What criteria were used to recognize which books belong in the New Testament canon?

Last updated on March 3, 2022

The Bible is the Word of God, and Christians believe that God Himself inspired its writing (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21). This included the process of deciding which books were to be included in the Bible, and which ones were not inspired and authoritative.

For the Old Testament, the process of canonization was settled before Jesus Christ was born. His followers, the early Christians, accepted the Jewish Scriptures as God’s holy word, since Jesus Himself did the same. He obeyed its laws, regularly quoted from various Old Testament Bible books and specifically referred to its three main sections (Law, Prophets and Writings / Psalms) in Luke 24:44.

The New Testament books were written after Jesus’ earthly ministry, so the early church was responsible for deciding which books were inspired by God and which ones were just “ordinary books” or even forgeries. This decision was not taken by one person or committee, but discussed and debated within the early church. Let me list some standards that were used to select which books belong in the New Testament.

The special authority of the apostles

When Jesus was on earth, He had a group of close followers, called disciples or apostles. These people were eyewitnesses of everything Jesus said or did, including his death and resurrection. Jesus sent these apostles out with His authority to preach and to be the official witnesses of His resurrection to the ends of the earth (Mark 3:14, Matthew 28:19-20, John 15:26-27, Acts 1:8). To help them, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to remind them of everything that He had taught them (John 14:26) and to guide them “into all truth” (John 16:12-13). If a particular writing came from an apostle, then its authority was guaranteed. These books could be trusted to be reliable accounts of Jesus’ teachings and deeds.

All New Testament books are connected to the apostles

This means that most of the New Testament books would have been immediately accepted:

  • The Gospels of Matthew and John, the letters of Peter and John, and Revelation (also by John), were all written by Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples.
  • Jesus also chose Paul to be an apostle and appeared personally to him (Acts 9:3-5, Acts 9:15), and the apostle Peter confirms that Paul wrote inspired Scripture too (2 Peter 3:16). This is why Paul’s letters are also included in the Bible.
  • Luke was the traveling companion of the apostle Paul and wrote under his guidance and supervision, which is why the New Testament includes Luke and Acts.
  • The gospel of Mark was written under the influence of the apostle Peter. These two men were good friends (1 Peter 5:13), and so we can understand that Mark’s gospel is also inspired, because it is really Peter’s account.
  • James the brother of Jesus is called an apostle: “But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). Jude also was a brother of Jesus (Jude 1), and again we can accept that these men were close enough to Jesus and the apostles to also write inspired Scripture (although the book of Jude was one of the most debated books of the canon).
  • Someone from that apostolic circle wrote the Book of Hebrews — though his present identity is unknown. Some people think the apostle Paul wrote this book, but that is not certain.

All New Testament Bible books were written early

Connected to the criterium of authorship, is the criterium of antiquity. All of the New Testament documents were written in the first century. Books that were written after the apostolic era were automatically excluded from the canon, since they did not have apostolic authority.
This makes immediately clear why books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Barnabas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene did not make it into the canon. They do not meet the standards of authorship and antiquity.

Each book’s content should agree with the doctrines the apostles taught

A third criterion that was derived from the requirement of apostolic authorship, questioned whether a particular book’s content agreed with the doctrine the apostles taught orally or wrote when they were still alive. If this was not the case, this book could not be the Word of God, since the Lord would never contradict Himself.

Feed on God’s Word

The 66 books of the Bible are God’s complete written revelation to humanity, entrusted to us once and for all (Jude 3). God has given us these 66 precious books, authored by the truly inspired apostles and prophets, to lead us to faith and salvation through Jesus Christ (John 5:39-40). So, do not be distracted or confused by any other book which claims to be from God! Instead, “like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

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