Who Decided What Should Be in the New Testament?
Our New Testaments contain the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, there are other gospels about Jesus, some of which have been referenced in movies or television specials. Why didn’t the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Peter make it into our Bibles? Who decided?
These are all questions about the canon – books accepted by the church as inspired and included in Scripture. Some people have speculated that the process of developing the canon was super secretive, driven by power-hungry people who only wanted to include the stories of Jesus that would help expand their influence. But as we’ll see, this speculation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, stories and accounts of His life started circulating. That makes sense. If someone claims to be God, predicts his or her own death and resurrection, and actually pulls it off, that will generate buzz. These first followers of Jesus cared deeply about the historicity and accuracy of the stories about Jesus.
Why? Because for those that journeyed with Him, they were eyewitnesses to actual events. They weren’t just sharing about a belief or a philosophy; they were testifying to something they had experienced and seen with their own eyes. Many of them would wind up dying because of this testimony.
As the years passed after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, His followers took great pains to make sure His teachings and the accounts about His life were passed along accurately.
This process became a challenge, because false teachings began to pop up as people wanted to distort what had happened.
One place we read about this is in 2 Peter:
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do other Scripture, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
This is a fascinating passage, so stick with me for a moment. First, notice that Peter, the author of this letter, shares how there are “ignorant and unstable people” who are working to distort the stories about Jesus. This is a challenge the early church is facing.
Next, see how Peter shares a distinction between what these ignorant people are teaching and what the Apostle Paul writes in his letters. He equates Paul’s letters with Scripture! He also says some of what Paul writes is hard to understand… isn’t that great? If you’re struggling with Bible study, you’re in good company; Peter can sympathize.
This passage helps us understand how the canon came about. The early church wanted to make clear to believers which letters and accounts were trustworthy, and which ones were not.
Bruce Metzer, an expert on the New Testament, explained how they did this.
“Basically, the early church had three criteria. First, the book must have apostolic authority – that is, they must have been written by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of the apostles. So in the case of Mark and Luke, while they weren’t among the twelve disciples, early tradition has it that Mark was a helper of Peter, and Luke was an associate of Paul. Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative? And third, there was the criterion of whether a document had had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large.”
Given those criteria, it becomes clear why the Gospel of Thomas, Mary, or Peter didn’t make the cut.
- They’re written far later than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- Though the names associated with their titles are impressive, they are unrelated to who wrote them.
- And their content is vastly different from what Jesus consistently taught in the earliest accounts.
Councils and Synods
Later, different gatherings (called councils or synods) would cement the list of books that had already been accepted by the church as authoritative and inspired. Expert Michael Kruger writes,
“These councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there.”
Bruce Metzer gives us another way to think about it:
“For somebody now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, ‘Let’s get several academies of musicians to make an announcement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.’ I would say, ‘Thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.’ We know it because of the sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same with the canon.”
All of this gives me great confidence as I read the Bible today. The New Testament documents weren’t written in the same form or format as legends or fables. These aren’t myths or nice stories with a moral to learn.
Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, shares his intention.
“Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)
We can have certainty in what the New Testament teaches about Jesus. And, based on the testimony of these eyewitnesses, we can live as they did - with bold, sacrificial, radical love. They gave up everything to follow and model their lives around a person who really existed…who really died…and who really rose again.
 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Print. p.66
 Kruger, Michael. “Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #8: ‘The NT Canon Was Not Decided At Nicea – Nor Any Other Church Council.” Canon Fodder. 4 Jun 2013. Web. 7 Sept 2017.
 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Print. p.69