Who Picked the Books in the Bible?

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The idea that the Bible is the product of a conspiracy with suspicious origins, has become firmly rooted in pop culture today. If you were to ask ten random people if they think the Bible is reliable and contains the Word of God, over half of them would express their doubts. 

Why are so many people suspicious about a book most of them have hardly read? With a steady stream of sound bites, tweets, memes, films, or documentaries, constantly parroting questions about the reliability of the Bible and Jesus, it is understandable why people may be suspicious.  

In his fictional book The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown writes, “Until the Council of Nicea, 325 AD, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a moral prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.”1 Brown’s fictional story involves a conspiracy of the Catholic Church to hide that Jesus was only a man, who married Mary Magdalene, and fathered a child with her. Though fictional, the Da Vinci Code seemed to increase people’s suspicion that the Catholic Church has manipulated the books and message of the Bible.

Considering Dan Brown’s version of Jesus is completely fictional, why do so find his story believable? One answer is that in the absence of facts, it is easy to believe a fiction. If a person is uncertain about the origin and preservation of the Bible, they will have little value for its message. By contrast, if the origin and preservation of the Bible are reasonably certain, it would be foolish to not consider its message.

Why Was There A Need For New Testament Bible?

After the death, resurrection, and accession of Jesus in A.D. 30, the disciples of Jesus did what He commanded them to do (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8). They went about proclaiming the good news from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, or as far as they could travel. After two decades of preaching and teaching “all that Jesus had commanded them,”2 the some of the disciples started writing down their eyewitness testimonies, to preserve and further proclaim the good news. Additionally, some disciples wrote letters for the continued edification of individuals and churches. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.3

The letters and eyewitness testimonies of the disciples were recognized by the early church and early church fathers as being inspired by God and held in the same regard as the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament. These writings were meticulously hand-copied by scribes and distributed to be read by Christians in churches throughout the Roman Empire and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. “No greater creative act can be mentioned in the whole history of the Church, than the formation of the apostolic collection, and then assigning to it of a position of equal rank with the Old Testament.”4

Church leaders from the end of the first century, into the second and third centuries (often referred to as the Church Fathers) continued to preach and teach the good news of Jesus based upon the authority of the Apostolic writings that preserved their testimonies and teaching. Over the years, additional writings, though not considered to be scripture, provided helpful teaching and instruction. Questionable letters also emerged, claiming Apostolic authorship, while containing heretical teaching.

The New Testament—as we know it today, containing twenty-seven separate books or letters, neatly bound together with a table of contents—did not exist. It was unlikely to find a church that had a copy of all twenty-seven books. In addition, churches had libraries that contained additional writings alongside whatever New Testament books they possessed.  

“Generally, they did not describe books in a binary way: canonical and noncanonical. Rather, they employed a tri-fold description of religious literature: canonical scripture, useful/intermediate scripture, and apocryphal.”This is not unlike a church or Pastoral library today that may contain Bibles, spiritually helpful books, and examples of false teaching to avoid. 

In A.D. 367, Athanasius of Alexandria officially recognized all twenty-seven books of the New Testament as Canon.6 The word canon, from the Greek word Kanon, meant standard or measuring stick. Unfortunately, the process of identifying the writings that were canonical from the non-canonical, lasted centuries before a consensus emerged.

Why Were Books Left Out?

The idea that the New Testament canon was manipulated by a powerful central church or that it took four centuries before it suddenly appeared, is inaccurate.   

A unanimous consensus emerged no later than the second century regarding the four Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, and at least the first letter from John. By the end of the fourth century, Christians had concluded that twenty-seven texts—the same texts found in your New Testament still today—could be traced back to apostolic eyewitnesses and their associates.7

As the need to combat various false teaching and false writings grew it became clear there was a need to affirm the writings that had long been recognized as canonical while evaluating the authenticity of all others. Only the manuscripts were written (1) by or under the direction of the Apostles who had been with Jesus, (2) that had been used widely and continuously from the time of the Apostles, and (3) were doctrinally consistent with the scripture already revealed, were affirmed as being canonical.   

To illustrate how early the New Testament writings were being used as canon consider the following sampling of examples: 

  • 1 Clement is one of the oldest writings outside of the Bible, written around A.D. 96. 1 Clement appeared to use most of Paul’s letters in his writings except for 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon.8
  • Polycarp lived at the turn of the century and appeared to have personally known the apostle, John. He also knew Papias and discipled Irenaeus. Polycarp referred to a collection of Paul’s writings.9  
  • Ignatius, before being martyred in Rome (A.D. 110) referenced several of Paul’s letters and affirmed the need to follow the “decrees and ordinances of the apostles.”10 
  • The Epistle of Barnabas, written around A.D. 130, referenced Matthew as scripture.11
  • Papias, wrote around A.D. 125, was a friend of Polycarp, and believed to have heard John preach. He appears to affirm and explain the origin of the four of the Gospels. He also appears to refer to 1 Peter, Paul’s writings, and Revelation.12

By the middle of the second century, we find partial lists beginning to emerge identifying the bulk of what was later affirmed as the New Testament canon. The canon emerged organically from among the decentralized churches, scattered by persecution and geography, throughout the Roman Empire. As Krueger describes, “the phenomenon of canon was one that arose early and naturally within the first few stages of Christianity.”13

The one thing clear about the origin and preservation of the New Testament is that it was not the result of a conspiracy or manipulation. The historical references from the early Church Fathers along with the sheer number of New Testament manuscripts copied and preserved among the churches throughout the Roman Empire is staggering. We may refer to canon as arising naturally over the first few centuries but the only reasonable explanation for how the New Testament canon materialized is by Divine intervention. 

Written by David Anglin | August 31, 2021

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. (Doubleday; 1st edition, 2003) 233.

2 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Matthew 28:20.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2 Timothy 3:16-17. 

Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013) 15. (Quoting ADOLF VON HARNACK, History of Dogma, vol. 2).

5 Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019) 258.

6 Timothy Paul Jones. How We Got the Bible, (Torrance: Rose, 2015) 97.

7 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. Torrance: Rose, 2015) 94.

8 Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013) 197. 

9 Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. 193.

10 Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. 189, 191.

11 Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. 187-188.

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