Several statements in the Bible indicate that the New Testament would be written by apostles or approved by them. Peter called Paul’s writings “scripture” (2 Peter 3:16), and Paul said he and other apostles spoke “the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Before the close of the first century, Clement of Rome either quoted from or referred to more than half the New Testament books and called them “scripture.” By AD 180, Irenaeus of Lyons quoted over 1,000 passages from all but a handful of the New Testament books, calling them “holy Scriptures” given by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Tertullian from North Africa referred to the “New Testament” and expounded on most of it. Origen from Alexandria in AD 240 referred to our 27 books as Scripture, and Athanasius used the same list in AD 367. (Athanasius was also the first to use the word canon for the body of New Testament books.) They used no other books in the same way.
It is certain that by the early second century, the four Gospels (and never any others) and the thirteen letters of Paul were accepted by the churches across the Roman Empire without question.
Up to the year AD 180, all our New Testament books (with the single exception of 2 Peter) are found in either direct quotations or allusions in the writings of the leaders of the churches. By this year, a few churches hesitated over James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation; but all the rest were universally accepted. The church leaders never used noncanonical books with the same authority as the New Testament books.
Council of Nicaea icon
An icon depicting the Council of Nicaea, which is inappropriately thought to be where church leaders decided which books of the Bible were part of Scripture. The Muratorian Canon, originally compiled around AD 150, is our earliest documented evidence of a body of books that was identified as the New Testament canon of Scripture. It contains all but four of our New Testament books, though the only surviving copy from the eighth century is in poor condition and is missing parts. No council was ever called to debate the contents of the canon—it was almost universally recognized for what it was, the Word of God.
Why did it take so long for the list of the New Testament canon to show up?
1. The apostles did not leave us with a neat list of authoritative books.
2. No scroll could contain all the books, and the process of making books (called codices) did not become popular in the Roman Empire until the fourth century. (Our earliest nearly complete single-volume New Testament in Greek—Codex Sinaiticus from the mid-fourth century—measures 16 by 14 inches and contains 694 pages.)
3. The churches were widely scattered across the Roman Empire and beyond, from Britain to North Africa and east into Persia. Early Christians were still facing persecution and could not easily meet together.
Even though no one church or leader had authority to dictate to the others, it is amazing that close to AD 150 the Muratorian Canon could list all but four of our New Testament books.
Many deceivers wrote false gospels and letters, pretending that they were written by the apostles. But the early church leaders dismissed them as counterfeit and unreliable. (These are called pseudepigrapha, from Greek words meaning “false writings”). The false gospels and letters betrayed themselves by their late date of composition—well beyond the time of the apostles—and by their teaching, which clearly conflicted with the canonical books and the accepted doctrines of the churches.