How was the Bible formed?

*This article was taken from an upcoming book that I have been working on called, Simply Scripture: What You Need to Know about the Bible. When ready, I will announce it on this website.

Critics sometimes assert that the Bible was formed by a council of men, who basically threw darts at a board to decide which books should be accepted. Either that, or it is suggested that some group of ruling elites simply chose a bunch of books that would fit their conspiratorial agenda. Both views are false; they couldn’t be farther from the truth. The fact is that the books included within the Bible had long been recognized by the church as inspired works before they were established as the biblical canon. I will mainly describe the NT canon, because more is known about how it came to be than is known about the OT canon. However, I will also discuss elements of the OT canon as well.

Most people within the mainline church—rather than the many smaller, heretical groups of the day (like the Gnostics)—already viewed the texts as instructional and authoritative. The NT books could be traced back to Jesus’ closest followers, whether directly or indirectly. Again—and this point cannot be emphasized enough—those books selected for the “canon of Scripture” were previously recognized by worshipping communities as divinely inspired and authoritative. This did not mean they were always accepted everywhere but they certainly were in general. While the exact process of canonization—how the biblical texts were selected and compiled into a finished volume—is an extremely complex matter, we know that the books included had long been cherished within the religious communities.

Clearly, the issues surrounding the authorship of the OT canon are more difficult to explain than those of the NT. The books are so ancient, having been written over the course of many centuries and in so many different circumstances, that it is virtually impossible to know who all the authors were. We can be sure, however, that the Jewish people believed these texts to be divinely inspired. The texts where authorship was in question had to align with those books with known authors, like most of the Major Prophets and the Pentateuch.

The NT is a bit different, for numerous reasons. Its books were written within a much smaller time frame (roughly within forty years or so), they describe events that would have occurred in the very recent past, and some (though very few) physical texts were being used by early Christian communities. As a result, we know who wrote most of the NT texts and we even have a solid idea of when each was written.

All this pertains to the issue of how the Bible was compiled and which books were selected. When the need arose to choose the various books that would be included, these factors were heavily involved. The way the OT came together is a complicated matter, but we can understand the broader brushstrokes of the process. When the Jewish people returned to their lands after exile—under the guidance of Ezra and Nehemiah—they had no temple and not much in the way of a normal civilization. They did, however, have writings about their history; their “scriptures.” Chiefly, this centered on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT). The exile gave them a sense of urgency not only to record their history but to preserve the writings and traditions they already had. There was no definitive list of books that were included (or excluded) from being considered as Jewish scripture until the 2nd century AD.[1]

There were multitudes of books that the Jewish community referenced and viewed as authoritative, some of which are not contained within Protestant Bibles or even within the more inclusive Catholic Bible. For example, Jesus and Jude both referenced writings from the “Septuagint,” or the Greek translation of the OT. This collection, as a whole, did not come to exist until sometime in the 3rd century but parts of it were written before the Hebrew texts (for a given book). While it may be strange to hear, the OT canon was not set and universally recognized in ancient Jewish history or even during the time of Jesus and the apostles. Many texts were considered authoritative, obviously, but the breadth and scope of these books was much larger than the thirty-nine books we now have.

Concerning the NT, a series of influential Christian thinkers and church councils—mostly from the 4th century—revealed which books were finally viewed as authoritative and divinely inspired. However, none of the seven Ecumenical Councils— the meetings that were convened to determine doctrine and church practice—specifically took up the issue of what should be classified as Scripture. Like the OT, but to a lesser extent, the process of canonization for the NT is not perfectly concrete. Still, we can certainly understand the key points of how it occurred. Keep in mind that the original texts (again, the “autographs”) of the NT were written before the beginning of the 2nd century. What we are dealing with here is how the many texts written during that era came to be viewed as sacred Scripture. It is logical to begin with the “first church historian,” Eusebius, who wrote about the books that were regarded in this way. In his work, Ecclesiastical History (C. AD 320-330), he said that the church recognized twenty-two of the books we currently have in the NT and that five were in question.[2]

By AD 350, we know that twenty-six books of the NT were widely considered as Scripture, thanks to the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem. He excluded only Revelation, because of authorship questions. This was also later the case at the Synod of Laodicea (AD 363). In AD 367, a theologian named Athanasius established what we believe to be the first complete list of books that represented the NT as we have it. This marked the distinction between the twenty-seven books that were universally accepted within the church and the many that were not.[3] The excluded books were often popular within various Christian communities but did not make the cut because they weren’t overwhelmingly seen as authoritative. Afterwards, Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 390) recognized the same twenty-seven books, as did the African Canons (C. AD 393-419), Jerome (AD 394), Augustine (C. AD 395-400), and the Carthage Synod followed suit when it reconvened (AD 419).[4] This emphatically shows that, from the 4th century onward, the books we now read in the NT were being viewed as Scripture.

The provides us with a general understanding of how both the Old and New Testaments came to exist in their current forms. Here, I acknowledge that we have only scratched the surface of what could be said. This issue can go as deep as anyone could want to go, and those interested in getting more specific have a variety of texts to consider.[5] Even after the early 5th century, debates continued about what books should be accepted or rejected from the Bible, and this often depended on the era and the location of the Christian community in question. In fact, the differences between most Protestant Bibles and Catholic Bibles (and others) shows that some debate still exists. However, the similarities far outweigh the differences.[6]

For all intents and purposes, both Bibles would possess the key texts that were recognized in early Christianity; it’s just that the Catholic Bible is slightly more inclusive of certain texts that were in question. I am not Catholic, but I personally feel like the additional books of the Catholic Bible should be read, studied, and valued. At the least, they certainly do not change the key points of the biblical narrative or contradict the books contained within the Protestant Bible in any meaningful way.

It is important to note that those who debated which books should be included and excluded took a minimalist approach. That is, they were more concerned with rejecting unworthy texts than they were with adding texts; they were not looking to throw every possible book together into a canon. This means that they were highly selective and generally preferred to reject a questionable book rather than view it as sacred. Another crucial thing to understand is that the books within the Bible were not written, edited, or anything of the sort by the theologians mentioned, but were ratified. This means that their writings simply indicated that certain texts were essential. As such, they were recognized by the church as being inspired and useful for instruction.

This is critical and is probably the biggest source of confusion for people (especially skeptics). No individual or council changed the ancient writings, nor did they “invent” anything. These scholars simply described the books that were already being viewed (for centuries) as sacred and finally regarded them as a collection: as a “canon.”

To further illustrate how selective the church was, there were various criteria they appear to have used in evaluating a book for the canon, though not all were succinctly stated. Not only did the writing have to be very popular and largely accepted by the church for the last several centuries, but it also had to be authored by someone with recognized authority. There was certainly a precedent for this with the OT texts. It was very common for authors to pose as a prominent Jewish figure (like Solomon, for example) to give their writings credibility. In general, the OT texts that were accepted within the Jewish communities had to be reasonably linked to the ministries of their recognized figures, such as Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like.

Concerning the NT, the text had to be written by either an eyewitness of Jesus or a companion of that witness. Put another way, it either needed to be traced back to a prominent church figure (like an apostle or a brother of Jesus) or at least to someone who was strongly associated with them (like Mark or Luke). This is true of all the NT texts, with very few exceptions.[7] It was simply not acceptable for just anyone to write a book and for it to be viewed as inspired. If an unknown author were to have a book that was widely considered as scripture, their text must have been remarkably strong in the orthodoxy (right teaching) category, and others. Even then, there was likely the assumption that someone with authority wrote it.

Another piece of criteria was that a book must be written within a reasonable time of the events it describes. All the NT texts were written in the same century of Christ’s ministry, and almost all existed within forty years of it. Many of the excluded books were written well after that time, sometimes even a century or so later. Obviously, that presents a major problem. These texts—and their authors—were clearly too far removed from the events described to be considered credible. Lastly, accepted texts had to be consistent with what was widely recognized as true within the Jewish and Christian communities.

If a prophetic writing contradicted the message of the prophet Isaiah, for instance, it would either be considered heretical or as possessing too many flaws to be authoritative. If a book depicted the life of Jesus in ways that weren’t consistent with the trusted sources of the day—like Matthew, John, or Paul—then it would be seen in much the same way. Even certain NT writings referred to other recent writings as “Scripture,” all the way back in the 1st century.[8] This means that, very early on, certain books were being considered authoritative within the Christian community. As you can see, there were many safeguards in place and the books that were believed to be inspired and authoritative were anything but haphazardly thrown together. The process for selecting texts was extremely deliberate.

But why did this need to be done at all, and why was the process of canonization so heavily discussed in the 4th century? For starters, we cannot overlook the fact that an established way of understanding the person of Jesus was necessary before any genuine set of books could be established. The church did not formally do this until the Ecumenical Councils of the 4th century, most notably at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. It would have been nearly impossible to discuss all the texts that correctly described Jesus—though some, like the Gospels, were already clearly recognized as authoritative—before having an agreed understanding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus. One reason why the need to agree upon a canon became urgent at that time is that others were attempting to create their own. More than simply arguing for a multitude of texts, the push for entire lists of “accepted” books had become a major problem. Most notably, and well before the 4th century, a man named Marcion (or, Marcion of Sinope) offered his own canon.

Marcion’s story is a rather complex one,[9] and it would be unfair to simply label him as a monster without delving far into the subject. However, most of the early church sources were extremely critical of Marcion, to put it mildly. What we can say is that he put together a NT canon that may have been the first ever, and which was assembled with some very misguided beliefs. His view that the Jewish and Christian writings described God differently, along with his misunderstanding about how Paul interpreted the Mosaic Law, caused Marcion to identify a very small number of texts as “Scripture” and to reject the rest.

As a result, he settled on ten selected versions of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke as his personal canon (eleven texts in all). Obviously, this disregarded all the other NT texts we now have—which were also then widely accepted within the church—and the version of Luke he used was dissected to include only the parts he liked. This was especially problematic because Marcion had accumulated a significant following in and around Rome, which is where he had relocated at some point during the early 2nd century.

While Marcion’s canon may have been the first, it was not the only one that would emerge. Some scholars believe that Marcion’s canon served as a catalyst for various other groups to form their own, and he undoubtedly played a similar role in urging the formation of the official NT canon.[10] So, in a sense, he was a very important figure in Christian history regardless of how misguided he was. Certainly, this all reveals that the push for heretical texts and false canons originated long before the 4th century. For example, the “Pseudepigrapha”—or the collection of “falsely attributed” works—had been in process for hundreds of years. As I briefly mentioned before, these texts followed a distinct pattern where an author would claim to be someone else to steal or piggyback off their credibility. What appears to have occurred by the 4th century is that false texts and canons had become so prominent that the more powerful members of the church decided it was time to clear things up, once and for all. At the least, this was one of the driving forces involved.

With Christianity being recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire by then, this made even more sense at the time. The collection of books contained within the Protestant Bible (or the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles) went through a variety of filters, were carefully chosen, and had already been considered authoritative for hundreds of years before the issue of canonicity was largely settled. While many parts of this overall progression are unknown to us, Scripture was formed through a painstaking process that spanned many centuries. Those who say otherwise are either unaware of how this worked or are intentionally being dishonest. At the same time, anyone who suggests that the process of canonization was quick and simple are also in grave error.

Looking for a new book to read? Check out my available titles, below.

System of the Beast: The Terrifying World Emerging Before Us

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn’t Teach

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

Footnotes


[1] See Lee Martin McDonald’s talk, “How was the Old Testament Canon Formed?” I highly recommend that you listen to this video and investigate his many writings on the formation of the biblical canon.

[2] The five in question were James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2-3 John. The question surrounded authorship, and that particular debate still exists today. See Michael Licona’s talk, “How the Canon of the Bible Was Formed,” for more on this.

[3] See the International Bible Society’s article, “How were the books of the Bible chosen,” for more information.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Of these many texts, I recommend Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture and McDonald’s The Formation of the Biblical Canon as great starting points.

[6] The Protestant and Catholic Bibles agree entirely on the twenty-seven NT books and the Catholic Bible adds only seven texts to the OT, along with small additions to Daniel and Esther.

[7] Only Hebrews would fall into this category but, as I have mentioned several times, the book has always been associated with Paul in one way or another. Plus, its content is rich and totally consistent with everything else we read in the NT. Beyond this, a small number of texts have been questioned in terms of their authorship, which means we cannot say with complete certainty that they fit all these criteria. However, both tradition and the consistency of their content validates their place in the Bible.

[8] For two examples, 2 Peter 3:16 refers to Paul’s writings as “Scripture” and it’s possible that 1 Timothy 5:18 refers to the Gospel of Luke in this way.

[9] For a quick summation of Marcion and his beliefs, I refer you to Andrew Henry’s video, “What Did Marcion Believe?”

[10] Ibid.

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "God Made the Aliens," "Spiritual Things," and most recently, "Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn't Teach." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

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