Obstacles in the Study of New Testament Formation

This is a subsidiary post of The Formation of the New Testament…from Beginning to End.
It is also a subsidiary post of The Difficulty of Studying New Testament Canon Formation.

There are formidable obstacles that stand in the way of a productive study of how the 27-book New Testament came to be.


Scholars who report the history of New Testament formation often use the same terms, but not in the same way.  For example, some scholars use the words “scripture” and “canon” interchangeably, while other scholars draw sharp distinctions between the two.  As for the word canon itself, Brevard Childs said, “Much of the present confusion over the problem of canon turns on the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology” (Kruger 2013, p. 27, bibliography) .  Michael Kruger then goes on to suggest that scholars remove the confusion by abandoning hope for a common definition of canon and instead use three different definitions for it: exclusive, functional, and ontological.  Whether or not other scholars adopt his suggestion, the very fact that he felt the need to make such a suggestion indicates the confusion surrounding even the most fundamental term in view.  Beyond this, there are other terms whose meaning can be easily misunderstood, at least with those writers who don’t clear define them.  These include words like “apocryphal” and “anonymous.”

A semantic issue worthy of its own discussion is anachronism.  See next.


Compounding the semantic difficulties, anachronistic thinking can easily blur one’s view of history.  When the 27 writings that we call the New Testament were written – that is, in the first century – there was no New Testament and therefore no one was talking about “the New Testament canon.”  In fact, the term “canon” as referring to a “list of writings” did not exist at that time.  Therefore, studying the works of second and third century writers to discern their views on terms that did come into use until the fourth century is fraught with difficulty.  For this reason, see Anachronisms: the Study of Canon and the Etymology of Certain Terms.


Once people learn that the New Testament was not delivered from heaven in a single volume, that it was formed over an extended period of time and did not take the shape we know until the fourth and fifth centuries, they assume that the process was a linear progression – that the church debated until it reached a conclusion.  That implies that from the beginning the church consciously undertook to produce a New Testament canon.  Even the best of scholars can inadvertently give this impression.


Some misconceptions deserve to be called outright lies.  Consider that on page 304 of The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown writes this:

“‘Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.'”

The notion that Constantine or the Council of Nicaea or any other single person, group, or event determined the contents of the New Testament is so opposed to the historical record that it deserves to be called a lie.  Readers of this book may be duped, and many have been, but the author had reason to know better.

Differences in Theological Perspectives of Modern Writers

Conservative scholars are inclined to see the history of canon formation in a way that liberal scholars do not.  That is, a scholar might be prejudicing his analysis according to his theological bias.  Readers have to stay alert to this possibility.  Most scholars will not intentionally mislead, but unintentional bias can taint history.

Disagreements between Ancient and Modern Writers About Authorship

Sometimes writers fail to make clear whether they are describing modern scholarly views of authorship of biblical books or ancient views.  We must remember that the ancients made their decisions about authorship based on information that is not fully available to modern scholars.

The Ancients Did Not Consciously Create the New Testament

The ancient did not begin the process of forming the New Testament with the end in mind.  There are no instructions in the New Testament writings which announce and direct a process of forming a New Testament.  For more, see The Ancient Did Not Decide to Form the New Testament.