There is a detailed history behind the Christian writings that were acknowledged as authoritative and that eventually came to be part of the New Testament. In The Canon of the New Testament, Professor Bruce Metzger discusses the history of the canon and shows how the New Testament developed into the collection of books that it is today.
Metzger welcomes the reader by providing a concise overview. He shows that the early church recognized the authority of the Old Testament, the words of Jesus, and the teachings of the apostles. These were circulated in both oral tradition and written form. The teachings were circulated between congregations and therefore began to be translated into other languages for further circulation. The development of a list of these authoritative works came about only after a long period of time due to various external pressures exerted on the church. The first record of any sort of written canon came in the fourth century.
Metzger’s writing style is very systematic and thorough. He retells the history of the early church fathers and their involvement with early church writings. His purpose here is to glean from their writings any reference to the books of the New Testament in order to show how these writings were regarded and treated by the church. He shows that even before a theory of authority had been developed, the early writings were implicitly authoritative. And of course, the words of Jesus are taken as the supreme authority.
Next the author discusses the influences affecting the development of the canon. Most notably would be the early syncretistic religion and philosophy of Gnosticism, which began to create its own set of writings to instruct its followers. Metzger characterizes the Gnostic belief system: it rejected the visible world; it believed in a subordinate deity (one that created the world and another higher god); and it made a radical distinction between Jesus and Christ. Gnostic writings reflect these concepts and borrow themes from what are now our canonical books. Because of these Gnostic influences, a clear distinction needed to be made between what was authoritative and what was not.
In addition to Gnostic heresies, the persecution of the early church played a role in the development of the canon. When believers were being tortured and killed for the faith, it became more and more important to define that faith. In addition, many church writings were being confiscated and destroyed. At that point, a Christian would do well to know which writings are worth dying for and which are not.
Metzger goes on to discuss the various early writings that sought to define the canon. It should be acknowledged that these early lists showed very little variance in the majority of the writings. The four Gospels and the majority of the apostles’ writings, for example, were never questioned. Metzger shows that the long process was in part due to the distance of separation and difficulty of communication between the churches and their leaders. For the most part, the only books in the New Testament that were questionable were ones that were short, less circulated, or whose authorship was in doubt. Non-canonical books were excluded because they were not broadly accepted, did not edify the church, or were clearly inauthentic.
To conclude, Metzger’s book is an excellent work that thoroughly covers the history of the New Testament canon. This book is highly recommended for an understanding of how the New Testament developed.