How Did We Get the Books of the Bible?

Canonization of Scripture

Because more than 5 billion copies of Scripture have been distributed, the Bible is often referred to as the best-selling book of all time. But, technically speaking, the Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books compiled into one volume. These books were composed between approximately the 8th century BCE and the 1st century CE, written in three different languages on three different continents by at least 40 authors.

In recent decades, there has been a lot of debate over how these 66 books were selected for inclusion in what Christians view as their authoritative text. Conspiracy theories abound, raising suspicion that the Bible we possess is the product of political powerplays in which minority voices were silenced and preference given to viewpoints that favored those in authority.

Though there certainly was a process involving human decision-makers that led to the compilation of Scripture, the selection of canonical books is not as dubious as these conspiracy theorists would have us believe.  

There is less controversy over the books of the Old Testament. Because Christians view Jesus of Nazareth as their Lord, we recognize as authoritative the same books that he accepted as his canon of Scripture – the ancient Hebrew books found in the Protestant Old Testament.

The New Testament books, of course, were written after the time of Christ by his followers, so there are more questions about why these were included in the Bible. Without a doubt, there were many writings produced by numerous people in the first few centuries of the Christian movement. Of these writings, only 27 books were included in the Bible. The rest were left out. Why? 

The early church leaders involved in the process of canonization used the Latin word recipemus (meaning “we receive”) to describe what they were doing. They did not consider themselves to be granting authority to certain books and denying it to others. They understood themselves to be receiving, or recognizing, those writings that the worldwide church already viewed as authoritative. Theologian R.C. Sproul has written, “Those human decisions [involved in the process of canonization] did not make something that was not authoritative suddenly authoritative, but rather the church was bowing, acquiescing to that which they recognized to be sacred Scripture.”

In making this determination, these leaders looked for books universally recognized as apostolic (known to be written by an Apostle or by someone closely connected with an Apostle’s ministry) in which the content aligned with the accepted doctrinal positions of Christians throughout the world. New Testament scholar, Michael J. Kruger explains, “Generally speaking, [the] core [of accepted books] would have included the four gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Books that were ‘disputed’ tended to be the smaller books such as 2 Peter, Jude, James, and 2-3 John.”

The early Christians involved in finalizing the canon made their decisions with confidence because, from very early on, Christians began to recognize certain documents as bearing apostolic authority. We see this recognition taking place even before the entire New Testament was written. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes from the gospel of Luke, referring to it as Scripture. Similarly, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. The book of Revelation essentially self-identifies as being divinely authoritative when it ends with a warning against adding or subtracting to its contents (Rev. 22:18-19), thus echoing Old Testament instructions about how one is to treat God’s revealed word (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6). 

Light was shed on this discussion by the discovery of an artifact known as the Muratorian Fragment by an Italian historian in the 1700’s. This document is a copy of what is possibly the oldest known list of the books of the New Testament. The fragment is from a 7th century Latin manuscript, but its grammatical structure suggests that it might be a translation of a Greek document from as early as AD 170. In this artifact are listed most of the New Testament books historically recognized by the church as canonical.

All of this means that, from a very early date, the Christian church recognized the authoritative nature of the books we have in our Bible. This contradicts the assertion of conspiracy theorists that the process of canonization did not take place until several centuries after the time of Christ.

Personally, I see great irony in the suggestion that the New Testament books were chosen by those in power to silence the voice of the powerless. Generally, this suggestion is made by wealthy academics in elite, Western institutions. Meanwhile, millions of humble Christians throughout the world, many of them genuinely poor, hold onto their Bible with confidence that it is the word of God. If indeed a powerplay has impinged on the church’s canon of Scripture, it is the one taking place today in the halls of academia rather than anything that happened in the days of the early church.