Development of the Biblical Canon
Who Wrote the Bible and Why: A Concise Overview of the History of the Canon
A Simplified Timeline Of The Development Of The Biblical Canon
The Old Testament (abbreviation “OT”) books are written.
An assemblage of rabbis translates the OT from Hebrew to Greek, the translation is called the “Septuagint” (abbreviation “LXX”). The LXX includes 46 books.
Christians use the LXX as their source scriptures. This causes controversy among orthodox Jews since there are only 39 books (not 46) in the original Hebrew.
Soon after a council of Jewish rabbis is convened at The Council of Jamniah and decide to include in their canon only the original 39 Hebrew books.
Jerome translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (called the “Vulgate”). Jerome sticks to the original 39 omitting those he deems apocryphal, including Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch. Pope Damassus, unsatisfied, reissues a new translation with all 46 books, thereby reinstating the “apocryphal” (or hidden books) as authentic books of the Bible, leaving the final count of books included in the Vulgate as 46 overall.
Martin Luther translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to German. He assumes that, since Jews wrote the OT, theirs is the correct canon; he puts the extra seven books in an appendix and calls them “Apocrypha.”
The Council of Trent reaffirms the canonicity of all 46 books (third time’s a charm).
Various Christian sects write a variety of works; among them the New Testament (abbreviation “NT”) books are written. The Gospels are written along with other early Christian writings, e.g. the Didache (c. 70), 1 Clement (c. 96), the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100), the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110), etc.
Marcion espouses that there are two different Gods contained in scripture—Yahweh, the cruel God of the OT, and Abba, the kind fatherly deity of the NT. Marcion, being anti-Semitic, eliminates the OT as scriptures and maintains only the ten letters of Paul and two-thirds of Luke’s gospel (deleting all references to Jesus’ “Jewishness”) in the process. Marcion’s NT canon is the first to be compiled, but his arbitrary omissions force the mainstream Church to decide on a core canon. These will become the four Gospels and the letters of Paul of Tarsus.
At about this time in Rome, the periphery of the canon is determined. Of the peripheral materials included are the four Gospels, Acts, now 13 letters of Paul (Hebrews is not included); three of the seven general Epistles (1-2 John and Jude), and also the Apocalypse of Peter.
In 313 Emperor Constantine proclaims tolerance and recognition of Christianity in the “Edict” of Milan. The following year Constantine goes to war with Licinius who he defeats in 323, becoming sole emperor. Constantine founds a new second capital at Byzantium, which he named Constantinople (now modern day Istanbul). This allows a new dawn of freedom and tolerance for Christianity to flourish.
Eusebius devised a threefold classification; noting the accepted, disputed, and rejected books. Eusebius would reluctantly include John’s Revelation, but rejected the Didache, Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the epistle of Barnabas, while the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias weren’t even considered for inclusion; mainly because they were incomplete. A full copy of the gospel of Thomas wouldn’t be unearthed until the find at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 CE; over one thousand and six hundred years later!
The earliest extant list of books we see in the NT, as we presently have them, is written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, as contained in his Easter letter of 367.
Prior to his papacy Pope Damasus II, in a letter to a French bishop, lists the NT books in their present number and order.
At the Council of Florence, the entire Church agrees to recognize 27 books of the NT, though does not declare them unalterable.
William Tyndale begins work on his translation of the Bible into English, following Erasmus’ (1522) Greek edition as well as drawing on the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s 1521 September Testament. Tyndale finalizes his NT in 1526.
In his translation of the Bible from Greek into German, Luther removes four NT books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation) from their original order and repositions them at the end, in an appendix, believing them to be less than canonical. A year earlier, Tyndale is martyred for the crime of having translated the Holy Bible into English.
At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirms the complete 27 books of the canon as traditionally accepted.
The King James Version, or Authorized Version, of the Bible would rely directly on Tyndale’s translation. A complete analyze of the Authorized Version in 1998 showed that Tyndale’s words, although unrecognized as its official translator, account for 84% of the NT and 75.8 percent of the OT books which comprise the King James Version—the most influential version of the Bible ever devised.
Notes: Traditionally reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias are not cited in the sources because the information they contain is authoritative, and so is considered to be general knowledge which everyone should know or, at least, have access to. If not then other reference materials are surely available either via your local library or the World Wide Web (i.e. Wikipedia, etc.)
In compiling this concise overview of canonization events I used the web link to the The Canon of Scripture at the Bible Research page, then cross referenced this with a timeline provided by the Augustine Club at Columbia University, which had an easy to follow summary time line of the canonization events adapted from the materials of Professor Paul Han of the University of St. Thomas, Texas, just to double check my facts. Much of the material I share here stem from these sources along with: The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, The Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, The Oxford Dictionary of World History, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, and of course The Oxford Dictionary of English. Consult these reference items for further information.