The word canon is derived from the Greek word kanon (“kanon”), a rod, ruler, staff, or measuring rod. The Biblical canon is the list of books recognized by the leaders of the church, based on objective criteria, to be inspired by God and to authoritatively and accurately express the historical relationship between God and His people.
Formal creation of Christian Scripture was achieved slowly. In the early years, the message of Christianity was transmitted orally. Preachers, many of whom had seen Jesus and heard him teach, shared vivid memories and proclaimed the message of His death, burial, and resurrection.
As the years passed, however, and the church spread into Asia Minor and Italy, written records about Jesus and the apostles became increasingly important. For instance, as an aging apostle, Peter urged readers to rely heavily upon what he had written (2 Peter 1). Eventually, those writings would assume a status equivalent to the Hebrew Scriptures.
There is little doubt, that the earliest texts of the emerging New Testament canon were the letters by Paul written around and just after 50 AD. Soon the gospels, the apostolic memoirs, became available as well. These texts conformed to the “rule of faith” – the Christian truth recognized in the early church. As evidenced from the early church writings, by 100 AD all books of what we now call the NT (except for a few letters and Revelation) had implicitly been accepted as part of the canon.
The first known effort to create an official list occurred in 140 AD (known now as Marcion’s canon). This included 10 of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke. Marcion was a gnostic heretic (he believed the God of the OT was not the God of the NT, and he rejected the humanity of Christ). He strongly disliked the Jewish aspect of the gospels. His list was soon viewed heretical by Early Church Leaders, but sparked the need for a formal canon.
That second century conflict, scholars say, shaped the church’s emphasis on authentic apostolic connection as the main determinant of canonical status. Either a book would be written by an apostle/disciple of Jesus (Matthew, John, Peter, Paul) or by somebody closely associated with an apostle/disciple (Luke via his links to Paul, Peter and others, Mark as the “voice” of Peter, James and Jude as the brothers of Jesus). Consequently some highly regarded writings from second and third generation Christians were excluded (this includes many of the Early Church Leaders).
In 397 AD (at the Council of Carthage) a list was finally compiled and found wide acceptance. There was little disagreement, except for the books of James, Jude (both brothers of Jesus, but not known to be disciples during his lifetime), 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. These books were later accepted and included in the completed New Testament.
Based on his research of the manuscript evidence for the New Testament, the great classical scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon writes:
“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”