How Did the New Testament Canon Develop?

In regard to the New Testament canon, Dr. Ehrman often claims that early Christians had a variety of New Testament canons at their disposal. He talks about “wild diversity” within early Christianity. Dr. Ehrman argues that in the early centuries of the church people are reading all sorts of books, and there were many different versions of Christianity with their own gospels and their own documents. He gives the impression that there was a competing set of books, with the New Testament canon being a literary free-for-all, where no one knew which were the right or wrong books, and everybody is doing their own thing. This type of presentation certainly has a lot of rhetorical advantages and can certainly sound overwhelming to any student that is not aware of the early issues in Christianity. The problem is it is entirely misleading in the way that it describes the way the canon developed.

The portrayal of the New Testament canon developing in a totally haphazard and open-ended way until the 4th century is simply not the case. When we look at the early centuries of the church, particularly the 2nd century, we realize that the core of the New Testament canon was in place almost from the very beginning. What do we mean by core? We mean the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and at least ten, if not thirteen, epistles of Paul. For example, one of our earliest canonical lists, the Muratorian fragment, dates from the late 2nd century, probably around 170 or 180 AD. In that particular document, it is clear that there are only four gospels that are received, and it lists all thirteen of Paul’s epistles. That is in the middle of the 2nd century. This means that the Muratorian fragment did not make up its canonical list – it is obviously picking up earlier tradition. What we see is a core of New Testament books that were never really in dispute at all. There is not much dispute about the gospels in any fundamental way – it was these four from the very start. When it came to Paul’s epistles, the core were in place from the very beginning. When we talk about any disputes at all – if we can even use that term – it really has to do with just a handful of books. Some of the peripheral books – 2 and 3 John, Jude, and 2 Peter – are the primary books that discussion centers around. To portray the New Testament canon as entirely open-ended is entirely misleading because the core was there from the start.

If the core was there from the start, then decisions were already made about the divinity of Jesus. Decisions were already made about who he was and what he came to do. Decisions were already made about the nature of the Gospel message. Regardless of what was decided about 2 Peter or Jude, the trajectory of Christianity was already determined from a very early time – much earlier than most people realize.