How were the books of the Bible chosen?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 16, September 2009 | Categories:   Scripture

Ah, the scent of conspiracy clings to this topic! It's as if once upon a time a file of scrolls marked "Potential Bible Texts" awaited discovery. Then alas! A self-appointed gang of doctrinal purists raided the place, selecting 73 approved texts. The remainder were burned, buried, or banned. From what were they trying to protect us, we wonder?

The reality is less glamorous. The Bible, like most else in the realm of organized religion, was formed by a process we call tradition. Scripturally, tradition includes the original events that inspired someone to tell the story, as well as the oral and written accounts that ensued. Each was told and retold, reworked and edited over generations until it attained its now-familiar form.

For Israelites, split into two monarchies for centuries, some stories were treasured by the northern kingdom and others by the south. Some texts were produced by dispersed Jews in foreign lands and others by those living in Israel. Around the surprisingly late year of 100 A.D. the rabbis got serious about collecting these texts and determining which should be "in" and which "out" of the accepted pool of scripture. Legends of divine intervention surrounding the formation of the Hebrew Bible abound, but chances are the process included some slogging through manuscripts and heated arguments: "Is this text really helpful to all Jews everywhere?"

The New Testament is a product of similar forces. Far-flung Christian communities compiled gospel sayings, and letters from Saint Paul and other leaders were scattered across the known world. When Peter and Paul were martyred in the mid-60s, it became more urgent to get the story of Christianity standardized. Formal gospels were written. Collections of letters were gathered. Changes and additions crept in with frequent copying. Each community doubtless had its favorites. Although new texts were circulated for a few centuries, by the year 367 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed the 27 New Testament books we use today as the authorized canon. Church councils debated the contents of both testaments beyond his lifetime, but Athanasius's New Testament stuck.

In finalizing the New Testament, the criterion was simple: Earlier is better. Eyewitness testimony was favored, and texts clearly written in the second century or beyond were not seriously considered. Some texts that didn't make the cut of canonicity from both Hebrew and Christian writings are still widely available. While certainly interesting, reading them adds credibility to the selection process of tradition.

Scripture
Sirach 44:1-49:16; Hebrews 11:1-12:2; 1 John 1:1-4

Books
The Authority of the Bible: Theories of Inspiration, Revelation, and the Canon of Scripture by Robert Gnuse (Paulist Press, 1985)
The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance by Bruce M. Metzger (Oxford University Press, 1987)
Introduction to the Bible: A Catholic Guide to Studying Scripture by Stephen J. Binz (Liturgical Press, 2007)
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