The 27 books of the New Testament are the Scriptures of the church. They are understood to be written by the apostles or their close associates, such as Luke and Mark. Along with the Old Testament they comprise the official canon1 of the church.
But in the early centuries of the church, before the New Testament canon had been established, there was a significant variety of opinion among Christian churches about what writings should be considered authoritative. Because of this, some Christian leaders were concerned that heretical writings might carry an undeserved authority. For example, a writing called the Gospel of Peter, which was a product of a Gnostic group that claimed to possess a secret knowledge of God, circulated in parts of the world in the early centuries.
Some leaders also doubted the apostolic authority of writings such as the book of Revelation and the second letter of Peter. The question about which writings should be considered authoritative for the whole church became more and more pressing as influential leaders began to form lists of their own to support their heretical teachings. Marcion, for example, teaching in the middle second century, rejected the Old Testament and most of what is today our New Testament, creating his own short version of just a few New Testament writings.
Other heretics wrote compositions that claimed to record the acts of apostolic figures. Since some claimed the status of sacred Scripture for these writings, it’s not surprising that this created confusion in the church.
Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, addressed this problem on Jan. 7, A.D. 367, when he wrote his annual Easter letter to his churches.2 It was a landmark letter because it contained the same list of 27 books of the New Testament that are found in our Bibles today. So far as we know, Athanasius was the first Christian leader to compile a list of New Testament books exactly as we know them today. Bruce Metzger, a New Testament scholar, wrote, “The year 367 marks, thus, the first time that the scope of the New Testament canon is declared to be exactly the twenty-seven books accepted today as canonical.”3
Here are portions of Athanasius’ letter, in which he lists the books of the Old and New Testaments that he considered authoritative. The English translation is the work of the late F.F. Bruce:
Inasmuch as some have taken in hand to draw up for themselves an arrangement of the so-called apocryphal books and to intersperse them with the divinely inspired scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered it to the fathers: it has seemed good to me also, having been stimulated thereto by true brethren, to set forth in order the books which are included in the canon and have been delivered to us with accreditation that they are divine.
Athanasius then gives his list of Old Testament books and lists the 27 New Testament books.
Let no one add to these or take anything from them…. No mention is to be made of the apocryphal works. They are the invention of heretics, who write according to their own will, and gratuitously assign and add to them dates so that, offering them as ancient writings, they may have an excuse for leading the simple astray.4
Athanasius’ letter was important because he was the bishop of a prominent city, Alexandria. He was one of the most influential theologians and apologists of the church at the time. Athanasius had spent much of his life battling the infamous Arian heresy, which had denied the co-essential divine nature of Christ.
We shouldn’t think of Athanasius as sifting through a stack of writings, and pronouncing this one as Scripture and the next one as unscriptural. He was merely recognizing and recording what amounted to the general but unofficial consensus of the churches.
Some of the books not listed among the 27 continued to be considered something like devotional writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and letters of Clement. But these also needed to be defined for what they were so they would not be confused as having the same
authority as the writings of the apostles and their colleagues.
The first church councils to approve the New Testament canon met in A.D. 393 at the Synod of Hippo Regius and in A.D. 397 at Carthage, in North Africa, some 30 years after Athanasius published his list. The councils merely endorsed what had already become the consensus in the churches of the West and most of the East about the extent of the canonical books of Scripture.
1. The word canon comes from the Greek kanon, where it meant a straight rod that could be used as a measuring stick. The word came to mean a standard, norm or, in a biblical context, an authoritative list of Scriptural writings.
2. The bishop of Alexandria was given the responsibility of informing his brother bishops well ahead of time each year about the date of the next Easter. Athanasius, in his long tenure as bishop of Alexandria (328-373) issued 45 such festal letters. In these letters, he gave an Easter
homily and also took the opportunity to discuss some other matter of current importance to the church. In his 39th letter he dealt with the question of the canon of the Old and New Testaments.
3. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance, 212.
4. The Canon of Scripture, 78, 209.
Author: Paul Kroll