The beginning of the canon of authoritative and normative books for the churches, which came to define its identity, began in the first century. Early on collections of books circulated for use in public worship. The Epistle of 2 Peter demonstrates familiarity with the writings of Paul already circulating in the churches (2 Pet. 3:15-16), putting them on a par with the Hebrew Scriptures.
By the way New Testament books were used by early Church Fathers confirms that by the second century there was already a “core” collection functioning as Scripture. Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. 180, a harmonization of the Four Gospels), indicates “a clear appraisal about which gospels had the most authority.” The earliest list of canonical books, though not complete, is the Muratoriam Fragment (c. 170), and a list by Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340) and Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 350). Early lists of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and their authors appear in the writings of Origin of Alexandria around A.D. 250, and in the Festal Letter (c. 367) of Athanasius of Alexandria, where they are all enumerated. The widespread use, in both the east and the west, of the same canon by both the orthodox and heretics of this list demonstrates its early acceptance. The New Testament canon of twenty-seven books was formalized in Church Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).
The list of books accepted into the canon as Scripture rest upon the three-legged stool of apostolicity (written by or related to one of the apostles by a co-worker), early appearance and widely geographical consensus of acceptance by the primitive Church as authoritative, and the inner Spirit witness and theological consistency of the text with the rest of accepted Scripture. Thus, theologian J. I. Packer could say, “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity.” Being the work of the Spirit of God, it has self-authenticating and transforming power. Thus, in the A.D. 160’s, Justin Martyr “testified that Jesus’ words (which he knew from these [Four] Gospels) ‘possess a certain awe in themselves, and are able to put to shame those who turn aside from the straight path; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who diligently practice them’ (Dial. 8.2).”
A Corrupted Canon?
A popular myth that persists today concerning the formation of the Old and New Testament canon tells us that Emperor Constantine, through conspiracy and power play with an elite group of bishops, established the canon by convening the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). However, the formation of the canon was not discussed at that Council, although it was discussed before and afterwards. None of the records or eyewitness accounts mention it.
The myth originates from a late ninth century Greek manuscript called the Synodicon Vetus, edited and published by John Pappus in 1601 in Strasburg. It states that the Council had the canonical and apocryphal books laid on the church altar table and they prayed that the divinely inspired ones would remain on the table while the spurious ones would be found underneath. And so, it miraculously happened, according to this myth.
Eventually, this book came into the hands of prominent thinkers like the French atheist philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who quotes from the historically errant account in his Philosophical Dictionary (Vol. 3, Councils, sec. I and III). This myth has been used by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (book and movie) to promote it. In addition, this false narrative, adding that the books were shaken until just the Four Gospels were left on the table, has been translated into Arabic and Turkish to promote in school texts concerning the formation of the Christian Bible to Muslim students. Thus, today many Muslims think we have a corrupted Bible because of the intervention of Emperor Constantine, who had nothing to do with it.
 Mina Monier, Joan E Taylor, “Tatian’s Diatessaron: The Arabic Version, the Dura Europos Fragment, and the Women Witnesses,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Volume 72, Issue 1, April 2021, 192–230; https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/flab039.
 Michael J. Kruger, “What is the Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament?” Canon Fodder (10/19/2015); michaeljkruger.com (accessed 2/14/2022).
 Craig S. Keener, editor, “The New Testament Canon,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 2194.
 Matt Smethurst, “40 Quotes from J. I. Packer (1926–2020),” The Gospel Coalition (7/20/2020); https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/40-quotes-from-j-i-packer/ (accessed 6/2/2022).
 Quoted in C. E. Hill, “Why There Are Just Four Gospels in the Bible,” Text & Canon Institute, Phoenix Seminary (11/7/2021); https://textandcanon.org/why-are-there-just-four-gospels/ (accessed 6/4/2022).
 John Meade, “The Council of Nicaea and Biblical Canon,” Phoenix Seminary (4/18/2018); https://ps.edu/council-nicaea-biblical-canon/ (accessed 6/2/2022).