How we know what the New Testament contains

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Where did we get the New Testament?  How was it compiled?

The Apostles didn’t leave instructions as to which writings were to be included in the Bible.  That is why there was a lot of debate about which texts were considered inspired in the first few centuries.

Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible

Our first list of New Testament books that includes all the books we use today comes from the Catholic bishop Athanasius, who was instrumental in defining the Trinity as doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 324-5 AD.  This was also the first list to exclude texts not considered as canonical today.

Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter in the year 367 AD:

Continuing, I must without hesitation mention the scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after them the Acts of the Apostles and the seven so-called catholic epistles of the apostles — namely, one of James, two of Peter, then three of John and after these one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul written in the following order: the first to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians and then after these the one to the Galatians, following it the one to the Ephesians, thereafter the one to the Philippians and the one to the Colossians and two to the Thessalonians and the epistle to the Hebrews and then immediately two to Timothy , one to Titus and lastly the one to Philemon. Yet further the Revelation of John. [New Testament Canon, Festal Letter of St Athanasius]

The second such list was an official statement from Pope St Damasus I in 382 AD – I have added the better-known names in [brackets] where confusion might otherwise arise:

The Decree of Pope St Damasus I, Council of Rome – 382 AD:


A closeup of the illuminated letter P in the 1407AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.

A closeup of the illuminated letter P in the 1407AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.

It is likewise decreed: Now, indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book: Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Jesus Nave [Joshua], one book; of Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; of Kings [Samuel I+II/Kings I+II], four books; Paralipomenon [Chronicles I+II], two books; One Hundred and Fifty Psalms, one book; of Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book; Ecclesiastes, one book; Canticle of Canticles, one book; likewise, Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), one book; Likewise, the list of the Prophets: Isaiah, one book; Jeremias, one book; along with Cinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezechiel, one book; Daniel, one book; Osee [Hosea], one book; Amos, one book; Micheas [Micah], one book; Joel, one book; Abdias [Obadiah], one book; Jonas, one book; Nahum, one book; Habacuc, one book; Sophonias [Zephaniah], one book; Aggeus [Haggai], one book; Zacharias, one book; Malachias [Malachi], one book. Likewise, the list of histories: Job, one book; Tobias, one book; Esdras [Ezra/Nehemiah], two books; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; of Maccabees, two books. Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church receives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus one to Philemon, one to the Hebrews. Likewise, one book of the Apocalypse of John. And the Acts of the Apostles, one book. Likewise, the canonical Epistles, seven in number: of the Apostle Peter, two Epistles; of the Apostle James, one Epistle; of the Apostle John, one Epistle; of the other John, a Presbyter, two Epistles; of the Apostle Jude the Zealot, one Epistle. Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament. Likewise it is decreed: After the announcement of all of these prophetic and evangelic or as well as apostolic writings which we have listed above as Scriptures, on which, by the grace of God, the Catholic Church is founded, we have considered that it ought to be announced that although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Canon of Scripture… Who Fired The Decisive Shot?, [IA alternative here]
— and Decree of Pope Saint Damasus (382 AD)

Ironically for those who object loudly to Catholicism, the very New Testament they use was compiled by Catholic bishops and popes, who dealt with the controversy over what was inspired and what was not in the 3 centuries before the final list was completed.  The Holy Spirit used the Catholic Church to formalise the New Testament in the form that we know it today, and it is from these 4th century Catholics that we get our canon.  If Catholicism is apostate, as some claim, why did God use a group of clerics who honoured Mary, said Mass, kept Sunday and Easter, had 7 sacraments, etc., to bring the inspired word of God together into one volume?

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