2011-10-15

The Order of the New Testament Canon

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

George A. Kennedy makes some interesting observations about the order of the New Testament books that probably many Christians have at some time thought about. I suppose when a professor of classics publishes the same it gives us an assurance that our senses have not failed us.

The canon of the New Testament was established by Councils of the Church in late antiquity. Whether consciously determined or not, the order assigned to the books is interesting, for it is consistent with conventions of rhetoric as taught in the schools.

  1. First come the Gospels, which proclaim the message;
  2. then the narrative of Acts, which describes its reception;
  3. then the epistles, which may be viewed as arguing out interpretation of the message;
  4. and finally the Apocalypse, as a dramatic epilogue.

(p. 97, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, my formatting and numbering.)

It’s not quite true, of course. Acts can hardly be said to describe the reception of the message we read about in the Gospels, unless the message of the Gospels is confined to their final verses. And the epistles appear to be even less interested in arguing out the interpretation of anything we read in the Gospels. But the order of the books as bound in canonical black with gold edging does rhetorically convey the impression that it is quite true.

And then there is the order of the Gospels.

The order of the four Gospels probably reflects what the Church thought was the chronological order of their composition and is consistent with Eusebius’ reports on the subject. But it is also rhetorically effective in that

  1. Matthew, with his introductory genealogy, account of Jesus’ birth, and extended speeches, gives a comprehensive initial picture of Christianity and links it to the Old Testament;
  2. Mark, with his emphasis on what Jesus did, approximates a narration;
  3. Luke works out details and smoothes over problems to create a plausible whole;
  4. and John supplies a moving epilogue.

(p. 97 ditto)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)



If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!


11 thoughts on “The Order of the New Testament Canon”

  1. Athanasius drafted an NT canon in AD 367 that was identical to the one we have today. The church councils made it official, but they were a little late to the party. The order of the NT books seems irrelevant to me. It’s clear the epistles have simply been arranged according to length, and apart from that, what else is there to comment on?

  2. I agree Neil, that the traditional order of the books if the NT, gives an impression of coherence and ‘history’ that obscures the reality of Christianity’s sketchy and unverifiable beginnings. Unfortunately, we do not have the names or dates of authorship for most of these “Holy” and anonymous works. What would be a far more honest arrangement, (I won’t hold my breath as honesty seems rather rare in ecclesiastical circles), would be to arrange these works in the chronological order of their creation. That in itself would be quite the task, given the paucity of information as to their datings, but perhaps we could resort to only securing their place in the New Testament pecking order according to when they are first cited by datable commentators.

    I would bet that would provide a very different impression than the current order of arrangement.

    Any suggestions as to how we would order these books if we were to use this method?

    -evan

  3. I don’t have a copy of the book, but doesn’t David Trobisch have something to say about this in ‘The First Edition of the New Testament’. I seem to recall him suggesting that Luke was put third so as to give some ‘evidence’ for the claim that ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account…’ and John was last to lend credibility to: ‘If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’

    Doesn’t strike me as a powerful argument, but perhaps there is much more to it or my memory is misrepresenting it. Can anyone elaborate on Trobisch’s view?

    1. Unable to comment on Trobisch except to note that (1) he is known as a biblical scholar and (2) his book was published 2000.

      Kennedy is a classicist (though with a clear interest in Christian literature, too) and the book I quoted was published 1984.

    2. Trobisch actuall claims that ‘If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written’ is an editorial comment added by the final redactor of ‘The First Edition of the New Testament’. Hence, his argument is not that John was put last because it just happened to have that phase in there. Rather that phrase was put in John because the editor intended John to be placed as the last gospel.

      I don’t remember of Trobisch makes the following point or not, but I will make it: The reason John is placed last is obvious. John doesn’t mention Jesus’ establishing the Lord’s Supper although he does have a scene of the Last Supper. In order to avoid the idea that John didn’t believe in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, the idea had to be put out that John wrote at a very late date when all the other gospels already existed and that he left the establishment of the Lord’s Supper out simply because he knew the others already included it. Therefore, John is placed last because it is required that we believe he wrote his gospel last. Otherwise, we might think he was denying that Jesus established the Lord’s Supper.

  4. Our present order, however, is Protestant. Originally, it was the gospels followed by the general epistles and Acts, then by the Pauline epistles and then Revelation. And the intent was a descending order of authority. Jesus in the gospels has the highest authority, then come the real apostles, finally the fake apostle Paul and then the very disputed Revelation. Protestantism switched the order of the real apostles and the fake, making the fake apostle Paul have higher authority than the real apostles. That is the intent of the order.

      1. Heavy Augustinian influence. Protestantism is just Augustinianism reheated. The Catholic church made the mistake of going for Augustine’s insane acceptance of Romans 9 for a while, realized they made a huge mistake, went back to Semi-Pelagian ideas. Then a few centuries pass and some crazy Augustinian monks lead by the drunk Martin Luther decide that Augustine is God himself and going back to Augustine’s view constitutes “sola scriptura.”

  5. Kennedy is very invested in linking Greek rhetorical conventions to the NT and making them the controlling genre, so much so that he typically stretches his case. One could argue that a John-Mark-Luke-Matthew order is “rhetorically effective” just as easily as a Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order, and you’ve already noted that the gospels do double-duty as message and narrative. Separating all this out into the progymnasmatic order is awkward at best.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.