is simply because most people, even
scholars, have failed to see the point of what Peter was saying
that the matter has to be accentuated! Peter was plainly trying
to show that he and John were given "the word of prophecy more
confirmed" in order to canonize more writings into the sacred
library of books, as had Ezra and Nehemiah in their day. Peter
was simply exercising his authority to write, collect, assemble,
and design a New Testament canon. This official group of books
was expected to remain in an authoritative way "until the day
dawn" - until the second advent of Christ back to this earth!
That is exactly what the epistle of Second Peter states and
I see no reason why Christians today should not accept it!
Paul Recognized His Part in Canonization
At the end of the Book of Romans is an interesting section
of scripture which relates to the matter of canonization. Not
only did Peter consider that he and John were endowed with the
word of prophecy in a confirmed and official way, the apostle
Paul also admitted that he was graced with the same authority.
Paul said that his writings concerning the message of Christ were
to be acknowledged as "the Prophetic Scriptures." This meant that
Paul thought he was writing sacred Scriptures! Note the context
of Paul's belief.
"Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my
Gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the
revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world
began, but now is made manifest, and by the Prophetic Scriptures,
according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known
unto all nations for the obedience of faith" (Rom.16:25,26 see
original Greek for "the Prophetic Scriptures," italics mine).
Paul did not mean in the above statement that the knowledge
of the mystery was to be found in the earlier prophets of the Old
Testament, as the King James' Version would lead one to believe.
He expressly stated that the teaching given to him had remained a
secret until Christ came, and that it was now being divulged to
the world through Paul and the other apostles. This fulness of
the teaching of Christ was what Paul called "my Gospel" (verse
26). The spiritual information came to Paul through a torrent of
revelations. Paul explains:
"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the
abundance of revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the
flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be
exalted above measure" (2 Cor.12:7).
Paul was referring to the operation of the Holy Spirit in
leading him, as it did the other apostles, into what Christ
called "all the truth" Christ said that the apostles would
finally receive the complete truth from him (John 16:13).
Paul made mention of this fulness of the Gospel in his
"How that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery; which
in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is
now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit"
This is pretty plain. The mature teaching of the mystery was
that part of the Gospel which Christ knew his disciples could not
bear before they received the Holy Spirit after the resurrection
of Christ. And Paul was now given his apostolic commission to
present new prophetic scriptures to people in the world. Paul
even realized that he was the one responsible for preaching the
full and final teachings of God.
"Wherefore I am made e minister, according to the dispensation of
God which is given to me for you, to fulfill (that is, the same
word used by Christ in Matthew 5:17 - "to fill to the top") the
word of God. Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and
from generations, but now [in the middle 60's AD.] is made
manifest to his saints" (Col.1:25,26).
This is an important statement relative to the canonization
of the New Testament. It tells us in no uncertain terms that Paul
knew he had been given a special commission to help fulfill (that
is, to "fill to the top") the word of God. This is why Paul had
little reluctance in telling people about the high calling that
he had. The teachings he recorded represented the very
commandments of God. "If any man think himself to be a prophet,
or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things I write unto
you are the commandments of God" (I Cor.14:37). These are strong
and authoritative words! No man could make such assertions unless
he was convinced in his own mind that he had the prophetic office
to write inspired scripture. Notice also:
"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit
which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely
given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words
which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth"
"We thank God without ceasing, because, when ye received the Word
of God which ye heard from us, ye received it not as the word of
men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God" (I Thes.2:13).
When one comprehends that Paul himself was aware of his role
in completing the full message of God to this world, then the
statements of Peter in his second epistle can begin to make
sense. Peter readily acknowledged that the apostle Paul was given
an equal commission along with himself and John to write
"prophetic scriptures." This is exactly what Paul called his own
writings in Romans 16:25,26 and the apostle Peter boldly ranked
those writings of the apostle Paul alongside the writings of the
prophets in the Old Testament (2 Pet.3:15,16).
It is no wonder that Peter, after the miraculous signs
concerning the Temple in Jerusalem which happened in the Spring
of AD.66, made his way to Rome. His journey would have been for
only one purpose: to see Paul before the martyrdom of them both.
It was to discuss and to formulate a number of letters and
writings which would comprise a sacred canon of New Testament
The meeting was successful! Peter then wrote his second
epistle to those throughout the region of Asia Minor about this
canonization. This last letter of Peter was written especially to
inform Christians about the conclusion of this important task.
Peter, Paul, and John were giving to the world the final
revelation of God in written form. It was new sacred scripture,
written under the prophetic spirit, which would last the
Christian church until the return of Christ to this earth!
Just when, and by whom, the finishing touches of the New
Testament came into final form will be discussed in the next
Entered on this Website April 2008