Who Chose the Books of the Bible and Why?


***NEW from Jonathan Morrow – Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority – Go deeper on this topic, explore other objections, and increase your confidence in the Bible***

Were the books of the New Testament selected by Emperor Constantine for social and political reasons in the 4th century (cf. the claims of Dan Brown via The Da Vinci Code) or were the books included in the New Testament Canon because they fit with the authoritative teaching that can be traced back to Jesus himself? Was this simply a power play? Another example of history being written by the winners?

I think the best way to come at this is by asking which of these documents tells us the truth about ‘the faith’ that was preached and received in the earliest communities of Christ-followers (cf. Jude 3). This is a theological question—what did the earliest eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth believe and preach from the very beginning?

New Testament scholar Darrell Bock points to three kinds of texts contained in the New Testament writings that show us what the earliest Christians believed (and helpfully provides 3’s).

Schooling—We find doctrinal summaries Christians would memorize and read alongside Old Testament texts (i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures) when they would gather together for worship in house churches (e.g., Rom. 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 8:6; 15:1-5).

Singing—they would sing their theology in hymns and show their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., Col. 1:15-20 & Phil. 2:5-11).

Sacraments—Baptisms and the Lord’s Supper were practiced on a regular basis and pictured (imaged or symbolized) for the believing community the basic elements of the salvation story as core theology (e.g., Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Eph. 4:4-6).

These creeds, hymns, and practices predated the writing of the New Testament documents (remember that this was an oral culture and many people could not read). Think of these as “oral texts” the earliest Christian community read and practiced before there was a completed Bible. These foundational beliefs are sometimes called the “Rule of Faith.”

With that in mind, how were the books chosen? There were three criteria used to decide which books were received as authoritative—as canon.

First, was a book written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle (apostolicity)? Mark was accepted because he was an associate of Peter and Luke was accepted because of his relationship to Paul. Or to put it another way, if the book was not from the 1st century it was not Scripture because it could not be traced back to the apostles who were taught and commissioned by Jesus (who was crucified in A.D. 30-33).

Secondly, did this book conform to the teachings / theology of other books known by the apostles (orthodoxy)? Recall the points made about the schooling, singing, and sacraments in the life and worship of the early church. Hebrews would be an example of this because of its exalted view of Jesus Christ (i.e., Christology).

Finally, was the book accepted early on in the life of the church and by the majority of churches across the region (catholicity)? It was important that a book wasn’t just accepted in one location, but that lots of Christians in different cities and regions accepted it.

Early Christians recognized the authority contained in these writings already; they did not arbitrarily pick which ones would become authoritative for the Church. The early Christians were very careful and thoughtful about which books would get the label ‘Scripture’ alongside the Old Testament. It is simply a fact of history that by the end of the 2nd century (before Constantine), the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul are already recognized as authoritative and being used that way in house churches. Now some discussion about a handful of books continued on through the centuries between the Eastern and Western churches. But, while there was no universal declaration concerning the final list, it is safe to say that the canon was effectively closed by the time of the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D.

*A form of this article first appeared in a contribution I made to the Apologetics Study Bible for Students, published by B&H.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 thoughts on “Who Chose the Books of the Bible and Why?

  1. When Jesus left this world to be with his Father he left behind a community of disciples with the authority and not a collection of papyruses or parchments. So any authority any later written record might possess totally depends upon the recognition given by this community to those writings. Something like this could also be said about Old Testament. End of the day the inerrancy of the early Christian community’s decisions regarding the scriptures are a prerequisite for any form of the inerrancy that can be claimed for the Books included in the collection we call Bible. If a community guided by Holy Spirit could choose the books suitable for church use then why can’t a contemporary disciple of Jesus guided by the same Holy Spirit can’t make decision regarding which verses should be inerrant and which verses needn’t be for these books to be useful for “teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness”? After all the early Christian community didn’t choose some books (such as Didache or Shepherd of Hermas) because they lacked some of the necessary properties to consider them as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness”.

  2. I agree totally with the criterion you listed above that the early church used to choose which books were in the canon of New Testament Scripture. I would like to add also that ultimately, it was a process of recognition by the community rather than their determination. I will quote NT scholar Bruce Metzer here: ““The canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together. The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative accounts. For somebody now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, ‘Let’s get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.’ I would say, ‘Thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.’ We know it because of sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same with the canon” (As quoted in his interview with Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ)

    Ultimately the books chosen were what God wanted chosen.

  3. I am amazed at how many people believe that Constantine invited the Christian bishop to come and help him to wade through stacks of scrolls to choose which to put in. One atheist sent me a list of 500 books that should have been included in the Bible. Another told me that they should have put all of the books in, and let people choose which ones they like.And then several believe that King James just wrote the Bible and made everything up. I don’t follow the reasoning that because James was “flaming gay”, he put in the stuff about homosexuality.I asked one of the people who believe that why would he make up stuff that calls homosexual behavior an abomination, and she answered that maybe he felt guilty about being gay.Almost all non-Christians and even a lot of Christians believe that the Bible is made up and that it would be unrecognizable from earlier versions. They all say that they have read the Bible, but if that is true, they must have been blinded by the absence of the Holy Spirit..

  4. I really like what you guys are usually up too. This type of clever
    work and exposure! Keep up the awesome works
    guys I’ve added you guys to blogroll.