The Scriptures are a collection of books. One of the obvious questions that arises is what books should be included and what books should not be included. The most obvious example of this is the so-called Apocrypha. This name suggests that they are hidden, but they are not. The reason that we know these books did not function as Scripture in the early church is that there were not any commentaries written on these books. From time to time, there might be allusions to them and they were good background for helping one to understand the history between the testaments but these books did not function as Scripture. Therefore, as the Reformers argued, they should not be understood as included in the canon.
The word canon simply means the rule or standard – the yardstick to measure everything else. Unfortunately we do not know what the standard employed, most likely by the priests in the Temple, were. For whatever reason, books that were not in the canon were not preserved but those that were in the canon were. Books that were most debated were Ezekiel, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.
The New Testament, unlike the Old which was written over a very long period, was the product of a single generation. The problem if this process had continued any longer would be that others would come along claiming to have some secret knowledge or secret tradition that the apostles had kept quiet but that now could be added. Now it was not as if everything written in the New Testament had to be written by an apostle but each book did have a connection with an apostle. The apostle Paul, because of the extraordinary circumstances that led to him joining the apostles, tells us the most about what it takes to qualify as an apostle, including seeing the risen Christ. Paul says that he was born out of time when he saw the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. This was an exceptional occurrence. Therefore, people trying to add to the canon in future generations would not be allowed to do so on the basis of this criteria.
We actually know that the four gospels were accepted as canonical very early on because of the witness of those who did not like this fact. Tatian thought that there ought to only be one gospel, but he used these four to make that one gospel. Thus inadvertently he shows us that the four had been accepted. Also the heretic Marcion who wanted to edit the New Testament pushes this back even earlier because Marcion tells us that he was rejecting Matthew, Mark, and John and accepting parts of Luke.
The letters of Paul point us to an interesting point. There were letters that Paul had written that are not included in our canon. Of course, this leads people to wonder if we went into the desert and discovered one of these letters someday would we need to add these to the canon. The answer is no. The reason is that the letters that were preserved were the ones that were intended for the church to have. We do not know the process by which they were collected – just indications here and there like in Colossians that the letter was to be shared with other churches. Nevertheless, the point is that it is not enough for a writing to be associated with the apostles or even to be written by one of the apostles. Those letters that were preserved are letters that have a message that transcended the particular circumstances for which it was written. The key question in all this is whether a letter, or whatever other kind of literary work, has functioned as Scripture in the Christian tradition – in the church. If it has not, then it is not Scripture – it is not included in the canon.
The reason that we can know that some of the other early Christian writings were not considered part of the canon at the time is that there were no commentaries written about them in the early church. They were not being used as Scripture. The book of Hebrews was only later associated with the name of Paul, he most likely is not the author of it. But for whatever reason the name of the author did not stick with the text. Yet the point is that it was functioning as Scripture. In a similar way, the book that people questioned the most was 2nd Peter, but it was imposed on the church because it was frequently used – it was used as Scripture.
It is worth noting in this connection that the pastoral epistles were certainly by Paul because it would be incredibly difficult to forge them since people who were at home in that language and time would have recognized right away that they were not by his hand. Moreover, the other problem those who argue they are inauthentic face is that these letters would have been composed in the public.
There was no official decree of canonization for the books of New Testament Scripture. But this was just a process that happened. One really could not begin writing commentaries until everyone knew that the canon had closed. One interesting tidbit in this connection is to look at how the ancient church dealt with the heretical Montanus “new prophecy” movement. People realized at that time that the time for adding to the canon had passed and even though they might not firmly know what books were in it, the canon was closed.
So no one cannot add new books to the canon. Someone might argue that you could take away books from the existing canon, but this is unlikely. This happens more by simply neglecting books like much of the church does today with the Song of Solomon.
This originally was written as a final exam essay answer in Gerald Bray’s History of Biblical Interpretation class.