7 Things You Need to Know About the Formation of the New Testament

1. The New Testament Canon was not decided by any church council. 

The church councils did not decide what was canonical. While regional church councils made declarations about the canon, these councils affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. The councils merely declared the way things had been since the time of the apostles. Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

2. Early Christians believed that canonical books were self-authenticating.

Another authenticating factor was the internal qualities of each book. These books established themselves within the church through their internal qualities and uniqueness as depicting Christ and his saving work. The New Testament canon we possess is not due to the collusions of church leaders or the political authority of Constantine, but to the unique voice and tone possessed by these writings.

3. The New Testament books are the earliest and best Christian writings we have. 

The New Testament books are the earliest writings we possess regarding Jesus. The New Testament was completed in the first century. This means the writings include testimonies from eyewitnesses and were written within fifty years of the events, which cannot be said of any of the apocryphal literature often discussed in the news.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only gospel accounts that originate from the first century.

4. The New Testament book come to us directly from apostolic testimony.

Unlike any book from that period or the following century, the New Testament books were directly connected to the apostles and their testimony of the resurrected Christ. The canon is intimately connected to their activities and influence. The apostles had the very authority of Christ himself (Matt. 28:18–20). Along with the Old Testament, their teachings were the very foundation of the church.  The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20).

5. New Testament writers quote other New Testament writers as Scripture. 

The belief in new revelation or a testament of books was not a late development. From the days of the apostles themselves, these writings were seen as unique in their authority and witness. This belief seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity. In 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” which would have put them on a par with the books of the Old Testament. This is a significant fact that is often overlooked.

6. Early Christians used noncanonical writings without analogous authority. 

Christians often cited noncanonical literature with positive affirmation for edification. Yet, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying texts. Rarely was there confusion as to whether they were on a par with Scripture. These books were eventually disregarded according to the criteria of whether they had general acceptance, apostolicity, and self-authentication.

7. The New Testament documents are the best ancient manuscript tradition we have and were reliably chosen. 

We have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The second closest ancient text is Homer’s Iliad. We possess less than 2,000 copies of this work. The works of Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Tacitus, and many others are even more poorly preserved; and yet, no one doubts their authenticity. 

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament than have many theologians (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?).

These realities should comfort us, not only in knowing why we have the books in the New Testament that we do, but that our translations and copies are reliable and trustworthy due to the overwhelming internal and external evidence. 


For Further Reading See Michael J. Kruger's Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books;  

Michael J. Kruger's The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate 

Photo of Timothy W. Massaro

Timothy W. Massaro

Timothy Massaro is a staff writer for Core Christianity. He is the Social Media Manager for the White Horse Inn. He has lived on both coasts of the USA and many places in between. He enjoys reading, traveling, and getting away from the busyness of modern life. He has an affinity for all things J.R.R. Tolkien (except the movies) and has interests in the intersections of philosophy and theology. He currently lives in California where he received his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary. His biggest prayer is that the gospel in all its beauty might re-kindle a wonder and joy of God’s goodness in our hearts. Connect with Timothy on Twitter @word_water_wine.

Related Resources

Card image cap Church History

10 Things You Should Know about Athanasius

What you should know about the great early Christian defender of the deity of Jesus Christ.

Card image cap Church History

5 Non-Negotiables from the Church Fathers on the Incarnation

We sing Christmas carols and hymns about the incarnate deity, and yet many Christians still lack a rudimentary understanding of what took place in the incarnation....

Card image cap Church History

Three Trinitarian Controversies Every Christian Should Know

Throughout the history of the church, Trinitarian controversy has centered on how the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another. Here are three controversies...