An Abridged History of Scripture

Understanding the history of how the Bible was developed and promulgated helps to understand its place and purpose in our lives.

The history of Sacred Scripture is not as simple as many of today’s Christians would claim. After two thousand years, the modern individual is apt to think of the Bible as something so concrete that its contents could not have ever been in question. In fact, there are quite a number of people who don’t give this question any thought at all and simply see the Bible as something that came from Jesus Christ and its contents have always been undeniably accepted since the time of the apostles. But the modern individual often sees the development of things in way that reflects how things currently develop. They see for instance how the authorship of a modern book cannot ever be disputed given that the author likely has all the drafts, it was probably copyrighted and one can trace its development and publication through a series of defined processes. For a modern American, it is likely difficult to conceive of a time when the west was a frontier to be explored or when a friend was not a phone call away. But this is an extremely naive view of how Scripture came to be. The following essay will hopefully convey that the authorship of each book of the Bible was not indisputably known, nor was the authorship of other books not accepted into the canon of Scripture. It will hopefully show that even the Old Testament canon was itself dependent upon which sect of Judaism one was speaking to and also had a vast history of development and acceptability.

Like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess 2:13 ).

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum

Christians will affirm that the “word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and that the Book of Hebrews is that very word. However, to know that the Book of Hebrews holds the status of Scripture was something that remained in dispute and unsettled until the mid-300s. The word “bible” comes from the Greek word biblia which literally means “the books”. The bible is in fact not a book in itself but rather a collection of divinely inspired books and/or letters. The individual books of the Bible are the inspired word of God, but the table of contents, footnotes and other commentary are not. Each of these individual books has a history of its own with varying degrees of recognition of scripture down through the centuries.  Some were indisputable while others were disputed by varying sects within Judaism and then later by various Christians.  It is the history of these lists that we now venture to unpack but before we do so, we need to first say a few things about why the Bible’s compilation of books are divided into two parts and this involves a closer look at the word testament.

Testament is an English rendering of the Latin word testamentum.  In the late AD 300s, St. Jerome translated the Bible from the original languages into Latin.  The end result of his work became known as the Latin Vulgate.  In his translations, Jerome rendered the Hebrew word b’rît and the Greek word diatheke as testamentum which means last will or testament.  He could likewise have rendered the words as convenire from which we get the English word covenant, signifying a formal promise that is bound under oath.  While both of these terms have similar meanings, the subtlety of the differences has implications for our understanding of what is being chronicled in Sacred Scripture.

A testament in a legal sense is effected through the death of the testator (i.e., last will, ref Heb 9:15-18).  In a similar yet deeper sense, a covenant is a formal promise made by oath and enforced by God, hence the covenant curses invoked when the covenants of old were broken.  The Latin word for oath is sacramentum. It is therefore no mistake of Catholic theology that the Sacraments are considered an essential aspect of the Christian life for they entail the new oath(s) that we make continually through Christ, the one mediator of the New.  Dr. Scott Hahn sums this up wonderfully:

If you remember this while reading about the key figures in Scripture, you’ll discover one of the most significant differences between the Old and New Covenants: the Old Covenant is administered by God with human mediators who came under oath and then sinned—like Adam (see Rom 5:12-21) and Israel (see Heb 3-4)—thereby triggering the covenant curses. In contrast, the New Covenant is established by the God-man, Jesus, but only after he had fulfilled the terms—and borne the curses—of the Old Covenant. He thus became the mediator of the New Covenant (see Heb 8-9), which he ratified by oath-swearing.

Dr. Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (p. 26)

It is the Old “Testament” that chronicles the creation of the universe, humanity, prophesies and the many promises and blessings God bestowed on Israel leading up to Christ.  The Old Testament is both a history of Israel and a foreshadowing of the New.  Without this understanding, many are tempted to think that the Old Testament is merely a compilation of scriptures that the Jews accepted and that the New Testament is a compilation of scriptures that Christians added.  As we shall see below, the Jews did not establish a formal canon binding on all Jews until into the second century AD, or the post-Apostolic era.  With this in mind, the Bible is not merely a canonical collection of Christian writings (i.e., the New Testament) that the Church added to what the Jews canonically established, but rather it is an entire collection of writings that describe all of salvation history and is canonically established not by Jews alone, but by the authority of the Church.  Judaism did not establish an Old Testament canon, the Church which is “the pillar and foundation of all Truth” did (1 Tim 3:15). 

The unity of the two Testaments proceeds from the unity of God’s plan and his Revelation. the Old Testament prepares for the New and the New Testament fulfils the Old; the two shed light on each other; both are true Word of God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #140

The Old Testament

The Old Testament per say has had many forms depending upon the period of history and Jewish sect involved.  As noted above, the Jewish canon did not finalize until into the second century AD.  Nevertheless, we will start with this canon and discuss the differences between this and that of the early Christian canon adopted in the mid-300s.

Hebrew Canon or Tanakh

The Hebrew Old Testament (or Tanakh) is divided into three (3) main parts: the Pentateuch (also called the Law or Torah), the Prophets (or Neviim) and the Writings (or Hagiographa or Kethuvim).  It is an oft repeated claim that the canon of the Old Testament was fixed at around 450 BC, or slightly after the close of the Book of Malachi; however, this conclusion cannot be supported by the historical evidence.  This is primarily due to the fact that what Jews called Scripture was somewhat fluid.  While all Jewish sects considered the Pentateuch scripture, there was a wide range of adherence to the remaining books.

The second issue is that the history of Israel is a history that continued all the way to Christ.  What each generation considered scripture was ever changing as new prophets emerged and passed.  Being a prophet in ancient Judaism was almost always a death sentence.  They usually did not attain to the status of a prophet until after their death and their prophecies actualized, leading scripture to take on new form as Jews recognized somewhat later that the writings were indeed prophetic.  Much could be said on this topic, but we shall leave it by pointing out that this fact should not be lost on Christians. This is precisely what happened in the Apostolic era.  Jesus Christ was Himself crucified as a false prophet and then only when many Jews recognized Him for who He was (the Messiah), the new Israel in the form of the Church took on new scripture.

The Pentateuch

Also known as the Torah or the Law, the Pentateuch consists of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).  It is otherwise known as the Law of Moses because it is traditionally held that all five were written and compiled by Moses.  The first indication in Scripture that the Law is considered scripture itself can be seen as early as 2 Kings 22:8f.  Already and there following, the Book of the Law became the standard of divine Scripture as the Torah became a consistent benchmark for Jews everywhere.  All sects of Judaism adhered to the Law upon which they speak quite often as does St. Paul in his letters.  It is the Torah (or Law) upon which Christ places Himself over that puts Him at odds with the Jews with His many statements of “you have heard it was said, but I say to you” (ref Matt 5:17 – 7:27).  St. Paul calls this the “law of Christ”  (Gal 6:2).

The Prophets

The following books make up the Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (consisting of 1 and 2 Samuel), Kings (consisting of 1 and 2 Kings), the Twelve Minor Prophets (consisting of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) and then Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.  Again, it should be noted that after the writing of Malachi, it took time for Malachi to be considered scripture.  It is generally acknowledged that this did not occur until around 200 BC.  Some of the first evidence of this exists in 2 Macc 2:13; 15:9 as well as the Prologue to Sirach.

The Hagiographa

This division consists of the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah (split in two in the Christian canon) and Chronicles (also split). Otherwise known as the Writings, the Hagiographa canon, as Jewish scholars themselves conclude, was not finalized until around the second century AD.  Jesus himself only generally refers to Scripture as “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).  Note that He calls out the two standard divisions and then adds to that “the Psalms” which are considered part of the Hagiographa. We should be careful however in jumping to the conclusion that Jesus is establishing Scripture with His words.  Jesus often “personalized” His teachings and scriptural references based upon the community He was addressing as He does in His dealings with the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-33).  Even being well within the mainstream Judaism of the time, the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch as Scripture and Jesus therefore limits His scriptural arguments for the resurrection of the body to these books only.

Other Writings

As we have seen, the Sadducees placed further restrictions on Scripture by not accepting the Prophets or anything beyond those.  The Samaritans are also thought to have used their own version of the Pentateuch. However, other Jewish sects recognized books beyond that of the eventual Tanakh.   Because there was no formal Jewish canon until the Tanakh and this was not in existence until the second century AD, we have to examine other historical evidence to see what other sects adhered to.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Between 1946 and 1956, a collection of writings was discovered at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank near the Dead Sea, referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These scrolls are thought to come from the Essenes, another Jewish sect.  It is particularly interesting to note that these scrolls are some of the oldest manuscripts of Scripture to be discovered, are written not only in Hebrew and Aramaic, but also in Greek and Nabataean.  They also include not only the books later to be called the Tanakh, but others including Tobit and Sirach (in Aramaic and Hebrew).

The Septuagint (LXX)

Of all the various groupings and versions of scripture in existence at the time of Christ, one that had probably the widest following as many the majority of Jews were part of the diaspora and did not live in Jerusalem.  These Greek speaking Jews used the Septuagint (hereafter referred to as the LXX).  As the story goes, King Ptolemy II (Ptolemaios Philadelphos), sought to have the world’s greatest books in his library and asked the then High Priest Eleazar to send scholars from every tribe who could translate the Scriptures into Greek.  The Septuagint derives its name from the 70 elders who performed this work (septuaginta means 70 as do the Roman numerals LXX).  This occurred somewhere in the mid-200s BC.

The group of seventy, or seventy-two, of which Luke speaks supplements this symbolism; seventy (seventy-two) was, according to Jewish tradition (Gen 10; Ex 1:5; Dt 32:8), the number of the non-Jewish peoples of the world. The ascription of the Greek Old Testament produced in Alexandria to seventy (or seventy-two) translators was meant to express that, with the appearance of this Greek text, the sacred book of Israel had become the Bible of all the nations—as subsequently happened in reality thanks to the Christian appropriation of this translation. The seventy disciples signify the claim of Jesus on the whole of humanity, which is destined to become the great band of his followers; these seventy are an allusion to the fact that the new Israel will embrace all the peoples of the earth.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today

What all was included in this first translation is spotty.  It would be a false assertion to say that this first translation included all of the present day Deuterocanonicals such as 1 and 2 Maccabees as these document the restoration of the independent Jewish kingdom (latter second century BC) and the Maccabean revolt by Judas Maccabeus in around 161 BC, respectively.  However, as we have pointed out, this does not preclude these from having scriptural status as not all the Hagiographa had such status at this point either.

The LXX scriptures in use by first century Jews contained the deuterocanonical books of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit, Judith and 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well as parts of Daniel and Esther.  This version is overwhelmingly used by the New Testament authors, which may in part be due to the fact that the prophecies concerning Christ can much more easily be seen in the Greek Old Testament.  As one notable example, the Protestant New International Version (NIV) Bible note on Hebrews 10:5-7 specifically recognizes the allusion to the LXX  version of Psalm 40:6-8 regarding a body being prepared for Christ.  The LXX also continued to be used apologetically by the early Church Fathers as we will discuss later.  As one example, St. Justin Martyr while arguing with Trypho the Jew (ca 140 AD), alludes to the Jews removing from the LXX and modifying their scriptures so as to deny Christ. St. Irenaeus likewise makes a similar argument about 40 years later in his seminal work, Against Heresies.

But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you. For you assent to those which I have brought before your attention, except that you contradict the statement, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ and say it ought to be read, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive.’ And I promised to prove that the prophecy referred, not, as you were taught, to Hezekiah, but to this Christ of mine: and now I shall go to the proof.

St. Justin Martyr, ca 140 AD

While just a guess (albeit with some evidence), it is quite probable given the historical evidence of the state of relations between Jews and Christians in the early to mid-second century AD that the canon of Jewish scriptures (the Tanakh) may have been influenced by a need to combat the rise of Christianity and reject the LXX as having any weight.  We know that around this time, Christians were expelled from attending synagogues (which they were previously allowed to do) and Jewish hopes of a man by the name of Simon bar Kokhba (Son of a Star, ref Numbers 24:17) being the Messiah were quickly dashed as he was likewise put to death by the Romans in 135 AD (although no one ever claimed he rose from the dead).  This dashing of hope would have led to a further push by Christians to assert that the Messiah was Jesus Christ and could be proven by the Scriptures, namely the LXX.  Without a Temple (destroyed in 70 AD) and the loss of who they then believed to be the Messiah, many Jews would have been tempted to rethink the Christian position, something that rabbinical leaders would want to be quick to suppress.

Although somewhat retired by the rabbinical Jews of the second century, the LXX continued as a framework of Old Testament scripture thereafter, obviously by the early-Christians, but also by Ethiopian Jews who still continue to use the LXX.  The Jewish Talmud also still contains references to some parts of the LXX as scripture (ref. Ecclesasticus 13:15 – the equivalent to Sirach).

This varies from the Christian 5-fold division which divides the Prophets into a major and minor division and the Writings into historical and poetic/wisdom divisions. However, this is all much later to history.

Summary of Old Testament

A few things to say in summary regarding the Old Testament. While throughout the history of Israel, many could point to supposed canons of Scripture along the way, a complete unanimity on the canon of Scripture cannot be found in Judaism until the rabbinical Judaism of the post-Temple era (after 70 AD).  At this point, however, Judaism ceased to have authority over God’s people.  Christ Himself held authority over that of the Torah and passed His authority onto the Church (ref Matt 5:17, John 20:19-23, Eph 2:15, Heb 7:12, Heb 10:9).  It is not until the mid to late-300s AD that the Church finally tackles this all important question of Scripture and not only deals with the Old Testament canon, but also that of the New.  In that, the Church established Old Testament Scripture as containing that of 46 books (see Table below).  This Scripture remained unquestioned for over a millenium until the reformation of the 1500s in which Martin Luther chose to accept the authority of the Jewish canon over that of the early Church of the 300s.

The New Testament

The history of the New Testament Canon is not as complex as the Old and is at present universally accepted by all Christians which makes its development less controversial. But this development was not always uncontroversial and like the Old Testament occurred over a period of many years.  To start, we return briefly to the word testament.  The prevalent view today is that the “New” Testament is essentially the last will and testament of Jesus Christ and therefore the blueprint that He left us by which we live.  While there is certainly some truth to such a rendering, recall from earlier the nature of a covenant and the oath that binds us to it.  With the death (read sacrifice) of the testator of the will (Jesus Christ), our oath (sacramentum) is Baptism (cf Rom 6:4, 1 Pet 3:21) and therefore our means of entry into the covenant. This participation in the life of Christ is by a continuing oath effected through the sacraments (sacramentum).  In other words, it is not just that Christ left us the gift of salvation, it is that we must enter into or open that gift by entering into the covenant by oath and remaining so until the end (ref Matt 24:13, 1 Cor 9:24, Heb 12:1, 12:7, James 1:12).  The New Testament Scripture itself connects the oath and covenant by which we continually receive the life of Christ.  The Greek word for covenant (διαθ?κη ) appears in the accounts of the Last Supper (Luke 22:20)  in the words of Christ:

This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Luke 22:20

Therefore, the New Testament is understood not as a written code, but rather His very blood (i.e., the Eucharist, ref 1 Cor 11:25, 2 Cor 3:5-6), God’s gift to mankind to continually nourish us in our faith such that we remain in God’s covenant and have eternal life.

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:48-54

I do not wish to dwell on the notion of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) here, but we could not examine the historical context and development of New Testament Scripture without understanding that Christ did not commission the Apostles to write the Bible, rather He founded a Church and commissioned the Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me” (i.e., participate in the new covenant through the sacraments, ref Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-26).  The earliest of Christians obviously did not live according to a a written faith vis a vi the Gospels since the New Testament had not yet been written, but rather lived according to a life drawn from the Church.  It is this Church that then wrote the inspired Word, preserved it from manipulation and destruction, and ultimately determined the canon as we shall see.

The Early Years – Writing and Formation

The actual writing of the now canonical New Testament documents occurred over the course of 60 odd years.  So why did it take so long?

The answer to why this process took so long to develop can be found in the early eschatology of the times.  Eschatology is “the doctrine of the last things, that is the ultimate destiny both of the individual soul and the whole created order” (Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church). Although Christ says “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36), the when of Christ’s eventual second advent (coming) was of particular interest to the early Christians – as it should be to all Christians of all times.  Particularly, the earliest Christians thought that they would see Christ again within there own lifetimes and therefore saw little need to write anything down.  They could preach the Gospel to what they considered the ends of the earth and make as many converts as possible without tying themselves down to recording events of past.  It is only when some of the Apostles began to be martyred and die off that they realized that the faith may have to be preserved in writing as well as spoken tradition (2 Thess 2:15).  In addition to writing, this realization led them to pass on the faith to others in ordained ministry in what we now deem apostolic succession.  St. Clement, an early follower of Peter and Paul (likely the same as mentioned in Phillipians 4:3), says as much in his first letter to the Corinthians which serves as a strong condemnation of division and strife in Corinth:

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.

First Clement 44

The second reason is that they only began to write as they felt a need to protect the Church from false doctrines.  Unity was likewise absolutely essential to St. Paul and the others.  For St. Paul in particular, the concept of the Church as a united body occur over and over again in his epistles (cf Rom 12:4-5, 1 Cor 12:12-25, etc).  This duty to combat early misconceptions and heretical writings account for over half of New Testament Scripture.  Even the Gospel of Luke begins with such an assertion.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-ophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

Luke 1:1-4

Examples of these “letters of correction” so to speak to the various local churches include Romans (to ease tensions in the Church of Rome), First Corinthians (vice and division), Second Corinthians (combat of “false apostles”), Galatians (proper understanding of circumcision), Colossians (certain agitators planting doubts), Second Thessalonians (to correct misunderstandings about what was received in First Thessalonians), First Timothy (helping Timothy deal with troublemakers in the Ephesian church), Philemon (urging him to welcome back Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave), Hebrews (dealing with recent Jewish converts temptation to revert to old ways), Second Peter (false teaching), all three Johannine (John’s) epistles (to strengthen believers threatened by liars and deceivers), and Jude (an emergency appeal to remain faithful and guard against false prophets).  Division and disunity was also the subject of many other first and early second century writings such as that of First Clement above which was written to the Corinthians after they displaced the priests there and all seven of the Ignatian Epistles (ca 107 AD) also contain numerous calls to remain in unity with the Bishop and to “avoid division as the beginning of all evil”.

Because of the early eschatology and pressing issues in the early Church, letters were the first to be written and particularly those of St. Paul who was quite the traveler. Gospels would come later since if you believed the world was going to end in the present, there was little need to record the past.  It is generally believed that somewhere in the 50s, St. Paul penned First Thessalonians, Galations, Phillipians, Philemon, First and Second Corinthians and Romans. It is important to note that the focus of Paul’s writings are varied in content and topic.  This is because each community had different issues upon which Paul deemed correction and/or encouragement appropriate.  Paul’s remaining epistles came a bit later.  First and Second Peter, Jude and James are also believed to have been written during this same time period.

By the end of the 60s, many early converts to the Church were dying including those most illustrious apostles, Peter and Paul.  New Testament writings became more synoptic in nature, providing a history to be preserved and not just dealing with pressing issues.  The Gospels and the Book of Acts fall into this latter category.  I won’t touch on the long controversy of which came first, Mark or Matthew, and whether or not Matthew and Luke draw on a third source (namely Q).  It will suffice to say that the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were penned somewhere in the late 60s to 70s.  Given the style and several other characteristics shared by Luke and Acts, these two were most certainly written by the same person who we hold to be Luke, a traveling companion of Paul. The Gospel of John, his three epistles and the Book of Revelation likely follow all of these.

But these are not the only Christian writings to be written within the first century nor to have been considered authoritative by some early Christians.  The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is another first century document believed to have been written somewhere around 50 AD.  If true, this could make it the first Chrisitan writing of the era.  It was a rather short attempt at a catechism of sorts to help Christians follow the faith.  Anyone can read it in probably under 15 minutes. Another first century writing already mentioned above is St. Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthian Church.  This has typically been dated to around 95-96 AD to coincide with Clement’s pontificate and also because this is when Eusebius, the Church historian of the 300s, dates it.  However, more recent scholarly work places this letter closer to 70 AD (ref T.J. Herron’s Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians) which would predate even the Gospels.  Other writings that were in dispute in the late first to early second century include the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Second Century Formation

Within New Testament Scripture itself and in other early Christian writings, there are often references to “scripture”.  But this does not imply a self-reference or that what Scripture consists of is somehow defined.  As explained in the section on the Old Testament, people had varying understandings of Scripture and any first century reference to it was likely a reference to the Old Testament.  In fact, none of the writings of the New Testament assert themselves as Scripture nor do they presume to be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So how did they become recognized as such?

Although a definitive list of New Testament scripture is never presented in the second century, we do begin to see a broad formation of what some consider to be scriptural in various quotations within the early Church Fathers.  Apostolic origin was one key ingredient to receptivity.  The various communities receiving the epistles would have known of their authenticity, so preservation and copying was also key as was the proximity of various communities who shared letters (Col 4:16).  However, all this does not necessarily explain the early recognition of both the Gospel of Mark and that of Luke.  Both of these were more commonly accepted due to their close proximity to the Apostles.  Mark was a companion of Peter and Luke a companion of Paul.  With respect to the Gospels, the first evidence of acceptance of multiple Gospels occurs in the early second century in the fragments of the Bishop Papias who states:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities, but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

Bishop Papias

Citations from much of the New Testament can be found in various authors in the first, second and third century and with increasing regularity.  A pedigree of reception from Apostle to disciple can likewise be seen in the writings of the early Christians.  Those with a close connection to the Apostle John such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp (both ca 100 AD) are obviously familiar with John’s writings and quote often from them.  They also seem to have some familiarity with St. Paul’s epistles which would not be surprising given the traveling style of Paul, whose works were widespread.

So long as the faith remained steadfast, early Christians were content in making their arguments from the Old Testament as well as from their own pedigree of knowledge.  Some quotes from the New Testament contain references to them being Scripture while others very simply point to the Apostle who said them which would serve almost as an equal claim of authority. St. Irenaeus of Lyon (ca 180 AD) talks quite often about the succession of the apostles and what has been handed down through them.  We find references to not only the now-canonical writings but also to First Clement, the Ignatian Epistles and others.  However, as is the case with much of Church history, a push to define doctrines does not occur until disputes threaten to divide the Church.

The Gnostics of the first century were certainly a threat but one that antithetical to Christianity in general.  Much like today with atheism, an appeal to Scripture was not likely to be fruitful.  So it was with the beginning of more formal Christian heresies that what was considered Scripture became more important topic. One of the first of these such heresies began with Marcion.  Marcion began his life as a Christian but quickly began spreading the idea that the God of the Old Covenant was not the same as the God of the New and therefore not the Father of Jesus.  Marcion considered Christianity to be so boldly new that it was not even a continuation of God’s chosen people of old.  Because Paul’s writings “seemed” to criticize the law of old and at times appears anti-Jewish, Marcion only accepted the Gospel of Luke (omitting the first two chapters) and the ten epistles of Paul excluding the pastoral letters.  He rejected the entire Old Testament as false.  In coming to Rome in 144 AD preaching his theology, he drew quick and steadfast opposition from the Church of Rome. Marcion’s heresy was not a slight one and lasted nearly 300 years before waning out.  Not surprisingly, by rejecting the God of the Old Testament as creator of the universe, Gnostics felt more at home in the “church of Marcion” and the later Marcionites were mostly Gnostic in theology.  However, Marcion’s heresy did not incite a complete move to canonize scripture but did create an impetus to affirm one’s belief by creed.   It is here and in this context that the Apostle’s Creed is believed to have been formed.  This also shed light on why the canon was not necessarily the primary problem.  It wasn’t that Marcion was using heretical writings that was the problem, it was both his interpretation of scripture and a rejection of the Church’s authority to condemn his views that was the problem..  Therefore, the creed was used to more definitively define the faith in order to place scripture within its proper context.

Further into the second century, scriptural lists begin to appear.  In many cases, the question of what was scriptural centered around the liturgy. Both St. Justin Martyr and the Muratorian Canon allude to what writings may be read in this context, not necessarily what could be kept on one’s bookshelf at home. In around 140 AD, St. Justin writes his first apology to the Roman Emperor to try and convince him to stop persecuting Christians.  In it he explains how Christians worship:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 47

It is thought that the “memoirs of the apostles” is a reference to the Gospels.  Many believe, incorrectly, that the New Testament canon was fixed in the early second century and that the Muratorian Canon attests to the fact.  However, the listing as provided by this “canon” does not match the 27 books today.  Again, the purpose of this list was to convey what may or may not be read during the liturgy:

We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church. The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Pius sat in the chair of the Church of Rome. And therefore it also ought to be read; but it cannot be made public in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets, as their number is complete, nor among the apostles to the end of time.

The Fragment of the Muratorian Canon

While only Luke and John are actually found in the text fragment, the fact that the fragment begins with “those things at which he was present he placed thus. The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke”, we can presume that the first and second Gospels that are in the section lost were those of Matthew and Mark.  Therefore, this “canon” contains all four Gospels.  This list also includes the Acts of the Apostles, the thirteen epistles of Paul, the Apocalypse of John, Jude and First and Second John.  The five that are missing are Third John, James, First and Second Peter and Hebrews.  The list rounds out with (as noted above), the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas.  It also includes the Book of Wisdom.

Moving towards the latter part of the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (ca 180AD) writes to refute the heresies promulgated by Cerinthus and the older Nicolaitans and provides further evidence of the acceptance of four – and only four – Gospels:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground”5 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.

St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 11

As said over and over, the main impetus for much of early Christian writing was to refute falsehoods or defend the faithful against heretical opponents or persecutors. We can see that by the end of the second century, we have a good bit of acceptance of the canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and a good bit of the corpus of St. Paul’s letters.  But we also have other spurious works that many early Christians accepted or at least held as authoritative.

The Third Century

In the third century, we begin to see not much more development on the status of Scripture but instead a consciousness of the differences.  Origen, born in 185 AD, but a prominent Christian in the early third century – and later very controversial, is the first on record to categorize early theological writings into three categories:

  • Writings with universal reception (the four-fold Gospel, Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, First Peter, First John and the Apocalypse),
  • Writings in contention (Hebrews, Second Peter, Second and Third John, James, Jude, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and a Gospel of the Hebrews)
  • Clearly apocryphal writings

St. Cyprian likewise defines a canon in which he accepts everything of that today with the exception of Hebrews, Second Peter, James, and Jude.

In many modern codices (generally bound manuscripts of early writings), we find often that there are varying inclusion of contested writings.  Of the contested and now non-canonical writings that are often prevalent are the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache and First Clement.  Of the now canonical writings, Hebrews seemed to be the most contested.  It gained some general acceptance in the East in the late second to early third century and then finally in the West with St. Athanasius’ festal letter in the Fourth Century (below).  It is fairly accurate to state that throughout the first few centuries of Christianity, that while all of the now canonical Scriptures were referenced and read hear or there, they never fully existed together and in one place.  Not only that, but various communities still read in Church many non-canonical writings.

The Fourth Century

One of the primary obstacles to acceptance of a full canon was the various periods of often heavy persecution.  On and off again, early Christians were subject to mass martyrdom and other atrocities at the hands of the Roman empire.  Many had to turn over whatever scripture they had or face execution.  These people were deemed traditore or “handers over”.  Ironically, this is where we get the word traitor from.  With the Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312 AD in the epic Battle of the Milvian Bridge, this was all about to change.  The Edict of Milan in 313 AD – although accounts of what this really was differ – essentially gave freedom of religion to everyone.  On a side note, this was not an endorsement of Christianity as the religion of the empire as many think today but was rather the principle upon which the First Amendment to the US Constitution is based.  Constantine merely promised to treat Christians fairly and allow them to practice freely.  In around 330 AD, Constantine did ask Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, to provide fifty copies of the Christian Scriptures for use in Constantinople, but even this list does not match that of today.

In 367 AD, the then Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, cataloged in his Epistola Festalis all 27 books as we have them today.  This is the first time in all of Christian history that the 27 appear (also excluding others that were in doubt such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd) in one list.  Prior to this, two councils at Nice and one at Constantinople had failed to take up the question of Scripture, but pressures likely being exerted by differences in the East and West forced the Church to now finally consider it.  Of further interest is the fact that Athanasius, himself an Alexandrian, displaced many works commonly held as scriptural in Alexandria such as the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd, the Didache and Barnabas.

Following this, in 382 Pope Damasus called a Synod in Rome.  Presided over by the Pope himself, this Synod fixed the list as is current today.  As this synod was only a regional council, the list then had to be received by other regional councils.  Due to the influence of the Bishop of Rome’s primal position in the Chair of Peter, the regional councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) likewise followed suit.  This canon included not only the 27 books of the New Testament, but also the entire LXX with the deuterocanonicals.  This list remained that of the universal Church for over a millenium until Martin Luther came to the scene.

As noted before, Martin Luther chose to remove the deuterocanonicals by instead accepting the canon of second century rabbinical Judaism as well as calling into question the canonical status of Revelations, James, Hebrews and Jude.  Zwingli likewise attacked Revelations. To combat the reformers, the Church finally called a full ecumenical council, the Council of Trent, and dogmatically defined the canon as established by the Synods of Rome and Hippo and the Council of Carthage.

Further Comments on Common Issues and Objections

Lack of New Testament Deuterocanonical References

One objection made to the inclusion of the deuterocanonicals is that neither Christ nor the Apostles ever quoted from them. This objection in itself is insufficient to disqualify any Scripture as any Christian should attest. First, there are many currently accepted Old Testament books that would be excluded on this principle. We would now need to exclude Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. We may also be able to exclude Lamentations, Chronicles, Joshua, Judges, 2 Kings, Obadiah, Nahum and Zephaniah. Furthermore, it is not necessarily a truism that Jesus and the Apostles did not refer indirectly to the deuterocanonicals. An example would be Hebrews 11:35-37 as it relates to 2 Macc 7. Some references are also not so much direct but indirectly restate that which is the essence of the deutercanonical stories. In Romans 1:18-31, St. Paul for instance describes in short the subject of the Book of Wisdom. Jimmy Akin has a much larger list of “potential references” here. In short, no one holds the Hebrew canon up to this standard but for some reason seeks to hold the deuterocanon up to a higher one.

The Jews Know Best What is Old Testament Scripture

Another objection is that since rabbinical Judaism canonized the 39 Hebrew books, that they would know better what is applicable to the Old Covenant(s). Sorry, but this is an absolutely ridiculous claim. Not to sound anti-Semitic, but these are also the same people who had Christ crucified. As is hopefully conveyed in the sections above, there was never a uniformly held canon of Scripture for the Jews until the second century. Therefore, the only canon that can truly be regarded as authoritative is the Pentateuch (that all Jews indisputably accepted including Christ) and whatever the Christian Church added to that under Her authority given by Christ. Since that was not done until the mid to late 300s, that same canon is binding on all Christians – including the deuterocanon. Otherwise, all Christians are left with the equally absurd statement that I recently heard a Protestant historian claim and that is, at best, all we have is a “fallible list of infallible books”.

That the Catholic Church added these to support certain doctrines

That the Catholic Church added to Scripture to support things such as purgatory and praying for the dead can be debunked by looking at the numerous deuterocanon quotes of early Christians. The deuterocanonical books are fairly quoted from the first century on in works such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas and by noted Church Fathers such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Hippolytus and St. Cyprian. That the doctrines in dispute were not held prior to the 4th century is also a falsity and can be alluded to in the New Testament itself (1 Cor 3:11-15 and Matt 5:25-26) and even in modern Orthodox Judaism that still prays the Kaddish for their loved ones souls. We can find further references to things such as purgatory in St. Abericius, Tertullian, St. Cyprian and St. Augustine. Even the great Protestant author C.S. Lewis believed in it and not even on account of the deuterocanon, but thought that it was a natural outgrowth of the fact that we are all sinners here on earth and all sinless in Heaven. Therefore, there had to be a purification in between. Not only that, but he thought that a properly oriented Christian who loved God would insist on “cleaning up” before standing before Him.