Which Books Get to be in the Bible? Says Who?

Go to your Bible, open up to the New Testament, and you will find a collection of 27 books — every New Testament begins with Matthew and everyone ends with Revelation (not Revelations). 27 books is taken for granted today but for about 400 years that wasn’t the case. In fact, there was no such thing as a “New Testament” for a long time, and even then there were some books still in dispute. There is no need to resort to conspiracy theory here, but at least we should recognize that these books were not golden tablet like books dropped from the sky with the obvious and indisputable marks of divinity. Luther, in the 16th Century, spoke disparagingly about some books in the New Testament.

Is there space in  your church for teaching this topic? Do ordinary Christians know how we got our Bible?

How did it happen? Warren Carter, in his book Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, proposes a five-fold process. But he observes this process is known only after the event. As he says, When Paul wrote Romans he didn’t propose sending it to the canon selection committee! (Think about that, or have a discussion with someone about it.)

Stage 1: Writing: the texts were written over time, they were sometimes issued in more than one edition, they interacted with one another, they bring together bits and bobs from early Christian settings (like hymns and confessions), some books were written (by Paul) that didn’t make it…

Stage 2: Use: these texts were used by early Christians in various settings, often in church gatherings where the writings were read aloud. He refers and quotes Justin’s First Apology 67. (Look it up.)

Stage 3: Collections. Eventually folks began collecting various books into groups, and the earliest one appears to be Gospels, but also there were collections of Paul’s letters and of the other letters. Some disputed the four fold Gospels and proposed a harmony of them (Tatian’s Diatesseron).

Stage 4: Lists and Selection. A major list, provided not long ago on this blog, was the Muratorian Canon. But there are some important observations about early listings: some books were secure, but not all of our NT books made each list; some books were disputed and some of these did make it; some books were definitely not in but were to be read (Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, et al). Some disputed books include James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Revelation. One of the earliest “whole” NT manuscripts has all 27 books but also has Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas.

Stage 5: Ratification. Between 350 and 400 AD the 27 books were settled upon, not all at once, not by one group though Athanasius (367) had the 27 list as we have it and in 397 the Council of Carthage listed the 27 books though not all accepted Carthage. Luther wasn’t fond — according to Carter — of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.

So there we have it: God gave us the NT but didn’t drop the books from the sky. They came to the surface in the church over time and with some struggle.

The arguments used were things like antiquity, apostolicity, acceptable theological content, and widespread use (catholicity). These were judgments, used in a variety of ways for different books, but I do think Carter doesn’t value enough the regula fidei to Nicea as a major substance shaper of what was NT and what was not. What was within the canon of faith was put in the canon of Scripture.

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  • Stephen W

    “every New Testament begins with Matthew”

    Not mine. Mine starts with Luke-Acts (and therefore has 26 books).

    It does end with Revelation though 🙂

  • Michael Mercer

    In my experience, the average evangelical Christian has no clue about any of this and might even consider it a dangerous course of study, lest one’s faith in the Bible be shaken.

  • candeux

    Expanding on Stephen W.’s comment…some have suggested that the NT ought to be organized in the order the books were written, so as to better understand the progression of thought and doctrine over time. It was a real eye opener to me when I found out that many of Paul’s epistles were written before the gospels and that Paul’s epistles were ordered by recipient (church vs. individual) and by length. This latter discovery was particularly sobering, given that I had been dismissive of the Qu’ran for being organized according to sura length.

    –Joe Canner

  • Hey Scot, just a little edit: “. But he observes this prices is known only after the event.” Did you mean “process”? Bet your spell checker did this to you!

  • I have that sameedition! “Books of the Bible” recently put out by Biblica right? Love it.

  • KentonS

    “When Paul wrote Romans he didn’t propose sending it to the canon selection committee!”

    Good line. Filing away for later use.

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Darryl. Had to write this one on MS Word because Word Press was down, and it probably did correct… but I should have seen that in the proofing. Two heads are better than one!

  • Stephen W

    Absolutely. I bought it (actually I imported 12 to the UK in order to get a decent price!) mainly to get rid of the chapter and verse numbers. Amazing how much more readable the Bible suddenly becomes.

  • CO Fines

    Not everyone agrees as to when the individual parts of the NT were written. Carter has an upper limit of 130 CE. Mine is 70 CE. No one knows for sure.

  • danaames

    @Joe Canner

    N.T. Wright favors the Gospels as the earliest expression of what was to become the NT, even though they were not written down until later. In the ancient world, oral transmission was valued more than written, so it only makes sense that the earliest experiences of the first disciples were the earliest to be transmitted, and to the widest audience, via repetition of the story of Jesus. As time went on, it wasn’t as much doctrinal “progression” as it was finding the words to better and more clearly elucidate it. That’s where the Greek language comes in…


  • Gene R. Smillie

    You very accurately and precisely call stage 5 “Ratification,” which presumes and acknowledges the previous 4 stages to have already been in place awhile, while just making it official. That is what is missing from the common view of the origins of the New Testament canon: the average Joe on the streets barely acknowledges or is even aware of steps 2-4. Worse, my old classmate and friend Bart Ehrman, despite the fact that he knows better than nearly anybody the true proportions of importance various documents enjoyed in the early centuries, continues to give wide circulation to the popular myth that many, many documents vied for recognition and canonization in the early centuries.

    Our mentor Bruce Metzger, on the other hand, who spent 60-some years of a long and fruitful career in studying these ancient documents, spoke cheerfully and confidently of an apparently Spirit-given consensus among nearly all the churches around the Mediterranean, beginning within a generation or two of the apostolic writers of these documents. “When leaders of these scattered churches would meet one another,” he would say, “…and ask each other, ‘What letters or books are your churches using as authoritative?’, it looks like over and over, from the very beginnings of the churches, they would rattle off the same 24 or 25 or 26 or 27 books – the same ones that were eventually ratified by the 4th and 5th century councils. They apparently all recognized that ‘this was the Word of God,’ whether they were in Egypt or France or Germany or Bythinia, they all came to the same conclusions, independently. Though there were books about which some had doubts, the general consensus throughout the early church was remarkably consistent from a very early date.”

    Metzer placed a MUCH higher significance on your stage 2 than many do in less-informed circles. So it is common in every generation to hear sophomoric affirmations about how “for centuries many gospels and letters circulated around and it wasn’t until the 4th century or later that finally some elite bishops whittled down the list by voting in some and voting out some others (which maybe should have been included).” A more accurate assessment would note that Barnabas was far too Marcionite, or at least anti-Hebrew, to have ever been considered for the canon, and Shepherd is pretty, but like the letters of Justin or Clement, just borrows from inspired scriptures. And of course the many fake gospels written in the 2nd or 3rd century to satisfy folks’ curiosity about the “silent years” of Jesus’ early life, or fake epistles ostensibly from apostles, were never in any danger of being taken seriously, least of all as “canon.”

    Thanks for laying out these subsequent stages for us. I hope emphasis is shifted back in our day, from the ratifying councils to the earlier churches’ recognition two centuries earlier, that these are the trustworthy words & documents in which we hear the Word of God.

  • When the DaVinci Code movie came out I taught a multi-week series on this topic at our church. People were very interested in the topic – especially the young adults. I think many of the “older” members had a harder time grappling with these ideas. So I would say no most Christians do not know how we got our Bible and can be surprised by the process. That said the overall consensus was that the topic was welcome in our church.

    I agree with Gene that there is a tendency for many to make the canon process sound “worse” than it is. The evidence is clear that the number of books considered for the NT during the 1st-4th centuries was quite limited (6-7 books currently included in the NT were under debate and maybe 4 that are not included in the NT were also debated). The idea that there were lots and lots of other gospels and writings that were considered to be part of the NT canon is not historically accurate.

  • candeux


    Yeah, the Epistles probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense (after the first century or two) without the Gospels; the written order is more of academic interest.

    On the other hand, the order of the Epistles themselves is not very helpful in our Bible. Of course, the compilers probably didn’t know the written order and probably weren’t overly concerned about it. Nonetheless, it’s still interesting and sometime useful to study them in the written order.


  • Andrew Dowling

    While Erhman HAS gone too far down the route of exaggerating the importance of ‘lost gospels’ and the ‘texts hidden by the Church’ route as it helps to sell books/gets on History Channel documentaries, your contention that the “scattered church within a generation of the Apostles achieved a Spirit-given consensus of Scripture” is equally exaggerative and speculative.

    For starters, there isn’t documentation of a meeting of widespread church pre-4th century agreeing on a canon of texts. We do know that there were a number of communities as late as the 3rd century only using one Gospel and not using a number of the epistles eventually accepted into the Canon. There is zero evidence Paul’s letters were placed together as a collective unit (or widely know outside the original intended communities) until Marcion. And Marcion and the Gnostics (not to be equated to one another as they often are) were indeed very widespread throughout Christendom and at one point were numerous and widespread (and likely more numerous- in terms of number of adherents- than the Catholic Church at some point in the 2nd-3rd centuries) . . indeed if they hadn’t been so widespread the Church Fathers wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort in refuting them!
    What eventually became the Canon did utilize most of what was earliest (the authentic Pauline letters, the Synoptics) but contains some clear forged writings as well (the Pastorals, Petrine epistles)

  • Gene R. Smillie

    Andrew, you rightly note that my report [of what Metzger surmised about early churches’ practices with regard to what they used as authoritative Scripture in their individual assemblies] is speculative and perhaps exaggerated. Guilty as charged. You are right. I did not mean to suggest that there were official conclaves in the first decades and cheerfully grant what you aver, that “there isn’t documentation of a meeting of widespread church pre-4th century agreeing on a canon of texts.” Nope, there isn’t.

    I thought the wording of my anecdote (“it looks like”) sufficiently acknowledged the tentative nature of the generalization, but apparently not. As another of my Princeton profs urged in a different context, (about the nature of the four canonical Gospels), it may be helpful to see these matters as portraits rather than as
    photographs. (I remember him comparing the historical crossing of the Delaware by George Washington and his troops on Christmas Day with the iconic painting of that event which has imprinted itself
    in most of our minds and spirits.)

    The “portrait” I passed on in this comment about early church practice is not, however, entirely speculative. It derives from the very geographically widespread record of patristic citations, and (what neither of us has mentioned so far in this discussion, and is a widely ignored phenomenon that contributes to this whole question of what and when did the church consider Scripture): the particular books chosen on three continents to be translated from Greek into the many early versions in other languages.
    Also, I am probably guilty of conflating the known historical with my own impressions of the spurious documents: in Metzger’s
    paleography and textual criticism classes we would be given facsimiles of very ancient Greek texts to identify as to their temporal and geographical provenance; after translating “I, Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ . . .” it didn’t take more than a couple more lines to immediately “sense” the qualitative difference between a forgery and inspired revelation. They were just so obviously different from one another. I know such an affirmation will
    not stand up in scholarly debate, but I’m reporting the “impression” anyway, as I naively figured readers of that day would as readily recognize the differences as I did.

    To conclude, back to the topic of “corroborating early testimony” to the authority of certain early documents: there may be no point to my bringing up that one famous recognition of the writings of Paul as “Scripture” already within the apostolic generation itself (in 2 Peter), since you refer to that document itself as a “clear forged writing.” We would both be charged with circuitous reasoning, me for using “Scripture” to authenticate “Scripture,” you with denying Scriptural status to refute Scriptural status of the other documents!
    So we might as well let that sleeping dog lie.
    Thanks for the push back. I do need to strive for less Impressionism and more Dutch Realism in my “portraits” of historical moments.

  • Andrew Dowling

    And thank you for the gracious response.

  • I have gotten a very similar impression both in my early education in Evangelicalism, which included 30 Biola U. Bible/Greek units and an M.Div. from Talbot (with more Greek and some textual criticism), and decades later (the last 12-14 years) studying the canon and NT writing/Christian origins: That an over-simplified and supernaturalistic view of canonization is one of several necessary links needed to come to a supposedly “clear” and “simple” Gospel concept — one that centers around individual salvation. To come up with this “deposit of faith” — “once for all delivered….” — the system realizes it must be clear THAT God revealed certain theological content (inspiration) to interpret the supposedly historically reliable events; additionally that ONLY certain texts contain this content. Otherwise it gets even more hopelessly complex than it is with the historical (after late 4th century or so) canon of 27 books. And the whole concoction of “apostolic authority” (in authorship or superintendence) is needed as well, and so the problems mount up.

    If my drift is clear, there are a good number of, not just one or two, speculative and very dubious aspects about “orthodox” (or typical) concepts of canonization that even knowledgeable scholars who set out (perhaps subconsciously) to uphold a particular theological system really can’t support within the historical (even biblical) record that we have. In other words, the work of Ehrman (especially in “Forged”) and others, even if done to make some counterpoints and perhaps sometimes overstated a bit, is important and should be interacted with seriously… I have seen almost none of this, related posts like this being close to an exception. (Please point out others, or books, I imagine exist that I’ve not come across, anyone… I don’t put lots of time into following scholarship on this specifically.)

  • Elizabeth Parkinson

    Interesting, I probably count as an evangelical Christian, I have found reading the non-canonical material strengthens my faith, and also makes me accept that the canon we have is probably accurate.

  • I agree this more common than not, but it is far more disturbing than it seems at first glance. What it means is that many Christians are unwilling to study these issues because they think finding out how the Bible was formed will destroy their faith instead of reinforcing it. Meaning, ‘deep down’, such Christians pit their faith against historical reality. (Otherwise why would they consider studying history ‘dangerous’?)

  • While I think this would definitely be helpful in terms of understanding the historical progression of thought captured in the texts, placing them in chronological order doesn’t work as well for two reasons:

    1. We don’t know the exact order of the NT books. Trying to organize them chronologically is ultimately a guess, so getting even one book out of order would result in mistaken theories on how thought and doctrine grew over time.

    2. The Epistles were written to people who already knew the Gospel. Placing the Gospel books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts) first tells the story, and then the Epistles come later to people who have already learned it. Reading the Epistles before the Gospels would be like reading the Prophets before the Law, or watching the second part of a trilogy before the first.