How and when the early church recognized the 27 books in our New Testament has always been a fascinating topic for people. There is innate curiosity within us about why these books were regarded as Scripture and not others.
Unfortunately, the high level of interest in the New Testament canon is often combined with a high number of misconceptions about the canon. For anyone willing to search for it, the internet is packed with myths, mistakes, and misunderstandings about how the whole process really worked.
While there is no quick cure for such misconceptions, there is one essential key that really helps clear away the cobwebs. And that key is understanding the different categories of books in early Christianity.
We tend to think there are only two categories, those books that are “in” and those books that are “out.” But, early Christians were more nuanced than than this. In fact, they divided up books into four categories. And understanding these categories will clear up a good number of the misunderstandings of the way the canon developed.
We will take our cue from the four categories laid out by the well-known fourth century historian Eusebius in Hist. eccl. 3.25.1-7:
1. Recognized Books. For Eusebius, these are the books that are universally recognized as canonical and have been for a long time. These include: the four Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation (though he acknowledges the last one has some detractors). Put another way, Eusebius acknowledges that there has been a “core” canon (22 out of 27 books) in Christianity for some time.
What misconceptions does this refute? Some scholars continue to claim there was no canon until the fourth or fifth century. But the existence of this “core” of recognized books shows that is simply not the case. These books had been established for generations and there was never any meaningful dispute about them.
2. Disputed Books. These are books that have been subject to some ecclesiastical disagreement, but are still regarded as canonical because they “are nevertheless known to most” (3.25.3). Not surprisingly, these include the smaller books: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John. The combination of recognized books and disputed books together form our 27-book canon.
What misconception does this refute? The category of disputed books reminds us that the boundaries of the canon were still “fuzzy” in the earliest centuries of Christianity and that it took a while for the church to reach a full consensus around these books. The canon was not dropped from heaven on golden tablets, but developed through the normal processes of history. And such processes aren’t always neat and tidy.
3. Rejected Books. When Eusebius uses the term “rejected” he doesn’t mean these books are heretical (that category is below), he simply means that these books are rejected in terms of having canonical status. Thus, these are books that are regarded as (generally) orthodox, helpful and useful but still did not have the authority of Scripture. These include books such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
What misconception does this refute? Some people have the impression that the existence of a canon means that the church can never (or should never) use any other books outside the canon. But the early Christians did not share this belief. They saw nothing problematic about using books like the Gospel of the Hebrews and, at the same time, affirming that only four gospels are canonical. Clement of Alexandria is a perfect example of this pattern. He appealed to all sorts of writings, including apocryphal gospels, but was quite clear that he only received Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as Scripture.
4. Heretical Books. These are the books that are so theologically problematic that they have little (if any) positive value for the church. These are “forgeries” that Eusebius regards as “altogether wicked and impious” (3.25.7). These include books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Matthias, the Acts of Andrew, and the Acts of John.
What misconception does this refute? Some scholars have argued that books like the Gospel of Thomas were just as popular as the canonical gospels and almost made it into the NT canon. But, notice that Eusebius does not agree. He does not put Thomas in the “disputed” category, or even the “rejected” category, but all the way in the heretical category. For Eusebius, such books are not, and never were, contenders for the canon.
In sum, understanding these four categories is an essential step in removing misconceptions about the NT canon that seem to abound today. Knowing these categories can give a person a fairly basic picture of how the canon developed: (1) there was a core canon from a very early time, (2) there was dispute about some of the smaller books that took some time to resolve, (3) Christians continued to find some non-canonical books to be orthodox and helpful, though not Scripture, and (4) some books were so theologically off the mark that they were regarded as altogether heretical.
For more on these four categories, see chapter 8 of my book Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012).
Very nice and simple summary. Thank you!
Eddie Gutwein says
Thank you! That is very helpful.
Alan Thomson says
Very helpful; where do the books contained in the Apocrypha fit into this analysis?
Edy Meredith says
I’ve been told by some who have left mormons and who are now into the mystery religions that the Book of Enoch is worthy of reading. What say you?
Enoch is worth reading. It’s not canonical to be sure, but presents a cosmology that Jude and Peter seem to accept. I’m afraid many Evangelicals find it a little embarrassing.
Anne Pasma says
Hello! If you have the time, could you expand on the heretical books or at least suggest resources for me to study on the subject? I don’t know anything about them. I’m curious as to who wrote them and why they are heretical. I believe 2 Timothy 3:16 so I’ve no doubt they are heresy but I love to learn the history of the Bible. Thanks!
Eric J Dolce (@AntiOrdinary74) says
Thank you for this very helpful summary! I wonder if you could recommend a resource that helps us understand why/how Eusebius became somewhat authoritative in these questions as well as other aspects of church history? I imagine that one might argue “well, that’s according to Eusebius”. Any suggestions?
Glenn Charles says
A religious book is only heretical if the particular religion decides it has content that goes against the doctrine of that Church. Books are not inherently “heretical.” Eusebius was a Bishop of the Western “catholic” tradition, and he wrote for the Roman Catholic Church Authority which strongly opposed competing religions, like Marcionism, but even argued against Eastern Church canons – Syrian, Coptic etc.
Perhaps you could explain that the Church was established first and its doctrine determined well before most of the NT was written, and that the NT was written to support the doctrine of the Church of the Empire. The oldest NT codex is a 4th. century work. There is hardly any mss. quoting verbatim “our” NT Gospels before the 3rd. century and most mss. that do agree with “our” NT are much later – after Nicaea. The early Bishops taught from a broad variety of mss – Shepherd, Thomas, Philip, Clement and so on (read the Pre-Nicene New Testament by Price, and early Church Fathers like Origen, who quote from a number of books that were eventually excluded by the Roman Church.)
The NT we commonly use, is a production of the Bishops of the “Roman” Catholic Church of the late 4th, century, and as such our text confirms the Dogma of the RC Church. And despite the reformers making changes to the words in order to support particular Protestant theologies (and to get around copyrights), the NT content is essentially what it was when Jerome compiled the Latin Bible in the early 5th. cent.
The existence of the Gospel of Thomas, Peter and Philip etc. forced the Roman Church to name Gospels after Mark (who was according to Eusebius not even a disciple) and Luke, as all the other Apostles had Gospels or Apocalypses named after them.
Most of the sayings of Jesus come from the Gospel of Thomas, which has many more sayings of Jesus, which did not support Catholic Doctrine, so were left out of Matthew for instance. According to Eusebius history, Mark was a sort of secretary to Peter, and learned from Peter, all that Peter knew of Jesus teaching. Though he must have received hundreds of hours of instruction from Peter, the Church only allowed 18 minutes of Jesus’s words to be included in Mark.
What is left of Jesus’s spoken words in “our” NT can be read in less than two hours. For the rest of the story you have to read the books that were deliberately not made public via the NT. Theologians in most catholic seminaries know about and have read “the rest of the story,” even some Priests are familiar with these other writings – they are just not allowed to teach them to the public.
It’s obvious that you need to read more of Mr. Kruger’s writing. If you insist on sticking with your version of events, that’s fine, but don’t pretend it’s supported by scholarship the way the writing on this site is. In case you’re actually interested in a scholarly take, here are some links to get you started at a very high level:
Don Maurer says
Concerning the links given to Glenn Charles above, my opinion is that the weightiest in the link to “10 basic facts…” is #4. Peter writes that certain fellows misuse Pauls writings as they do “other scriptures.” I Peter 3:15-16 seems a very air tight argument to refute what Mr. Charles views on canon. 1 Peter 3 was written long before any council recognized the canon.
glenn charles says
I have read those articles. I am pretty sure that Mr Kruger knows of the history of the NT. I would recommend that you do your own research from the early mss. You cannot deny that there are only two hours of Jesus speech in the NT. Where is the rest of his teaching? If you want to hear what Jesus was teaching the disciples you must also read what was left out of the RC new testament.
If you know your history, you know that there is no such thing as an “RC” new testament. Even a secular evaluation acknowledges that the New Testament we have today very closely matches what Christians used as early as the 2nd century AD.
Why do you assume that “the rest” of Jesus teaching must have been recorded somewhere and that what’s actually recorded and attested to (ie, what’s in the NT, the rest is not well attested) is not enough? The part that’s recorded is more than enough for me to apply myself to for the rest of my life here on earth, and still not be able to live up to perfectly.
The links I posted previously were pretty general – here’s a more specific one that addresses your assertions that other gospels, eg. Thomas, were the “real” or more complete gospels – there is simply no evidence that this is the case, although you’re free to speculate:
Key quote: “Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory … [b]ut, the truth is far less sensational.” Best evidence shows that those texts are not “the rest of the story”, they’re appendices added well after the earliest texts by people with a specific agenda (ironically, the charge you’re leveling against the actual NT books, where the evidence increasingly points to them being written exactly as and when tradition says they were).
Cody Mathews says
Thank you so much for serving the body of Christ. I serve as a pastor and I do not have a theological degree. I am so thankful for resources like this. I am excited about teaching people what I have learned from these posts. Thank you for your ministry to the body of Christ!