The Bible is a collection of books written by different people over a very long time. This article will address how they came to be collected. Any official collection of works by an author or a religion is called a "canon." The process by which books were recognized as being part of the Bible is called "canonization."
It is hard to say whether any Biblical writer knew that he was writing what we would eventually call God's Word. The writers of the Book of Kings, for example, knew that they were writing the religious history of Israel and Judah. Did they also have a sense that God was speaking through them or was God's leading upon them more subtle than that?
Obviously, prophets knew they were writing what God was telling them to write; however, did they think they were only writing for their immediate audience or did they know they were writing for all generations?
These questions are impossible to answer with any certainty because the writers tell us nothing about their process. What is important to understand is that these books became part of the canon because of those who read them and evaluated their content, not because the writers self-claimed any inspiration for their work. So first, the Jewish community recognized which books came from God. Later, the Christian church did the same thing.
A. The Old Testament
By the seventh century B.C., the majority of the books of the OT already existed. No copies survive from this era, but nothing else does either. The earliest fragments of the Iliad, which scholars date to the 7th century B.C. or earlier, come from the 2nd century B.C. and later. The oldest complete manuscript dates to the 11th century A.D. Yet, no one doubts the existence of the Iliad.
By contrast, there are dozens of full manuscripts and fragments of various books of the OT from the second century B.C. Hundreds more exist throughout the centuries afterward. There are fragments of the Greek translation also from the second century B.C. with the earliest full manuscript of all books as early as the 4th century A.D.
The point is that there is more support for the existence of the books of the OT than there is for any other book of the same era.
Early Jewish lists give a number of 24 books for the Hebrew Bible (without listing them). This number differs from the Christian list because Christians split a few of the larger books in two. Also, 12 relatively small books by prophets are counted as one book by the Jews.
When Jews began to collect the individual books onto a single scroll and later into a single book, they ordered the contents differently than Christians do. Christians arrange them by type, Jews mostly by date. Here is their list:
Torah (meaning Law):
- The Twelve (Minor Prophets)
- Song of Songs
Christians split Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two pieces, divided Ezra-Nehemiah, and listed each individual book of The Twelve separately. Therefore, these 24 books become the 39 books that we know in Christian Bibles.
It is hard to say when these books "officially" became the Jewish Bible. Jews in Alexandria translated sacred Hebrew books into Greek in the second century B.C. They included all the books listed above plus a few others that will also be discussed later. In the first century A.D., the historian Josephus mentions that there was an official list of accepted books but doesn't give us the names of the books.
The Jewish Mishnah (a collection of writings by their Rabbis or teachers) discusses how this decision came about. The earliest known final collection of the Mishnah was in the late second century A.D.
Key to any book being accepted, it had to be written in Hebrew (the small Aramaic sections of Daniel and Ezra were also okay). This would be important for Christians later.
The Old Testament was translated into Greek around 150 B.C. It is called the Septuagint (Greek for seventy—tradition says there were 70 translators). This version split several large books in half for easier storage on scrolls (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles). It also arranged the books in a way that made sense to them. Several of the Writings were moved to a place where they fit chronologically (Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther). Lamentations was placed after Jeremiah since tradition named him as its author. Daniel was placed among the prophets.
The first Christian believers were Jews. However, the message of Jesus found a bigger audience among non-Jews who spoke Greek rather than Hebrew. The Septuagint became the Old Testament for the early church. It included all the books written in Hebrew and accepted by the Jews, but also included some books written only in Greek and referred to today as Apocrypha (more on this below). The Latin translations of the Bible, started by Jerome in the 5th century A.D. make the books included in the Septuagint the OT for the Catholic Church.
One of the features of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century A.D. was the principle that Bible translations should only be done from the original languages in which they were written. This meant a return to the Jewish list of books and a rejection of those Septuagint books which had only been written in Greek.
B. The New Testament
We know a bit more about the development of the New Testament. All of its books were written in the first century A.D. Thirteen letters of Paul and seven other letters name their authors. Revelation names the apostle John as its author. The four gospels, Acts, and Hebrews are all anonymous. Very solid and early tradition names the authors of each of these books other than Hebrews.
NT authors fall into these categories: (1) Eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus (Matthew, John, Peter). (2) First generation apostles (leaders) of the church (Paul, James, Jude). (3) Associates of one of the first two (Mark—Peter, Luke—Paul).
(The exception is the book of Hebrews. Early church leaders claimed it was part of the canon because it was written by Paul, though some doubted this. Modern scholars are nearly unanimous that Paul did not write Hebrews, which does not name its author. Though we do not know who wrote it, it is from the first century. Its message is consistent with the rest of the NT, so it has been accepted by all throughout the centuries.)
These are the only books—which have survived—that come from that first generation of the Church. Other books which were respected and widely published (the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, Letters of Clement) did not come from this first generation and were ultimately rejected by the Church as canon. There were also heretical books, written long after their supposed authors had died, which were also rejected (more on this below).
Though some began to compile canon lists in the second century, it was the printing of complete Bibles in the fourth century that settled any debate for all. None of the early church councils declared which NT books were Scripture as the consensus already existed.
C. Apocryphal/Deutercanonical Books
The only reason we bring up this subject is that someone may try to convince you that there are other books—"lost" books or "hidden" books—of the Bible that you should read. This is not true. Your Bible contains everything that God wants you to have.
1. Old Testament Apocrypha. The OT books listed above were not the only books produced among the Jews. When the Greek Septuagint was produced (see above), it included not only books translated from Hebrew, but also some books written only in Greek. Several of them enjoyed wide distribution and popularity.
As we already saw, most Jews did not accept these Greek writings as canon. Non-Jewish Christians who did not speak Hebrew, however, took the Greek Septuagint as their Old Testament. During the 16th century Reformation, Protestants rejected these Greek additions to the OT and reverted to the Hebrew-based canon of the Jews.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, etc.) have continued to recognize the Septuagint-based OT (with some differences as to exactly which books). They prefer to use the term "Deuterocanonical," which means "second canon," for the additional books. They recognize that these books were not part of the original canon. However, they still believe that they are inspired.
The majority of Protestant Christians calls these books "Apocryphal," which means "hidden" or "obscure." We do not recognize these books as inspired Scripture. Some Protestants, mostly the Anglican churches, assign a high value to these books but do not consider them Scripture.
Examples of these books are 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Baruch, and sizable additions to the books of Daniel and Esther.
2. New Testament Apocrypha. There were other Christian books as well. Some of them were highly regarded and widely passed around. When Church leaders discussed a New Testament, they agreed that only those books produced by the first generation Apostles (leaders of the early church) and their associates were valid. So, the New Testament consists only of books that were produced in the first century A.D. As noted earlier, some highly respected books were left out.
There were other books, however, that were not highly respected, but judged to be false teaching. Though some of them had the names of Apostles attached to them, they were written much later by those who tried to make their false teaching legitimate by using the Apostle's name. They were never accepted by the church at large. Though some have tried to present them as "other gospels," the people who created them lived a couple of hundred years after Jesus and had no first-hand knowledge of what happened.
D. Can Books Be Added to the Bible?
When Jesus Christ came to earth, he ushered in the gospel message. This was a fulfillment and completion of the promises of God as described in the Old Testament. Therefore, any new written revelation would be part of the New Testament. This effectively closed the OT.
Regarding the NT, we have already seen that church leaders gradually came to agreement about which books were part of the canon over several hundred years. They wanted to ensure that a book had a connection with the first generation apostles. The reason for this is that they believed that everything the church needed to know was given by Jesus to the apostles. So, even by the fourth and fifth centuries, the church considered the NT closed.
God has done many significant things in the world and through his church in the two thousand years since the NT was written. However, none of these things have any impact on salvation history. It was all done by Christ and proclaimed by his apostles long ago; we are just living out what they have shown us.
E. How Can I Trust the Canon of the Bible?
There are people who are uncomfortable with the history of the canon. They would prefer that someone official made a clear decree at some point. However, there is no person with that authority. Therefore, Christians accept the canon developed by consensus by early church leaders. These were righteous men who steered the church through days of attacks by both non-believers and false-teachers who tried to lead people astray. Their desire was to preserve and protect the truth of the gospel and, though the process was sometimes messy, they did it well.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.