How was the Bible compiled?

Have you ever wondered how the Bible was compiled?

Who decided what books and letters to include? If so keep reading!

The “canon” of the Bible is what we use to measure what is authoritative. It means the list of books that have been authorized as speaking God’s word.

The word “canon” means “ruler,” (as in a yardstick, not a king! And definitely not a “cannon” with two n’s. ) The “canon” of the Bible is what we use to measure what is authoritative. It means the list of books that have been authorized as speaking God’s word.

The Old Testament Canon

People have been around for a long time. Much longer than there have been books. Much longer than there has been writing.

In everyday life, there are all sorts of things we need to remember. We might jot down a grocery list. Other things are much more important, such as laws, agreements about inheritance, genealogies, traditional stories, poetry. For centuries these things were passed down by word of mouth.

Oral Tradition

Some of the earliest parts of our Bible started out as oral tradition.

Oral tradition is more reliable than you might think. One reason is that if a number of people have this in their memories, a process of correction goes on as they interact. (Think about how members of your family might reminisce about your relatives. “Oh no, you’re right, that was Aunt Edith.”) Another reason is that people who can’t write have much better memories than we do now that we can rely on writing.

Some of the earliest parts of our Bible started out as oral tradition.


But over time, and in different places all over the world, people developed different ways of preserving these things in a more permanent form.

In ancient Iraq, they did it by making marks on wet clay. When it hardened, the marks became permanent. Early pictorial signs were systematized into a complex system of marks. This is called “cuneiform.”

Elsewhere in the Middle East simpler systems were devised, with symbols representing the different sounds of language. One of these became the Hebrew alphabet. Later, the Greeks adapted this system, tidying it up and adding vowels.

With the use of writing oral tradition was committed to writing materials–clay, then papyrus (from the leaves of a plant in Egypt), parchment, and then, much later, vellum (made from animal skins). Pages of parchment could be glued together and rolled up into scrolls or bound as a “codex,” which we would recognize as a book.

So, perhaps as early as about 1000 B.C., early parts of the “Old Testament,” as we now call it, were committed to writing. As time went on, various other written treasures were added.

The Jewish Canon

The Jews didn’t divide the prophets and the historical books the way we do. The “former prophets” included Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, the “latter prophets” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve “minor” (= shorter) prophets. The Ketuvim consist of poetry, wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs and Job), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther; then Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah and Chronicles.

The Jews regarded these books as authoritative and formed the Old Testament “canon.”

They were translated into Greek in the third century B.C., a translation we know as the “Septuagint.” This is the Greek word for 70. Supposedly there were about 70 translators.

Sometimes other books, such as Tobit, Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus, were included in the Septuagint.

The Bible in Jesus’ Time

At the time of Jesus, nobody had a “Bible” as we think of it. One main reason is that scrolls were large and unwieldy. They were hand-written, and therefore very expensive. Copies were made, and typically a Jewish synagogue would have a complete set of what we now call the Old Testament. This included the Torah, or Pentateuch, comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; the Nevi’im, or Prophets; and the Ketuvim, or Writings.

And in any case, many people couldn’t read. They learned the Scriptures by hearing them read aloud.

And in any case, many people couldn’t read. They learned the Scriptures by hearing them read aloud.

New Testament

The New Testament Canon

The twenty-seven books that comprise our “New Testament” were all written in response to the pastoral needs of the early church.

The Letters

In the first years of the church, the apostles and other church leaders responded to questions and concerns and called out heretical views. The apostle Paul wrote letters to the churches with insight about who Jesus was, how he fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, the relationship of Jews to Gentiles now that Christ had come, and how Christians should live. Almost as soon as they were written, the letters of Paul were copied and circulated. His letter to the Colossians expressly tells the Colossians to circulate it.

The letters of James, Peter, John and Jude were added to those of Paul.

The Gospels

The Gospels recorded Jesus’ life on earth from eye-witness accounts, with special emphasis on the events that led to his crucifixion and verifiable stories about his resurrection. Many people who had seen him alive again were still living.

By the end of the first century, all the books in our New Testament were written. In the years that followed the whole church agreed that the four Gospels were a closed collection, and were accepted as authoritative, along with the epistles and the book of Acts. Acts was written by Luke as a sequel to his Gospel.

Hebrews and Revelations

The letter to the Hebrews stands in a class by itself. We don’t know who wrote it. It doesn’t bear the usual hallmarks of a letter. But it passed the criteria below and made the cut.

The collection concludes with the book of Revelation, a fitting conclusion to the Story. From the earliest times the author, “John” has been identified as the Apostle.

The Apocrypha 

In the third century, the church historian Eusebius made an interesting distinction among the books that were in circulation at that time. He divided them into universally acknowledged, disputed, spurious and rejected, claiming that it was possible to recognize heretical books by their style and content. Among these were the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, whose authors had falsely assumed the names of disciples.

A number of other books are included in some Bibles, such as the Jerusalem Bible, which is used by Roman Catholics. Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), and Baruch appear in several places in the Old Testament. Some Protestant Bibles include these, separately, as the “Apocrypha” or hidden books. There are other books, too, in addition to the ones in this list, that are sometimes included in the Apocrypha.

The Final 27 Books are confirmed

By the fourth century AD there was a general consensus amongst Christians as to which books belong in our New Testament. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria defined the canon on the basis of this consensus, giving us the 27 books we have in our New Testament.

The four criteria used

There are four criteria that were used to determine canonicity:

  • Apostolicity: in other words, was this book written either by an apostle or by someone relying on a tradition that was handed down from an apostle.
  • Antiquity: Can this book be dated to the time when the apostles were alive and when there were people alive who could vouch for their authority?
  • Orthodoxy Does the teaching in this book fit with the teaching we find elsewhere in the Scriptures?
  • Catholicity Was this book widely used in all the churches? (The word “catholic” means universal).

Books that met all of these criteria were recognized as canonical. They are God’s Word to us now, as then. “Tolle, lege,” as Augustine said. Take up and read them.

“Tolle, lege”

That is how we ended up with the 66 books that make up the Bible we read today. It took centuries for the Bible to be compiled, and Christians are confident in the selection of the books because the Holy Spirit controlled the process.


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Authority of the Bible

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

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