Beginner’s Guide: How We Got the Bible
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Quite often I hear something like this, “Weren’t certain books of the Bible added and subtracted during the reign of Constantine?” The implication is that there may be some other gospels, or accounts of the life of Jesus, that are accurate but not in the Bible. But then I do something awkward. I ask, “Have you ever studied the process by which the Bible came to be accepted?” The reply is usually, “No, I haven’t done that.”
Somebody once said that facts are stubborn things. Facts are also awkward things because they do not often agree with popular wisdom today about the Bible. So just how was the Bible accepted? Were some books taken out that the church didn’t want us to know about? I will explain below that the books of the Bible were generally accepted as divinely inspired by Christians from the time of the 1st century Apostles. This can also help us to understand why followers of Jesus should still accept the same books today.
When were the books of the Bible accepted as Scripture?
When did Christians accept the Canon, the books of the Bible, as Scripture? Perhaps Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, or a Pope of the church made some slick changes. It is popular today to be suspicious of religious institutions. But the actual history does not show political meddling with the Canon. The various books of the Bible were mostly agreed upon well before Constantine or the Popes had much control. Christians, just as the Jews, accepted the Old Testament books. The 27 books of the New Testament have also been largely accepted since the time of the apostles which we will see below.
The various books of the Bible were mostly agreed upon well before Constantine or the Popes had much control.
The early church fathers Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius, writing between 90 and 160 AD, quote frequently from the New Testament books, distinguishing them as Scripture. Also, the epistle of Barnabus and the Didache, both very early writings, do the same. This confirms that most of the books of the New Testament were circulating and considered Scripture by early Christians during this early timeframe.
There are also several early lists of books. One of the earliest lists was compiled by the heretic Marcion in 140 AD. His list is not reflective of common Christian belief at the time since he rejected the Old Testament. Yet Marcion still included a partial list of the New Testament books.
Another early list is the Muratorian fragment, a document dated back to 170 A.D. which lists most of the books of the New Testament as Scripture. Also, an early Christian named Tatian around 170 A.D. took the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and turned them into one continuous book called the Diatessaron. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul about 180 A.D., said that the four gospels were as established as the four directions of north, south, east, and west.
In his book The New Testament Documents, renowned Bible scholar F.F. Bruce sums up this evidence, “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and general apostolic authority, direct or indirect.”
Were there disputed books in the Bible?
It is true that a few books were disputed by parts of the church. These were Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Some parts of the church likewise regarded the Epistle of Barnabus, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache as part of the canon. It took a while for the church become unanimous about the books we think of as the New Testament and the ones we don’t. In the middle of the 4th century, Athanasius bishop of Alexandria, lists the 27 books of the New Testament as Scripture. But contrary to pop thinking today, no conspiracy was hatched to get rid of some books. If there was a conspiracy, there is no evidence for it. A die-hard conspiracy theorist might reply that perhaps the church hid all the evidence. Yet, if there is no evidence, then there is no evidence to show that they hid the evidence. Bazinga.
What happened to the books that were rejected from the Bible?
What about the other books that were eventually left out of the canon of Scripture such as the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabus? F.F. Bruce points out that a simple perusal of some of these books will show the vast differences between them and the New Testament books. Similarly, it is a fact that they were written later. That means that they weren’t written by anyone close to those early leaders appointed by Jesus called Apostles. To be qualified as Scripture, these books would have to pass a threefold test.
…books would have had to be associated with an apostle (apostolicity), agree in substance with the rest of the New Testament (orthodoxy), and be relevant to the whole church, not just one location (relevance).
In his book, Jesus and the Gospels, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains that the books would have had to be associated with an apostle (apostolicity), agree in substance with the rest of the New Testament (orthodoxy), and be relevant to the whole church, not just one location (relevance). You can peruse some of these apocryphal works here if you are curious. Athanasius, the great 4th century church leader, once commented that some of these other works are harmful, some are helpful, but none are Scriptural.
We can apply threefold test of apostolicity, orthodoxy, and relevance today. There are skeptics as well as fundamentalists who think that a person must accept all of Scripture or none of it. This does not consider that Scripture is composed of historical texts which can be examined. People can easily do some research to determine which of these most likely go back to the first followers of Jesus.
Whether we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior is another question. One thing we cannot say, though, is that the Bible was manufactured later by the church leaders for political ends. Whether we accept them or reject them, we can trace them back to Jesus’ first followers.