The purpose of this article is to describe the historical process by which the Bible came into its present form, and to consider why these particular books were included and others excluded. Over the centuries, documents written by prominent leaders and prophets in Israel were recognised as the Word of God, then gospels and letters written by the apostles in the early church were recognised as having particular authority and of divine inspiration, and were included in the canon of Scripture.
The word 'Bible' comes from the Greek word 'biblion', meaning a book. In the early centuries a book was normally a roll of papyrus, or a scroll. Later, pages were bound together to make a book known as a 'codex'. Biblion was a general term for any written material. It was not exclusively used to describe the scriptures or other religious writings.
The word 'canon', from the Greek word 'Kanon', which meant a 'cane' or 'measuring rod'. Originally it was a building tool used by carpenters, which was six cubits (approximately three metres) long. The word came to be used by the church as the rule of faith and practice, against which other teaching or doctrines were tested. The 'canon' later became the word used for the list of books accepted by the church as scripture, books which were considered to be authoritative because there were divinely inspired.
Part 1: The Old Testament Canon
The Jews called what we now call the Old Testament, 'The Scriptures', which were read publicly in the synagogues. All thirty-nine books in our Old Testament are in the Jewish Scriptures, but the Hebrew Bible is arranged differently. It is arranged in a three-fold canon, known as the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Jesus referred to them as, "the law of Moses, and the prophets and the psalms" (Lk 24:44). These three sections are in the chronological order of the recognition of their inspiration as Scripture.
1. The Law or 'Torah' consisted of the five books of Moses, which in English Bibles are Genesis through to Deuteronomy. These names come from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, which will be described later. The Hebrew names were derived from the first few words of each book, so Genesis was known as 'In the beginning'.
2. The Prophets or 'Nebiim' were divided into two groups:
The Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings),
The Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve).
3. The third section was the Writings or 'Ketubim', which was also divided into three sections:
The Poetical Books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job),
The Five Rolls or 'Megilloth' (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther and Ecclesiastes).
The Historical Books (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles).
Jews often refer to the scriptures as the 'Tanach', based on the first letters of each of the three sections: Torah, Nebiim and Ketubim.
The Hebrew Scriptures therefore have a total of twenty-four books, which are actually the same as our thirty-nine. The twelve minor prophets were grouped into one book, known as 'The Twelve'. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles were one book each, and Ezra and Nehemiah were joined into one book. They were first separated in the Septuagint.
Recognition of the inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures
The writing of the Hebrew Scriptures took place over a very long period, from the earliest times of the history of Israel until the fifth century BC, a span of about a thousand years. Very little is known about the process of how the books came to be recognised as the Word of God, but there are a number of places in the OT where the pattern of the process of writing and recognition is hinted at.
The five books of Moses
Much of the content of these books was recognised as the Word of God during the lifetime of Moses, or even immediately following its original reception. For example, the Ten Commandments were received directly from God himself, both verbally, and then written on tablets of stone (Ex 20:1, 24:12, 34:1). These were preserved inside the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle (Heb 9:4), and in Solomon’s temple (1 Kg 8:9). The majority of the book of Leviticus consists of words which were spoken to directly to Moses from God himself (Lev 1:1, 4:1, 6:1, 8:1 ...). There are several references to Moses writing down the words of God: "Moses wrote all the words of the Lord in the book of the covenant" (Ex 24:4-7). The Book of Deuteronomy was written down by Moses and given to the priests who kept it beside the ark of the covenant (Deut 31:24-26). This was their copy of the covenant between the Lord and Israel, and would have been treasured over the following generations. We see that Moses was aware that he was writing scripture, the words of God, and his books were kept beside the ark of the covenant, presumably in the holy of holies in the tabernacle. Moses instructed future kings to have a copy of this law (Deuteronomy), and to observe it diligently (Deut 17:18), and the Lord commanded Joshua to do the same (Josh 1:8). When the book of the law was rediscovered during the reign of Josiah it was considered to be authoritative (2 Kg 22:8ff). Ezra read the law and interpreted it, again showing its special authority (Neh 8:8). During the early centuries of the history of Israel these five books was the only Scripture they possessed, until other writings were added later. The Sadducees and the Samaritans never accepted any additional books.
The former prophets
The first section of the prophets is what we now refer to as the history books. Books or scrolls were probably recognised as inspired soon after they were written, and were placed in the tabernacle where they were preserved as the Word of God. Joshua wrote down the words of the covenant in the book of the law of God, and placed it in the sanctuary of the Lord (Josh 24:25-26). When Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship he wrote them down in a book and laid it up before the Lord (1 Sam 10:25). Some of the books were probably written by prophets, whose word was considered to be inspired. It should be noted that many of the historical books contain material selected from other literature, which are mentioned by name.
The later prophets
Each of the prophets were very aware that they were speaking the Word of the Lord, and characteristically introduced their oracles with the phrase, "Thus says the Lord ...". A true prophet had to instruct the people to obey the law of God, and their predictions had to be fulfilled in history, otherwise they should be considered as a false prophet (Deut 18:22).
The exile in Babylon
The greatest stimulus to the definition of the OT canon was the Babylonian exile. The Jews had to define what they recognised as Scripture in order to survive as a nation and to maintain their religious and cultural identity. They had lost everything else which defined them as a nation: the temple, the land, Jerusalem and their king. Copies of the scriptures were scattered during the exile, to be collected as a complete group on their return from Babylon.
The role of Ezra
According to Jewish tradition, Ezra finalised the canon of the scriptures around 450 BC following the return from exile. He collected the books together, probably wrote some books (Ezra and Chronicles) and made some small editorial changes in some earlier books.
Josephus defined the Hebrew canon as containing twenty-two books. He divided the Scriptures into three main sections, but differently from the standard Jewish divisions. His first group were the five books of Moses, covering a period of three thousand years from creation to Moses. The second group were thirteen books of prophets from Moses to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. These would probably have been Joshua, Judges and Ruth combined, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations combined, Ezekiel, twelve minor prophets, Job, Daniel, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah combined and Chronicles. The last were the remaining four books of hymns and precepts (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon). So, according to Josephus, the last scriptures written under God's inspiration were from the time of Artaxerxes (465 - 424 BC).
In the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras, written in the late first century, Ezra claims the Most High spoke to him, telling him to make the twenty-four books available to the public, but keep seventy others hidden (2 Esdras 14:45). This is one of the earliest references to the full canon of the OT of twenty-four books, and affirms Ezra’s role in fixing the canon, even though other aspects of the account are rather fanciful.
The third section of the Hebrew scriptures was the last to be officially recognised as authoritative. Even though they had all been written by post-exilic times, they had a looser connection with the scriptures and were only finally canonised following the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Psalms were originally in five books, collected at different times. Authorship of David would ensure that they would be preserved and respected as sacred songs of worship.
The Septuagint (LXX)
As a result of the increasing influence of Greek language and culture in Israel, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 250 BC. This was the first time they were translated into a different language. The translation was done by a committee of seventy skilled Jewish linguists in Alexandria. This is the origin of its name, 'the Septuagint', and its abbreviation LXX. The translators re-ordered the books according to subject matter, giving the order later used by the Latin and English translators, which we have today. In some copies of the Septuagint several of what are now called the Apocryphal books were included. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church. All the quotations of the OT in the NT are from the Septuagint, which explains why there is sometimes a difference in wording from the original Hebrew OT.
Part II: The New Testament Canon
The Jewish scriptures were recognised by the early church right from the beginning as inspired writing. During his earthly ministry Jesus frequently quoted from them, recognising and affirming their authority and inspiration. He referred to the OT as 'scripture' (Mk 12:10, Jn 10:35), introduced quotations with the phrase, "It is written ..., (Mk 11:17) or declared the words of the prophets being fulfilled in himself or in his time (Mk 7:6, Lk 4:18).
The New Testament writers quoted the OT over three hundred times, referring to it as the Word of God, therefore recognising and declaring its inspiration. There are also thousands of verbal allusions to the OT, where characters or events are mentioned, or distinctive phrases or expressions are used. Other books are only very rarely quoted. One of the very few examples is Jude quoting from the Book of Enoch (Jude 14-15), together with Paul making brief quotations from pagan Greek poets (Acts 17:28, Titus 1:12).
The writings of the apostles, as they appeared, were held in high regard. Paul encouraged interchange of his letters between different churches, urging the Colossians to read the letter of the Laodiceans (Col 4:16). Most scholars believe that Paul's letters were collected together by AD 85, into what is often called 'The Pauline Corpus'. There is a tradition that the Onesimus in the book of Philemon was responsible for this, as bishop of Ephesus. Peter refers to 'all of' Paul’s letters, implying that there was already a collection of his letters in existence by the time he wrote (2 Pet 3:16). The four gospels are known to have been collected together by AD 150.
The seven general letters and Revelation took longer to be universally recognised as inspired scripture, and there was far more debate over their canonicity. In the early centuries of the church there was no 'New Testament'. This name was first given by Tertullian in the late second century to distinguish the New Testament or Covenant from the Hebrew Scriptures which he called the Old Testament, distinguishing the gospel from the law.
Why did the NT canon develop?
The church only began to determine the canon in response to the teaching and writing of various gnostic teachers. In the second century there were many Christian or other religious writings being circulated, so it became necessary to distinguish between those which were considered authoritative and those which were not. Many heretical books were falsely attributed to the apostles in an attempt to give them authority. It became important to exclude the spurious books, especially gnostic writings. It was particularly the rise of Marcionism in middle of the second century that challenged the church. Marcion was one of the first people to define a canon of Scripture when he only accepted Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s letters, rejecting other gospels and letters as being too Jewish. In response, the church had to begin to define which books would be recognised as divinely inspired scripture.
From the earliest time the writing of the apostles would have been respected as authoritative, as they were the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). The original apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrected Jesus who had been with him during his ministry. The primary test for canonicity was whether the book had apostolic authority. This meant that the book had to be written by one of the original twelve apostles (excluding Judas), or by Paul, or by James. This also allowed books which had been written by others under the authority of an apostle, so Mark’s Gospel would be included because of his close connection with Peter, and Luke’s writings because of him being a co-worker with Paul.
By what process did the NT canon develop?
The selection of the NT canon was a gradual and continuous process over three and a half centuries, which can be divided into five periods:
1. The first century
During this time the books were originally written, then copies were made and distributed around the churches. Several of the writers of the NT were aware that their own writing was inspired and authoritative. Paul and other apostles called for public reading of their letters (1 Thess 5:27). Paul claimed God's authority, writing a command of the Lord (1 Cor 14:37). John claimed God's inspiration for the Book of Revelation (Rev 1:11, 22:18-19). Peter classed Paul's letters with other scriptures (2 Pet 3:15-16). One of the first church fathers, Clement of Rome in his letter to the Corinthians, written around AD 95, freely quotes Matthew and Luke, and alludes to 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians.
2. The first half of the second century
During this period, the books became more widely known, and began to be quoted as authoritative by other writers. By the early second century all four gospels and letters of Paul were known and used at all the church centres known to us today. In the writings of the church fathers most of the books in the NT are quoted as Scripture, showing that they accepted them as authoritative, and that they assumed their readers would also accept their authority. Only 2 and 3 John, Jude and 2 Peter are not clearly recognised. One of the earliest NT manuscripts still in existence is a fragment of John's Gospel from AD 125, displayed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, UK. This was found in Egypt, which shows that within thirty years of his death, his writings were revered, copied, and distributed over large distances.
Polycarp in his Letter to the Philippians (AD 110) refers to Paul's letter to the Philippians and alludes to several other NT documents. In his letters, Ignatius (AD 115) quoted from Matthew, 1 Peter, 1 John and nine of Paul's letters, and gave allusions from the three other gospels. The Didache (AD 80-120) refers to a written gospel. It also has twenty-two quotations from Matthew, and references to Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Thessalonians and 1 Peter. The Epistle of Barnabas (AD 130) quotes from Matthew, John, Acts and 2 Peter, using the phrase 'it is written', normally only used when referring to scripture. Papias was bishop of Hieropolis (AD 130-140) and a pupil of John. He quoted from John's gospel and recorded the traditions about the origins of Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels. In his writings Justin Martyr (AD 140) mentions Revelation, and uses Acts and eight letters. He calls the gospels the 'memoirs of the apostles', and says that they were read in Christian meetings alternately with the prophets. He freely used the phrase, 'it is written' to refer to New Testament writings.
3. The second half of the Second Century
By the end of the second century the books held a recognised place alongside the Jewish Scriptures. They began to be translated into other languages, including Syriac and Latin, and have commentaries written on them. These include all the NT except 2 Peter, but with no additional books.
Irenaeus (AD 130-200) quotes most of the NT as scripture (except Philemon, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude). He refers to the books as 'the evangelists and the apostles'. He explains why there are four gospels, and declared that the apostles were endowed with power from on high, and had perfect knowledge of the gospel of God. Tatian (AD 170) made a harmony of the four gospels called The Diatessaron, thus affirming that these are the only gospels recognised as true gospels by the early church. He did not include any of the many other so-called gospels in circulation. Tertullian (160-200) was the first writer to refer to the Christian scriptures the New Testament in AD 193. He quoted around 180 times from the NT in his writings.
The Muratorian Fragment, from a document made in Rome in AD 170, is the earliest list of inspired books still in existence. It distinguishes books suitable for public worship from those suitable only for private devotions, and rejects the writings of heretics. It includes four gospels, Acts, Revelation, and all of Paul’s letters, but omits Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter and 3 John. It also includes some other books: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas.
4. The third Century
The collection of the books into the 'New Testament' was in process, separating them from other Christian literature. However, there was no real progress in determining the canon through the century. The status of the general letters which was questioned at the start of the century was still being questioned at the end.
Origen (AD 185-254) accepted and wrote commentaries on all twenty-seven books of our NT. For him, the undisputed books were the four gospels, Paul's letters, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. He was uncertain about the authorship of Hebrews, and doubted the value of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. He also doubted the canonicity of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of Barnabas, the Didache and the Gospel of the Hebrews. Origen was very influential in the church, so his opinion would have great impact on the future development of the canon.
5. The Fourth Century
By this time, the church came to the conclusion that the canon had become fixed, and officially recognised the books which had already become accepted by the churches all over the then known world.
Eusebius (AD 264-340) set out the results of research he had conducted into which books were accepted as inspired by different churches around the Roman Empire. He found four classes of books: The first were those which were universally accepted, most of the NT: four gospels, Acts, fourteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. The second category were those books accepted by the majority of churches, including himself: James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude. His third category were what he called spurious books (The Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, The Didache). His final group were heretical writings (Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Andrew, Gospel of Matthias, Acts of John). In his own NT which he produced for the Emperor Constantine, he included all twenty-seven books.
In AD 367, Athanasius of Alexandria listed all twenty-seven books of the NT in his recommendation of inspired writings. This was the earliest official list of all books in the NT in existence.
The earliest complete copy of the NT in existence is the Codex Sinaiticus, from the fourth century. This contains all twenty-seven books of the NT, with a few extra books at the end. The Codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, also contains all twenty-seven books, but with a different selection of books added at the end. These would indicate a greater level of certainty that the traditional NT books should be canonical, and less certainty about other books. Both of these are kept in the British Library in London.
The canon of the NT was finally fixed at the Council of Carthage in AD 397. This general council of the church effectively officially recognised the books which had already been considered as inspired Scripture by the churches for several centuries. So we see that the canon was effectively decided by consensus by the world-wide church, and finally fixed in an official church council. Most Christians would believe that the Holy Spirit was directing this whole process, so we can have confidence that the books finally included were the correct ones, those with apostolic authority from divine inspiration. Since the Council of Carthage, no serious challenge has been made to the canon of the NT, and the twenty-seven books continue to be universally accepted. During the Reformation both Catholic and Protestants, after some debate, reaffirmed their adherence to them.
The Latin Vulgate
In the fifth century, Jerome translated the Greek and Hebrew Bible into Latin. This contained all twenty-seven books of NT and settled the canon in the Western church. It became the main Bible of the Middle Ages, and is still used by the Catholic church. It was also used as the basis for translating the King James Bible.
Part III. Apocryphal Writings
The term Apocrypha means 'hidden' or 'concealed'. It was first given this name by Jerome to mean 'non-canonical'. It consists of twelve books, which were included in some copies of the Greek Septuagint, but which were not included in the Hebrew Scriptures. Most of the material was written in the last two centuries BC and the first century AD, a few centuries after Jews considered the OT canon to be closed.
The Apocryphal New Testament
This is a term which includes a large number of different writings from the early centuries of the church. None of these are considered canonical by any of the main churches. There are many gospels written by gnostic teachers claiming to be by the apostles, including the Gospel of Thomas, which consists of a series of sayings of Jesus. There are also infancy gospels which claim to describe the childhood of Jesus, and many other gospels. There are also books of Acts of various apostles, including Paul, Peter, Philip and John, many epistles claiming to be from various apostles and different apocalypses, including the Apocalypse of Peter.
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha
This is a large collection of Jewish writings which were not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, or in the Apocrypha, and are not considered canonical by any of the main churches. More well-known books would include the Sibylline Oracles, 1 Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees. Enoch and the Apocalypse of Moses are quoted in the Book of Jude.
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. IVP, Leicester 1988.
Bruce, F.F. Paul, Apostle of the Free Spirit, Paternoster, Exeter 1977.
Comfort, P.W. ed. The Origin of the Bible, Tyndale House
Gamble, H. Canonical Formation of the New Testament, in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Evans & Porter, IVP Leicester 2000.
Meye, R.P. Canon of the N.T. in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), ed. G.W. Bromiley, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979
Robinson, G.L. Canon of the O.T. in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), ed. G.W. Bromiley, Eerdmans Grand Rapids, 1979
On-line copies of the books of the Apocrypha, the Apocryphal NT and the Pseudepigrapha can easily be found on the Internet