How were the books of the Bible chosen?: The formation of God's word

My earliest experience with the Bible was leafing through an ancient King James Version my parents kept in the guest room.  The fountain-penned family tree calligraphied in the first pages fascinated me.  The printed "thee"s and "thou"s made no sense, the "begat"s even less.  I assumed the entire thing had been handed from God to man in black leather.

Most people know better.  They've heard somewhere along the way that some books were excluded from the Bible, and wonder why.  Maybe a group of church officials decided the whole thing.  Maybe there were books which told a different story than the one we have in our Bibles.  Maybe there was a smoke-filled room somewhere.  Maybe there were hanging chads.

One of the most common questions I'm asked about the Bible concerns the "canon" (from the Greek kanon, describing a straight rod used as a rule).  The word refers to the decision to limit Scripture to the 66 books Protestants affirm as God's word.  The stakes were raised significantly by the recent publishing phenomenon, The DaVinci Code.  In Dan Brown's bestselling novel, the "historian" Leigh Teabing explains to the incredulous Sophie Neveu that Constantine "upgraded Jesus' status" from human to divine, and thus needed to "rewrite the history books."  And so "sprang the most profound moment in Christian history" as "Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike.  The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."  Thus the Bible we read today was created.

The actual story is nowhere near that interesting.

How the Hebrew Scriptures came to be

Christians typically call the thirty-nine books from Genesis to Malachi the Old Testament, but those who wrote the New Testament didn't.  When Paul, writing from death row in Rome, asked Timothy for his scrolls and parchments (2 Tim 4:13), he was asking for his copies of the only Bible he knew.

Paul was asking for scrolls of the various books of Hebrew Scripture.  Their order was not of practical importance, since each scroll/book was separate.  Then the modern book evolved, as individual sheets of a scroll were cut apart and sewn together.  Only then did the particular order of the biblical books matter.

Most scholars appropriately call these books the Hebrew Bible, in deference to the Jewish faith which they express.  The Hebrew Scriptures were first divided into Law, Prophets, and Writings, the arrangement current in Jesus' day.  The resurrected Lord told his disciples, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (the latter represented the Writings or Wisdom Literature; Lk 24:44).

In developing the Hebrew Bible, the "Law" was the first to be written and compiled.  Here we find the religious regulations of the Jewish faith, including the Ten Commandments and the priestly codes for sacrifices and daily living.  Stories of early Hebrew history were included as well, from the creation of the world to the journey of Israel to the edge of Canaan.  The section was called "Torah," meaning "instruction."  It was later divided into five parts, called the "Pentateuch" ("five books"):

Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

Next came the "Prophets," called Nebiim by the Jews.  This section included prophetic writings, and also histories of their era.

The Jews arranged these writings into eight books.  The first four are called the "Former Prophets":

Joshua

Judges

1-2 Samuel

1-2 Kings

Notice that Samuel and Kings are combined into one book, since they were believed to reflect a single author and purpose.  We think of them as historical books, but they record the prophetic ministry of Jewish leaders from Joshua to the Babylonian captivity and destruction of Jerusalem (ca. 586 BC).

The last eight books were called the "Latter Prophets":

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Ezekiel

The "Twelve"

These tell the story of prophets and leaders from the Babylonian enslavement to the end of the Old Testament era.  The "Twelve" are our so-called "minor" prophets (given this rather unfortunate name only because they are shorter than other prophetic writings):

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Jonah

Micah

Nahum

Habakkuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi

Last came the "Writings," called Ketubim by the Jews.  Some were compiled from earlier, smaller books (such as individual Psalms).  The Hebrew Bible lists eleven books in this section:

Psalms

Proverbs

Job

Song of Solomon

Ruth

Lamentations

Ecclesiastes

Esther

Daniel

Ezra-Nehemiah

1-2 Chronicles

As with Samuel and Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1-2 Chronicles are each combined as one book.  We think of Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles as historical literature, but they also contain spiritual guidance and wisdom.

And so the Hebrew Bible begins with Genesis, as does ours today.  But it ends not with Malachi but 2 Chronicles.

These books were written and compiled over centuries of use.  Extreme care and meticulous discipline was devoted to the work of transmitting the Hebrew Bible.  Scribes devoted their entire lives to the task, and performed with amazing skill.  The "Masoretic Text" (the Hebrew Scriptures as copied by the Masoretic scribes) has been preserved with very little change from the Old Testament era to today.

When the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, they gave us copies of the Old Testament nearly a thousand years older than any manuscripts we owned to this point.  They were copied by Essenes living in caves around the Dead Sea, primarily in the first century before Christ.  So few changes had crept into the text over the centuries that it was clear that the Hebrew Bible has been preserved with great success.

Then, according to Jewish tradition, a council of rabbis and scholars met at Jamnia (or Jabneh) on the Mediterranean coast of western Judea, in AD 90 and again in AD 118.  They responded to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the need to preserve their sacred writings.  Also, the Christian Scriptures were gaining in popularity, and Jewish leaders wanted to compile their canon to prevent Christian influence.

The Jamnia councils finalized the list of books as we have them today, recognizing what their people had accepted as God's word for centuries.  Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, records the belief of his people regarding their Scriptures:

We have not an unnumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing and contradicting one another, but only twenty-two books [his arrangement is different from the more common 24, but includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible], which contains the records of all past times; which are justly believed to be divine.

How the New Testament joined the Old

Justin the Martyr was one of Christianity's first heroes.  He was killed for his faith around AD 165, but not before producing powerful writings in defense of Christian truth.  In one of his books, he provides the oldest non-biblical description of Christian worship we have:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

The "writings of the prophets" refers to the Hebrew Bible, and "memoirs of the apostles" to our New Testament.  By the mid-second century, then, the church owned a set of writings which reflected Christian theology.  Why did this new set of books come to be?

Why another Testament?

The eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and ministry were dying or growing old.  All the apostles except John died before AD 70.  And so there was an immediate need to preserve their witness and authority.  Mark compiled Peter's sermons into a life of Christ, probably the first Gospel.  Luke recorded Paul's life and teaching ministry to create Luke and Acts.  Matthew wrote his own gospel; John did the same when he realized his death was imminent.  And other apostles wrote letters of their own.

This first-person nature of the Christian Scriptures is crucial to their authority.  We do not read from accounts compiled centuries after the fact, but study records produced by those who were there.  Every time we open the New Testament, we step across twenty centuries into the life of Jesus and his first followers.  And we learn to join them.

In addition, Christian missionaries needed literature to spread the gospel.  As they encountered literate peoples in the larger Roman Empire, they wanted to provide materials which would lead the lost to Christ and encourage churches in their witness.  New believers and leaders needed ministry training; their churches needed doctrinal standards; and their people needed practical guidelines for faith and practice.

Most of all, Jesus' followers wanted to preserve his words.  Their Lord wrote no books, trusting his followers to record his teachings for generations to come.  The Gospels and letters of the New Testament were produced for this purpose.  The first Christians knew Jesus personally as one "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched" (1 Jn. 1:1).  They wanted the entire world to have the same privilege.  Every time we open the New Testament, Jesus preaches again.

Why these books?

The first step toward a "canon" for the Christian Scriptures came about as the result of a crisis.  Around AD 140, a wealthy shipowner named Marcion came to believe that Christians should reject the entirety of the Hebrew Bible as legalism.  He adopted Pauline theology so fully that he thought most of the other Christian writings should be ignored.  His list of accepted books included ten of Paul's letters (he omitted 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and a copy of Luke's gospel which he edited to reflect Pauline emphases.

Orthodox Church leaders acted quickly to affirm all four gospels, and all of Paul's letters.  But the crisis showed the need for the church to make a more formal list of accepted Christian Scriptures.  Over time, four criteria were developed for accepting a book as inspired.

First, the book must have been written by an apostle or based on his eyewitness testimony.  Gnostic writings were gaining more and more attention at this time, reflecting a heretical theology which separated the body from the spirit.  Some of the Gnostic "gospels" were purported to be written by apostles such as Thomas and Peter.  In response, church leaders quickly adopted the position that a canonical book must be the clear product of an actual apostle, or based on his eyewitness accounts.

Matthew the tax-collector was a disciple of Jesus before he wrote his gospel, as was John.  Mark was an early missionary associate of Paul (Ac 13:4-5) and was a spiritual son to Peter (1 Pt 5:13); early Christians believed that he wrote his gospel based on the sermons and experiences Peter related to him.

Luke was a Gentile physician who joined Paul's second missionary journey at Troas (note Ac 16:10, where Luke changes the narrative from "they" to "we").  He wrote his gospel and the book of Acts based on the eyewitness testimony of others (Lk 1:1-4).  Paul's letters came from an eyewitness to the risen Christ (cf. Ac 9:1-6), as did the works of James (half-brother of Jesus), Peter, Jude (another half-brother of Jesus), and John.

This criteria alone excluded most of the books suggested for the canon.  For instance, Clement of Rome was not an eyewitness of the Lord; even though his letter to the church at Corinth was highly respected, it was not included in the New Testament.

Second, the book must possess merit and authority in its use.  Here it was easy to separate those writings which were inspired from those which were not.  For instance, The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ tells of a man changed into a mule by a bewitching spell but converted back to manhood when the infant Christ is put on his back for a ride (7:5-27).  In the same book, the boy Jesus causes clay birds and animals to come to life (ch. 15), stretches a throne his father had made too small (ch. 16), and takes the lives of boys who oppose him (19:19-24).  It wasn't hard to know that such books did not come from the Holy Spirit.

Third, a book must be accepted by the larger church, not just a particular congregation.  Paul's letter to the Ephesians was an early instance of a letter which became "circular" in nature, read by churches across the faith.  His other letters soon acquired such status.  In fact, Peter refers to Paul's letter as "Scripture" (2 Pt. 3:16).  The oldest non-biblical letters also quote Paul's epistles repeatedly.  By at least AD 100, his works were collected together and used in worship and study by the larger church.

The gospels were a different matter.  Soon after Jesus' resurrection, many "life of Christ" documents began to appear.  Among them was the Protoevangelion, purporting to give details regarding the birth of Jesus; two books on his infancy (one claiming falsely to be written by Thomas); and the Gospel of Nicodemus (sometimes called the Acts of Pontius Pilate).  But none actually recorded eyewitness testimony to Jesus, or gained acceptance by the larger Christian movement.

By the mid-second century, only the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted universally, as quotations from the Christians of the era make clear.  As early as AD 115 Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, referred to the four as "The Gospel."  Around 170, an Assyrian Christian named Tatian composed a "harmony" of the Gospels, using only these four.  Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul around 180, referred to the four Gospels as firmly established in the church.

The rest of the New Testament gained wide use through different processes.  Acts was always considered to be part of Luke's record, and thus included immediately after the Gospels.  The thirteen letters of Paul were included next, arranged from longest to shortest (not chronologically, as many assume).  Hebrews was placed next, as many connected it with Paul.  1 Peter and 1 John were clearly written by the apostles for whom they were named.

The Greek of 2 Peter is different from that of 1 Peter, raising authorship questions for some.  But when it came to be understood that 1 Peter was probably written through a secretary and 2 Peter by the apostle himself, this question was resolved.  The authorship of 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, and Revelation was eventually settled, and they were accepted and used by the larger church as well.

Last, a book came to be approved by the decision of church leaders.  The so-called Muratorian Canon (discovered in 1740 by Italian Cardinal L. A. Muratori) was the first list to convey the larger church's opinion regarding accepted books of the New Testament canon.  Compiled around A.D. 200, it represented the usage of the Roman church at the time.  The list omits James, 1 and 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews, since its compiler was not sure of their authorship.  All were soon included in later canons.

Eusebius, the first church historian, listed in the fourth century the most widely read books in three categories: "recognized," "disputed," and "heretical."  He identified as "recognized" the four gospels, Acts, fourteen letters of Paul (Eusebius included Hebrews as Pauline), 1 John and 1 Peter, and Revelation.  Among the "disputed" books, he listed as "generally accepted" James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John (authorship questions remained in the minds of some).  And so each of the books of our New Testament had gained general acceptance by this time.

The list we have today was set forth by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter of AD 367:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament.  These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude.  In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order.  The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; next to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon.  And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are the foundations of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain.  In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.  Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.

Note that to this point, no official church council had acted on the matter of the New Testament canon.  The process was "bottom up" rather than "top down," recognizing the experiences of believers everywhere with the various books of Christian Scripture.  No conspiracies or councils were involved.

Finally, the list of Athanasius was approved by church councils meeting at Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397.  These councils did not impose anything new upon the church.  Rather, they codified what believers had already come to accept and use as the word of God.  By the time the councils approved the 27 books of our New Testament, they had already served as the established companion to the Hebrew Scriptures for generations.

Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce is clear: "What councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of these communities."  Biblical commentator William Barclay agrees: "The Bible and the books of the Bible came to be regarded as the inspired word of God, not because of any decision of any Synod or Council or Committee or Church, but because in them mankind found God.  The supremely important thing is not what men did to these books, but what these books did to men."

And so Mr. Brown's assertion in The DaVinci Code that Constantine "created" the New Testament is patently false.  Constantine had absolutely nothing to do with the formation of the biblical canon.  A cursory glance at the facts exposes this allegation as anti-Christian propaganda and very poor history.  The books of New Testament we read today were compiled over centuries of use by the larger church of Jesus Christ.  The God who inspired the Scriptures used his people to gather and preserve them.  We have the books God intended us to possess and obey today.

What about the Apocrypha?

The word "apocrypha" means "hidden" or "obscure."  With regard to the biblical canon, the Apocrypha are fifteen books which some accept as scriptural and others reject.  Here's their story told briefly.

The apocryphal books were probably written at the end of the Old Testament era, following Malachi (ca. 400 B.C.).  All are in Greek, though the book of Sirach seems to have had a Hebrew original.  Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt accepted them as part of divine revelation.  Jews living in Palestine never accepted then as scriptural.  All are rejected by Judaism today.

Here are the books, in order:

First Esdras

First Maccabees

Second Maccabees

Tobit

Judith

Additions to the book of Esther

The Song of the Three Young Men

Susanna

Bel and the Dragon

The Wisdom of Solomon

Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus)

Baruch

The Letter of Jeremiah

The Prayer of Manasseh

Second Esdras

Now the story shifts to Jewish scholars meeting in Alexandria in the second century before Christ.  Their goal: to translate the Hebrew Bible into the more-popular Greek language.  The process took 200 years to complete, and produced the "Septuagint" (from the Latin word for seventy).  According to legend, 70 Jewish scholars (it was actually 72) translated the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, in 70 days.  Given that they lived and worked in Alexandria, where the apocryphal books were popular, these scholars included them in their translation, lending them credibility and authority.

Next, Jerome enters the story.  The greatest Bible scholar of his day, in 382 he began translating the Bible into Latin (the "Vulgate," from the Latin word for "common").  He completed his work in 405.  He initially used the Septuagint for his Old Testament translation, and thus encountered the books of the Apocrypha.  Jerome included them in his Latin Bible, which gave them entrance to the Roman Catholic Church.  In 1546, the Council of Trent decreed that the Vulgate would be the official Latin Bible of the Church.  And so Catholics include the Apocrypha in their versions of Scripture today.

Why are these books not in Protestant Bibles?  When the Protestant Reformation began nearly 500 years ago, the reformers noted that no Apocryphal book is quoted specifically in the New Testament, and cited scholarly church fathers who maintained a sharp distinction between the Hebrew Bible and these Greek additions.  They concluded that these books, while informative history and narrative, should not be considered divine revelation.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he refused to include the Apocrypha.  From that time to today, Protestant Bibles do not contain the apocryphal books.  Catholic translations do.  Some Bible editions include them for reference purposes, but not as Holy Scripture.

So long as Protestants and Catholics disagree over the authority of the Apocrypha, the question of the canon will remain part of theological discussion.  But there is no other question regarding the biblical canon.  All Christians believe that we have all that God intended to preserve and transmit to his people.

Conclusion

So who decided what books should be in the Bible?  Ultimately, their Author.  The same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical revelation (2 Pt 1:20-21) led the Christian movement to those books he inspired.  You can know that the Bible you hold today is the book God means you to have.

Biblical authority is thus enhanced by discussing the canon.  Contrary to some critics, the process of compiling the books of Scripture reflects their divine origin and supernatural transmission.  It is nothing less than a miracle that a process so free of centralized control could produce such a clear consensus.

William Barclay speaks for a multitude of scholars on this subject: "To study the Canon of Scripture is not to come away with alesser view of Scripture, but with a far greater view, for it is to see the unanswerable power of the word of God in action in the minds and hearts of men and women."  My first assumption regarding the origin of the Bible was right after all: God did "hand" the Bible to us, through us.

 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1988) 17.

 Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003) 234 (italics his).

 Flavius Josephus Against Apion 1:1:8.  In Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1978 [1960]).

 The First Apology of Justin, ch. 67, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev. A. Cleveland Coxe, 1:186 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1989).

 Athanasius, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1991) 4:552.

 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1977) 27.

 William Barclay, The Making of the Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1979) x (emphasis his).

 Ibid.