Tony Watkins explores how the 66 books of the Bible were put together, why they were included and not others, and how we can be confident that the Bible we have today is the 'word of God'.
Christians believe the Bible to be the ‘word of God’. It’s vital, then, that we can be confident that it contains the right books. When we talk about the books of the Bible, we often use the word ‘canon’ (from the Greek word for ’measuring stick’). The ‘canon of Scripture’ is the standard set of biblical books. When you pick up any of the common Bible translations, such as the New International Version, English Standard Version, or Christian Standard Bible, you find the same 66 books in them: 39 in the Old Testament (OT) and 27 in the New Testament (NT).
Yet some Bibles have a longer Old Testament. Roman Catholic Bible also include the ‘deuterocanonical’ (‘second canon’) books, and the Orthodox Church’s ‘longer canon’ adds a few more. We call this extra material the ‘Apocrypha’ (from a Greek word meaning ‘to hide away’). Evangelicals don’t accept these books as Scripture, though they are interesting and helpful. There are also other ancient Jewish texts, collectively known as the Pseudepigrapha (meaning ‘written under a false name’), which are not included in any Bible.
Why are there these differences? What about other ‘gospels’ and early letters that are not included in any Bibles? Who decided which books are in or out, and why? These questions go back a very long way, and there are many misunderstandings about the answers. Perhaps that is not surprising, as the process of clarifying the canon took centuries and was not straightforward.
The most important thing to grasp is the fundamental reason why these 66 books became the canon. It is not because the early Christians particularly liked these books. And it’s not because they were widely accepted, or because some church council decided to make them authoritative. Rather, it is because the early church recognised that these books had an inherent authority for how Christians live and what they believe. They believed that these books would have that same authority through all generations. The church understood them as Scripture—as the authoritative words of God, given through human authors (Zechariah 7:12; 1 Peter 1:10–12).
The Old Testament canon
At the time of Jesus and the apostles, the question of what constitutes ‘the Scriptures’ was basically settled. What Christians call the Old or First Testament contains the same material as the Hebrew Bible – the Scriptures of Jesus’s day. The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books (scrolls, really, since books or codices did not appear until the second half of the first century). The Christian OT divides several of these up, giving us a total of 39 books.
The Hebrew Bible comprises three parts and has a different order for many of the books. Part one is the Torah (often, but unhelpfully, called ‘the Law’), containing Genesis to Deuteronomy. These five books were understood to be Scripture right from the start. Part two is the Nevi’im or Prophets. This contains Joshua to Kings, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (a single scroll of what we call the ‘minor prophets’). The final part is the Ketuvim or Writings, consisting of a mix of poetic books, wisdom, and history. The initials of these three parts give a common name for the Hebrew Bible: the TaNaK. It seems that this Hebrew canon was well established by the second century BC, though with some debate about the Writings continuing into the first century AD. Notice how Jesus refers to 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).
There is significant evidence that Jews understood these 24 scrolls to be Scripture in a way that other writings were not. On the other hand, there is very little evidence that any major Jewish group accepted any of the apocryphal books as part of the Jewish canon. They date from between the third century before Christ and possibly as late as the second century after, well after Malachi (fifth century BC) who was the last inspired prophet.
There were different views in the early church about whether to accept the apocryphal books as Scripture. One wonders why, as we know Jews didn’t include them. Jerome, a prominent fourth century theologian, rejected the apocryphal material as Scripture, though he added some of it to the relevant parts of his new Latin translation, the Vulgate, marking them off to indicate that they were different from the main text. He recognised that the church read the apocryphal material (which is why he included some of it), but did not accept it as authoritative and canonical. Jerome’s contemporary Augustine however, argued that the church should accept them (as well as strongly criticising Jerome for translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, rather than Greek). The Orthodox Church follows Augustine’s view, while the western churches follow Jerome’s.
A thousand years later, during the European Reformation, Martin Luther included the apocryphal books between the Old and New Testaments, though he did not include them in the table of contents and gave them the title ‘Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read’. John Calvin later completely rejected all the apocryphal writings, and that became the dominant Protestant view. On the Roman Catholic side, most scholars agreed that these writings were secondary. However, in 1546, the Council of Trent (a meeting of Roman Catholic Bishops) insisted that the debated books were Scripture just as much as those on which all sides agreed.
The New Testament canon
In one way, the New Testament is slightly more straightforward. There is no equivalent to the apocryphal books which appear in some Bibles but not others: all churches accept the same 27 books. In other ways, it is equally complex. One very common idea about the NT canon is that it was decided by the Roman emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Code helped to popularise this notion, but it is completely untrue.
It is clear that the first Christians regarded at least some of the apostles’ writings and some oral traditions as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Peter 3:16). As well as attributing divine authority to the Hebrew Bible, New Testament writers treated each other’s writings in the same way. This is remarkable, but shows their conviction that the Holy Spirit inspired their work in the same way as he inspired the prophets.
The earliest letters from the Church Fathers cited NT passages as Scripture. They treated the four (and only four) gospels as Scripture right from the beginning. This is especially clear in the second century writings of Christians such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. It is also clear that they accepted Paul’s letters as having divine authority.
The challenge of heretics
Around AD 140, the heretic Marcion rejected the OT and most apostolic writings other than Luke (which he shortened) and some of Paul’s letters. This may have motivated the early church to clarify the status of Acts, Revelation, and the non-Pauline letters. Since Acts was also written by Luke, that was accepted very early, as were 1 Peter and 1 John (Polycarp and Irenaeus, among others, quote both of them). The earliest Christian writings after the NT refer to them in the same way as to OT Scripture: the church saw them as having same authority.
Some parts of the church did not immediately accept seven texts (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation). This is partly because it took a long time for copies of them to reach all the regions into which the church had spread. Yet the Church Fathers refer to them often enough to show that most Christians believed them to be Scripture.
It seems that the growing number of heretical texts at the end of the second century prompted more debate. The churches knew that they must not attribute divine authority to the wrong texts. That concern prompted several writers to list the books that the churches in their region accepted as Scripture. The oldest of these lists is probably the Muratorian Canon, written sometime between about 170 and the fourth century. It lists most of the NT books, not including Hebrews, James, Peter’s letters or 3 John. It did include the Apocalypse of Peter, which was not widely accepted. A small number of other writings were accepted by some of the early Christians, but not widely, and were finally left out of the canon lists. Of these, The Shepherd of Hermas is referred to most often by the Church Fathers.
The first listing of the New Testament canon in its final form was in Athanasius’s Easter Letter (AD 367). It is important to note that Athanasius gives no hint of the church deciding to accept some texts and not others. Instead, he talks about the 27 NT books as being ‘God-inspired Scripture’, which the ‘original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered unto our fathers’ and which ‘have been handed down and confirmed as divine’. He also mentions the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache as being useful to read, as well as the Old Testament apocryphal books, but stressed that these texts do not carry divine authority.
Of course, that raises the question of how the early church recognised what was ‘God-inspired Scripture’. A key part of this was whether the texts had been written by an apostle or someone very closely associated with apostles (e.g. Mark and Luke). We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but its contents are fully in line with the apostles’ teaching. The early church sensed God’s authority in these texts and not others. In the modern world we tend to view things in very rationalistic ways and want evidence-based criteria on which to make our decisions. Much more important, however, is that the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of these texts also confirmed to the church that they had divine authority. The 66 books of the Bible are the word of God, not because some church council decided they were, but because the Holy Spirit guided the church to treasure them above all other writings and to accept the authority of God himself speaking through them.
Kruger, Michael J. ‘The Biblical Canon’. The Gospel Coalition.
Meade, John D. ‘Did Nicaea Really Create the Bible?’ Text and Canon Institute (2021).
Meade, John D. ‘Why Are Protestant and Catholic Bibles Different?’ Text and Canon Institute (2021).
Licona, Mike. ‘How the Canon of the Bible Was Formed’ (2017).
The Gospel Coalition. ‘Why You Can Rely On the Canon’ – interview with Michael Kruger (2014)
Hill, C.E. Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012
Lanier, Greg. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible : Old and New Testament Canon and Text. Tain: Christian Focus, 2023.
Meade, John D., and Peter J. Gurry. Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022.