A Muslim’s question about the Canon of Scripture

Ijaz Ahmad’s “10 Questions Christians don’t like to answer”

By the way, I love to answer these kinds of questions by Muslims, and have answered many questions by Muslims put to me personally since 1983, when I first started reaching out to Muslims in the USA; and then I lived overseas with Muslims from 1993-1995, and learned one Middle Eastern language fluently, and some of another one. Since 1996, I have continued in one on one friendships with Muslims.  We love many aspects of their cultures, their emphasis on family and hospitality, their tasty food, languages, poetry, and friendships.

Someone else pointed me to this article, and I realize it is several years old (from 2013), but it is a useful list of 10 questions that exposes us to how Muslims think, and reveals to us a typical Muslim attack upon the Christian faith.  I am going to break up his article into several parts, in order to not make the post too long, and to provide more information on each point, when necessary.  The funny thing is, Denis Giron did answer him, but Ijaz just refused to listen or accept his answers.  See Denis’ answers at the end.   Ijaz just seems to constantly respond with, “no”, no matter how good the answer is.

In this article, I am going to focus on the first question about the New Testament Canon.  Lord willing, I hope to address the other questions in more articles.

Question # 1 – About the New Testament Canon:

  1. If the earliest Christians within the first two centuries after Jesus did not need a New Testament to qualify their faith, why do modern Christians have such a need? If they did not sanction or consider any other writing beside the Old Testament to be scripture, then isn’t it a digression from the ‘true faith‘ of the earliest believers to incorporate something new as scripture? The first New Testament was codified and canonized by the heretic Marcion who believed that the Jewish YHWH was not the true God, the first time the largest Christian Church sanctioned a New Testament was during the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Carthage in 397 CE, some 360+ years after Jesus.

First, the way Ijaz asked the question the first time “to qualify their faith”, vs. the second time, in his rebuttal to Denis Giron, “to be considered a Christian” is different.   The second expression is more clear.  The way he frames his question is kind of tricky.  The New Testament does not say “Believe in the 27 books of the NT and then you will become a Christian.”  Rather is says, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) and “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)  (see also John 3:16; 5:24; Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:21-26; Romans 10:9-10)  Also the early church preached the gospel orally for decades and many became Christians through their preaching.  No one ever claimed that one has to first read all the NT and/or have it in order to become a Christian.

Secondly, Ijaz makes a great mistake here in calling the Council of Carthage in 397 CE “the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Carthage”.    That Council of Carthage was not an Ecumenical (including the whole Christian World) Council, rather it was a provincial one, limited to the North Africa area.  The 2nd Ecumenical Council was the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.  So Ijaz is just wrong there.

Thirdly, Ijaz fails to realize that the 27 books of the NT (letters, gospels, books) were individual scrolls rolled up and sent to different places all over the Christian world at the time.  The New Testament did exist by 100 AD, but they were all separated from each other in differing places, in different churches.  The modern book, as we know it, did not even exist in the first or second centuries.  The old codex (flattened out sheets tied together) only began to come into existence around 200-250 AD.  Many scholars believe that it was the Christians who popularized the usage of the codex, which later developed into what we know as a book today, with a binding.

Fourthly, Ijaz fails to mention that early church writers such as Clement of Rome (96 AD), Ignatius (107 AD), Polycarp (155 AD), Justin Martyr (165 AD), Irenaeus (180-202 AD), Tertullian (190-220 AD), and Clement of Alexandria (215 AD) together mention, quote from, and allude to almost all of the New Testament books by 180-200 AD.  The Didache, scholars believe was written between 70 -120 AD, one of the earliest Christian non-canonical documents, quotes from Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Fifthly, Ijaz ignored the fact that both Irenaeus and Tertullian quoted from as Scripture or referred to, 22-23 out of the 27 books of the NT by 180-220 AD.
Sixthly, earlier writers used and alluded to some, but earlier writers, of what we have, did not write much. (Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Pseudo-Barnabas, and Justin Martyr (who refers to the memoirs of the apostles and obviously knew about the Gospel of John, for he wrote a lot about Jesus as the Logos, and born of the virgin Mary, and Justin Martyr clearly knew and cited the book of Revelation.

Seventhly,  Also, Origen actually did list all the NT 27 books earlier than Athanasius. Origen, around 250 AD. (Died in 254 AD)   See the link to the details on Origen’s list at Dr. Kruger’s cite, within this link.

[ See also Dr. Kruger’s books on the Canon issues and early Christianity. I recommend all of them for study.]

Make sure you listen to Dr. Kruger and Dr. White on the Dividing Line there; and also read the extensive article there.

Dr. Kruger writes:

“When it comes to the study of the New Testament canon, few questions have received more attention than the canon’s date.  When did we have a New Testament canon?  Well, it depends on what one means by “New Testament canon.”   If one is simply asking when (some of) these books came to be regarded as Scripture, then we can say that happened at a very early time.  But, if one is asking when we see these books, and only these books, occur in some sort of list, then that did not happen until the fourth century.  To establish this fourth-century date, most scholars will appeal to the well-known canonical list of Athanasius, included in his Festal Letter in 367 A.D.

But, is Athanasius really the first complete New Testament list?  Despite the repeated claims that he is, we have a list by Origen more than a century earlier (c.250), that seems to include all 27 books.  Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, writes:

“So too our Lord Jesus Christ…sent his apostles as priests carrying well-wrought trumpets.  First Matthew sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel, Mark also, and Luke, and John, each gave forth a strain on their priestly trumpets.  Peter moreover sounds with the two trumpets of his Epistles; James also and Jude.  Still the number is incomplete, and John gives forth the trumpet sound through his Epistles [and Apocalypse]; and Luke while describing the deeds of the apostles.  Latest of all, moreover, that one comes who said, “I think that God has set us forth as the apostles last of all” (1 Cor 4:9), and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles he threw down, even to their very foundations, the wall of Jericho, that is to say, all the instruments of idolatry and the dogmas of the philosophers.[1]”

This is a fascinating passage.  A reasonable interpretation of Origen’s words would leave us with a list of 27 books (he obviously puts the book of Hebrews with Paul’s letters).”   Dr. Michael J. Kruger  (emphasis in bold my own)

Tertullian wrote 5 works specifically against Marcion, and one generally against all heretics, including Marcion, around 193-207 AD. (Prescription Against All Heresies)

“Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter.”  (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies, 38) 

If a Muslim took the time to read works like Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria, he would see that these authors prove that the New Testament books were already in existence.  Read his 5 works against Marcion, Tertullian is citing them and pointing out how Marcion is both deleting books, and cutting out sections within books that he did not like.

“The faith was once for all time delivered to the saints” – Jude 3, by 96 or 100 AD, but since the written documents were separate individual scrolls, a codex or book, was not even invented yet, and the first 3 + centuries were marked by persecution, and we have records of the pagan Romans burning many of the New Testament books (especially during the great persecutions of Decius (210-254 AD), and Diocletian (303-312 AD) ; it took a while for all of them to be collected together in one “book cover”.

Ijaz claims that Denis did not answer his question:

He does not directly answer my question. I have asked that since the first Christians did not need to believe in the New Testament to be considered Christians, why does it matter if Christians today believe in the New Testament or not?

Again, the way Ijaz asked the question the first time “to qualify their faith”, vs. the second time “to be considered a Christian” is different.   The second expression is more clear.  The way he frames his question is kind of tricky.  The New Testament does not say “Believe in the 27 books of the NT and then you will become a Christian.”  Rather is says, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) and “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)  (see also John 3:16; 5:24; Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:21-26; Romans 10:9-10)  Also the early church preached the gospel orally for decades and many became Christians through their preaching.  No one ever claimed that one has to first all the NT and have it in order to become a Christian.

But Denis did answer the basic import of of Ijaz’s question, which was, in other words, why did it take so long for the Christians to come up with the full NT 27 book canon?

“On a side note, it is worth noting that there are various 2nd century writers who quote many of the texts of the New Testament, and some scholars date the Muratorian fragment to the 2nd century, ergo it seems much (if not all) of the New Testament was used as Scripture by Christians within the first two centuries after Jesus.” Denis Giron

The fact that we have the 27 NT books, and they were all written from around 45 AD to 96  AD, and that the early church examined, sifted, and discovered them, collected them, and compared them to other heretical and non-inspired books and found only these 27 books to be “God-breathed”, and that they are useful for teaching and spiritual growth and correction to error, does not assume that one must have all of them available in order to become a Christian.  Once one becomes a Christian through hearing the gospel, reading and studying the entire NT regularly is good for spiritual growth, but not a requirement in order to become a Christian.

More background on the concept of “canon”:

The English word “canon”, comes from the Greek word, “canon” ( κανων ) which came from Hebrew קנה ( QaNeh ), which originally meant a “measuring rod”, “a reed”, and came to mean “standard” (in Arabic and Farsi = معیار ،”criterion” (Furqan) فرقان , “rule”, “law” قانون , “principle” قاعده. It is related to the Arabic word, Qanoon (قانون ), which is another for “law”, “rule”, besides Sharia/Shariat شریعت / شریعه.   The Greek word, “canon” (κανων) meant “standard”, “rule”, “principle”, “law”, “criterion”.

“Canon” eventually came to mean the list of books that Christians believed were “God-breathed”/inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) and inspired. (2 Peter 1:20-21) They were only “canon”/ “standard” because they were already “God-breathed”/inspired. As R. C. Sproul has written, “the Bible was canon as soon as it was written”. (p. 82, Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, Don Kistler, editor, Soli Deo Gloria, 1995) The books of the Bible were God-breathed and therefore canon, the minute they were written and the ink dried, for the NT, in the first century, for the OT when they were written. Because the 27 books of the NT were God-breathed at the time they were written, from around 48 AD to 96 AD, they were already canon because they already existed as God-breathed, inspired books. (same principle applies to the OT canon – they were inspired / God-breathed at the time of writing.) That is what Dr. White means by “canon is an artifact of inspiration”; “a book is canon, because it was already “God-breathed” when written.

That it took some time for the early church to discover all the books was because:
1. When they were originally written from 48-96 AD, they were individual scrolls written to different areas, communities, churches, by various people. So churches in certain areas did not even have all the books or letters yet, because others were written to other areas.
2. The codex form of a “book” was not even used much until the middle of the second century.
3. Many scholars believe it was the Christians of the early centuries that made the codex form popular and eventually evolved into our modern “book” form with a binding.
4. The Romans burnt many of the Scriptures during the first 3 centuries.
5. The persecution of Christians and difficulty of travel and communication contributed to the time it took to gather them all together under “book cover”, so to speak.

About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
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3 Responses to A Muslim’s question about the Canon of Scripture

  1. Shaad says:

    1983? Ken how old are you mate? I don’t know why but somehow i thought you were in your early 20s lol…anyway nice article, well written…i’m 20 by the way…

    Now i understand why you’re so patient and never angry (well i’ve never seen you fighting on Paul’s blog)…it comes with age haha

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