The Stages of New Testament Formation

This is a subsidiary post of The Formation of the New Testament…from Beginning to End.

The 27 individual writings that comprise the New Testament existed in the 1st Century.  However, they did not exist as a single clearly-identified collection called the New Testament and paired with the Old Testament to form a single set of Scriptures until the 4th and 5th Centuries.  Thus the New Testament was formed in stages.

1st Century  –  The 27 documents that would become the New Testament are written.

2nd Century  –  Copies of the individual writings circulate – the majority in collection units such as the Fourfold Gospel and the Letters of Paul.

3rd Century  –

4th Century  –  The 27-book New Testament as we know it is multiply-attested as a clearly-defined literary unit.

5th Century  –


Aland, Kurt.  The Problem of the New Testament Canon, Contemporary Studies in Theology 2.  Mowbray, 1962, 33 pages.  In pages 8-13 (Section III) Aland describes seven stages.

1. From Paul via John to the older stratum of the Apostolic Fathers
2. The later stratum of Apostolic Fathers and Justin.
3. About 150 AD.
4. Around the year 200 with Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.
5. Through the third and into the beginning of the fourth centuries.
6. Begins about 350 and lasts into the beginning of the fifth century.
7. From the beginning of the fifth or sixth century onward.

Farkasfalvy, Denis M.  “The Early Development of the New Testament Canon” in The Formation of the New Testament Canon: An Ecumenical Approach by Farmer and Farkasfalvy.  Paulist Press, 1983.  In pages 148-158 Farkasfalvy describes four phases.

1. The apostolic phase (from Jesus to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD)
2. The subapostolic phase (from 70 AD to the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 AD)
3. The phase of rising Gnosticism (from 135 AD to the death of Justin Martyr in 165 AD)
4. The anti-Gnostic phase (from Justin to Irenaeus and to his later contemporaries: Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome)

Gamble, Harry Y.  “The New Testament Canon: Recent Research and the Status Quaestionis” in The Canon Debate, 2002, edited by McDonald and Sanders (bibliography).  See Kindle location 5950 where Gamble rehearses Barton’s three-stage process.

Litfin, Bryan M.  Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.  Brazos, 2007, 304 pages.  In Kindle location 1617-1650 (part of Chapter 4) Litfin describes four stages (corresponding to the first four centuries.

1. First Century: Writing of the Biblical Texts
2. Second Century: Authoritative Core Texts, with Some Dispute
3. Third Century: Awareness of a Two-Testament Bible
4. Fourth Century: List-Making, Exclusion, and Final Closure of the Canon