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  • Adam Butler

Who Decided Which Books Belong in the Bible?

Of the major objections to the Judeo-Christian worldview from its genesis until modern times, one of the most common questions is to the trustworthiness of Scripture. After all, as the single book that claims authority and absolute truth regarding the belief system of Christians, this is a reasonable concern. The question frequently asked is “how can I be sure I have all the right books in my Bible?” Similarly, one may wonder if the books in his or her Bible even matter regarding one’s salvation. Again, the question poses a crucial point, but one that has been addressed many times, especially in the first century of Christian church leadership.

Specifically, understanding the canonization of Scripture is a vital apologetic issue that must be answered confidently and truthfully. With the threat of opposing worldviews, having assurance of authoritative books within the Biblical canon, and of the exclusion of non-inspired works left out is imperative. This idea is particularly important for the New Testament, being that it is the collection of books upon which Judeo-Christianity is founded. Without the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian may as well disregard every other book of the Bible. In addition, the Old Testament had been canonized far before the New Testament; in fact, being that he and many of the New Testament authors were Jewish, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament documents, and even asserted their authority. That being said, once it is established that the New Testament canon is true and accurate, the canon of the Old Testament therefore must be affirmed as well. After all, the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old Testament; it marked the merging of the new belief system known as Christianity with Judaism in the larger scheme of history.

Establishing a Standard

The word “canon” is from the Greek word kanon, which means “reed.” The reed was used as a measuring stick, and the word “canon” was later used to describe a “standard.” [1] This standard refers to the collection of books chosen and accepted by the church to be included in the Bible. It was not decided by the early church which books should be included in the Biblical canon; rather, it was understood by the process of certain tests, or criteria that each book was required to pass. Should the book fail to pass any of the specified criteria, the book would not have been included in the Bible as it is known in modern times. Thus, the apocryphal works were intentionally left out of the canon. It was and is vital to differentiate between true works inspired by the Holy Spirit and works which were deemed non-apostolic or even heretical.

Aside from reasons regarding apologetics, there are theological aspects of the necessity of a sound Biblical canon. As Wayne Grudem notes, “those who have the office of apostle in the early church are seen to claim an authority equal to the Old Testament prophets, an authority to speak and write words that are God’s very words.” [2] Grudem’s words highlight the crucial role the church fathers played in discovering which writings were as he described. Apostleship is the primary test of canonicity. The implications therein are significant to modern Christianity, because the Christian’s trust that the Bible is the Word of God depends solely on its reliability. In fact, a common objection against the Bible is the fact that books were “taken out” in some church councils. This is a misconception designed to invoke doubt about the Bible. The seriousness of the issue does present major concerns, however. Grudem states, “Ultimately, then, we base our confidence in the correctness of our present canon on the faithfulness of God.” [3] If God is faithful, his providence to provide believers with necessary knowledge holds true; this fact contributes to the sufficiency of scripture. This is also why it was decided by churches and church fathers to place as much emphasis as was placed on canonization; it is God’s will for the church.

Early Attempts

The early church fathers of the first and second centuries were tasked with the challenge of determining which books were to be included in the Biblical collection. Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. William Nix describe the tests for discerning Biblical works as follows: if the book was written by a prophet of God, the writer was confirmed by acts of God, the message tells the truth about God, the work comes with the power of God, and it was accepted by the people of God, then it was included in the Biblical canon. [4] As for New Testament canonicity, the criteria remain the same. Ignatius (AD 50–115) said in a letter to the Trallians, “I do not issue orders like an apostle… nor am I such a disciple as Paul or Peter.” [5] The church father made it a point to assert that his own works were not inspired, and therefore not canon. He warns readers to hold strictly to the Bible’s authority. He writes, “I therefore, yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ, entreat you that ye use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different kind; I mean heresy.” [6] Being that heretical writings were already permeating Christian thought, making such a distinction was imperative. One such heretic was Marcion, who published a shortened list of Biblical books in AD 140. This attributes to the necessity of a sound Biblical canon; heresies and false doctrine would continue to circulate churches if not for an objective canon.

Some of the earliest attempted canons of New Testament works were from prominent church fathers. Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) asserted the importance of the Gospels by stating “it is written,” thus attributing authority not to his own words, but to those spoken by the apostles. [7] Martyr recognized the importance of the canon and addressing it properly. The first list of New Testament documents that contains all of the exact books contained in the Biblical New Testament was presented by Athanasius in AD 367. Upon listing the New Testament books, he writes, “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.” [8] In terms of bibliographical accuracy, the dates for the documents provide a remarkable historicity. So, the church father’s early comprising of the documents is a strong apologetic argument for Biblical trustworthiness.

What About the "Apocryphal" Writings?

Athanasius also recognizes the apocrypha and quickly addresses its falsity. In order for the claims of Biblical inerrancy and authority to stand, the Christian must be able to differentiate between what is inspired and what is a lie. As Athanasius remarks, “The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings.” [9] Athanasius asserts that, though helpful for reading, the apocryphal documents provide no salvific or gospel value.

Some works, however, are of no value at all, and are in fact forgeries or are of false doctrines. One of the most prevalent ideologies of the early church, dating even to the time of Jesus and the Apostles’ ministry was Gnosticism. This false teaching focused on the intellectual enlightenment as a means for salvation. The question, then, for New Testament canonicity is determining which ideas are orthodox and which are false. Historian Philip Jenkins says, “We have a good number of genuinely early documents of Christian antiquity before 125, long before the hidden gospels were composed… so the orthodox church did precede the heretics, and by a comfortable margin.” [10] What the dates of the manuscripts tell the church is that they are reliable for orthodoxy; in a time of great confusion regarding truth, trustworthy documents were vital. The challenge, then, was determining which gospel accounts were genuine and which were false, or “hidden.”

The false gospels comprise forged accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus. Some of the most notable examples are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. Not discovered until the nineteenth century, the Gospel of Thomas dates to roughly AD 200. [11] The document is simply a collection of sayings, which were supposedly uttered by Jesus of Nazareth, but was rejected by the church as apostolic. Many theories exist as to the gospel’s authorship, but the census rests that the document is rich with Gnostic ideology. [12] The supposed Petrine gospel, the Gospel of Peter, is another example of a forged account. The writing gives a robust account of the resurrection of Jesus, with highly embellished and non-biblical details, such as a cross walking and speaking while exiting from the tomb of Jesus’s burial, and two angels whose heads reached to the heavens. [13] Being that the Synoptic Gospel accounts provide no such details, the standard of simplicity was prioritized in the decision to reject the Gospel of Peter as apostolic and canonical. After all, the resurrection is the central event on which the doctrine of Christianity is founded; without an accurate narrative of the occurrence, there is more reason to doubt its historicity.

Many reasons exist for the exclusion of the apocrypha, though the primary reasons were lack of universal acceptance or recognition. None of the major church councils which addressed canonization decided to include the books in the New Testament canon. Simply put, the tests for inclusion, as stated earlier, were not passed upon inspection of the apocryphal works.

The early published New Testament collections were known as codices. Though the order of placement differed by each book, the codices included Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus. [14] The more frequent codices led to a more reliable standard of books, which then became the universal church standard as well.

For the sake of sound theology, the canonization of Scripture was a vital aspect of the early church’s journey. Trustworthy documents have always led to strong apologetic arguments for the truth of Christianity. Just as the apologists of the early centuries fought for solid truth, the burden rests on the modern church as well. Possessing arguments to support the authority of Scripture is simply one of many tools to equip believers. The early church fathers were, before anything else, cautious in their discovery of the New Testament canon for this very reason. They were aware of the impact such a decision would bring upon generations of believers for years to come.


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 375.

[2] Wayne Grudem, “The Canon of Scripture” in Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 60.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, The Bible: From God to Us. (Walnut Creek, CA: ICBI Press, 1987), 223, 226–229.

[5] Ignatius, “Ignatius’ Epistle to Trallians,”in Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers, Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Vol. 1, (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1867), 112, 113.

[6] Ibid., 113.

[7] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Translated by A. Lukyn Williams, (Madras: Diocesan Press, 1930), 98, 118, 120, 217, 222.

[8] Athanasius Letters no. 39,in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 4, Edited by Philip Schaff, (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888), 964.

[9] Ibid., 964.

[10] Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 12–13.

[11] Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), 128.

[12] Ibid., 132

[13] The Gospel of Peter, Edited by Ron Cameron in The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 80–81.

[14] Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). 451.

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