Who decided what books should be in the Bible?

Jun 1st, 2010 in Basics of Christianity, Bible, Tough Questions by Jim Denison

My earliest experience with the Bible was leafing through an ancient King James Version my parents kept in the guest room. The fountain-penned family tree calligraphied in the first pages fascinated me. The printed thees and thous made no sense, the begats even less. I assumed the entire thing had been handed from God to man in black leather.

Most people know better. They’ve heard somewhere along the way that some books were excluded from the Bible, and wonder why. Maybe a group of church officials decided the whole thing. Maybe there were books which told a different story than the one we have in our Bibles. Maybe there was a smoke-filled room somewhere. Maybe there were hanging chads.

The actual story is nowhere near that interesting.

How the Hebrew Scriptures came to be

Christians typically call this section the Old Testament, but those who wrote the New Testament didn’t. When Paul, writing from death row in Rome, asked Timothy for his scrolls and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13), he was asking for his copies of the only Bible he knew. Most scholars appropriately call these 39 books the Hebrew Scriptures, in deference to the Jewish faith which they express.

The Hebrew Bible was first divided into Law, Prophets, and Writings, the arrangement current in Jesus’ day (see Luke 24:44). The Jews numbered the Scriptures as 24 books, combining Ezra/Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the 12 Minor Prophets as “The Twelve.” These books were written and compiled over centuries of use. According to Jewish tradition, a council of rabbis and scholars met at Jamnia on the Mediterranean Sea, in AD 90 and again in AD 118. They finalized the list of books as we have them today, recognizing what their people had accepted as God’s word for centuries.

How the New Testament joined the Old

Eventually the Christian movement began recording its faith and doctrines as well. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry were dying or growing old. Fraudulent claims were beginning to appear. Believers needed a canon (“rule”) by which to measure truth and defend the faith. The New Testament was the result. Over time, four criteria were developed for accepting a book as inspired.

First, the book must have been written by an apostle or based on his eyewitness testimony. Matthew the tax-collector was a disciple of Jesus before he wrote his gospel, as was John. Mark was an early missionary associate of Paul (Acts 13:4-5) and was a spiritual son to Peter (1 Peter 5:13); early Christians believed that he wrote his gospel based on the sermons and experiences Peter related to him.

Luke was a Gentile physician who joined Paul’s second missionary journey at Troas (note Acts 16:10, where Luke changes the narrative from “they” to “we”); he wrote his gospel and the book of Acts based on the eyewitness testimony of others (Luke 1:1-4). Paul’s letters came from an eyewitness to the risen Christ (cf. Acts 9:1-6), as did the letters of James (half-brother of Jesus), Peter, Jude (another half-brother of Jesus), and John. This criteria alone excluded most of the books suggested for the canon.

Second, the book must possess merit and authority in its use. Here it was easy to separate those writings which were inspired from those which were not. For instance, The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ tells of a man changed into a mule by a bewitching spell but converted back to manhood when the infant Christ is put on his back for a ride (7:5-27). In the same book, the boy Jesus causes clay birds and animals to come to life (ch. 15), stretches a throne his father had made too small (ch. 16), and takes the lives of boys who oppose him (19:19-24). It wasn’t hard to know that such books did not come from the Holy Spirit.

Third, a book must be accepted by the larger church, not just a particular congregation. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was an early instance of a letter which became “circular” in nature, read by churches across the faith. His other letters soon acquired such status. By the mid-second century, only the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted universally by the church, as quotations from the Christians of the era make clear. Others were not considered to be inspired by God.

Last, a book came to be approved by the decision of the church. The so-called Muratorian Canon was the first list to convey the larger church’s opinion regarding accepted books of the New Testament canon. Compiled around A.D. 200, it represented the usage of the Roman church at the time. The list omits James, 1 and 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews, since its compiler was not sure of their authorship. All were soon included in later canons.

The list we have today was set forth by Athanasius in A.D. 367. His list was approved by church councils meeting at Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397. These councils did not impose anything new upon the church. Rather, they codified what believers had already come to accept and use as the word of God. By the time the councils approved the 27 books of our New Testament, they had already served as the established companion to the Hebrew Scriptures for generations.


So who decided what books should be in the Bible? Ultimately, their Author. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical revelation (2 Peter 1:20-21) led the Christian movement to those books he inspired. You can know that the Bible you hold today is the book God means you to have. He did in fact hand it to man, through man. Though the color of the cover is your choice.

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