The canon of scripture is a miracle of grace and the incredible work of the Holy Spirit after the ascension of our Lord. Its assemblage by the work of the Holy Spirit baffles the minds of mere humans. Its preservation shines throughout time in the ravages of martyrdoms, catastrophes, wars, neglect, and ignorance that bear witness to the indestructibility of its eternal voice. It is the very voice of Christ that lives within it. It is the voice of Christ that ordained it and set the decrees for its establishment. Therefore, the word ‘canon’ is used, which means a ‘cane’, or a ‘reed’, or a ‘rule’ to guide. It is the voice of Christ in the Old Testament, pre incarnation, and the voice of Christ in the New Testament, post incarnation, of the great Jehovah. Our Lord sealed the canon of the Old Testament in Luke chapter 11 verse 51. Here, Jesus refers to the first and last martyrs mentioned in the Old Testament. It is ‘from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary’ ESV. Abel was the first martyr found in Genesis chapter four, and Zechariah the last, 2 Chr. 24. 20-21. In the Hebrew Bible of Jesus’ day, 2 Chronicles was the final book of the 39 which we still use today. The focus of these articles, however, will be the New Testament canon.
Christ’s criteria for scriptures regarding Himself are best outlined by John, the disciple who rested on our Saviour’s breast, and whom Jesus loved. After his incarnation, Christ predicted the coming of the New Testament writings, John 14. 26. Our Lord noted that the Comforter would teach us all things, and that the Holy Spirit would enable the memories of His disciples after His departure. The writings, directed by the Holy Spirit, would be able to be discerned, because they would ‘testify’ of Him, 15. 26. To testify of Him, they would have the life-giving power of salvation, 3. 16; His sinless nature would be acknowledged, 8. 46; His eternal deity would be clearly seen as the ‘I am’, the ever existent One, 8. 24, Exod. 3. 14. The testimony would proclaim Him as the final judge, John 5. 22, 27, 30. He is the One who can raise the dead, 6. 40, 44, 54. His words are in agreement with the Old Testament writings and fulfil its prophecies, Luke 24. 44. All the books of the New Testament conform to the divine standards, verbally established by Christ Himself to His disciples.
The apostle Peter, who had opened the door of the gospel to the Gentiles, Acts 10, read the Epistles of the apostle Paul to the Gentiles with great interest. He places Paul’s Epistles on a par with the ‘other scriptures’; their rejection would lead to one’s destruction, whether it is scripture written by Paul or ‘other scriptures’, ‘As also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as [they do] also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction’, 2 Pet. 3. 16. Peter also acknowledged that he ‘now held in his hand’ (Greek: echo) something more secure than what he had witnessed and heard in the mount of transfiguration, 1. 19.
Paul’s new revelations come from a ‘word of the Lord’, 1 Thess. 4. 15. These early writings were already treasured by Peter. In turn, the apostle Paul accepted the writing of Luke as scripture as well. He combines Deuteronomy chapter 25 verse 4 with a portion of Luke chapter 10 verse 7 in 1 Timothy chapter 5 verse 18, and calls both of them ‘scripture’. When Paul quotes from Luke and calls it scripture, the gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were still in the form of one book; thus Paul’s comment actually includes both books written by Luke.
The apostle John notes the tremendous work of the Ephesian church early in his Apocalypse, and then places the capstone on the canon of scripture in Revelation chapter 22 verse 18. John notes that the patient Ephesians were able to discern between the true apostles and those who were liars, Rev. 2. 2. Historically, Ephesus became one of the largest assemblies in late apostolic and early post-apostolic times; it became a centre for Christian leadership and Bible study.
Some biblical historians also point to Ephesus as the place where the four Gospels, the book of the Acts, and the thirteen epistles of Paul were unified as Christian scripture. What we call the ‘four Gospels’ were originally called the Gospel, or the Evangelion, and were considered as one whole book. When the Gospel of Luke was separated from Acts to be part of the Evangelion, Acts continued to have the respect of inspired scripture.
The Holy Spirit guided the formation of the foundational books. The early Christians always combined Luke’s writings with those of Paul’s, since Luke’s writings authenticate the apostleship of Paul. The Epistles of Paul were together called the Apostolos and thus comprised another book. They were all later separated into individual books. Since some used Paul’s name falsely to write epistles, Paul signs the Epistles himself to authenticate them.1 Among those in Ephesus who reviewed the writings were the apostle John, and, possibly, Onesimus. Onesimus is called a bishop of Ephesus in the post-apostolic writings of Ignatius of Antioch. This may help to explain how Onesimus’ personal letter of freedom from slavery was included as Paul’s 13th epistle and made public to the world. It is called the Epistle to Philemon.
The early Christian church in apostolic times was given the awesome responsibility of proving who’s message was faithful and true to the life-giving testimony of Christ. Both Paul and John make note of this to the Ephesian Christians. Evidently, some of the early writers were acutely aware of their special place in church history; at least Luke, Paul, Peter, and John knew that they were writing holy scripture when they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. By the end of the apostolic age, or early in the second century, the four Gospels, Acts, and the thirteen epistles of Paul form the basis for all future New Testament scripture selection by the church. This is already recognized by Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, 2. 20. The Ephesians were to preserve the foundational writings of the apostles upon which the rest of the scriptures would be ‘fitly framed together’. Thus, the Ephesians were cognizant of their need to preserve the foundational writings of the apostles and prophets of New Testament scripture. The first phase of the canon’s formation is then accomplished during the lives of the apostles and in the immediate post-apostolic period. The subsequent introduction of false doctrine into the church on two future occasions would lead to two more phases of canonization. Paul’s inspired words, ‘For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you’, 1 Cor. 11. 19, would prove to be the Holy Spirit’s method of completing the canon of scripture in fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy.
During the subsequent 30-40 years, there is an irregular distribution of the scriptures because of intense persecution of the church; in addition, the variability depends on scribal availability, literacy, catastrophes, wars, and widespread martyrdom. Despite all of these factors, a small but dedicated group of faithful believers in different localities continued to faithfully copy and preserve the scriptures. The foundational writings continued to be considered scripture. In 115 A.D., only about 30 years after the death of Luke, and 20 years after the death of John, Ignatius of Antioch wrote that the Evangelion (the four Gospels) were authoritative. During the first half of the second century, the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles continued to be read throughout the churches. In addition, the ‘General Epistles’ of Peter, James, John and Jude, as well as the Apocalypse of John, were also commonly read among the churches. Godly men, guided by the Holy Spirit, were patiently discussing, and weighing the authenticity and doctrine of some of the books still held in question, such as Hebrews, the General Epistles (already referred to above) and, for some, the book of Revelation. Alexandria, Egypt, long known for its academia and its eloquent speaker, Apollos, Acts 18. 24, also developed an authoritative North African list of scripture; some were still not sure of 2 Peter, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, while also still considering two epistles of Clement. In A.D. 95, Clement of Rome mentions eight books, Polycarp, a disciple of John mentions fifteen books, A.D. 108.