What is the Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament?

By the second century, there is already a “core” collection of New Testament books functioning as Scripture

In the end, we actually have very good historical reasons to accept Origen’s list as genuine.  And if it is, then we have evidence that (a) Christians were making lists much earlier than we supposed (and thus cared about which books were “in” and which were “out”); and (b) that the boundaries of the New Testament canon were, at least for some people like Origen, more stable than typically supposed.

 

In the study of the New Testament canon, scholars like to highlight the first time we see a complete list of 27 books.  Inevitably, the list contained in Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter (c.367) is mentioned as the first time this happened.

As a result, it is often claimed that the New Testament was a late phenomenon.  We didn’t have a New Testament, according to Athanasius, until the end of the fourth century.

But, this sort of reasoning is problematic on a number of levels.  First, we don’t measure the existence of the New Testament just by the existence of lists. When we examine the way certain books were used by the early church fathers, it is evident that there was a functioning canon long before the fourth century.  Indeed, by the second century, there is already a “core” collection of New Testament books functioning as Scripture.

Second, there are reasons to think that Athanasius’ list is not the earliest complete list we possess.  In the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), I wrote an article entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”

In that article, I argue that around 250 A.D., Origen likely produced a complete list of all 27 New Testament books–more than a hundred years before Athanasius. In his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe the New Testament canon:

But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations (Hom. Jos. 7.1).

As one can see from the list above, all 27 books of the New Testament are accounted for (Origen clearly counts Hebrews as part of Paul’s letters).

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