The canon of the New Testament developed slowly and gradually over several centuries. The purpose of this timeline is to identify some of the notable steps in the process that led from the writing of the 27 documents in the 1st Century AD to the New Testament being what we find today. Therefore, all dates below are A. D.
30’s-90’s – The 27 writings which constitute our New Testament were authored. In these writings, we see the two nuclei of the New Testament (i.e. categories or collections) specified: narratives of Jesus’ life (i.e. gospels) and epistles. The Gospels are identified, though not named, as a genre in Luke 1:1-4, and the epistles are identified as a genre in 2 Peter 3:18 and elsewhere. Paul quotes Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:18, referring to it as “Scripture.” Peter equates Paul’s letters with “the Scriptures” in 2 Peter 3:15-16.
95-120 – We learn from Papias (through Eusebius) that Peter was the source for Mark’s Gospel.
110 – By this time, Ignatius has quoted in his letters 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament.
125 – Polycarp quotes Ephesians twice in his letter to the Philippians, referring to it as part of the “Sacred Scriptures.”
130-140 – Marcion forms his idiosyncratic canon, consisting of an edited form of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, thus implying the existence of a larger canon from which he was departing.
150 – Justin Martyr refers to the “memoirs of the apostles” as being read alongside the “writings of the prophets.” (Source: Wikipedia, see at bottom of this chronology)
160 (c. 172?) – Tatian (a disciple of Justin Martyr) composes a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – called The Diatesseron.
c. 170* – The Muratorian fragment is a copy of perhaps the oldest known list of the books of the New Testament (hence references to “the Muratorian canon”). The fragment, consisting of 85 lines, is a 7th-century Latin manuscript containing internal cues suggesting it is a translation from a Greek original written about 170 *or as late as the 4th century (see Sundberg and also Hahneman, bibliography). The text of the list itself is traditionally dated to about 170 because its author refers to Pius I, bishop of Rome (142—157), as recent: ” But Hermas wrote The Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the 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.”
c. 180 – Melito, bishop of Sardis, “is usually cited as the oldest witness to the title “New Testament.” Although he does not use the term explicitly, it is implied by his use of the title “Old Testament,” which is introduced without further explanation (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.26.13–14)” per Trobisch 2012.
180 – Irenaeus refers to the “fourfold form” of the gospel. “We know from Ireneaus…that the bulk of the New Testament was being used and recognized as central texts by the end of the second century.” – Darrell Bock
208 – Tertullian applies the term “New Testament” to the apostolic writings, though without appearing to consider it novel to do so.
240’s – Origen (residing in Caesaria in Palestine) acknowledged all 27 of the New Testament books but reported that James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude were disputed.
c. 300 – Eusebius gives a similar report to Origen’s (see above), adding that some had doubts about Hebrews and Revelation. Still, his two categories of “undisputed” and “disputed but known to most” contain only the 27 and no more. He named five other books (The Acts of Paul, The Sheperd of Hermas, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Letter of Barnabas, and The Didache) which were known to many churches but which, he believed, had to be judged as spurious.
303-313 – The Roman emperor Diocletian issued an edict (in 303, and which remained in effect until 313) to promote religious uniformity and calling for the burning of Christianity’s sacred writings (McDonald, The Canon Debate, 2002, Kindle location 9378). Dungan (bibliography, p. 68) attributes the persecution to Diocletian, Galerius, Maxentius, and Maximian – calling it “the Great Persecution of 303-313.”
306 – Constantine begins to reign as Roman emperor.
311 – The persecution abates somewhat, though it did continue sporadically in the East.
312 – Constantine becomes a Christian. Constantine, though greatly outnumbered, defeats Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber River, and so Constantine took sole possession of the Roman Empire’s western half. Constantine, having claimed to see a miraculous sign in the heavens prior to the battle, attributed his great victory to the God of Christianity.
313 – Christianity tolerated. Constantine and Licinius jointly issue the Edict of Milan (Edict of Toleration) which proclaimed “the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best…” (Dungan, p. 67, bibliography; Litfin 2007, bibliography)
313 – Eusebius named bishop of Caesaria.
315 – Eusebius completes Books 1-7 of Ecclesiastical History; Books 8-10 were completed by 325 (Dungan, bibliography, p. 157). Eusebius, the first church historian, wrote in EH 3.25 that the church recognized 22 books and letters for inclusion in what we today call the New Testament. The five books he described as “disputed” were James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John.
321 – Constantine proclaims Sunday as the universal day of rest.
324 – Constantine defeats Licinius to become sole emperor of the Roman Empire, uniting the western and eastern halves.
325 – Eusebius completes Books 8-10 of Ecclesiastical History before the Council of Nicea; Books 1-7 were completed by 315 (Dungan, bibliography, p. 120, 157).
325 – The First Council of Nicaea takes place by order of the Roman emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine. (GotQuestions.org). Though The DaVinci Code has caused many people to think that this council deliberated about or decided upon which writings would comprise the New Testament, there is no historical support for this notion. Per Dungan, there were approximately 300 bishops in attendance, most from the East. Adding presbyters, deacons, along with their servants and attendants, the total of those who came was about 2,000. This council was the first of seven ecumenical councils of the church held between 325 and 787: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680), Nicaea (787). None of these councils was called to address the question of canon because it was never an issue of controversy. That would await the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which affirmed the 27-book New Testament canon.
c. 325-350 – Codex Vaticanus
c. 330-360 – Codex Sinaiticus
332 – The Roman emperor Constantine writes to Eusebius, bishop of Caesaria, commissioning the production of “fifty copies of the divine scriptures.” (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 1995, p. 79.)
337 – Constantine dies at the age of 65; the empire is divided among his three sons. The middle son, Constantius, emerged as the most powerful of them (Litfin 2007, Kindle loc 2725, bibliography
339 – Eusebius dies at the age of 81.
350 – Cyril of Jerusalem gives a canon of all 27 books except that he excluded Revelation (because he did not believe that John wrote it) and included the Gospel of Thomas (the only ancient church father to have done so).
363-364 – The Council of Laodicea: a regional synod of approximately thrity clerics from Asia Minor. The Laodicean Synod had a canon that matches Cyril’s except that they excluded the Gospel of Thomas (and it never appeared in another canon). This was a 26 book canon; it included exactly the books we have except for Revelation.
367 – In his annual Easter letter (“festal letter”), Athanasius (293-373), Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of the 27 books that match our New Testament canon (the first such list in antiquity) using the word “canon” (meaning a list of writings) in connection with it. He also named several other books as useful for catechizing but not to be considered a part of the canon.
373 – Athanasius dies at the (approximate) age of 75.
379-395 – The reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius, during which paganism was outlawed and Christianity received the official imperial endorsement. (Litfin 2007, Kindle loc 4648, bibliography)
380 – The Edict of Thessalonica makes Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire – that is, the Empire’s sole authorized religion
382-383 – Pope Damasus commissions Jerome to produce a standard Latin translation of the Bible (Dungan, p. 157, bibliography). This translation would come to be called “The Vulgate” – referring to its use of common or colloquial speech. The Vulgate would become the normative Bible for the Western church. It used the same canonical list that Athanasius had given in 367 and that is the same as we see in our Bibles today, though the order of the books varies slightly.
386 – Augustine converts to Christianity.
390 – Gregory of Nazianus gives a canon of 27 books identical to Athanasius’ and ours.
393 – The Synod of Hippo ratifies the 27-book canon. (Geisler, From God to Us, p. 140) “Augustine of Hippo threw his weight behind the list and pushed its acceptance” (Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p. 244-245)
394 – Jerome affirms the 27.
395 – Augustine installed as bishop of Hippo.
395-400 – Augustine affirms the 27.
397 – The Council of Carthage ratifies the 27-book canon. (Geisler, From God to Us, p. 140)
397 – The Third Synod of Carthage Synod left out Revelation, reducing the total to 26.
397 – Augustine writes the first three books (the fourth and final being written in 426) of On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina christiana), in which, per Dungan (p. 134), he “closed the door, as far as western Christianity was concerned, on any further discussion regarding which books should be in the Bible.” (Doctr. chr. 2.8.12)
405-410 – Augustine writes On the Harmony of the Evangelists, to refute allegations of inconsistencies in the Gospels.
419 – The Carthage Synod reconvenes and includes Revelation, affirming the 27.
(summarizing 393-419) – The African Canons affirm the 27. (Three councils were held at Hippo (393, 394, 426) and more synods – also in 397 (two sessions), June and September and 401, all under Aurelius.)
We can see that the publication of the New Testament canon came well after New Testament times. There was no central church authority to control the discussion. It was a debate among many geographically-dispersed churches. For more on how the books were chosen, see Criteria for the Canon of the New Testament.
420 – Jerome dies at the age of 73.
430 – Augustine dies at the age of 75.
1227 – Stephen Langton, a professor at the University of Paris and later the Archbishop of Canterbury, divides the Bible (Vulgate) into chapters. (New Testament Statistics)
1384 – In defiance of Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, John Wycliffe translates the Latin Vulgate into English.
1448 – The Hebrew Old Testament was divided into verses by a Jewish rabbi by the name of Nathan. (gotQuestions.org)
1450 – The German printer Johannes Gutenberg invents movable-type mechanical printing in Europe.
1455 – Gutenberg produces what is considered to be the first book ever printed: a Latin language Bible, printed in Mainz, Germany. Called the Gutenberg Bible, it is an edition of the Vulgate. Today, 48 copies (some partial) are still extant.
1514 – The first Greek New Testament was printed.
1522 – The Greek New Testament printed in 1514 was published and distributed. The delay was due to political issues involved in getting papal approval of the project.
1522 – Martin Luther translates the Greek New Testament into German for the masses.
1525 – Inspired by Luther’s translation of the Greek New Testament into German, William Tyndale begins translating the Greek New Testament into English. Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English one to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. Much of the 1611 King James Version takes its English phrasing from Tyndale’s work.
1534 – Martin Luther translates the Hebrew Bible into German for the masses, making for a complete Bible in German. Per Dungan (p. 136-137) and Metzger (p. 242), Luther relegated Hebrews and James to the back of the New Testament with Jude and Revelation, regarding all four as unworthy of the attention that should be given to the rest. No other reformers followed Luther, and the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent concurred with the other reformers (though they might not have described their action in that way).
1545-1563 – The Council of Trent gives status to the Latin Vulgate as the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first, and only, ecumenical church council convened for the purpose, even in part, of resolving disagreements about the biblical canon..and even it, because it was Roman Catholic, did not involve Protestant or Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The biblical canon was not a matter of controversy in Christian antiquity. Moreover, the Canon of Trent (1546) affirmed, and did not alter in any way, the New Testament canon established by the ancient church.
1555 – The first entire Bible in which these chapter and verse divisions were used was Stephen’s edition of the Latin Vulgate. (New Testament Statistics)
1560 – The first English New Testament to have both chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible. (Blue Letter Bible)
1611 – The King James Version of the English Bible was published.
1899 – Louis Klopsch conceives the idea of printing the words of Jesus in red based on Jesus’ statement in Luke 22:20 KJV.
1901 – The first red-letter Bible is published.
1971 – The New American Standard Bible is published. The publication of the NASB began with the Gospel of John in 1960, followed by the four Gospels in 1962, the New Testament in 1963, and the entire Bible in 1971. The Greek edition used by the NASB revisers was the 23rd edition of the Nestle text.
1995 – The New American Standard Bible’s latest revision.
Kruger, Michael J. “The Canonization of the New Testament” – a series of four lectures delivered at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC on March 18, 2013 (iTunesU).
Stewart, Don. “Why Is the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses?” at BlueLetterBible.org.
Dungan, David L. Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. Fortress Press, 2007.
Licona, Michael R. “The New Testament: Text, Translation, Canon” (lecture at 2014 Tactical Faith Conference on YouTube – 46:50)
Turek, Frank. “How Do We Know That The New Testament Was Written in the 1st Century?” (YouTube video – 1:42)
Wikipedia. “Muratorian Fragment”
__________. “Development of the New Testament canon”
__________. “New Testament”
__________. “Red-Letter Edition”
For all other sources referenced, see Bibliography.