The contemporary “New Testament” comprises twenty-seven books: the four canonical gospels; the addendum to Luke called “Acts;” the twenty-one letters of the apostles (primarily letters attributed to Paul but also letters attributed to James, Peter, and John) and the Revelation of John. Many of these writings are believed to have been written prior to AD 120.
In the early days of “the way” writings attributed to the apostles circulated widely among the faithful, particularly the Pauline literature. Judea was a frustrated and enslaved region of the Roman Empire, an outpost filled with poverty and the “people of the book.” There was near constant tumult among the Jewish peoples who longed to be out from under the oppressive and hedonistic ways of Rome. Amidst this milieu, a variety of Rabbinical teachers arose, one of which was Jesus (whose name in Aramaic more closely resembles “Joshua”). The hope for a Jewish messiah was strong -one who could lead Judea out of its turmoil. The Jewish elders, who appeared often seemed hypocritical, and the Roman governors, who had the uneasy task of ruling this region, put many Jewish revolutionaries to death for heresy and insubordination. After Jesus’s death around AD 30, the revolts continued with many preachers promising to be the messiah or a leader of the Jews, like Simon Bar Kokhba or Simon the “sorcerer” who is referenced in Acts.
However Rome’s occupation of Judea brought new technologies to the people of Judea -like the written word for more people, as well as libraries, and the ability to deliver letters across vast distances. Thus a new group, in-part reminiscent of Hellenistic mystery cults and in-part inspired by Jewish messianism, arose and took hold. Various writings of Jesus were documented approximately one generation or two after his death and the crux of the message (or “good news”) in the Gospels is that Jesus is superior to other divine claimants because he overcame corporeal death (Jesus’s death can be read as an inversion of the death of Socrates found in the classical writings of Plato and Xenophon). The Christian theological narrative continues the eschatology from the book of Isaiah, by declaring that Jesus will one day return to earth in stunning apocalyptic imagery.
Like most divine writings that have come down to us from antiquity, the early Christian texts must be approached with a certain degree of respect for the sacred. Their origins are mysterious, and the teaching still eludes us. Clement, the mysterious early father of Christianity who is rumored to have been a follower of Peter, referenced several “words of Jesus” that were written down and certain letters by Paul. Clement is today considered one of the apostolic fathers of the church along with Polycarp and Ignatius -both rumored to be followers of John the Apostle. At this time there were varying written accounts of Jesus likely available – a “Sayings Gospel” and a “Signs Gospel” which formed the basis of the narratives for the canonical gospels.
The first compendium of Christian writings comes from Marcion of Sinope, a controversial figure in the history of Christian theology. He was a ship merchant, and he regarded Paul as the only true apostle of Jesus, though Paul never actually met Jesus, and Marcion believed that the god of the “Old Testament” is an entirely different and inferior deity to Jesus. Marcion was denounced as a heretic by other early church founders, like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Marcion was also excommunicated. He wrote a “Gospel of Our Lord” -which was a rewriting of Luke but without any reference to the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion’s thesis was that Christians should develop an entirely new canon, separate from the Jewish scriptures, based solely on Luke and Paul. He also collected the “Evangelikon” and the “Apostolikon” for an early New Testament canon which included: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Marcion’s version), John followed by Galatians, both Corinthian epistles, Romans, both Thessalonian letters, a now lost letter from Paul to the Laodiceans, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Despite being denounced as a heretic, Marcion’s list forced early Christianity to face the question of which texts were authentic. Marcion’s radical theology came to be known as “Marcionism.”
Justin Martyr referenced the “memoirs of the apostles” somewhere around AD 145, and he cited several Pauline letters. A man named Tatian was converted to Christianity by Justin Martyr who then went to Syria to build the church. In doing so, he created his own gospel by weaving together elements of the four canonical gospels, which he called Diatessaron (or “Harmony through the Four”). This gospel became the basis for the Syriac Church.
A somewhat loosely defined set of four gospels was alluded to later by Ireneaus around AD 180. Irenaeus was originally from present-day Turkey where as a young man he supposedly heard the preaching of Polycarp, the last living connection to the apostles of Jesus (Polycarp was a disciple of John the Evangelist). Irenaeus then went to preach in present-day Southern France. He argued vociferously against heretical doctrines (like the Gnostic texts) and he was adamant that only four gospels were legitimate, though there were many at the time with Matthew being the most popular. Irenaeus is the earliest person to attest that the Gospel of John was in fact written by John, the Apostle, and the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, the companion of Paul. Irenaeus seems to reject certain apocryphal texts as illegitimate, such as 1 Clement (then known as the letter to the Corinthians), Polycarp’s Epistle, and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Over 150 years later, Origen, the famous theologian and Bishop of Alexandria, used the same corpus of writings as Irenaeus, however disagreements persisted regarding the final texts of the New Testament: Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation. Over the next several hundred years the canon was gradually formed.
The Muratorian Fragment is another important piece of early Christian literature that has come down to us via a badly damaged Latin translation of an early Greek list of authoritative Christian texts. The version that has survived is a Latin list that was bound in the 7th or 8th century and it was discovered at Columbanus’s Monastary in Italy in the 18th century. The fragment references many of the present-day canon, however it also includes the Shepherd of Hermas, though the document requests that it not be read in Church as it was written closer to the “present-day” and is not apostolic. The text also references an Apocalypse of Peter text as well as a Wisdom of Solomon text.
Clement seems to have accepted any text that came down to him as Christian, including apocryphal and Gnostic texts like: Barnabas, Didache, 1 Clement, Revelation of Peter, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel According to the Hebrews -a now lost account of Jesus’s divinity. In addition, Clement references: the Gospel of the Egyptians, Preaching of Peter, Traditions of Matthias, Sybilline Oracles, and the Oral Gospel.
Not long after Clement, writing around AD 330, Eusebius, the early Christian historiographer, listed the current canon in its mostly recognizable form, while acknowledging many controversies surrounding the authorship of 2nd Peter, Epistles of James and Jude, and 2nd and 3rd John. For Catholic Christians, these texts were made authoritative and canonical in 382 at the Council of Rome and again at the Council of Trent in 1545. For Orthodox Christians, these texts were canonized in 692 at the Second Council of Trullan. For the Church of England, these texts were made authoritative in 1563 with the Thirty-Nine articles. For Calvinists, these texts were made authoritative in 1647 with the Westminster Confession of Faith.