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How We Got The Bible


Most Protestants have 66 books, the Roman Catholics have 72, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has 81! How in the world could you make a personal choice of what books belong in The Bible?

If you are reasonably active in your faith, then you have probably heard people discuss and perhaps even debate this question. Different denominations sometimes have different Bibles with different numbers of books in them! In this lesson we will try to explain the basics of this question “Which books belong in the Bible?”


When you do research to try and find answers to this question you will come across a term which is very important to understand. That word is CANON. The English word "canon" (Greek "Kanon"; Hebrew "qaneh") means "reed" or "cane" -- a measuring rod which could be used as a standard or rule. When referring to the Bible people use this word to represent the “official” list of books which should be found inside our Bibles. It should be pointed out that this word IS NOT found anywhere inside the Bible. It is also important to know that there is NO PLACE in the Bible where the writers give us a list of books which belong in the Bible (a canon). It must also be understood that the writers never explained to us the way we can determine if a book belongs in the Bible or not.

Another thing we must remember is the fact that none of the existing religious groups “created the canon”. The way the books of our Bible came together was not through an institution voting to decide which books they felt should be included in a list.

The books that belong in the Bible came into existence through hand-picked individuals guided to write messages from God. The people who received these messages knew the writers, knew that the writers were guided by God in a special way, and knew that they should accept and share this message with others.

The Old Testaments books which God intended for us to have were already completed by the time Jesus came to the earth. The New Testament was completed by the time the second generation of Christians died. We believe that this statement is true because by the time we get to the third generation of Christians, all of the original writers and all of the recipients of the original letters had died and the people who were left behind (and all following generations after that) needed to know the original message. Where else could they get the original message if not from copies of these written documents?

John 16:12-15 - "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17 - “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be complete, equipped for every good work.“
2 John 1:9-11 - “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work.”

Unfortunately, the absence of God-given instructions has not kept people from looking deeper into the question of “Which books belong in the Bible?” This has resulted in volumes of literature containing a variety of theories, speculations and suggested explanations about how the Bible as we know it came into being. Many of the people that we have seen mentioned in our lesson material so far, have played a significant role in the modern day issues surrounding the canon. To better understand the situation let us examine some of the more popular ideas.


Throughout time, men have felt a need to organize (canonize) which books belong in the Bible for many different reasons and, they have developed over time a type of criteria which has been used to determine which books should be considered as inspired. There were basically five guiding principles used to determine whether or not a book is canonical or Scripture.

These are the questions they ask:

1. Is it authoritative - did it come from the hand of God? (Does this book come with a divine "thus saith the Lord"?)

2. Is it prophetic - was it written by a man of God?

3. Is it authentic (The fathers had the attitude of "if in doubt throw it out" policy. This enhanced the "validity of their discernment of canonical books.")

4. Is it dynamic - did it come with the life-transforming power of God?

5. Was it received, collected, read and used - was it accepted by the people of God?

(This list is from Geisler and Nix. - Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press. Chicago, Illinois. 1968)

In order to be accepted in the canon, the documents must deal with Jehovah's affairs on earth, turning men to his worship and stimulating deep respect for his work and purposes in the earth. They must give evidence of inspiration, that is, be products of the Holy Spirit.

2 Peter 1:19-21 - “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

There must be no appeal to superstition or creature worship, but, rather, an appeal to love and service of God. There would have to be nothing in any of the individual writings that would conflict with the internal harmony of the whole, but, rather, each book must, by its unity with the others, support the one authorship, that of God. Also, there are special circumstances that apply to the Hebrew Old Testament and others to the Christian New Testament that help in determining the establishment of the Bible Canon.


There is a list of accepted books of the Old Testament from 393 at the Council of Hippo that is the same as what the Catholics have now. So why do protestants not accept them? We will look at those reasons now. The first has to do with the Jewish view of their scriptures.

The reasons the Jews came to accept the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Scriptures are largely lost and therefore unknown. The main reason given in the rabbinic discussions revolves around their inspiration; they truly believe they come from God. But why were these books believed to be inspired or God-breathed? There are several different theories on this that we will not go into. We do know, however that the Hebrew Bible that is accepted by the Jews, contains the scriptures from Genesis-Malachi. The arrangement of the Hebrew Bible contains a count of anywhere from 22-27 books depending on which early list you look at.

Early writers like Josephus and Origen speak of a 22 book canon (this number corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet).

Jerome also speaks of 22 books, again drawing a parallel with the Hebrew alphabet but he adds the 5 Hebrew consonants that are written in alternative forms making his count 27.

The order of the books which are assigned in the synagogue scrolls is seen to contain 24 scrolls - five Law, eight of the Prophets, and eleven of the Writings. Although the order and divisions in which the books are arranged is different they are the same books. They are also the same 39 books found in our modern day Bibles. (Some of the books were combined and counted as one etc.)

The Hebrews never refer to these books as the “Old Testament”, it is called Torah, Nebi’im and uKetubim (Law, Prophets, and Writings.) The Greek names for these divisions are also in common use, they are Pentateuch (having five books), Prophetes (the prophets), and Hagiographia (holy writings).


Jesus Christ himself is a help for us when it comes to determining which books belong in the Old Testament. When you read the gospels you see that he often makes reference to Old Testament books and quotations of prophesies. Let’s look at some passages when he speaks about the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Luke 24:44 he indicated the three sections into which the Hebrew Bible was divided - the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

“Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Luke 24:44

In his travels Jesus often spoke of how he disagreed with the oral traditions of the Pharisees. However, you never find him disputing their scriptures. There is no evidence whatever of any dispute between Him and the Jews as to the canonicity of any Old Testament book.

John 10:31-36 - “The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, "I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God." Jesus answered, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? If those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'-- and the scripture cannot be annulled-- can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God's Son'?”

Jesus once refers to the martyrs of the Old Testament "...from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah." Jesus here confirms His witness to the extent of the Old Testament canon. Abel, as everyone knows, was the first martyr (Genesis 4:8). Zechariah is the last martyr to be named having been stoned while prophesying to the people "in the court of the house of the Lord" (2 Chronicles 24:21). Genesis was the first book in the Hebrew canon and Chronicles the last book. The Old Testament which Jesus knew was a collection of books from Genesis to Chronicles (which was the books in chronological order). Jesus basically said "from Genesis to Chronicles," or according to our order "from Genesis to Malachi."

Luke 11:51 (also Matthew 23:35) - “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.”


In the New Testament we find 160 different quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. These are found in 20 of the 39 Old Testament books. The following are just a few of these:

Matthew 21:42; 22:29; 26:54,56 Luke 24
John 2:22-26; 5:39; 10:35 Acts 17:2, 11; 18:28
Romans 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; Romans 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Galatians 3:8; 3:22; 4:30
1 Timothy 5:18 2 Timothy 3:16
2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:16


Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote about AD 100 saying that the Jews have only 22 books. He combines them differently but they are the same 39 books we have in our modern Old Testament canon.

“For although so great an interval of time (since they were written) has now passed, not a soul has ventured either to add or to remove or to alter a syllable; and it is the instinct of every Jew from the day of his birth to consider these books as the teachings of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to lay down his life for them.” – Antiquities, Josephus

At the close of the 1st century Jewish leaders at Jamnia, Palestine, confirmed these books as the canon of the Old Testament. At this council, vigorous debates took place on the question of the canonicity of certain books. This council raised questions about the presence of certain books in the canon. Among their debates they considered whether canonical recognition should be accorded to the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Esther. Objections were raised on various grounds: Esther, e.g., did not contain the name of God. But the outcome and benefit of the Jamnia debates was the firm acknowledgment of all these books as Holy Scripture. No formal or binding decision were made, none-the-less the discussions helped crystallize and to fix firmly the Hebrew canon.


About the time the text of the Old Testament books assumed a standard form, the apostles were writing books that would later form the New Testament. When the church was born on Pentecost it had the same Bible as the Jewish synagogue.

As the apostolic writings began to circulate, they too were read in the assemblies of the church. The New Testament books were not available to the church during the first few decades of its existence. It is believed that the earliest of our four gospels, was not written until 30 years after Jesus ascended to heaven. For an entire generation after Christ’s death the teachings of Jesus were transmitted orally.

You might ask why the delay in writing the apostolic books. The apostles were living books. As long as the apostles were present in the church there was not a great need for written records of the life and sayings of Jesus. They were the eyewitnesses who knew not only the facts but they could also give the inspired explanations of these facts because they were guided by the Holy Spirit.

The important place eyewitnesses had in establishing the truth of the gospel can be seen, for example, from 1 Corinthians 15:6 where Paul mentions some five hundred witnesses to Christ’s resurrection most of whom were still alive.

“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” 1 Corinthians 15:6

To some degree the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of the Christians in the early years of the church. It would seem that this age of special guidance came to an end some time near the beginning or middle of the second century.

The need for written records became more pressing as time went on. The apostles who were establishing new churches all over the empire found it necessary to write letters (epistles) to these churches, to instruct, correct, encourage, and caution the young Christians. Later, when the apostles and eye-witnesses were no longer around a written record of the original teachings of Christianity became necessary to preserve the true message. This was especially important as the church spread into the Graeco-Roman world because as time passed. As more of the original leaders died, the danger of false teachings became an ever increasing threat.

The original letters of the apostles were copied and circulated among the churches as Christianity continued to spread into new regions. The New Testament that we have today is a collection of the most commonly circulated letters from the time of early Christianity.


Before the end of the second century there is universal acceptance of the four Gospels, the book of Acts and 12 of Paul's letters. Only a few of the smaller writings were doubted in some areas, because such writings were limited in their initial circulation for one reason or another, and so it took longer for them to become established as canonical.

One of the most interesting early lists is the fragment discovered by L.A. Muratori in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Italy, and published by him in 1740. The Muratorian Fragment, which is in Latin, dates to the later part of the 2nd century, and is a translation from a Greek original. From the standpoint of the Muratorian Fragment, the New Testament is regarded as definitely made up of the four Gospels, The Acts, 13 epistles of Paul, the Apocalypse of John, three of his epistles, Jude, and 1 Peter.

Origen, about the year 230 AD, accepted among the inspired Scriptures the books of Hebrews and James, both of which are missing from the Muratorian Fragment. While he indicates that some doubted their canonicity, this also shows that all the congregations by this time were in agreement about the canonicity of most of the Greek Scriptures, only a few doubting some of the less well known epistles.

Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 367) gives us the earliest list of New Testament books which is exactly like our present New Testament. Shortly after Athanasius, two writers, Jerome (394) and Augustine (397) defined the canon of all 27 books.

You might ask, however, why do we not find exact lists earlier than the Muratorian Fragment? It was not until men like Marcion came along in the middle of the 2nd century that the need arose to catalogue the books Christians should accept. Marcion constructed his own canon to suit his doctrines, taking only certain of Paul's letters, and an expurgated form of the Gospel of Luke. (Marcion founded the anti-Jewish sect that acknowledged no authoritative writings but those of Paul.) This, together with the mass of apocryphal literature by now spreading throughout the world, made it imperative to pronounce a clear-cut distinction between what could be received as Scripture and what could not.


In studying about which books belong in the Bible you may come across the term APOCHRYPHA. “Apocrypha” means secret or hidden or concealed (from the Greek word - apokrupnos). It was used very early in the sense of secretive or concealed, but also was used in reference to a book whose origin was doubtful or unknown. Eventually the word took the meaning of non-canonical. In Protestant circles it is used to refer to those extra books that are found in the Catholic Old Testament.


The Old Testament Apocrypha include about 15 books, depending on the method of counting, which were written in the period of 200 BC to 100 AD. They appear in “The Big Three” Greek codices from the 4th Century, although only Alexandrinus has all of them. The names of these books are in the chart below.

OLD TESTAMENT Apocryphal Books
1–4 Maccabees Judith
the Rest of Esther Tobit
Wisdom of Solomon Ecclesiasticus/Sirach
Baruch Letter of Jeremiah
1–2 Esdras Prayer of Manasses
Psalm 151 Odes
Additions to Daniel:
History of Susanna Bel and the Dragon
Song of the Three Holy Children

The two books of Esdras, the last two books of Maccabees, the book of Odes, Psalm 151, and the Prayer of Manasseh are not considered canonical by the Catholic church.

You may wonder why the Protestant Bible’s do not include these books.

1) These books were never included in the Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament

2) These books were never quoted from by Jesus and His Apostles in their writings.

3) These books were not accepted as Scriptures by some early Jewish writers of the 1st century. (Philo and Josephus; the Jewish council at Jamnia (90 AD); and other early “Christian” writers Origen and Jerome.)

4) They show no evidence of inspiration (in one, the author even claims that it is a narration). Portions are legendary and fictitious. Often there are certain historical, chronological, and geographical errors.

5) Some of these books were originally in Greek!

6) 1 Maccabees says that there are no prophets in this time period.

For these reasons the Protestant Bibles do not include the apocryphal Old Testament books into their canons.


1 Maccabees speaks about a time when there are no prophets. There were no prophets before the story, during the story, or when the story is written!

“These men hunted down the friends of Judas and brought them all before Bacchides, and he subjected them to torture and humiliation. It was a time of great trouble for Israel, worse than anything that had happened to them since the time prophets ceased to appear among them.1 Maccabees 9:26-27
“Therefore, the Jews and their priests are happy to have Simon and his descendants as their leaders and High Priests until a true prophet appears.1 Maccabees 14:41

The time in history presented in chapter 9 was very hard on the Jews! The last time it was this bad was when the prophets were here. That means that there are no prophets now! In fact they don’t have a prophet to tell them who their leaders should be, so they made up their own ways of deciding who these leaders would be.

“They discussed what should be done with the altar of burnt offerings, which had been desecrated by the Gentiles, and decided to tear it down, so that it would not stand there as a monument to their shame. So they tore down the altar and put the stones in a suitable place on the Temple hill, where they were to be kept until a prophet should appear and decide what to do with them.” 1 Maccabees 4:44-46

Foreigners had come in and taken over the temple and done all kinds of sacrilegious things to it. They had desecrated the altar, and so the Jews did not want to keep it there in the temple anymore. They weren’t quite sure what to do with the stones though, so they put them in an out-of-the-way place until God told them what to do with it. Why didn’t they just ask? Because there were not prophets! The writer of 1 Maccabees still does not know what to do with those stones!

So the question is: If there are no prophets at the time when 1 Maccabees is written, how can there be any scripture?

So what do we do with the Apocrypha?

Are the apocryphal books useless? Not really. Some of them are simply history books. They generally have a high moral character and can be encouraging to those who trust in God. The Letter of Jeremiah, for example, is a condemnation of idolatry! But, these are NOT the basis for any kind of teaching! They are not the words of God! In the early stages of Christianity, these books were read, but not used in the assembly. Now we are in a religious world were you either accept it as the word of God, or throw it away completely, and both these approaches seem incorrect.


Although the term apocrypha is used mainly in regard to the unaccepted Old Testament books it is important to note that there are also apocryphal books of the New Testament. They include a variety of literary types: Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses. There are many of these writings but most of them have never been accepted as scripture. There is not as much controversy over these books and so we will not be discussing them. We only mention them so you will be aware that they exist.


It is interesting to trace the history and development of the canon. There were hundreds of people spanning close to 2000 years which contributed in some way to the Bible we hold in our hands. There is no doubt that the most important question on our minds is, “How do we KNOW that the Bible we hold in our hands is the one God revealed to mankind 2000 years ago?” Admittedly we cannot say for certain that the one we have is EXACTLY the same. We must remember that we do not have any of the original autographs (original copies of the books). Also, we do not have the list of books that should be accepted, written down for us by the inspired writers of the Bible or by God himself.

We do know this, however. The Old Testament books in our Bibles are the same ones accepted by the Hebrew people (God’s chosen people at the time it was written). We also know that the New Testament books that we have in our Bible have, from the fourth century onward, been accepted as a “fixed” canon in the eyes of most churches. It is also important to observe that the list is not the product of any single person or church council, but many people down through time have been involved in working to establish it.

Because of what we have seen we can have confidence that the Bible that we have is as God intended it to be and study it to find God’s will for our lives in this day and age.