When Was the Earliest NT Book List?
This is the fifth installment in our series on The Heresy of Orthodoxy. In this video, Dr. Kruger and I discuss Athanasius’s Easter Letter of AD 367 and the earliest complete list of New Testament books. Dr. Kruger makes the compelling argument for a much earlier list in Origen’s Homilies on Joshua, nearly a century earlier (c.250 AD). You can also follow the previous installments to our series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
When Was the Earliest Complete List of New Testament Books?
AK: So, Mike, as you know, some people cite Athanasius’s Easter Letter of AD 367 as evidence that it was really only in the fourth century that our 27 books in the New Testament were officially canonized by the church. But what you’ve been saying is that even though we may not have had a list containing all of the 27 books—and only those 27—the actual concept of canon is a lot older. And many of the individual books, such as the fourfold Gospel collection or canon, again are at least second century if not earlier.
MK: No, that’s exactly right. Another way to ask the question is there’s not just one way to ascertain canon. Certainly, a list is a good way. I mean lists are really plain, simple, clear, and they’re helpful. But there’s other ways to ascertain what the canon would have been like and what books Christians would have read. As you just indicated, I’ve argued in a number of places that there’s enormous evidence from the second and third centuries that Christians were already relatively settled on a core collection of books—I call it 23 out of 27, 22 out of 27 books, very early. So, you don’t have to wait until the fourth century to get Athanasius’ Letter to tell you that. I also add this. I actually don’t think Athanasius’ list is the earliest list we have. I wrote an article for a Festschrift for [volume honoring] Larry Hurtado—it came out two years ago, I think—arguing that actually Origen’s Homilies on Joshua include an earlier complete list of all 27 books. And this, I think, is overlooked for a variety of reasons, but he wrote that around 250 AD and mentions it in a way that seems very accepted and very normal and not at all controversial—at least in Origen’s mind, the canon was not an open question in his day.
AK: And in any case, we should allow for the church to judicially assess whether or not a given writing bears the marks of inspiration. And just because there’s a certain process involved does not mean that the canon was uncertain. If anything, it proves that the church was using its critical judgment to arrive at that definitive list of canonical writings.
MK: No, that’s right. People get hung up on how long it took. “Well, this should have happened in just a couple of years or something like this.” But as you indicated, this is a process; this takes time. The books need to circulate and get known and get read and there needs to be conversations about them. We need to give time for that process to happen and also, as you noted, it seems to indicate that the church was very careful; they didn’t jump the gun and just make rash declarations but wanted to make sure that the books they had were really the books that God had given. So I think we have a lot of reasons to be confident in the collection of books we have.