Were the New Testament Books Widely Disputed?

One rather common misconception is that there was widespread disagreement by the early church fathers about which New Testament books were inspired and included in the canon. The truth is just the opposite: among church fathers there was widespread acceptance of the New Testament books and very few disputes. The following chart appears in both Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict and in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology. It shows all the church fathers and councils that quoted any New Testament book, mentioned anything about their inspiration or lack thereof, or alluded to whether they should be included or not. It covers the first 400 years of church history, the period apparently alluded to by modern critics.

In this chart, the only books that are questioned are the ones with question marks (?). Thus Origen questioned four books (Hebrews, II Peter, and II & III John. Since Origen was condemned as a heretic, his views carry little weight in orthodox circles. Yet citing Origen shows that even those beyond the fringes of orthodoxy did not question the bulk of the New Testament books.

Moving on through the list, Eusebius also questioned four books, the council of Cheltenham  questioned three, and the first council of Nicea five. This is the total of the individuals or councils that questioned New Testament books for the first 400 years of the church.

Consider that two of the questioned books are the little books of II and III John, which do not say much, and the little book of Jude, which also is rather insignificant when it comes to essential doctrines.

This leaves us with a relatively few books that were questioned at all. If we discount Origen the heretic, the disputes are reduced to three instances of II Peter and two of James. Some church histories record the discussions surrounding Hebrews, since the book does not state the author, but once the church fathers generally accepted it as being of Paul, it was not rejected.

Thus we can safely conclude that this small handful of disputations hardly qualifies as widespread disagreement. In truth, none of the central books of the New Testament were questioned in the first centuries of the church. The books that present the essential doctrines of the faith, such as the four gospels, Romans, and the epistles of Paul, were never disputed by the church fathers.

We should find it odd that so many of the modern critics claim things about disputes of the New Testament, but never seem to quote any specific sources.




About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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8 Responses to Were the New Testament Books Widely Disputed?

  1. I am very glad you cited a source for this, because from my own reading about Eubius, there is no definite answer onto which books he considered inpired or cannon because the 50 bibles he wrote for the Ceaser have never been recovered and are lost in history. Because of that, that why all the material I have read on him indicate to one really knows for sure what he considered inpired or cannon.

    However Giesler is very creditable source so may check it out. Mcdowall I have heard of, but dont know much of

    • humblesmith says:

      The primary source reference for Eusebius is his Ecclesiastical History. The following quote is found in The New Bible Dictionary, by Wood, Marshall, Howard. I haven’t verified the quote, but I’ll take their word for it:

      “In brief, the idea of a definite canon is fully established, and its main outline firmly fixed: the issue now is which books out of a certain number of marginal cases belong to it. The position in the church in the 3rd century is well summarized by Eusebius (EH 3. 25). He distinguishes between acknowledged books (homologoumena), disputed books (antilegomena) and spurious books (notha). In the first class are placed the four Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and (according to some) the Revelation of John; in the second class he places (as ‘disputed, nevertheless known to most’) James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John; in the third class the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Gospel according to the Hebrews and (according to others) the Revelation of John.These latter, Eusebius suggests, might well be in the second class were it not for the necessity of guarding against deliberate forgeries of Gospels and Acts under the name of apostles, made in a strictly heretical interest. As examples of these he names the Gospels of Thomas, Peter and Matthias, and the Acts of Andrew and John. These ‘ought to be reckoned not even among the spurious books but shunned as altogether wicked and impious’.

      D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 173.

  2. offshore bank account says:

    The Official Canon Many people think the New Testament writings were agreed upon at the Council of Nicea. There were 20 canons (church rules) voted on at Nicea – none dealt with sacred writings. The first historical reference listing the exact 27 writings in the orthodox New Testament is in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367 AD. His reference states that these are the only recognized writings to be read in a church service. The first time a church council ruled on the list of “inspired” writings allowed to be read in church was at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD. No document survived from this council – we only know of this decision because it was referenced at the third Synod of Carthage in 397 AD. Even this historical reference from Carthage, Canon 24, does not “list” every single document. For example, it reads, “the gospels, four books…” The only reason for this list is to confirm which writings are “sacred” and should be read in a church service. There is no comment as to why and how this list was agreed upon.

    • humblesmith says:

      The critical point was whether the books were widely disputed, which is a common misonception spread by skeptics. The vast majority of the inspired writings were recognized early and not disputed, as the chart shows.

  3. Pingback: The Gospel of Thomas vs. The Bible | Thomistic Bent

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  5. Pingback: Why Do We Accept the Biblical Writers as Inspired? | Thomistic Bent

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