How the Bible Came to Be

March 12, 2024

Shortcut: Pretty much just a bunch of “councils of men only” decided which books would be combined and put together to form “The Bible” we know today.

Christians hold the Bible as the divine ‘word of God’, emphasizing the importance of ensuring its contents are accurate. The term ‘canon’ is often used to refer to the accepted books of the Bible, deriving from the Greek word for ‘measuring stick’. This ‘canon of Scripture’ comprises a standard collection of biblical books, consisting of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, found in commonly used translations such as the New International Version, English Standard Version, and Christian Standard Bible.

However, variations exist, with some Bibles containing additional Old Testament books. The Roman Catholic Bible includes ‘deuterocanonical’ (or ‘second canon’) books, and the Orthodox Church’s ‘longer canon’ incorporates a few more. These additional texts, termed the ‘Apocrypha’, are not regarded as Scripture by Evangelicals but are deemed intriguing and beneficial. Furthermore, there exist ancient Jewish texts known collectively as the Pseudepigrapha, which are absent from all Bibles.

The reasons behind these differences and the inclusion or exclusion of other ‘gospels’ and early letters remain subjects of inquiry. The process of establishing the canon spanned centuries and was complex, leading to numerous misunderstandings.

The pivotal understanding lies in why these 66 books attained canonical status. Their selection wasn’t based solely on the preference of early Christians or widespread acceptance, nor was it a decision made by a church council to confer authority upon them. Rather, the early church acknowledged these books’ intrinsic authority in guiding Christian life and doctrine, believing in their enduring significance across generations. They regarded these texts as Scripture—authoritative expressions of God’s words conveyed through human authors (Zechariah 7:12; 1 Peter 1:10–12).

The Old Testament canon

During the era of Jesus and the apostles, the definition of ‘the Scriptures’ was largely established. The Old or First Testament, as referred to by Christians, aligns with the Hebrew Bible, the Scriptures in Jesus’s time, which consisted of 24 scrolls. Notably, the concept of books as we know them today didn’t arise until the latter part of the first century.

The Hebrew Bible is categorized into three sections, each with a distinct order of books. The first part, known as the Torah (commonly labeled ‘the Law’), encompasses Genesis to Deuteronomy and was recognized as Scripture from the outset. The second part, the Nevi’im or Prophets, includes Joshua to Kings, along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (a combined scroll containing what we refer to as the ‘minor prophets’). The last section, the Ketuvim or Writings, comprises a blend of poetic, wisdom, and historical books. These three sections together form the TaNaK, an acronym derived from their initial letters.

Evidence suggests that the Hebrew canon was firmly established by the second century BC, although there were ongoing discussions, particularly regarding the Writings, extending into the first century AD. Notably, Jesus often referenced the Scriptures as ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (e.g., Matthew 5:17) or ‘the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44).

Jewish Scriptures

There exists substantial evidence indicating that Jews regarded the 24 scrolls as Scripture in a distinct manner from other writings. Conversely, there is scant evidence supporting the acceptance of any apocryphal books by major Jewish groups into the Jewish canon. These apocryphal texts date from the third century BC to possibly as late as the second century AD, considerably later than Malachi, the last recognized inspired prophet from the fifth century BC.

In the early church, differing opinions emerged regarding the inclusion of apocryphal books as Scripture. One may question this, considering the Jewish exclusion. Jerome, a prominent theologian of the fourth century, dismissed the apocryphal texts as Scripture, although he integrated some into his new Latin translation, the Vulgate, with annotations marking their distinction from the primary text. He acknowledged the church’s reading of the apocryphal texts but didn’t grant them authoritative or canonical status. Conversely, Augustine, a contemporary of Jerome, argued for the acceptance of these texts, also criticizing Jerome for translating the Old Testament from Hebrew instead of Greek. The Orthodox Church aligns with Augustine’s perspective, while Western churches follow Jerome’s stance.

A millennium later, during the European Reformation, Martin Luther placed the apocryphal books between the Old and New Testaments, albeit without listing them in the table of contents. He labeled them as ‘Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read’. Subsequently, John Calvin entirely rejected all apocryphal writings, which became the dominant Protestant viewpoint. On the Roman Catholic front, most scholars regarded these writings as secondary. However, in 1546, the Council of Trent, comprising Roman Catholic Bishops, affirmed the disputed books as Scripture on par with those universally accepted.

New Testament Canon

The New Testament presents a somewhat clearer picture in some respects. Unlike the Old Testament, there are no variations in accepted books across different churches; all churches universally recognize the same 27 books. However, in other regards, the New Testament’s formation is equally intricate.

A prevalent misconception surrounding the NT canon suggests that it was established by the Roman Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. This notion, popularized by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is entirely false.

Evidently, the early Christians esteemed certain writings of the apostles and oral traditions as Scripture, as indicated in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:18 and 2 Peter 3:16. Alongside venerating the Hebrew Bible with divine authority, New Testament writers regarded each other’s writings similarly, reflecting their belief that the Holy Spirit inspired their work akin to the prophets.

The earliest Church Fathers’ letters cite New Testament passages as Scripture and affirm the four canonical gospels from the outset. This acceptance is notably evident in the writings of second-century Christians like Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, who also acknowledged Paul’s letters as possessing divine authority.

The challenge of heretics

Around AD 140, the heretic Marcion disregarded the Old Testament and most apostolic writings except for a truncated version of Luke and certain Pauline letters. This spurred the early church to clarify the status of Acts, Revelation, and the non-Pauline epistles. Acts, being authored by Luke, gained early acceptance, as did 1 Peter and 1 John, as evidenced by references from figures like Polycarp and Irenaeus. These early Christian writings treated them with the same reverence as Old Testament Scripture, underscoring their perceived authority.

Certain segments of the church initially hesitated to embrace seven texts (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation) likely due to the time it took for copies to circulate throughout the church’s various regions. Nevertheless, references to these texts by Church Fathers indicate widespread acceptance among most Christians as Scripture.

Towards the end of the second century, the proliferation of heretical texts spurred further discussion within the church. Recognizing the need to distinguish authentic Scriptures from spurious writings, several writers began compiling lists of accepted books in their respective regions. The oldest known of these lists, the Muratorian Canon, likely penned between around 170 and the fourth century, includes most of the New Testament books, excluding Hebrews, James, Peter’s letters, and 3 John. Interestingly, it includes the Apocalypse of Peter, which ultimately failed to gain widespread acceptance. While a handful of other writings were acknowledged by some early Christians, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, they were not universally recognized and were ultimately omitted from canonical lists.

Making lists

The New Testament canon in its finalized form was first listed in Athanasius’s Easter Letter in AD 367. It’s noteworthy that Athanasius doesn’t imply any church decision regarding the acceptance or rejection of certain texts. Instead, he unequivocally presents the 27 New Testament books as “God-inspired Scripture,” delivered by the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word to their predecessors and subsequently confirmed as divine. While Athanasius acknowledges the utility of texts like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache for reading, as well as the Old Testament apocryphal books, he stresses their lack of divine authority.

This prompts the question of how the early church discerned what constituted “God-inspired Scripture.” A crucial criterion was whether the texts were authored by an apostle or closely associated with one (e.g., Mark and Luke). Although the authorship of Hebrews remains uncertain, its doctrinal alignment with apostolic teaching led to its inclusion. The early church perceived divine authority in these texts while excluding others. In our modern era, we often seek rationalistic, evidence-based criteria for decision-making. However, the paramount factor lies in the Holy Spirit, who not only inspired the writing of these texts but also affirmed their divine authority to the church. The 66 books of the Bible are recognized as the word of God not by the decree of any council but by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading the church to cherish them above all else and acknowledge the voice of God speaking through them.

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