The Origins of the New Testament Canon

Discover the Meaning of "Canon", Why it Arose, and How Early Manuscripts and Early Christian Diversity Affect It

Curated from a lecture series by Michael Kruger

Course Introduction

About Dr. Michael Kruger

Dr. Michael J. Kruger (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is President and the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.  He is one of the leading scholars today in the study of the origins of the New Testament, particularly the development of the New Testament canon and the transmission of the New Testament text. He is the author of numerous books including The Gospel of the Savior (Brill, 2005), The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010, with Andreas Köstenberger), Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012), The Question of Canon (IVP, 2013), and Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (SPCK/IVP Academic, release date July 2017). He is also the editor of and contributor to A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament (Crossway, 2016) and co-editor of The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012) and Gospel Fragments (Oxford, 2009). Dr. Kruger is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and also serves (part-time) as Pastor of Teaching at Uptown PCA in downtown Charlotte. You can follow his blog at or on Twitter @michaeljkruger.

About The Course

This course is made up of a four-part lecture series delivered in March, 2012 at the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. This lecture series addresses four unique angles of the issue of the canon:

  1. Definition of the Canon: When and how does the canon come into existence? What are the three common definitions of the canon? What are the pros and cons of each definition? Is there a better way forward?
  2. Origins of the Canon: Why was there ever a need for a canon to begin with? What elements in the social and religious culture of the day demanded that a canon should exist?
  3. Artifacts of the Canon: How do the extant physical manuscripts of the New Testament help us understand the development of the canon?
  4. Messiness of the Canon: How should we understand the diversity within early Christianity in regard to the canon? What about the non-canonical books?

As you journey through each topic, a study guide is available for each lecture. You’re invited to follow along and engage with Dr. Kruger’s additional articles and chapters which are linked with each lecture.

The Definition of the Canon

  • The Definition of the CanonRuntime: 61 min

Reflection Questions
  • Dr. Kruger begins the lecture with a series of quotations. Evaluate each in light of your personal experience with questions about the canon and the topic of this lecture.
    • Kurt Aland: “The question of Canon will make its way to the centre of the theological and ecclesiastical debate . . . [because] the question is one which confronts not only the New Testament Scholar, but every Christian theologian” (The Problem of the New Testament Canon, 31).
    • Herman Ridderbos: “Many still regard this Canon as an uncertain matter, and the ‘problem of the Canon’ is spoken of as a hidden, dragging illness of the Church” (“The Canon of The New Testament,” Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Revelation and the Bible, 189-201).
    • Brevard S. Childs: “In sum, much of the present confusion over the problem of the canon turns on the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology. As a result, the points of both consensus and conflict have been frequently obscured within the debate” (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 51).
  • This lecture lays out three views of the canon (exclusive, functional, and ontological). Which one are you most familiar with? How have you (perhaps unconsciously) adopted one of these views in your thinking about the canon?
  • What problem does the closing of the canon pose to the the exclusive view?
  • How does the difference between the existence of the canon and the recognition of the canon impact the functional view?
  • How does the danger of seeing the New Testament as “lowered from heaven” stem from the ontological view?
  • In what way does the critique of the ontological view as having a theological bias also apply to the exclusive and functional views?
  • In what way do these three views (exclusive, functional, and ontological) tell the story of the development of the canon?
  • Why does Dr. Kruger prefer to speak of the “stage” of the canon rather than its “date”?
  • How does Dr. Kruger connect the three aspects of modern speech-act philosophy (locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary) to the issue of canon?

Additional Resources
  • DownloadBook Summary: The Question of CanonFiletype: .pdf

    By Books at a Glance

The Origins of the Canon

  • The Origins of the CanonRuntime: 58 min

Reflection Questions
  • Dr. Kruger begins the lecture with a statement by Harry Gamble. Read it and reflect on it in light of the entire lecture:
    • “Christianity did not begin as a scriptural religion. The faith of the earliest Christians was evoked by and focused on a person, Jesus of Nazareth, and he was apprehended not in written texts but in the preaching about him as the crucified and risen Messiah, and in the charismatic life of the Christian community. The immediacy of Christian experience and the fervor of its eschatological hopes made superfluous even the composition of Christian writings, and there is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian scriptures, much less a collection of them. Therefore, the NT as we think of it was utterly remote from the minds of the first generations of Christian believers” (The New Testament Canon, 57).
  • Two models are mentioned at the outset of the lecture (extrinsic and intrinsic) for why the canon exists. Which view does Kruger posit?
    • How do some proponents of the extrinsic view connect Marcion of Sinope to the rise of the canon?
    • How would you state the intrinsic view?
  • In what ways might Jewish people in New Testament times have viewed the Old Testament story as incomplete?
    • What evidence do you see of this in the Old Testament?
    • What evidence do you see in the New Testament?
  • Where in Scripture can you find the pattern of redemption leading to revelation?
  • Read “A Curious Clue about the Origins of the New Testament Canon” and reflect on the relationship between the idea of “covenant” and the text of Scripture. Does Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 3:14 reflect the concept of a body of written documents called “The New Testament”?
  • What is the significance of statements in the epistles indicating that they should be read in corporate worship?
  • Why would an Apostle of Jesus bother to write down his message? What level of authority did the Apostles see in what they wrote versus what they spoke?
  • How do Jewish apocalyptic writings impact the claim that Christians would not have bothered with a New Testament of the return of Christ were imminent?

Additional Resources

The Artifacts of the Canon

  • The Artifacts of the CanonRuntime: 62 min

Reflection Questions
  • How does our modern view of texts as what they contain rather than the physical vehicle that conveys them lead us to miss critical clues about the canon?
  • Does Dr. Kruger feel like the distribution and makeup of extant texts in Egypt is similar to the distribution and makeup of texts throughout the Roman Empire? Why or why not?
  • What is the ratio of canonical manuscripts to non-canonical manuscripts in the 2nd and 3rd centuries?
  • In what way is the argument from quantity not definitive?
  • How does the title, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” presuppose multiple Gospels as canonical?
  • How does the title, “To the Romans,” presuppose multiple Pauline epistles as canonical?
  • Was the codex or the scroll more common in the first century? When did that trend change? What method did scribes prefer for canonical writings?
  • How many canonical writings been found on unused scrolls? How does this relate to the use of scrolls for non-canonical writings?
  • What is the difference between the “books” and the “parchments” in 2 Timothy 4:13? Dr. Kruger gives four possibilities for the content of the “parchments.” Which view did he choose? What did you think of his argument for this view?

Additional Resources

The Messiness of the Canon

  • The Messiness of the CanonRuntime: 62 min

Reflection Questions
  • Articulate the “canonical diversity argument.” Where did this argument originate? How has this argument changed over time?
  • Evaluate the following quotation by Bart Ehrman regarding Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora. Why does he see this epistle as having equal merit as the canonical Scriptures?
    • “Clearly, here is a sincere believer who understood his views to be those of the apostles and, through them, of Jesus. This applies not just to his views of Scripture but to those of the divine world and of the human’s place in it. Here we have additional evidence, as if more were needed, that the losers in the battle to establish the ‘true’ form of Christianity were intent on discovering the truth and were certain that their understanding of the faith resided in the teachings of Jesus’ own apostles. Had his views not be quoted in the writings of Epiphanius, who set them forth simply in order to attack them, we might never have realized just how clear, passionate, ad earnest they really were” (Lost Christianities, 131).
  • Dr. Kruger claims that the “canonical diversity argument” is analogous to claiming that because many people sincerely hold diverse religious beliefs that no true religious beliefs exist. Evaluate the argument. What problems do you find with it? How might you agree with the analogy? Would you use another analogy?
  • Have you ever encountered Christians who struggled with the notion that dissent over, rather than universal and immediate agreement with, the canon of Scripture was a historical fact? How might you help the average believer understand that diverse views in the early church regarding the canon should be expected?
  • Dr. Kruger makes the statement that we should neither avoid nor overplay the diversity in the church regarding the canon. Where have you seen these extremes in person or in print?
  • Does the use of Apocryphal sources by Clement of Alexandria or Origin mean that they viewed these sources as canonical Scripture?
  • Define the idea of the “core canon.” How many books fit in this category? What were the other categories of books?

Additional Resources
Recommended Resources

These works were referenced in the Q&A section of this lecture.