Process of Canon Selection*
The early church made decisions about which writings should be considered authoritative first in local councils of elders, and later, as the church became institutional, through councils of bishops. Criteria used for selection of texts included orthodoxy, apostolic origin, general acceptance by the churches, and whether they had been cited by bishops.
The earliest list we know of Christian books judged as Scripture is the Muratorian Canon from the late second century. Its stated criterion is that a book must be suitable for reading in church. This canon did not include the letter to the Hebrews or those we know as James, 3 John, and perhaps 1 and 2 Peter. It did include the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Muratorian Canon rejects the Shepherd of Hermas and Pauline letters to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians. It also rejects the writings of the Gnostic Valentinus.
By A.D. 200 there was general agreement by the major Christian communities on the core of our New Testament canon: the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's epistles, 1 Peter, and 1 John. By the late fourth century, the twenty-seven books we now have had been generally accepted, with Revelation the last and most controversial. During these four hundred years, the Christian church was also developing from a small movement within Judaism to the official religion of the Roman Empire, which stretched from Britain to Morocco, to Armenia and Egypt.
In his Festal Letter for A.D. 367, St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was the first to list the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament. He called them the "springs of salvation" (allegorizing Isaiah 12:3), and claimed that "in these alone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news; let no one add to these or take anything from them." He distinguished canonical from apocryphal, and determined that the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, did not belong to the canon.
By A.D. 400 these twenty-seven books were generally accepted as Christian Scripture, although no official action was taken by the church until 1546. The canon was not actually formally ratified until the Council of Trent, when the Roman Catholic Church was fine-tuning its teachings and beliefs in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. Protestants have accepted this canon, without the Apocryphal books, by common consent.
Four hundred years is a short time to form a canon when contrasted with the lengthy period of Old Testament formation. Yet it is a long time when we consider that for some 400 years after the life of Jesus the church was still determining what would be the normative texts.
An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.
The picture of Athanasius is a detail from "Athanasius" in An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 91.