Canonization of the Christian Bible: Understanding its Origins
What It Is
The core text for the Christian faith is the Bible. This is not news to anyone. We trust that this collection of documents is the Word of God. It is and I can say so with full confidence even before I proceeded to look deeper. I think there is also wisdom in knowing where the book came from. How it came to be what we use as our guiding light. Why do we trust the Bible?
The Christian Bible is a collection of religious texts that has been central to the Christian faith for centuries. The Bible contains the Old and New Testaments, which are made up of 66 individual books written over a span of thousands of years. However, the process of determining which books would be included in the Bible was not a straightforward one, and it took many centuries for the canonization of the Christian Bible to be completed.
The earliest Christian texts were written in the first century AD, soon after the life and death of Jesus Christ. These texts, which are now part of the New Testament, were circulated among Christian communities and were considered to be authoritative. However, there was no consensus on which texts should be considered part of the Bible, and many other texts were also in circulation. However we can have confidence in the presence of the four gospels of the New Testament.
In a book uncovering the mystery of Jesus’ existence called The Case for Christ, journalist Lee Strobel askes Bruce M. Metzger, who had a masters degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and both a master’s degree and doctorate from Princeton University, about the historical documents behind the Old Testament. Metzger has written many books and commentaries on the topic and taught on the subject for 46 years at the time of the interview.
Over time, various leaders in the Christian Church began to compile lists of which texts they believed should be considered part of the Bible. These lists were not universal, and different regions and communities had different ideas about which texts were most important. In the second century AD, a leader named Marcion put together his own list of texts that he believed should be considered authoritative, and he rejected many of the texts that were later included in the New Testament.
In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, and he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to resolve various disputes within the Christian Church. At this council, various leaders debated which texts should be considered part of the Bible, and they eventually settled on a list of 27 texts that would become the New Testament. This list included the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Paul, and various other texts. The first complete copy of the New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, dating back to 350 AD (Strobel)
However, even after the Council of Nicaea, there was still some disagreement about which texts should be included in the Bible. Some Christian communities continued to use other texts, such as the Shepherd of Hermas or the Apocalypse of Peter, and some communities did not accept certain texts that were included in the New Testament.
It was not until the late fourth century AD that the canon of the Christian Bible was finally agreed upon. In 397 AD, the Council of Carthage affirmed the list of books that had been approved by the Council of Nicaea and added a few more texts, including the Book of Revelation. This list of 27 texts, which is now known as the New Testament, became the standard for the Christian Church, and it has been used ever since.
The process of canonization was a long and complex one, and it involved many debates and disagreements among Christian leaders. However, by the end of the fourth century AD, the canon of the Christian Bible had been established, and it has remained a central part of Christian faith and practice ever since. However there were specific criteria used to decide which books would be put in the canon that resulted in what we use and rightly trust today as the Word of God.
1. Credible Authorship
One of the earliest criteria for inclusion in the Christian Bible was apostolic authorship or association. This meant that the texts were either written by the apostles or “followers of the apostle” (Strobel 95). For example, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were believed to have been written by disciples of Jesus or those who knew them, and the letters of Paul were considered to be written by a close associate of the apostles.
Another criterion for inclusion was orthodoxy, or conformity to established Christian beliefs. The texts had to support the teachings and beliefs of the early church and be consistent with the orthodox understanding of Jesus and his message. The document in question had to run “congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative” (Strobel 95). This was particularly important in the early years of Christianity, when there were many competing interpretations of Jesus’ teachings.
3. Christian Acceptance
A third criterion was widespread use and acceptance by the Christian community. Books that were widely circulated and read, and that were used in liturgical and theological contexts, were more likely to be included in the Bible.
4. Divine Ispiration
Finally, there was the criterion of inspiration, or the belief that the Holy Spirit had guided the selection of texts that were divinely inspired and authoritative. This was a more subjective criterion, but it was important in affirming the authority of the Bible and its role as the Word of God.
Despite these differences, the process of selecting the books that would make up the Christian Bible was a long and complex one that involved many debates, discussions, and decisions over several centuries. The end result was a collection of texts that have shaped Christian belief and practice for over two thousand years and what we can confidently use as the Word of God that we use to light our paths bring us closer to Him who inspired it.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Zondervan, 1998.