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"New Testament Background: The Canon" Lesson Plan

Kenneth Atkinson
Associate Professor of Religion
University of Northern Iowa

Project/Course: Introduction to the New Testament
Actor/role: Student; undergraduate level
Syllabus Section: New Testament Background: The Canon

By reading the OBSO articles listed below along with the thematic essay that includes further links to OBSO material, students will learn about the diversity of early Christianity and the complicated and lengthy process that led to the selection of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament canon. This unit can also introduce students to the features of the OBSO that can support their study of the Bible.

Incorporation of OBSO into Course

Instructors should assign the background essays (listed below) on the canon. The OBSO material can be used in a variety of different ways depending on the course. The following are some recommended options.

Semester-Long Course

For a normal university course, students can read these background essays in preparation for the class. The thematic essay supplements this material and provides numerous hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO. Instructors can place the links on a web page to accompany the course. Students can also use this material to review for quizzes and exams.

Online Course

In an online course, instructors can place the links online, along with the thematic essay below and a list of articles for further reading as the entire assignment. The thematic essay can serve as the primary text. Instructors may wish to create a web page of hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO.


Students should begin by reading the following background essays in the OBSO dealing with the New Testament canon. Instructors can project several of these articles, especially the canon chart (canons in antiquity), during class lectures. Relevant scriptural passages can also be displayed in class along with the adjacent commentary. Instructors should direct the student to the following chart of biblical books:

This chart supplements the background essays, and will help the student better visualize the material under study. Instructors should point out that the link on the left-hand side of the page contains links to the text of all the biblical books. In addition, the Bible Texts link at the top of the homepage contains six translations of the Bible, all of which can be viewed side-by-side with other translations and/or with commentary.

Background Essays

Introduction to the New Testament Canon

When you go into a bookstore to purchase a Bible containing the New Testament, you know what you will find inside. This is true of any New Testament in a church: they all contain the same twenty-seven books. Although there are many different forms of Christianity today, they all share much in common since they use the same New Testament. But this was not so in antiquity or in the early days of the Christian faith. During the first several centuries after Jesus' death there were many New Testaments. In this section we explore the history of how our present New Testament came to be.

Oral Tradition

It is hard to imagine a time when there was no New Testament. But it is unlikely that the early Christians we read about in the New Testament even thought about it. The New Testament was still being written in their day: the last books were not completed until the early second century CE. Many Christians learned about their faith from the oral tradition, stories about Jesus and early church leaders. But the problem with oral stories is that they change with the passing of time.


Over time Christians realized they needed to bring some unity to their faith. Many believed they needed a written book, like the Jewish Scriptures (Tanakh), to appeal to as a source of authority. The early Christians looked to the Hebrew Bible as a guide. They realized that Jesus was a Jew and that their religion began as a form of Judaism. Christians also believe that many of the Jewish prophets predicted Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. For this reason, the church looked to the Jewish Scripture as a model. Christians decided to produce a two-volume book. They kept the Hebrew Bible but added new writings to it.


The word "testament" was not originally used to refer to a collection of writings. It refers to a legally binding agreement, or covenant, between two parties. The name New Testament is actually a translation of the "New Covenant" predicted by the Jewish prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31: 31–34). Christians chose the name "New Testament" to show that their collection of sacred writings is a continuation of the covenant in the Jewish Scriptures as well the "new covenant" Jeremiah had predicted. They began to refer to the Jewish Scriptures as the Old Testament since it preceded the New. Many today prefer the term "Hebrew Bible" since it is a more neutral description and recognizes that the Old Testament is a living book for contemporary Jews.


The very concept of a New Testament was controversial in the early church. A second-century CE Christian named Marcion argued that the Old and New Testament have nothing in common. He even believed that a different God produced each. Most Christians rejected this interpretation as well as the belief in many gods. Because they believed that it is essential for Christians to read the Old Testament to understand the New Testament, they placed both together.


Marcion not only rejected the Old Testament but also many books that would come to be included in our New Testament as well. He produced a smaller, edited version of the New Testament. He included an abbreviated version of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters attributed to the early Christian leader Paul. While this may sound surprising to modern Christians, Marcion presented a great challenge to the early church. The reason he could so readily tamper with the New Testament's text is because Christians still had not decided on a canon.


All ancient Christians believed that certain books were sacred. These are known as scriptures. But the early church could not agree on the number of scriptures. This meant that ancient copies of the New Testament contained different books. As you can imagine, this caused much confusion. It was impossible for Christians to agree on beliefs and practices when they had different, and sometimes conflicting, scriptures. It was largely to bring unity to their faith that Christians created a canon.

Canon is derived from the Greek word meaning reed, or measuring instrument. Christians began to make lists of books they considered sacred and authoritative that should make up the New Testament, but Christians had a difficult time agreeing on a single canon. There were many canons in antiquity. The Egyptian Christian bishop Athanasius in 367 CE wrote the first known list that matches our present New Testament canon of twenty-seven books. But it took some time for his canon to be accepted. The canon remained fluid well into the sixth-century CE. Many lists of New Testament books include texts unfamiliar to many contemporary Christians, such as the Shepherd of Hermes and the Epistle to the Laodiceans.


We can learn something about how the early Christians thought about their faith by looking at the content of the New Testament. The books they chose are arranged not chronologically but by subject matter. They are divided into four sections: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation.


Gospel is the Greek word for "good news." Because Jesus forms the basis for the Christian faith, it is not surprising that Christians placed the Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament. When Christians selected their canon, they had many Gospels from which to choose (Christian diversity). Some, such as the Gospel of Thomas, do not contain lengthy stories about Jesus but theological sayings. The four Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) have one thing in common—narrative. Although none document all of Jesus' life, they recount the most significant episodes that Christians believed were important for understanding their faith. This shows that early Christianity realized the importance of history. When Christians read the Gospels, they believe that the events in Jesus' life are the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. They rejected many other gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, that were not in narrative form and which did not explicitly connect Jesus' life and ministry with the Old Testament.


The second division of the New Testament consists of one book, Acts. This work chronologically follows the four Gospels. It tells the story of the early Christian church from Jesus' resurrection appearances up to the sixth decade of the first century CE. Most of the book describes the travels of an early convert named Paul, who was also a Roman citizen. The book recounts the many sufferings of Paul and other early Christians and ends with his imprisonment in Rome. For Christians, this event proved that God was present in the early church since it spread within a few decades from Jesus' homeland to the heart of the Roman Empire.


The third division of the New Testament is a collection of miscellaneous letters commonly referred to as epistles (see letter-writing in antiquity). Most of the New Testament epistles were written to individuals or churches. Many deal with problems facing the early church. Paul wrote the epistle known as 1 Corinthians, for example, to deal with problems and questions facing the church in Corinth, Greece. Most of the epistles are attributed to Paul, although many scholars believed that other Christians wrote several of them in his name (see issue of pseudepigraphy).

The selection of the epistles was the most controversial part of the New Testament canon. Some, such as 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, were widely rejected but eventually came to be included in the New Testament. However, the authority of several epistles was debated as late as the sixteenth century CE when Martin Luther doubted the authority of several New Testament books.


The final division of the New Testament consists of a single book known as Revelation from the Greek word "apocalypse," which refers to an "unveiling" of divine secrets. Revelation begins with short letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. Most of the book consists of visions, which are often difficult to understand. Christians remain divided over how to interpret them. Some see Revelation as a book about persecution in the Roman Empire intended to encourage faith, while others read it as a blueprint for the end of time. Because it talks about the future, and describes Jesus' return to earth, Christians placed it at the end of the New Testament.

Further Reading

  • Ackroyd, Peter R. and C. F. Evans, eds. The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1. From the Beginnings to Jerome. Cambridge, 1970.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 4th ed. Oxford, 2008.
  • Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. London, 1995.
  • Greenslade, S. L., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day. Cambridge, 1963.
  • Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Cambridge, 1969.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford, 1987.
  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York, 1993.
  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. 4th ed. Oxford, 2005.

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