The Ancient Church Saw the New Testament as the Apostolic Writings

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.

This post is designed to accumulate the evidence that the ancient church, in producing the New Testament, was distinguishing genuine apostolic writings from all other Christian writings.  Though many modern scholars also believe that the New Testament is the apostolic testimony, I am not trying to document that here.  In this post I want to focus exclusively on what the ancient church thought.

I include both liberal and conservative scholars in this list to demonstrate that the ancient church’s view about the apostolicity of the New Testament is acknowledge from one end of the academic spectrum to the other.  Interestingly, liberal scholars demonstrate even more willingness to admit that the ancient church considered the New Testament to be the extant apostolic corpus than conservative scholars do.  This is, of course, because liberal scholars are quite comfortable criticizing the ancient church’s views on authorship while conservative scholars are not.

Ehrman, Bart D.  Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.  HarperCollins, 2011.  Read again the second half of Ehrman’s sub-title to this book.  Who does Ehrman think we think the authors of the Bible are?  Obviously, those whom the Bible ascribes them to be.  In some cases, the authors are named in the text itself (as in Romans 1:1 or 1 Corinthians 1:1), and in other cases they are named only in the title assigned to the book (as in Matthew or Mark).  In all cases, the authors Ehrman wants us to reject are those claimed by the ancient church to be the authors.  Speaking of the ancient church’s interest in making sure it had genuine apostolic teaching, he writes (at Kindle location 133):

One could know what the apostles taught through the writings they left behind. These authoritative authors produced authoritative teachings. So the authoritative truth could be found in the apostolic writings.

And again (at Kindle location 164), he writes:

The crucial question is this: Is it possible that any of the early Christian forgeries made it into the New Testament? That some of the books of the New Testament were not written by the apostles whose names are attached to them?

Funk, Robert W.  “The Once and Future New Testament” in The Canon Debate, 2002, edited by McDonald and Sanders, bibliography.  In this statement (Kindle location 12229), Funk is, of course, siding with modern liberal scholars who think that the ancients were wrong about the sources for the New Testament writings, but in doing so he makes clear for us that he knows where the ancients stood.

The early fathers of the church argued that the canonical writings were produced by the ‘apostles,’ who were presumed to be either among the first followers of the historical Jesus or amanuenses (secretaries) to those followers.  We now know that most if not all of those claims are inaccurate.”

Gamble, Harry Y.  The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1985.  Gamble is here (p. 83) making the point that the ancient church was wrong in ascribing apostolicity to the New Testament canon; but, in so doing, he affirms that apostolicity was the ancient church’s central criterion for inclusion in that collection.

[H]istorical criticism has shown that the ancient church was most often mistaken in its claim that the canonical writings were written by apostles.

__________.  “Canonical Formation of the New Testament” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, p. 183-195.  InterVarsity, 2000.  On p. 193, Gamble writes:

From an early time Christians considered their Scriptures to be apostolic.

And on p. 194, he writes:

The ancient church assumed that whatever was apostolic, even in the broadest sense, was also catholic and orthodox.

McDonald, Lee M.  The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed.  T & T Clark, 2011.  At Kindle location 1561:

Christians added the literature that they believed stemmed from the apostolic communities and at roughly the same time that the Jewish community added their codified oral traditions (the Mishnah) to their sacred written collections.”

McDonald, Lee M. and James A. Sanders.  The Canon Debate.  Baker Academic, 2002.  From the Introduction, Kindle location 228:

There is little doubt among canon scholars that authorship by an apostle was the most important factor considered by the church leaders of the fourth and following centuries. If it was believed that an apostle produced a particular writing, that writing was accepted and treated as scripture. This also helps to explain the large collection of literature pseudonymously attributed to the apostles, the so-called apocryphal New Testament writings. There is no doubt that several books of the New Testament were placed in the canon of scripture because the majority of the church fathers believed that they were written by members of the apostolic community if not by apostles themselves.


A Sub-Bibliography of Nineteenth-Century and Prior Works

This is a subsidiary post of Annotated Bibliography on New Testament Text and Canon.

Because my bibliography on text and canon (“apostolic apologetics”) is so long, and because older works have particular advantages and disadvantages, I thought it might be helpful to list here those works in the bibliography that come from prior to the 20th Century.

To be clear, this bibliography is a subset of the Annotated Bibliography on New Testament and Canon.  There is no work you will find below that is not already included in that much longer list.  However, to keep this list concise I have not included the annotations with the entries.

Alexander, Archibald (1772-1851).  The Canon of the Old and New Testaments Ascertained; or, The Bible, Complete, without the Apocrypha and Unwritten Traditions.  Presbyterian Board of Education, 1851.

Athanasius (296-373).  Festal Letter 39.  This is the earliest statement about New Testament contents that matches our own.  See Athanasius on the New Testament Canon.

Augustine (354-430).  On Christian Doctrine.  He lists the canonical books in 2.8.12-13.  See Augustine on the New Testament Canon.

__________.  Against Faustus (Contra Faustum).  In 33:6 Augustine explains how we can know, even from a purely human standpoint, whether literary works are authentic or false, using Hippocrates as an example.

Charteris, A. H.  Canonicity:  A Collection of Early Testimonies to the Canonical Books of the New Testament.  William Blackwood and Sons, 1880.

Davidson, Samuel.  The Canon of the Bible: Its Formation, History, and Fluctuations, Third Revised and Enlarged Edition.  C. Kegan Paul, 1880.

Eusebius (263-339).  The History of the Church.  Translated by G. A. Williamson.  Penguin, 1965, 432 pages.  (Also translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert.  Archeron Press, 2012, Kindle edition.)

Hodge, A. A. (1823-1886). “Popular lectures on theological themes” in Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1887, p. 68-93.

Jerome (347-420).  Letter 53.  At 53:9, he addresses the canon.  See Jerome on the New Testament Canon.

Josephus (37-100).  Josephus: The Complete Works.  Translated by William Whiston.  Thomas Nelson, 1998, 1159 pages.

Moore, Dunlop.  “The Beginning and Growth of the Canon of the New Testament” inThe Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Vol. 7, No. 25, January 1896, 33 pages.

Reuss, Edward (1804-1891).  History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Church.  Translated by David Hunter.  Gemmell, 1884, 430 pages.

Schaff, Philip (1819-1893). Editor.  The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection.  Catholic Way Publishing, 2014 (originally published 1886-1900).

Tregelles, Samuel P. (1813-1875).   A Lecture on the Historic Evidence of the Authorship and Transmission of the Books of the New Testament.  Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1852.

Westcott, Brooke Foss.  A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 4th edition.  Macmillan, 1875.

Zahn, Theodor.  Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons.  Deichert, 1888-1892.

The Terms “Prophets” and “Apostles” as Applied to Writings

This is a subsidiary post of The Study of Canon and the Etymology of Certain Terms.

In the New Testament, we can see the term “prophets” used as a reference to their writings – that is, the Old Testament (e.g., Luke 24:25 and Acts 26:27).  Subsequent to the apostolic age, the term “apostles” came to be used in the same way for the New Testament writings.

See The “Prophets and Apostles” as a Synonym for Bible.

Jason Engwar on the Deaths Of The Apostles

Jason Engwar is building a series on the how the apostles died.  He seems to be a responsible and thorough researcher.

Triablogue: The Death Of The Apostles.

Defining Apostolicity

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.

Campenhausen, Hans von.  The Formation of the Christian Bible.  trans. J. A. Baker.  Augsburg Fortress, 1972; Sigler Press, 1997 edition.  See p. 330.

“So far as any ‘principle’ can be discerned behind the sources it appears to be one simply of chronological limitation: the normative testimonies must derive from the period closest to Christ, namely that of Christian origins, the age of the apostles and their disicples.”

Dunbar, David G.  “The Biblical Canon” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge.  Academie Books, 1986.  See p. 358; the embedded quote is from Campenhausen, p. 330 (see above).

“Broadly stated, the church regarded apostolicity as the qualifying factor for canonical recognition; however, this apostolicity should be understood not strictly in terms of authorship but in terms of content and chronology.  That which was canon must embody the apostolic tradition, and this tradition was to be discerned in he most primitive documents: ‘ the normative testimonies must derive from the period closest to Christ, namely that of Christian origins, the age of the apostles and their disciples.’  The recognition of this apostolicity, moreover, was based primarily on the tradition of the church.  Those books that had functioned authoritatively for earlier Christians were received as authentic apostolic tradition.  In turn, those documents were used in a negative way to exclude works of later vintage or varying doctrinal content, as happened, for example, in [sic] case of The Gospel of Peter.”

Zahn, Theodor.  Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons.  Deichert, 1888-1892.   Per Campenhausen (see above) in footnote 9 on p. 330 of The Formation of the Christian Bible:

“Zahn…pertinently comments: ‘The concept of what was “apostolic”, to the extent that it coincided with what we call “canonical” or “New Testament”, was not derived directly from the idea of a special official dignity attaching to the twelve apostles and to Paul, but from the conviction that complete sections of the traditional New Testament were written by apostles and companions of the apostles, and thus were reliable documents for the apostolic age, and in particular for the apostolic preaching and tradition’.”

Apostolicity and the New Testament

The New Testament is what the ancient considered to be the extant apostolic corpus.  That is, they only put writings from apostles (and working associates of apostles) into the New Testament, and they left no such documents out of it.

Thus the New Testament consists exclusively of apostolic literature, and it is all the apostolic literature that there is.

To understand the existence of the New Testament is to understand the apostles and the authority that the Lord gave them.

Criteria for the Canon of the New Testament

Defining Apostolicity

New Testament Canonicity Is a Proxy for Apostolicity

R. Laird Harris on Canonicity as an Outcome of Authorship

Quotes of Scholars Regarding the New Testament Canon as Apostolic Texts

The Ancient Church Saw the New Testament as the Apostolic Writings

The “Prophets and Apostles” as a Synonym for Bible

The “Prophets and Apostles” as a Synonym for Bible

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.
It is also a subsidiary post of The Term “Apostles” as Applied to Writings.

[Emphasis added in quotes below]

Justin Martyr

“…and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are being read as long as it is allowable”  1 Apology 67.3


(d. 202)

“Scripture for Irenaeus consists of the Old and New Testament, though he never uses the term testamentum in this sense.  He indicates the two parts by ‘the prophets‘ and ‘the gospel(s)‘ respectively, or else he uses the terms ‘the law and the prophets‘ to designate the Old Testament, and ‘the gospels and the apostolic writings‘ to designate the New Testament.  (p. 128-129 in Flesseman-van Leer 1954, see bibliography)

The Muratorian Fragment
(2nd or 4th Century)

“And therefore [the Shepherd of Hermas] 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.  (The Text of the Muratorian Fragment)



“The church harmoniously joins the law and the prophets with the writings of the evangelists and apostles.  From this source she drinks in the true faith…”  The Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 36


Vincent of Lerins
(d. 445)

Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.  Commonitory 2.5

What is meant by sheep’s clothing? What but the words which prophets and apostles with the guilelessness of sheep wove beforehand as fleeces, for that immaculate Lamb which takes away the sin of the world? What are the ravening wolves? What but the savage and rabid glosses of heretics, who continually infest the Church’s folds, and tear in pieces the flock of Christ wherever they are able?  Commonitory 25.66


Hans Von Campenhausen

“The authority of the biblical writings is based on the fact that they reliably record the predictions of Christ in the prophets and the testimony to Christ of the apostles…For short the two Testaments are referred to simply as ‘The Prophets’ and ‘the Apostles’.”  (Source: See p. 330 of Campenhausen in bibliography)


Brevard S. Childs

“The formation of a canon of Scriptures is a recognition of the need for a context, different from both Testaments, in which the Christian Church continues to wrestle in every new age with the Living God who continues to confront his people through the ancient testimony of the prophets and apostles.”  (Source:  Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, Westminster, 1970, p. 113, cited in Seitz, Character, Kindle location 3958, bibliography)

Christopher Seitz

“…the church’s inheritance of prophets and apostles…”  (Source: Seitz in The Character of Christian Scripture, Kindle location 83, bibliography)

“The authority of both the NT and the Christian Scripture as a twofold witness is derived from the claims of the OT – claims presupposed in the NT and asserting themselves in the milieu from which its own composition, as the ‘apostles’ half of ‘prophets and apostles,’ is coming about.”  (Source: same as above, Kindle location 1085)


For More:

Farkasfalvy, Denis M.  “‘Prophets and Apostles’: The Conjunction of the Two Terms Before Irenaeus” (1980, 26 pages) in Texts and Testaments edited by March (see bibliography).

Josephus on the Old Testament Canon

Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) was a Jewish historian.  Although he did not use the words “Old Testament” or “canon,” he certainly spoke of the concepts.  His view is relevant for us because he is describing how 1st-century Jews thought of these matters.  And 1st-century Jews are what Jesus and His apostles were.

He wrote [emphasis added]:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books*, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in number, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws and the records that contain them; whereas there are none at all among the Greeks who would undergo the least harm on that account, no, nor in case all the writings that are among them were to be destroyed; for they take them to be such discourses as are framed agreeably to the inclinations of those that write them; and they have justly the same opinion of the ancient writers, since they see some of the present generation bold enough to write about such affairs, wherein they were not present, nor had concern enough to inform themselves about them from those that knew them; examples of which may be had in this late war of ours, where some persons have written histories, and published them, without having been in the places concerned, or having been near them when the actions were done; but these men put a few things together by hearsay, and insolently abuse the world, and call these writings by the name of Histories.

* What Josephus calls the “22 books” are identical to the 39 books found in Old Testament today; the books are simply organized and counted differently.

Source:  Early Jewish Writings (Josephus, Against Apion 1:8)

See also The Official Blog of the Blue Letter Bible

Serapion on the Apostles, Their Authority, and Their Writings

Serapion died c. 211 AD.  He was the 8th bishop of Antioch and served in that role c. 190-211. He spoke against Marcion and against the so-called Gospel of Peter.

Of the apostles, Serapion said:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the rest of the apostles as Christ Himself. But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name, we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us.

Source:  Early Christian Writings

See also Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 6.12