What proof do we have outside the Bible that the New Testament has twenty-seven books? Some are under the misconception that this divinely-inspired compilation was determined more than fifteen hundred years after Christ by a religious council in Trent, Italy. However, historical documents show that the New Testament canon was known long before this.
About 150 AD, just fifty years after the completion of the New Testament, an individual by the name of Justin Martyr mentions something that is worth our consideration. In his work “First Apology,” Martyr states that on Sundays Christians assembled to read “the memoirs of the apostles” or “the writings of the prophets” (1 Apol. 67.3). It is believed that this is a reference to the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the Old Testament.
Other writings, which date as far back as 150-200 AD, include substantial lists of the New Testament books. For example, the Muratorian fragment lists all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1 John. Were it not for a text seemingly derived from a mutilated copy, the list undoubtedly would be more complete.
Origen (c. 185-254 AD) names all of the New Testament books. Eusebius (c. 263-340 AD) also names all of the books. In 367 AD, Athanasius of Alexandria published twenty-seven New Testament books which were accepted in his time, and these are the same twenty-seven books which are recognized today.
We don’t have the originals but “…so long as we possess accurate copies (manuscripts), the absence of the autographs is irrelevant. No one alive today has ever seen the original Romeo and Juliet. Nor has anyone today ever seen the autograph of Plato’s Republic or Plutarch’s Lives. But because it can be shown that the copies we possess are reliable reproductions of the originals, no serious scholar doubts that we can reproduce today what Shakespeare, Plato, or Plutarch originally composed” (K. Chumbley, The Gospel Argument for God, p. 18).
The Institute for New Testament Textual Research has catalogued over five thousand Koine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, Koine Greek being the “universal” language of the first century. This means that the New Testament is the best-attested book from the ancient world. In contrast, only nine or ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars exist and other works rely on fewer manuscripts, yet no one doubts their authorship.
The Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, Sir Fredric Kenyon, once said, “In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament.” Fragments from papyrus copies of books of the New Testament have been dated in the second and third centuries AD. The John Rylands fragments, containing John 18:31-33,37ff, have been dated around 130 AD. This means that copies of the Gospel of John, traditionally thought to have been written between 90 and 100 AD, were circulating within forty years of its composition!
According to his foresight and providence, our omnipotent God used inspired men to compile his message before 100 AD and he has preserved it throughout the centuries. Those that would please him in all things would do well to read its words and put them into practice in their daily lives.