The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.
The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:
By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine. (Constantinou 2008, 38)
So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined. (McDonald 2007, 22) Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:
Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament. (Constantinou 2008, 32)
Over time, certain writings from the New Testament period were considered to be Scripture by various churches, but sometimes that status was granted and then taken away. Lee McDonald writes:
When a particular writing was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative, it was elevated to the status of Scripture, even if the writing was not yet called “Scripture” and even if that status was only temporary. For example, the noncanonical writings Eldad and Modad, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius were initially given this status in the church, but in time that practice ceased. There was limited discussion or agreement in the early church on such matters, and in the first two centuries only selective agreement on books acknowledged as Scripture took place. (McDonald 2007, 23-24)
Even the four Gospels were not considered to be Scripture, on par with the Old Testament, until the end of the 2nd Century. Evidence for this is shown by the heretic Marcion, who rejected the gospels with the exception of Luke, and who produced a redacted version of Luke. Then there was Tatian the Assyrian, whose Diatesseron harmonized the four gospels into a single book, a book which replaced the four Gospels in the Syriac churches until the 5th century. Eusebious reports that Tatian also attempted to rewrite the gospels, which itself is a testament to their not being considered on par with Scripture. (Constantinou 2008, 32-35)
The canon of Scripture gradually coalesced around a common core of books, but a number of books remained in dispute, with different bishops and regional councils weighing in on the issue. Constantinou writes:
It can only be said that by the end of the fourth century a consensus existed in both the East and West for the core of the canon: our present fourfold gospel corpus, Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of PauL, 1 John and 1 Peter. However, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation remained disputed at least to the extent that they were not universally accepted. (Constantinou 2008, 39)
The Book of Revelation is unique among the New Testament books, both for its claim to divine inspiration, and to its strange canonical history. In the 2nd century, Revelation was widely accepted as authoritative on the basis of its authorship and apostolicity; however, by the 4th century it had fallen out of favor — primarily because of the influence of the Montanist heresy. Constantinou writes:
Montanist prophecy was primarily eschatological in orientation. The message contained chiliastic and apocalyptic expectations which were associated with the Revelation of John, such the promise of a New Jerusalem. The three prophets proclaimed the imminent coming of the end of the world and professed to be the divinely appointed agents sent to warn Christians that the second coming of Christ was at hand. (Constantinou 2008, 65)
The Montanist heresy was so pervasive as to have drawn away the founder of Latin Christianity, Tertullian. The response to the Montanists was an attempt to discredit the writings that had been used by the Montanists — in particular, the Book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 68-71)
Another reason why Revelation lost its canonical appeal was that the symbolism was mysterious and no longer understood. Revelation was written to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who presumably understood its cryptic imagery due to their familiarity with the author. But later generations did not have that intimate connection with the author’s meaning, and it was easily misinterpreted. In addition, the apocalyptic imagery of the Revelation arose from a Jewish apocalyptic tradition, a tradition which was foreign to the increasingly gentile Church. (Constantinou 2008, 72-73)
Around 332 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine the Great commissioned Eusebius to provide fifty copies of the scriptures for the churches in Constantinople. Unfortunately, none of these copies exist today, and Eusebius does not tell us which books were included. Some authorities contend they only contained the gospels; others think they would have contained only the books Eusebius considered canonical, which would have excluded the book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 92) F. F. Bruce believes it would have contained our current 27 book canon, including Revelation. (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, Bruce fails to mention that the canonicity of Hebrews was disputed in the west (due to its unknown author) for at least another hundred years. (Constantinou 2008, 92) Moreover, Bruce fails to provide convincing evidence for the inclusion of the Revelation, supposing that it would have been included because emperor Constantine the Great used its imagery as “imperial propaganda.” (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, since the Byzantine lectionary (or cycle of bible readings) dates to the 4th century and did not include the book of Revelation, an argument can be made for its not being part of the bibles produced by Eusebius.
Some point to the works such as the Synod of Laodicea (363 A.D.), the festal letter of Athanasius (367 A.D.), or the Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) as evidence that the canon of the New Testament was closed, when in fact what this shows is the matter was in some dispute, leading various bishops and regional councils to weigh in on the issue. The Council of Trullo (692 A.D.), known as the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, ratified the conflicting canons of the previous councils and apostolic fathers, yet failed to settle the issue. Eugenia Constantinou writes:
With regard to the canon of Scripture, rather than creating clarification, the Council of Trullo only compounded the confusion. The question of the New Testament canon of the East remained hopelessly muddled and even contradictory because the Quinisext synod did not compose its own list of canonical Scripture but only ratified earlier decisions, ignoring the fact that the canons of Scripture enumerated by earlier councils and various Fathers were not in agreement, especially with respect to Revelation. For example, Athanasius, Basil the Great and the Synod of Carthage accepted Revelation, while the Council at Laodicea and the 85 Apostolic Canons rejected it. They ratified Aniphilochios’ canon, but it is unclear whether he accepted or rejected Revelation or the catholic epistles. On the other hand, the 85 Apostolic Canons accepted 1 and 2 Clement as Scripture, something which earlier synods and the ratified Fathers did not. All of these synodal decisions and patristic canons of Scripture were ratified at Trullo. (Constantinou 2008, 107)
Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable (given the Protestant understanding of the canon), the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This rule of faith led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. I was taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.
Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.
McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.