How was the Christian Bible born?
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One of the questions I get asked most often is how the books of our Bible(s) came together there. In other words, how was the canon formed? Of course, most people who ask don’t know the word “canon” and if they do, they spell it wrong “canon” (if they’re writing to me and their spell checker may have it automatically changed). It’s “canon”, not “canon”.
“Canon” means “measuring instrument”. Thus, a standard is a barrel used by users of non-metric systems. In this question, “canon” means two things: 1) How the books of the Bible were put together as sacred scripture, to the exclusion of others, and 2) The Bible as an instrument for “measuring” beliefs.
Many enormous tomes have been written on this subject. One of my seminary teachers, Lee McDonald, has written two or three of them and is a leading scholar in this area of biblical studies and theology.
I have read many books and articles that attempt to answer the question and found a lot of disagreements.
First, of course, many conservative Christians (and I suspect Jews) simply believe that God put together the canon of scripture as in “This Manuscript From Heaven” (the title of a book I saw once in a fundamentalist bookstore). This view, however, lacks all historical awareness and is factually dishonest even if one believes, as I do, that GOD GUIDED the men and women who composed the canons of the Old and New Testaments. .
Second, there is, of course, real disagreement among Christians about the Old Testament in terms of how many there are and which books belong there. The so-called “Apocrypha” (a Protestant term) contains more or less 15 books that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, and some Anglican Protestants, believe were inspired by God. But even among them there is disagreement about their authority for doctrine.
Third, there is a belief, now much debated, that the scope and content of the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, was decided by a convention of Jewish rabbis around AD 90 in a place in Palestine called Jamnia. As I said, many researchers now doubt it. But if not then and there, when and where? Jewish and Christian scholars disagree on this. But the fact is that at some point, somewhere, most Jewish leaders in the Roman Empire (and perhaps elsewhere) decided NOT to include the fifteen or so books that Protestants call the Apocrypha and this is one of the reasons why Luther, Calvin and other Protestant reformers excluded these books. They were included in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), but eventually they were excluded by most Jews as historical books but not as scriptures. (There are always exceptions to pretty much everything I say here, so please don’t rush with “I know a Jewish person who believes the books of Maccabees are inspired!”)
Fourth, most people who ask me this question are more concerned with the Christian canon, the New Testament, than the Hebrew canon (which Christians also accept as scripture). “Why were some books excluded? A new wave of concern about this began with New Testament scholar Elaine Pagels who argued that the exclusion of certain books from the New Testament was wrong. Popularists like Dan Brown and others picked up on this and claimed that some of the second century “gospels” and other writings were excluded for political reasons, such as the preference for books that promoted gender difference. .
Fifth, to begin to understand the process of canonization, one must look at the books that many Christians of the second century and later considered inspired scripture, but which were excluded when the final canon was adopted by Christian bishops in the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century. .
Sixth, to begin to understand, you have to know that there were lists of inspired New Testaments, Christian scriptures, individual books, as early as the second century. Some of these excluded anything Jewish, especially the so-called Muratorian canon which reflected the controversy over the teachings of the heretic Marcion who believed, among other things, that Yahweh was not the God of Jesus Christ .
Seventh, the majority of the books in “our” New Testaments have been accepted as inspired scriptures by major second-century Christian writers and leaders. Some that ended up “entering” the canon have been debated for centuries. Different churches had different canons. Some wanted Le Berger d’Hermas to be included; many did not. Read it and be glad it got kicked out! He says that God will forgive a person only one sin after baptism.
Eighth, the final decision regarding the canon came down to which books were agreed to have been written in the first century by apostles or persons closely associated with the apostles. And, second, to books which have been widely accepted as scripture in more than a few places among Christians.
Ninth, much of the controversy revolves around the so-called “gnostic gospels” of which there are many. Some of them we have and some we only know from the writings of second century Christian leaders like Irenaeus. If you really wonder why they were not seriously considered as scriptures by the heirs of the apostles, read them. I read them. They are shockingly different from the writings of the apostles and their heirs such as Ignatius and Irenaeus. They reflect a religion different from apostolic Christianity. If you disagree, well, maybe it’s because your religion is different from Apostolic Christianity! (I warned everyone here that I’ll be taking my gloves off when I retire! 🙂
Tenth, we have this New Testament; that’s enough. If that’s not quite right, if one or two books shouldn’t be there, or if one or two books should be there – well, that hardly undermines the New Testament as enough for us guide into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I think too many people make a mountain out of a molehill on the question, for example, whether the Gospel of Thomas should be in the New Testament.