Can New Books be Added to the New Testament Canon?

The practical answer to this question is easy: No, new books can’t be added to the canon. The technical answer is a bit more involved. I wrote the article What are the Criteria for a Book to be Canonical? on how the church fathers recognized the books in the New Testament canon. It’s possible a book “slipped through the cracks” when the church fathers were studying them, although it’s not probable.

I’ll limit this article to the New Testament, because the Old Testament is a more complex issue. The abundance of writings from the church fathers (about A.D. 33-400) gives us a look into how generations of Christians viewed the individual books before the church formally recognized the books in the New Testament canon. There is much less information on the development of the Old Testament canon. 

In my earlier article I mentioned the New Testament Minimal Canon, which contains 27 books. The minimal canon is the list of books accepted by all of the major branches of Christianity, and are included in the other major canons1, some of the church councils and documents2 and by some of the leading church fathers3 and some manuscripts4.5678

Categories of Books

I think it will help to understand what category a book might fall into which could make it eligible for the canon. There are four categories I want to focus on in this article, because I believe these are good representatives of the different categories I’m aware of. 

A Missing Book is Found

Not every letter written by the Apostles made it into the canon. There appears to be at least three letters written by the Apostles which no longer exist: Paul’s letter to Laodicea910, a letter from Paul to the church in Corinth11 and a letter from John to Gaius12. If one of these books was found, would it become part of the canon? We’ll use the Letter to Laodicea as a test case.

Written by a Student or Co-Worker of an Apostle

There’s at least one book which could have easily been accepted by the early church. Clement of Rome (Pope Clement I) was likely the co-worker Paul mentions in Philippians 4:3 (ESV)1314,  and wrote the book First Epistle of Clement. Since Paul and Clement knew each other and worked together, we can be sure Clement’s writing would accurately reflect Paul’s teachings. We’ll use 1 Clement as a test case.

A Book Not in Every Canon

Since there are different canons, clearly they must have differences in their lists of books. The Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox New Testament Canons all have 27 books, but the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church New Testament Canon has 35 books (which includes the 27 books of the Protestant New Testament Canon). There are 8 books in their canon which aren’t in the Protestant, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox New Testament Canons15:

  • Sirate Tsion (the book of order)
  • Tizaz (the book of Herald)
  • Gitsew
  • Abtilis
  • The First book of Dominos
  • The Second book of Dominos
  • The book of Clement16
  • Didascalia

Well use Didascalia as a test case. Didascalia teaches about how the church leadership should be organized and how the liturgy should be performed; apparently there isn’t much theology in it. Since Didascalia is accepted in the canon by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), it will pass all of their criteria for being canonical. I’m going to address this based on both historical Christian doctrine and EOTC doctrine.

New Revelation

Some groups (such as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)) believe a founder or member of the church was under divine inspiration to write a book of scripture. We’ll use the Book of Mormon as a test case. Since the Book of Mormon is accepted in the canon by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), it will pass all of their criteria for being canonical. I’m going to address this based on both historical Christian doctrine and LDS doctrine.

Cautions

I want to make clear I haven’t read any of these, so I’m not sure of their contents (of course, Letter to the Laodicea doesn’t exist anymore, but the other three are available). I’m also trying to fit each of these books into the categories I wrote about in the article What are the Criteria for a Book to be Canonical?. I don’t know if all the traditions use similar criteria when trying to determine if a book is canonical, so what I’m trying to do here might be an apples-to-oranges comparison. I’m basing this article on what I was able to research, not first-hand knowledge, so some of the answers I give are guesses. I hope it will at least show some of the criteria the church fathers had to consider.

Each of these was written during the first century or later, so these would apply to the New Testament Canon, not the Old Testament Canon.

  • Letter to Laodicea: Written by the Apostle Paul, dated mid-first century.
  • 1 Clement: Written by Paul’s co-worker Clement, dated late first century.
  • Didascalia: Author unknown, but generally dated forth century.
  • Book of Mormon: Written by Joseph Smith, first published 1830.

Criteria to be Canonical

Authority of the Apostles

The New Testament books needed to have the authority of the Apostles directly commissioned by Jesus. Any book written after the Apostles died could not have had their authority behind it.

  • Letter to Laodicea: Written by Apostle Paul. Status: Pass
  • 1 Clement: Written by co-worker of Paul, but probably not approved by an Apostle (although John may still have been alive when it was written). Status: Unknown
  • Didascalia: Written in third century, too late to have Apostolic authority. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: First published in 1830 by Joseph Smith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who claimed to be an apostle. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS)

Christian Teachings

It’s no surprise a requirement that for a book to be in the canon, the book must have orthodox Christian teachings; the book must accurately teach God’s revelation to us. 

  • Letter to Laodicea: Since it was written by Paul, we can expect it had orthodox Christian teachings. Status: Pass
  • 1 Clement: Since Clement worked with Paul, it’s reasonable to assume Clements within were consistent with Paul’s. Status: Pass
  • Didascalia: Doesn’t teach theology. Status: Unknown (Historical)/Unknown (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: Contains some teachings which contradict historical Christianity. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS)

Jesus Christ Died for Our Sins

The books need to ultimately teach God’s grace and his plan of salvation for us.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

  • Letter to Laodicea: Since it was written by Paul, we can expect it had orthodox Christian teachings. Status: Pass
  • 1 Clement: Since Clement worked with Paul, it’s reasonable to assume Clement’s writings were consistent with Paul’s. Status: Pass
  • Didascalia: Doesn’t teach theology. Status: Unknown (Historical)/Unknown (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: Mormons teach good works are required to get into the highest level of heaven, so although Jesus died for are sins, it’s not enough. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS)

Inspired by God

The books in the canon must be inspired by God, even though they have been written by people. There’s no particular reason to believe everything written by the Apostles was inspired.

  • Letter to Laodicea: Unknown inspiration. Status: Unknown
  • 1 Clement: Unknown inspiration. Status: Unknown.
  • Didascalia: Unknown inspiration. Status: Unknown (Historical)/Pass (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith claimed it was given to him by the Angel Moroni, but it contradicts historical Christian teachings. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS)

The Testimony Of The Holy Spirit to the Individual Christian

As we focus more on God, it will become easier to understand what God is teaching us. Not everyone will recognize God’s inspiration when reading a book. Also, some people may feel a testimony of the Holy Spirit confirming the book, but could be entirely mistaken. All of these books fail for most people, or they would be in the canon.

  • Letter to Laodicea: Unknown Testimony, but since it doesn’t exist anymore, it probably wasn’t highly regarded. Status: Unknown
  • 1 Clement: Some of the church fathers thought this book should be in the canon. Status: Pass
  • Didascalia: This book is in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo canon. Status: Unknown (Historical)/Pass (EOTC).
  • Book of Mormon: This book is in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints canon, but contradicts traditional Christianity. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS).

The Authority Of The Church

The early church fathers wrote about the scriptures they had received. Although there were several generations of church fathers before the canon was first recognized in the form we know it, each generation received parts of it from an earlier generation, all the way back to the Apostles.

  • Letter to Laodicea: The early church apparently didn’t feel this letter needed to be preserved. Status: Fail
  • 1 Clement: The early church did not agree this should be in the canon. Status: Fail
  • Didascalia: Written late, about fourth century, so unknown to early church, but is in EOTC canon. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: First published in 1830, so unknown to early church, but it is in the LDS canon. Status: Fail (Historical)/Pass (LDS)

A Nearly Unanimous Acceptance

The canon the Protestants use is called the minimal canon because most of the books of the New Testament had near-unanimous approval by a wide group of churches, while a few books had some dissenters. 

  • Letter to Laodicea: Possibly known by early church, but not used widely. Status: Fail
  • 1 Clement: Possibly known by early church, but not used widely. Status: Fail
  • Didascalia: Unknown by early church, and only a small group of churches accepted it. Status: Fail (Historical)/Fail (EOTC)
  • Book of Mormon: Unknown by early church, and only LDS recognize it in their canon. Status: Fail (Historical)/Fail (LDS)

Summary

Canonicity TestLetter to Laodicea1 ClementDidascaliaBook of Mormon
Is the Book Canonical?FailFailFail (Historical) / Pass (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Written ByApostle PaulPope Clement IUnknownJoseph Smith
Estimated DateMid-1st CenturyLate 1st Century4th CenturyPublished 1830
Authority of ApostlePassUnknownFail (Historical) / Pass (EOTC)Fail (Historical) /
Pass (LDS)
Christian TeachingsPassPassUnknown (Historical) / Unknown (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Jesus Died for Our SinsPassPassUnknown (Historical) / Unknown (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Inspired by GodUnknownUnknownUnknown (Historical) / Pass (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Testimony of the Holy SpiritUnknownPassUnknown (Historical) / Pass (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Authority of the ChurchFailFailFail (Historical) / Pass (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Pass (LDS)
Nearly Unanimous AcceptanceFailFailFail (Historical) / Fail (EOTC)Fail (Historical) / Fail (LDS)

The Biblical Canon was closed when the last book of the Bible was inspired by God and authenticated by the Apostles. Although there have been many books over the past 2,000 years which have helped people grow in their relationship with Christ, there are no additional books which meet the requirements for canonicity.

Technically, if a book were found which meets all of the requirements for canonicity, it could be recognized as belonging to the canon. The two requirements which are impossible to meet are the Authority of the Apostles (authenticated by an Apostle) and the Authority of the Church (passed down through the church from the Apostles to us). Letter to Laodicea and 1 Clement fail the Authority of the Church test, because they weren’t passed down to us. Didascalia and Book of Mormon fail the Authority of the Apostles test, because they were written too late. There are no additional books which meet both of these requirements. Nothing is missing from our canon. The Bibles we hold in our hands contains the books God wants us to have.

Resources

  • Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994) Chapter 3: The Canon of Scripture (Accessed 09-Aug-2019) (BibleTraining.org)

Footnotes

  1. Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Protestant and Roman Catholic.
  2. Belgic Confession, Confession of La Rochelle, Council of Carthage, Council of Trent, London Baptist Confession, Savoy Declaration, Synod of Jerusalem, Thirty-Nine Articles, Waldensian Confession and Westminster Confession.
  3. Athanasius, Augustine, Eusebius and Jerome.
  4. Codex Sinaiticus, Syriac Bible, Vulgate and Wycliffe’s Bible.
  5. These lists are not exhaustive.
  6. Cross Reference Table: Writings and Authorities (NTCanon.org) (Accessed 07-Aug-2019)
  7. Evans, Eli. Canon Comparison, Logos Bible Software (Faithlife, 2014)
  8. Geisler, Norman and Shawn Nelson. Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2015; Kindle ebook) Locations 515, 522. (Amazon)
  9. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 ESV)
  10. There are modern reconstructions of a letter claiming to be from Paul to the Laodiceans, but scholars believe the original text is from approximately the fourth century, and is therefore a forgery.
  11. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people…. (1 Corinthians 5:9 ESV)
  12. I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. (3 John 9 ESV)
  13. Yes, I [Paul] ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 ESV)
  14. Some scholars dispute the possible association of Clement of Rome (Pope Clement I) with the Apostle Paul, but the identification has been passed down from the early church fathers.
  15. (EthiopianOrthodox.org)
  16. Not the same as the First Epistle of Clement by Pope Clement I.
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Twitter

Comments

  1. […] my article Can New Books be Added to the New Testament Canon?, I listed four categories a book could be in if someone proposes adding a book to the New Testament […]

Leave a Reply (The first message from an e-mail address must be approved by a moderator)