Development Of The Biblical Canon


It is impossible to think of the Christian faith without the Bible. It is the foundation of Christianity’s evangelism, its teaching, its worship and its morality. When we look back over Christian history, we find few - if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries of surrounding the formation of the Bible. The Scriptures served not only as the inspiration for believers facing martyrdom, but as the supreme standard for the churches threatened by heresy. If Christianity was orthodox, the Bible made it so, for the constant test of any teaching was, what do the Scriptures say?

We need to ask, then how did we get the Bible?1

Canon Scripture

The word for the special place Sacred Scripture occupy in the Church is canon. The term from the Greek language originally meant “a measuring rod” or, as we might say, “a ruler.” It was a standard for judging something straight. So the idea transferred to a list of books that constituted the standard or “rule” of the churches.

An abundance of evidence indicates that the various books of the Old Testament were written at different times throughout a period of about a thousand years prior to 400 B.C. in the case of the New Testament the books were written from about 50 A.D. to 100 A.D.

The writers of the books of the Bible were, of course, human beings. But it has always been the historic Christian belief that they wrote under an influence of the Holy Spirit which has been called "Inspiration." (2 Peter 1:20-21)

This fact of inspiration makes the Bible qualitatively different from all other books in the world. It is different not merely in degree but in kind. It stands in a class by itself, unique and unparalleled. It is in very truth the Word of God.

Case Study: Marcion and Montaus

Marcion – A follower of gnostic teacher Credo, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God and the Father of Jesus Christ. He believed that whereas the God of the Old Testament was unknowable; the Christian God has been revealed. The Old Testament God was sheer justice; whereas the God of the New Covenant was loving and gracious.

He held that the God of the Old Testament loved the Jews exclusively, so he rejected the entire Old Testament and also the New Testament writings that he thought favored Jewish readers such as Matthew, Mark, Acts and Hebrews. He also rejected Christian writings that appeared to him to compromise his own views, including some of Paul’s Pastoral Letters such as 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus. So he was left with only a mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel where he omitted the Nativity story and the ten letters of Paul. To him Paul was the only apostle that did not corrupt the Gospel of Jesus.

He was later refuted by the Church on the grounds that: by eliminating the Old Testament he hoped to make the love of God central for the Christian. But love that never faces the demands of justice is not Christian love. It was not the love that Marcion’s hero knew! Paul found in the Cross not only a demonstration of God’s love but a display of His righteousness. Christ’s death, he said allowed God to be both just and the justifier of all who believe in Jesus (Romans 3:25-26). That is the marvel of grace that Marcion missed.2

Montanus – He appeared as a voice in the wilderness of Asia Minor. He came with a demand for higher standard and a greater discipline and a sharper separation of the church from the world. Had he halted there, he could have done little but good, but he went much further. He and his two prophetesses Priscia and Maximilla went about prophesying in the name of the Spirit, and foretelling the speedy second coming of Christ. The in itself was not extraordinary. But these new prophets, in contrast to prophets in biblical times, spoke in a state of ecstasy, as though their personalities were suspended while the Paraclete spoke in them. Montanus was convinced that he and his prophetesses were the God-given instruments of revelation, the lyres across which the Spirit swept to play a new song. With that Montanus’ super-spirituality went too far.

Clearly the church had to act. The greatest problem was disorder. Montanus as a herald of a new spiritual vitality and a new challenge to holiness was one thing; but when Montanists insisted that opposition to the new prophecy was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, many churches spilt over the question.

Montanus’ doctrine of the new age of the Spirit suggested that the Old Testament period was past, and that the Christian period centering in Jesus had ended. The prophet claimed the right to push Christ and the apostolic message into the background. The fresh music of the Spirit could override important notes of the Christian gospel; Christ was no longer central. In the name of the Spirit Montanus denied that God’s decisive and normative revelation had occurred in Jesus Christ.

In the face of this challenge how could the church keep the gospel central? It had to make all later Christian worship, teaching and life center in Christ and the apostolic witness. Free utterances of the Spirit would not guarantee that; Montanism was making this clear. The best way to make the original apostolic gospel basic was to set apart the apostolic writings as uniquely authoritative. This would require that all later faith and action are to be judged in the light of that central message.

It was not that the church had ceased to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit . The difference was in the first days the Holy Spirit had enabled men to write the sacred books of the Christian faith; in the later days the Holy Spirit enabled men to understand, to interpret and to apply what had been written.3

In a sense both of them set the stage for the church to clearly articulate exactly what canon Scripture is whereas Marcion, heretic nudged the churches into upholding the canonicity of the Old Testament, Montanus, forced the churches into taking the warning on the last chapter of Revelation seriously.

How The Books Of The Bible Were Selected

There were many other books in Bible lands than those we find in our present Bible. This was true both in the Old and the New Testament times. How did it come about that just the books that we have were included in the Bible and not others?

The answer in brief is that the selection was made by the spiritual consciousness of godly people. In order to appreciate what this statement means, let us note the activity of the Holy Spirit in the affairs of men. Both Scripture and experience make it abundantly clear that in the lives that are surrendered to God there is definite light and guidance that come from the Holy Spirit. Men become wondrously wise spiritually when they permit Him to instruct them. Jesus spoke of this to His disciples when He assured them of the Spirit's help whenever they came into a difficult situation: "The Holy Spirit shall teach you in that very hour what ye ought to say" (Luke 12:12). And on another occasion he told them that the Holy Spirit "shall guide you into all truth" (John 16:13).

Many of us have been repeatedly amazed at the spiritual understanding and insight of people who may have had but a meager general education, but who have been in attendance in the school of the Holy Spirit.

This divinely guided consciousness of godly people in Bible times enabled them to judge what was spiritually true and what was false in the books that circulated among them and to detect the evidences of inspiration. There were, to be sure, certain specific standards set up as time went on, such as authorship, time of writing, language used, and the like. But the main fact to bear in mind is that as a result of the operation of the spiritual judgments of godly people there emerged out of the mass of writings certain books which by common agreement were regarded as divinely inspired. These books we call the Canon or the Canonical Books. "Canon" is a Greek word which means a rule or measuring line. A Canonical book, therefore, is one that conforms to the "Canon," that is, passes the test.

There is much evidence to indicate that the Canon of the Old Testament was fixed by the about the year 400 B.C. largely as a result of the work of Ezra and Nehemiah and a council of Jews known as the Great Synagogue, which met after the return from the Babylonian captivity. Long before that time, however, many of the books we now have in the Old Testament had been agreed upon as inspired.

In the case of the New Testament the fixing of the Canon was done mainly at the council at Carthage in 387 A.D., although the evidence points to the selection of the books as early as about the year 100 A.D.

Certain books known as Apocryphal Books were by some regarded as on a par with the Canonical books, but they were not admitted to the Canon by those who were in the best position to pass on their merits.

"Criteria for Canonicity"

  1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).

  2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century). (Colossians 4:16)

  3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services). Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century gives, us the first description of a Christian service: “On the day called the Day of the Sun all who live in cities or in the country gather to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”4

Note the phrase: ‘the memoirs of the apostles’ which was his title for writings that trace back to the apostles, were as early on considered the central part of Christian worship.

  1. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings. (Acts 2:14-17)

The basic factor for recognizing a book's canonicity for the New Testament was divine inspiration, and the chief test for this was apostolicity. The term apostolic as used for the test of canonicity does not necessarily mean apostolic authorship or derivation, but rather apostolic authority.

How The Books Were Transmitted

There are no original manuscripts of any of the Bible books known to be in existence today. Perhaps God's wisdom is evident in this, for if any of them did exist, some people might be tempted to worship them as idols.

Humanly speaking, the absence of any originals or even of the earliest copies is explainable on the ground of the perishableness of the materials and the Jewish custom not to tolerate any soiled or worn-out copies of their Scriptures. These were either burned or buried.

Since there were no printing presses in Bible times, the various books had to be reproduced by hand. They were written on baked clay tablets, on parchment (sheepskin), on paper made of the papyrus reed, and later on vellum (calfskin). The copying was done with extreme and conscientious care.

In spite of the extreme care exercised in copying the Bible books, minor errors inevitably crept in through the course of the centuries. Hence there arose what are known as variations in the manuscripts. A great many of these have been listed, but scholars are of the opinion that not a single variation vitally affects any basic Christian truth.

In order to determine as nearly as possible what the original text was, a vast amount of scholarship has been expended in the study of old manuscripts, early translations, quotations from and references to the Bible in other ancient writings.

As a result of able, extensive, and painstaking textual scholarship it may be confidently affirmed that we possess today the Bible books essentially as they came from the inspired writers. 5

Development of the Old Testament Canon

Since the first Christians were all Jews, Christianity was never without a canon, or as we say Scripture. Jesus Himself clearly accepted the Old Testament as the Word of God.

- John 10:35

  • Luke 24:44

Below is a summary as to how the Old Testament Canon developed within the Church

    • 1,400 BC: The first written Word of God: The Ten Commandments delivered to Moses.

    • 500 BC: Completion of All Original Hebrew Manuscripts which make up The 39 Books of the Old Testament.

    • 200 BC: Rabbis translate the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, a translation called the "Septuagint". The Septuagint ultimately includes 46 books.

    • AD 30-100: Christians use the Septuagint as their scriptures.

    • AD 100: Jewish rabbis meet at the Council of Jamniah and decide to include in their canon only 39 books, since only these can be found in Hebrew.

    • AD 400: Jerome translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (called the "Vulgate"). He knows that the Jews have only 39 books, and he wants to limit the Old Testament to these; the 7 he would leave out (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach [or "Ecclesiasticus"], and Baruch--he calls "apocrypha," that is, "hidden books." But Pope Damasus wants all 46 traditionally-used books included in the Old Testament, so the Vulgate has 46.

    • AD 1536: Luther translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to German. He assumes that, since Jews wrote the Old Testament, theirs is the correct canon; he puts the extra 7 books in an appendix that he calls the "Apocrypha."

    • AD 1546: The Roman Catholic Council of Trent reaffirms the canonicity of all 46 books

The Apocrypha

The biblical apocrypha (from the Greek word that means hidden) are texts which are often printed as part of the Bible despite their perceived status of being outside of the biblical canon. They are typically printed in a third section apart from the Old and New Testaments. These include texts written in the Jewish and Christian religious traditions that either:

  • were accepted into the biblical canon by some, but not all, Christian faiths, or

  • whose canonicity or lack thereof is not yet certain.

Development of The New Testament Canon

There are basically two different forms of communication, oral and written. The apostles used both in exercising their "power of attorney" to present Christ's Word. The oral form is by far the earliest form used and dates back to the their first commission to "preach" (Matt. 10, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16). Apostolic preaching was for many years the only form used and held a place of high importance throughout the Apostolic era. Since this such an important form of communication, authorized by Christ for use by the apostles, we should understand it and be acquainted with the New Testament concept of it.

In the New Testament there are many references to this oral form. Luke wrote that his writings "were delivered . . . unto us (Luke and his contemporaries) which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:1-4). Jude also wrote that when he was eager 'to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). Paul wrote, "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15).

The Apostles and the Written Word

As time passed, the apostles increasingly put their communications into a written form. This can be concluded from the Scriptures cited in the last section, in which there is evidence of an increase in the use writing as the church spread. This was an expected and natural development. As the apostles opened work in more distant areas, they could keep in contact with churches by writing. Also it was inevitable that the apostles would die one by one. These two factors made the certainty of the apostles' oral traditions doubtful, thus placing greater importance on the written word. The written word quickly received a place of high significance. It was placed on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul's letters were read in church gatherings on the same level as Old Testament Scriptures (1 Thess. 5:27, Col. 4:16). Peter classed Paul's letter with the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15). John presupposed that his Book of the Revelation would be read as other Scriptures (Rev. 1:3).

It is clear from the above that the written word was given great significance, and as time passed it was given greater priority over the oral form of transmission. Actually the written word was a fixation of the oral form.

The New Testament Canon

Thus far we have established a relationship between the apostles' written word and Christ's historical redemptive events. The question now arising is, "How did the apostles' writings come together to form the New Testament canon--the collection of books which are received as genuine and inspired Holy Scripture?" The answer to this question is simple.

The Christians and the church simply acknowledged the apostles' authority and accepted their writings, and writings of those intimately associated with them (as Mark and Luke), as part of the Holy Scripture. The church did not put together a canon that made books authoritative because they were included in it. The church only acknowledged what was given by the apostles, and included books in the canon because of this apostolical authority. They never regarded these books as anything else than canonical.

The actual canonization process took a long time. At first each of the apostle/s writings were acknowledged individually as authoritative. There was no canon of them that gave them authority because they were in it. But as time passed the need for a canon increased. False teachers arose and questioned the authority of certain of the writings that did not agree with their ideas. This forced the Christian brotherhood to gather together the individual apostle/s writings and assemble them into a canon. The church gathered together the writings that were accepted as the apostles' from the very beginning. This was no real problem for the church since she as a whole generally acknowledged the same writings. The writings that were questioned were small in number and then generally questioned only in late times by obviously false teachers and in small local areas.

Today we accept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as authoritative and can do so without the slightest doubt. We depend on the early Christians' decisions that each of the twenty-seven books has apostolic authorship. We do this since there were in a much better position to judge. The reason for this lies in the concept of apostolicity, which limits it to a certain place and time. Those at the correct place and time, the recipients of each writing, are in the best position to say where the writings came from. Thus we accept their decision and can do so with confidence since the Holy Spirit was at work guiding the decision.

In summary, the New Testament is our authority in religious matters because it is tied to the historical redemptive events. Christ established the means by which it was written. He called apostles to give His Word and gave the Holy Spirit as a guide. The early Christians accepted their word as Christ's Word because of this call. The early church gathered together the apostles' writings, and by acknowledging their authority from Christ, completed the last step in the recording of the final revelation of God to man, the New Testament.

Deuterocanonical books

Deuterocanonical books is a term used since the sixteenth century in the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity to describe certain books and passages of the Christian Bible that are not extant in Hebrew. The term is used in contrast to the "protocanonical books", which are contained in the Hebrew Bible. This distinction had previously contributed to debate in the early church about whether they should be read in the churches and thus be classified as canonical texts.

The word deuterocanonical comes from the Greek meaning 'belonging to the second canon'. The etymology of the word is misleading, but it does indicate the hesitation with which these books were accepted into the canon by some. Note that the term does not mean non-canonical; despite this it has sometimes been used as a euphemism for the Apocrypha.

Protestant Christians usually do not classify any texts as "deuterocanonical"; they either omit them from the Bible, or include them in a section designated Apocrypha. The similarity between these different terms contributes to the confusion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox deuterocanon and the texts considered non-canonical by one or both groups of Christians.

Gnostic Gospels

The term gnostic gospels refers to gnostic collections of writings about the teachings of Jesus, written around the 2nd century AD. These gospels are not accepted by most mainstream Christians as part of the standard Biblical canon. Rather, they are part of what is called the New Testament apocrypha. However, public interest has been spurred by recent novels and films which refer to them.

Historical Development of Canon Scripture

1st Century AD: Completion of All Original Greek Manuscripts which make up The 27 Books of the New Testament.

315 AD: Athenasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, identifies the 27 books of the New Testament which are today recognized as the canon of scripture.

382 AD: Jerome's Latin Vulgate Manuscripts Produced which contain All 80 Books (39 Old Test. + 14 Apocrypha + 27 New Test).

500 AD: Scriptures have been Translated into Over 500 Languages.

600 AD: LATIN was the Only Language Allowed for Scripture.

995 AD: Anglo-Saxon (Early Roots of English Language) Translations of The New Testament Produced.

1384 AD: Wycliffe is the First Person to Produce a (Hand-Written) manuscript Copy of the Complete Bible; All 80 Books.

1455 AD: Gutenberg Invents the Printing Press; Books May Now be mass-Produced Instead of Individually Hand-Written. The First Book Ever Printed is Gutenberg's Bible in Latin.

1516 AD: Erasmus Produces a Greek/Latin Parallel New Testament.

1522 AD: Martin Luther's German New Testament.

1526 AD: William Tyndale's New Testament; The First New Testament printed in the English Language.

1535 AD: Myles Coverdale's Bible; The First Complete Bible printed in the English Language (80 Books: O.T. & N.T. & Apocrypha).

1537 AD: Tyndale-Matthews Bible; The Second Complete Bible printed in English. Done by John "Thomas Matthew" Rogers (80 Books).

1539 AD: The "Great Bible" Printed; The First English Language Bible Authorized for Public Use (80 Books).

1560 AD: The Geneva Bible Printed; The First English Language Bible to add Numbered Verses to Each Chapter (80 Books).

1568 AD: The Bishops Bible Printed; The Bible of which the King James was a Revision (80 Books).

1609 AD: The Douay Old Testament is added to the Rheims New Testament (of 1582) Making the First Complete English Catholic Bible; Translated from the Latin Vulgate (80 Books).

1611 AD: The King James Bible Printed; Originally with All 80 Books. The Apocrypha was Officially Removed in 1885 Leaving Only 66 Books.

1782 AD: Robert Aitken's Bible; The First English Language Bible (KJV) Printed in America.

1791 AD: Isaac Collins and Isaiah Thomas Respectively Produce the First Family Bible and First Illustrated Bible Printed in America. Both were King James Versions, with All 80 Books.

1808 AD: Jane Aitken's Bible (Daughter of Robert Aitken); The First Bible to be Printed by a Woman.

1833 AD: Noah Webster's Bible; After Producing his Famous Dictionary, Webster Printed his Own Revision of the King James Bible.

1841 AD: English Hexapla New Testament; an Early Textual Comparison showing the Greek and 6 Famous English Translations in Parallel Columns.

1846 AD: The Illuminated Bible; The Most Lavishly Illustrated Bible printed in America. A King James Version, with All 80 Books.

1885 AD: The "English Revised Version" Bible; The First Major English Revision of the KJV.

1901 AD: The "American Standard Version"; The First Major American Revision of the KJV.

1971 AD: The "New American Standard Bible" (NASB) is Published as a "Modern and Accurate Word for Word English Translation" of the Bible.

1973 AD: The "New International Version" (NIV) is Published as a "Modern and Accurate Phrase for Phrase English Translation" of the Bible.

1982 AD: The "New King James Version" (NKJV) is Published as a "Modern English Version Maintaining the Original Style of the King James."

2002 AD: The English Standard Version (ESV) is Published as a translation to bridge the gap between the accuracy of the NASB and the readability of the NIV


1 Shelley, Bruce – Church History in Plain Language p.73

2 Loc cit

3 Ibid

4 Loc cit

5 Hahn , Paul -

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