Exploring the First Century Church: Bible & Canon

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praying_on_bible_redThere could be a whole dictionary written on interesting terms in the Bible vs how they are used or understood today. I want to take a few posts to examine a few of these so that we can move our understanding of these things closer to theirs.



Do a word search of the Bible for the word Bible. You won’t get any results. Search across as many translations you want and you still won’t find it. The Geneva Bible of 1560 contains the word but it is in an added heading on Psalm 78. Peterson uses it in the message on a few occasions (Psalm 50, Matt 7:26-27, Matt 19:4-6, Matt 21:42, Matt 22:29-33, Matt 23:16-22, Mark 12:24-27, Luke 6:48-49, Luke 24:45-49 & John 5:39-40). Peterson uses it in place of the Greek word graphe or “Scriptures” which would refer to the Hebrew Old Testament in order to get the point across of “the Bible as they knew it.”


The word Bible comes from the Greek word “biblia” which literally means “books.” Notice that is plural. It is plural because before they were collected into one single volume that was agreed upon by the early Christians (canonized – see below) as the Bible as we know it today the books of the Bible often existed individually. It would have been very exceptional for someone to have collected all of the books of the Old Testament or the New Testament. Even synagogues probably didn’t have an entire collection of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was a bit different as it had been around quite a bit longer some of those works had been collected into groups of writings called the Tanakh:

T – Torah (Gen-Deut)
N – Nevi’im (Prophets) composed of the Former prophets (think Joshua – Kings & Isaiah, Jeremiah & Ezekiel)
K – Ketuvim (Writings) composed of the poetry and wisdom literature, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther)


In the New Testament we do have evidence of the audience of various books. Sometimes the evidence is internal (within the book/letter) such as Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. We know it was written to the house churches that were meeting in the city of Rome, presumably to be passed around and shared among the various assemblies that met in the city. Other letters actually came with instructions to share them to a wider region/audience of house churches. The best example of this is Colossians 4:16 where Paul writes, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” The Gospels were also thought to have particular original audiences in mind: Matthew (typically said to be written to Christians in Antioch), Mark (Christians in Rome), etc.


So how did we go from scattered books and letters written to various cities to a collection of books recognized as sacred and inspired scripture?



This word refers to the process by which the early Christians came to a decision of what should and shouldn’t be included in the collection of inspired writings used by the church. The word canon is a Greek word that means “reed” or “measuring stick”. This word is actually used in Galatians 6:16 usually translated as “rule.” If you have ever heard the phrase “rule of faith” it is the same idea. The word canon didn’t get used to define the process of selection of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures until the late 300s.


Why was it important for the early Christians to determine what was to be included in the Bible and what was to be excluded?


Heresies often provoked this discussion. When new things get taught (often false teachings) one has to determine whether or not the teaching is in line with scripture or not. That means they needed to agree on what was to be included as scripture and what wasn’t. Two of the biggest battles of the early church was against gnosticism (who believed in duality between flesh and spirit) and against Marcion (who rejected the God of the Old Testament).


If the rule of faith is being violated and people are pointing to all sorts of weird writings to justify their behavior (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc) it makes sense for the church leaders to figure out which writings are inspired and to live by and which are not.Here is the deal, though. This wasn’t something they had to agonize over very much. It wasn’t like there were dozens of books on the bubble that might or might not make the cut. It was always seen as pretty cut and dry. In other words, it is not that the church had no idea which books were inspired until they held a council 300 years later. As many have stated, the councils helped solidify and clarify what the view was in an official way.


So how did they determine what was in and what was out?


Old Testament canon

The Old Testament canon was pretty much fixed by 200 BC. There was no big formal meeting to declare what went into the OT but there is a consistent view over time of what was considered inspired scriptures.When the New Testament writers refer to Scripture (as in 2 Tim 3:16 & 2 Peter 3:15-16) they are talking about the Old Testament, particularly the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This is what Paul quoted from and alluded to in his letters as well as the Gospel writers.


Apocryphal books

If you ever look at more eccumenical Bible translations like the NRSV you will notice that there are extra books included with the Old Testament. These books are called the Apocrypha. That word means secret or obscure. In other words, not only did the read a little differently than typical books of the Bible, they are also of an unknown origin. In other words, these books are not written by who they say wrote them – so they are of suspect origin.


How have they remained in some Bibles until today? These books were included in the Greek translation of the OT and from there made their way into the Latin Vulgate, which is how the Catholic church picked them up. To the best of my knowledge, Jesus refers to most of the books of the OT but never to these books.


2 Key developments:

Before we move on to New Testament canon I want to note two very important events in the formation of the canon. The first was in 363 where the Synod of Laodicea said only canonical books could be read in the churches. The second was in 367 when Athanasius made a distinction between the canonical books and the apocryphal books.  These two events had the same conclusion – there is a certain list of books that is to be distinguished from any other writing and that these books have authority in the life and rule (canon) of faith.


NT canon

The books of the New Testament were written over a period of roughly 50 years.The books/letters of the NT circulated widely for the first few hundred years and were pretty widely agreed upon. The 27 books we have as the NT was not officially recognized as such until the 300s but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know that these were the right books. They just had no need to sit down and make sure they all had the same list until the 300s due to some of the heresies mentioned above (along with a few others).


So what criteria do you use to affirm the right ones?


Criteria for the NT canon:

  1. Apostolicity/Antiquity – was it old?
  2. Orthodoxy – Was it consistent with tradition/scripture?
  3. Acceptance by the churches – was it accepted and used as scripture in real churches?

 What didn’t make the cut?


The best one that didn’t make it was shepherd of Hermes but that wasn’t written until 150-170 or so. That is the closest thing to making the cut and it wasn’t really even in the ballpark.


Lists of NT books by various people/groups as things started to shape up

As the need for an authoritative list of what was to be included as New Covenant scripture grew so did attempts to nail it down. Here are a few of the lists and as you will see there is a high degree of agreement among the lists.

  • Muratorian Canon
    • 4 Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Jude 2 letters of John, letters of Peter and Revelation (missing Hebrews). It also included the Shepherd of Hermas but notes that it was written recently (around 170) and also the Apocalypse of Peter, noting that it was not widely accepted in the church in that day.
  • Eusebius (300s)
    • 22 undisputable books – Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John – were listed as in question…not impossible but just in question)
  • Athanasius (367)
    • Listed the 27 books as all agreed upon
    • Followed by Third council of Carthage and Council of Hippo said that same thing on 27 books.

Here is the big take home point of all of this. The books being discussed are always the same books with a few noted exceptions that were viewed as exceptions in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. You don’t find some odd name among the list that needs any real investigation. No one is seriously adding anything to these 27. It is whether or not all 27 should be in. There is no contest among those that didn’t make the cut.


Hopefully this has given you a little information on the development of the collection of books that we have today (of course for most of us via translation).

5 Responses

  1. Matt, That was a good summary. Yes, the Bible of the early Church was the LXX Old Testament for many years. It was not referred to as the Tanakh back then. The Church was a New Covenant church based on the fulfillment of Old Testament text. It took about 16 years for the first Christian writings to appear James and Galatians, then probably Mark was fairly early. Per one scholar all of the NT writings were completed by 70 AD, with perhaps Revelation and the Gospel of John. Some people place Revelation back during the era of Nero and see it as an apocalyptic war document between the Kingdom of Jesus and the Kingdom of Caesar. All in all, it took about 35 years for the bulk of the NT to be completed. That is a conservative view, but one I will stick with. The usual COC teaching about the closing of the NT canon bringing about the cessation of spiritual gifts/charismata, based on 1 Cor 13, is nonsense. I Cor. 13 is not even discussing the canon. So , in my estimation the both the Stone Campbell-Movement and the Sommer-Lipscomb Movement miss the mark by trying to establish a New Testament Church based on rational cherry picking of some of the documents of the what is now called the New Testament.

    1. Here is a story from Tertullian around 200 AD from “On the Soul” 9.4,

      “We have now among us a sister whose lot it has been to be favoured with sundry gifts of revelation, which she experiences in the Spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord’s day in the church: she converses with angels, and sometimes even with the Lord; she both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men’s hearts she understands, and to them who are in need she distributes remedies. Whether it be in the reading of Scriptures, or in the chanting of psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services matter and opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions. It may possibly have happened to us, while this sister of ours was rapt in the Spirit, that we had discoursed in some ineffable way about the soul. After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred services, she is in the regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in vision (for all her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed). “Amongst other things,” says she, “there has been shown to me a soul in bodily shape, and a spirit has been in the habit of appearing to me; not, however, a void and empty illusion, but such as would offer itself to be even grasped by the hand, soft and transparent and of an etherial colour, and in form resembling that of a human being in every respect.” This was her vision, and for her witness there was God; and the apostle most assuredly foretold that there were to be “spiritual gifts” in the church.”

      Link – https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0310.htm

  2. Excellent summary that puts the process of “canonization” into the proper context! It was a process that recognized what had been used from the earliest time of writing the Scriptures of both Testaments. The idea that in the 4th century the bishops froze out the Gnostic writings is preposterous. (The DaVinchi Code is, after all, fiction that presents a false, fictionalized view of the early history of the church. Without mentioning that book, you took away the foundation on which it is built.)

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