What are the Earliest List of the New Testament Books?

In last week’s article, I showed how the church father and historian Eusebius of Caesarea categorized the books which churches thought were part of the canon. This week I want to show what some other church fathers thought about the books under consideration. There were over 300 years between the resurrection of Jesus and the first list of books which exactly matches the Protestant New Testament. The books were in use in churches before then, but it took time for the full list of books became widely available to the churches (What are the Stages of the Revelation of the Canon?).

Contrary to popular belief among skeptics, the Roman Emperor Constantine I did not decide what books would be in the New Testament at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. The primary purpose of the council was to stop a form of heresy called Arianism, which denies Jesus is of the same form or substance as the Father, and denies Jesus has existed eternally. The major result of the Council was the writing of the Nicaen Creed (Wikipedia).

Some of this reading is tedious, so you may want to just read the introduction I have for each section and skip the quotes I used. I’ve used bold type to indicate books which are in the Protestant New Testament canon. Some of the books which aren’t in the canon are useful for Christians, while others teach heresy (How were the Canonical and Non-Canonical Books Categorized?)

Muratorian Fragment (List from about A.D. 170-180)

The Muratorian Fragment is a Latin manuscript dating from about the 7th or 8th century, but the text is believed to have been originally written in Greek and dated about A.D. 170-180. The beginning of the manuscript is missing, but line two of the surviving text states “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke.”, so it’s reasonable to conclude the missing part of the manuscript refers to the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark. The fragment mentions 20 books which are in the New Testament, while putting several books into the other categories mentioned by Eusebius.

The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke…. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, of the disciples…. Moreover, the acts of all the apostles were written in one book…. As for the Epistles of Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent…. To the Corinthians first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans seventh. It is true that he writes once more to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians for the sake of admonition…. [Paul also wrote] out of affection and love one to Philemon, one to Titus, and two to Timothy; and these are held sacred…. There is current also [an epistle] to the Laodiceans, [and] another to the Alexandrians, forged in Paul’s name to [further] the heresy of Marcion, and several others which cannot be received into the catholic [universal] Church — for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. Moreover, the epistle of Jude and two of the above-mentioned (or, bearing the name of) John are counted (or, used) in the catholic [universal church]; and [the book of] Wisdom [of Solomon], written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. We receive only the apocalypses of John [Revelation] and Peter, though some of us are not willing that the latter be read in church. But Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after [their] time. But we accept nothing whatever of Arsinous or Valentinus or Miltiades, who also composed a new book of psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides, the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians….1

Clement of Alexandria (Lived about A.D. 150-215)

Unfortunately, Clement of Alexandria’s work in which he describes some of the books in the Canon, Hypotyposes, no longer exists, but quotes from it are available in Eusebius’ Church History. Clement only lists the Gospels and John’s books, with a brief reference to writings by Paul.

Paul, for instance, who surpassed them all in vigor of expression and in richness of thought, committed to writing no more than the briefest epistles2…. For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue. And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry3…. But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed. In regard to the Apocalypse, the opinions of most men are still divided. But at the proper time this question likewise shall be decided from the testimony of the ancients4.

Origen of Alexandria (List from about A.D. 249)

Origen’s list is written in the form of an allegory using the story of Joshua. It contains 26 books, but not Apocalypse of John (Revelation). However, in another location, Origen attributes Apocalypse to the Apostle John5, so it’s possible he considered it canonical but chose not to include it in this list. If so, then he recognized all 27 books of the New Testament.

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 epistles6, 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 [Paul] epistles 7, 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.8.

The church historian Eusebius quotes another list written by Origen. In this list, he only mentions 8 books by name, and simply indicates Paul wrote to some churches, so we don’t have a list of books he thought Paul wrote. He writes there are doubts about 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John. Based on this this, we only have a partial list of the New Testament books.

Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew…. The second is by Mark…. And the third by Luke…. Last of all that by John9. [Paul] …did not write to all the churches which he had instructed and to those to which he wrote he sent but few lines10. And Peter…has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful11. And he [John] wrote also the Apocalypse…. He has left also an epistle of very few lines; perhaps also a second and third; but not all consider them genuine, and together they do not contain hundred lines12. …I should say that the thoughts [Hebrews] are those of the apostle [Paul]13….

Eusebius of Caesarea (List from about A.D. 310-325)

See the article from last week, How were the Canonical and Non-Canonical Books Categorized?, for the list from Eusebius.

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (List from about A.D. 367)

The list from Athanasius is the first time the 27 books of the New Testament were put together.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic [universal]), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.14

Jerome (Lived about A.D. 347-420)

Jerome was a Catholic Priest. His list of New Testament doesn’t list each book individually, but the 27 books of the Protestant New Testament can be inferred when considering some authors write more than one book.

The New Testament I will briefly deal with. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Lord’s team of four, the true cherubim or store of knowledge…. The apostle Paul writes to seven churches15 (for the eighth epistle—that to the Hebrews—is not generally counted in with the others). He instructs Timothy16 and Titus; he intercedes with Philemon for his runaway slave. Of him I think it better to say nothing than to write inadequately. The Acts of the Apostles seem to relate a mere unvarnished narrative descriptive of the infancy of the newly born church; but when once we realize that their author is Luke the physician whose praise is in the gospel, we shall see that all his words are medicine for the sick soul. The apostles James, Peter17, John18, and Jude, have published seven epistles at once spiritual and to the point, short and long, short that is in words but lengthy in substance so that there are few indeed who do not find themselves in the dark when they read them. The apocalypse of John has as many mysteries as words. In saying this I have said less than the book deserves. All praise of it is inadequate; manifold meanings lie hid in its every word.19

Augustine of Hippo (Lived A.D. 354-430)

Augustine was a Christian theologian and philosopher who has been one of the most influential people in Christianity since Jesus and the Apostles. His writings, particularly The City of God and Confessions, have been read by theologians and philosophers for over 1,500 years. His list of canonical books has the 27 books of the Testament.

That of the New Testament, again, is contained within the following:—Four books of the Gospel, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John; fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul—one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews: two of Peter; three of John; one of Jude; and one of James; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; and one of the Revelation of John.20 In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them.21

Summary

The church fathers reference the canonical books of the New Testament in many other places in their writings, about 36,000 times by some estimates22. In this article, I wanted to show the lists of books some of church fathers made. As you can see, there was much agreement in which books were canonical, while there were some books which weren’t as easily agreed upon. We can be certain the books in our New Testament are the ones God wants to be there.

Lists of New Testament Books

  • Augustine. On Christine Doctrine, Book 2, Chapter 8, The Canonical Books, Paragraph 13. (CCEL.org)
  • Eusebius of Caesarea. A.D. 265-340. Church History, Book III, Chapter III, Paragraphs 5-7. (CCEL)
  • Eusebius of Caesarea. A.D. 265-340. Church History, Book III, Chapter XXV, Paragraphs 1-7. (CCEL)
  • St. Jerome. The Letters of St. Jerome, Chapter LIII, Paragraph 9. (CCEL.org)
  • Muratorian Fragment. A.D. 170. (Early Christian Writings)
  • Origen. A.D. 184-253. Quoted by Eusebius in Church History, Book VI, Chapter XXV. (CCEL)

Charts

  • Cross Reference Table: Writings and Authorities (NTCanon.org) (Accessed 07-Aug-2019)
  • Evans, Eli. Canon Comparison, Logos Bible Software (Faithlife, 2014)
  • Geisler, Norman and Shawn Nelson. Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2015; Kindle ebook) Locations 515, 522. (Amazon)

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Muratorian Fragment (Original text A.D. 170-180.) (Early Christian Writings)
  2. Clement of Alexandria (Lived about A.D. 150-215). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 4. (CCEL.org)
  3. Clement of Alexandria (Lived about A.D. 150-215). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 6-7. (CCEL.org)
  4. Clement of Alexandria (Lived about A.D. 150-215). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 17-18. (CCEL.org)
  5. [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] …he [John] wrote also the Apocalypse, but was commanded to keep silence and not to write the words of the seven thunders. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 9. (CCEL.org))
  6. 1 John, 2 John, 3 John
  7. Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews
  8. Origen of Alexandria. (Lived about A.D. 184-253). Homilies on Joshua, 7.1. (Google)
  9. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 4-6. (CCEL.org)
  10. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 7. (CCEL.org)
  11. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 8. (CCEL.org)
  12. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 9-10. (CCEL.org)
  13. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 13. (CCEL.org)
  14. Athanasius of Alexandria (about A.D. 296-373). Festal Letters, no. 39, (Easter 367) Paragraph 5, Of the particular books and their number, which are accepted by the Church. From the thirty-ninth Letter of Holy Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, on the Paschal festival; wherein he defines canonically what are the divine books which are accepted by the Church. (about A.D. 397) (CCEL).
  15. Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippines, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians; nine books total
  16. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy
  17. 1 Peter, 2 Peter
  18. 1 John, 2 John, 3 John
  19. St. Jerome. The Letters of St. Jerome, Chapter LIII, Paragraph 9. (CCEL.org)
  20. Augustine. On Christine Doctrine, Book 2, Chapter 8, The Canonical Books, Paragraph 13. (CCEL.org)
  21. Augustine. On Christine Doctrine, Book 2, Chapter 9, The Canonical Books, Paragraph 14. (CCEL.org)
  22. Witness of the Early Church Fathers (Dating the New Testament) (Accessed 08-Aug-2029)
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