The Bible we read today is one large book, comprised of 66 separate historical writings that are held by Christians as God’s Word: penned by man but inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, many more ancient writings than just these 66 books were considered in the process of compiling the Bible. This raises a number of important questions; who determined the selection, and why did some books make the cut and others didn’t? What prompted the need for such a choice? What factors were considered? And should some of the excluded writings have been included?
Many skeptics contend that the Bible we have today is a product of church corruption, with councils and high-ranking officials centuries after Jesus’ death picking and choosing the books that best served their desire for political power and control over society. Such a conspiracy theory makes for an entertaining Hollywood movie. However, such speculation is crushed by the weight of the historical evidence.
Among many other factors, four developments occurred throughout the centuries after the life of Jesus that forced the church to act and officially recognise the books that were to be considered Scripture. (1) Heretics began circulating incomplete collections and obviously false writings. (2) Counterfeit books, falsely written under the name of an apostle, began to appear in some churches. (3) Christianity spread to new lands, and missionaries needed to know which sacred books to translate into new languages. (4) An edict of Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of the Christians’ sacred writings and threatened death for those who refused. Believers wanted to know what books would be worth dying for.
Early councils within the church did not corruptly or even arbitrarily decide which books would be included in the Bible and which would not. Christian apologist Sean McDowell notes that the council’s job was to recognise and codify the books that were truly inspired by God. A specific criterion was used to judge and recognise which writings were to be included in the Bible as God’s Word.
Firstly, the writing had to be authored by an apostle or someone closely associated with one during the apostolic period. Secondly, the writing had to be consistent with what was already known to be God’s Word. Thirdly, the writing had to be recognised and used universally, or near universally, by the church already.
For example, this is why the gnostic gospels, whose authorship is unclear, content ran contrary to already accepted scripture and which were written centuries after Jesus’ life are not included in the Bible. Likewise, writings that were used by a few churches in only one location were also not included in the Bible.
Skeptics may also ask why the Apocrypha is not included in the Bible. The Apocrypha is a collection of books of Jewish history and tradition written from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. The Apocrypha is not recognised for the following reasons: (1) The Jews never accepted it as Scripture and did not include it in their Bible. (2) What acceptance it did enjoy was only local and temporary. (3) No early major church council included it in Scripture. (4) Neither Jesus nor the New Testament quoted it even though they quoted the Old Testament hundreds of times. (5) Catholic churches that eventually accepted it, did not do so until many centuries later.
The Church did not corruptly or arbitrarily decide which books were to be included in the Bible, they simply recognised the writings that were already considered God’s Word and compiled them into one book. It’s important to remember that it was clearly an act of God that not only inspired the writings of the Bible but also guided the process of their recognition, compilation and preservation.
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Further reading recommendations
‘The Question of Canon' by Michael Kruger
'Canon Revisited' by Michael Kruger
'The Biblical Canon' by Lee Martin McDonald
'The Historical Reliability of the New Testament' by Craig Blomberg
'The Canon of Scripture' by F.F. Bruce
'The Canon of the New Testament' by Bruce Metzger
'The Formation of the New Testament Canon' by James Duke