The History of the Canons of Scripture


The term canon simply means that the material that a collection of books contains has been agreed to as authorized by some religious body or council. So how and when did the contents of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the New Testament become a canon?

The Historical Perspective

The Old Testament / Tanakh

Interestingly, even though it occurred at a much earlier time than the New Testament, the canon of the Old Testament is a bit easier to trace (although not everyone would agree with all the detailed conclusions about it). The modern Christian position is that it happened about 20 years or a little more after the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (placing it at about 90 A.D.). At the little village of Jamnia (or so the story goes) some influential Rabbis who had been keeping a very low profile since the destruction of Jerusalem met and decided upon the canon of the Old Testament. This is simply not true. Jewish writings explain that this council of Rabbis met for a number of reasons, and the only real issue concerning Scripture was whether to include the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. Further, there is no decisive record or evidence that any decision was even made on the matter of those two books; all we know for certain is that the Rabbis met and argued the merit of them.

The discovery, reconstruction, and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls should have finally put the nail in the coffin of such a patently inaccurate assertion that it was not until AFTER Christ that the canon of the OT was established (but it has not). Old traditions and agendas die hard. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written around 100 B.C.; and in them every book of the OT has been discovered except for the books of Esther and Nehemiah. A historian, Josephus, explains that by his era (around the time of Christ and on to the destruction of the Temple) the canon of the Tanakh had long been fixed at 22 books. While that doesn’t seem to jive with the modern count, one must grasp that several books including Samuel, Chronicles and Kings have since been divided into two parts by Christian editors as they were so lengthy, and some books were divided out by literature type (like Proverbs and Psalms).

But going back even further we know that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint) occurred somewhere around 250 B.C., and in it is every book of the OT that we now study. Might there have been ongoing discussions about whether to keep it as it was, or to add or subtract a book here or there? Absolutely; in fact we have records of exactly that thing happening, and it is in that same spirit that the meeting of the Rabbis at Jamnia in 90 A.D. took place.

So the books of the OT were in existence and regarded as the inspired Word of God (Holy Scripture) by the Jewish people at some time earlier than 250 B.C. However there were other Hebrew religious books as well that were in existence at that time; these additional books were not given quite the same merit as the Tanakh but were placed “next to” it; they were judged not to carry the same weight as the Tanakh, but they were just as valid in their content. Just as Deuteronomy was placed “next to” but not in the Ark with the 10 Words, so were many books that are today popularly known as the Apocrypha placed “next-to” the Holy Old Testament by the Israelites but were judged not to be of equal weight to them. They were regarded as being divinely inspired, but not on a high enough level of inspiration to consider them as “Holy Scripture”.

New Testament / Apostolic Writings

So how does this compare with the formation of the New Testament canon, as we know it today? Before I address that I want to point out something that might be startling; and before I do that (so that I am not misconstrued) I want to state that without equivocation I subscribe to the New Testament being the fully valid and inspired Word of God.


The Old Testament (at least most of it) is what I would call self-canonizing. That is the very words of those books CLAIM Holy Scripture status. The Torah claims to be the work and words of God, and also claim in them that Moses was to write them down. The Prophets claimed in their writings to be speaking the very words that the God of Israel instructed them to speak. Even several of the Psalms claim to be God-inspired at the least.

The New Testament on the other hand does no such thing. No book of the New Testament is self-canonizing. No book of the NT makes the claim that its contents rise to the status of God-breathed. I’ve stated a few times that the New Testament is primarily the story of the fulfillment of the OT prophecies concerning a coming Messiah, and then commentary on what this means for Jews on the one hand and gentiles on the other. They explain just WHO the Messiah turned out to be (Yeshua of Nazareth), what He did and commanded during His ministry, and how He came to be and how He died. The story of the life of Yeshua is contained in the books we call the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke are a little different in nature than the Gospel of John; and those 3 books are together called the Synoptic Gospels because they essentially tell the same stories only sometimes in a slightly different order, giving slightly different emphasis, and often from somewhat different perspectives.

The NT contains another type of literature called Epistles; an epistle is simply a letter written by a church leader. These epistles (mostly written by Paul) deal with various disputes and problems that arose at numerous church locations around the Roman Empire. In reality most of the letters are commentary and justification for Paul’s conclusions. They are commentary on Old Testament passages and commentary on the theological consequences of Yeshua’s advent, death, and resurrection. Sometimes the commentary was sorely needed because almost everything the Jewish religious authorities had decided a Messiah would be and do in no way resembled who Yeshua was and what He did.

The epistles of James, half-brother of Jesus, dealt primarily with matters of the church at its headquarters in Jerusalem. James was the supreme leader of the church during Paul’s day.

The final type of NT Biblical literature is expressed in the book of John to some degree, but primarily in Revelation; it is called Apocalyptic literature. It deals with the revealing of end-times matters so it is prophetic in its nature; it was about times future to its writer, John.

The nature of the Gospels is also important for us to establish. First, understand that Matthew, Mark and Luke are NOT the names of the writers of those books; their authors are anonymous. The Gospels are somewhat like a biography of Jesus. Second, they were written at the earliest some 20 years or so after Yeshua’s execution. And third, it was Jews who wrote them.

Here, though, is where the rubber starts to meet the road. Even though it is well documented that towards the end of the 1st century A.D. the Gospels and some number of Paul’s letters were being passed around between the various church locations, they were NOT considered Holy Scripture; they were not even considered to be of a sufficiently inspired level to be equal in force to the Old Testament Apocrypha. The letters were certainly considered to be authoritative, meaning that they were taken to be rules and regulations about how to handle a variety of matters within the church. They were seen no differently than we view the bylaws set down by any recognized Christian denomination. The records of the Apostolic Father (the generation of church leaders that immediately followed the Apostles) show that under every circumstance their Bible was the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) and nothing else (even if it were written in Greek). And this is no matter whether that leader was a Jew or a gentile.

Writings from Origen, Ignatius, Clement, Papias and other early church leaders show us that by the first part of the 2nd century A.D. some of the churches located out in the Roman Empire were starting to read portions of the Gospels and portions of the Epistles during church meetings. It was customary to read Old Testament Scripture during a church service (again, what we today call the Old Testament was for them “the bible”) and then also on occasion read some of those letters (epistles) and Gospels. It seems that while in no way did the first generation or two of the church that started this custom hold up the epistles or Gospels as God-inspired. But the fact that they were being read during a worship service more or less alongside the Holy Scriptures led the following generations to give those Gospels and letters more weight.

New Testament History

The first recorded attempt to actually consider Paul’s letters and the Gospels as “Holy Scripture” happened in 144 A.D. A European named Marcion was the culprit. Marcion was a recent Christian convert; a wealthy and powerful gentile shipping magnate. He was not a church leader but he did write a book that struck a cord among the now thoroughly gentile-dominated church. In his book entitled “Antithesis” he put forth his personal theology and it began with the proposition that all things of Jewish origin and flavor must be eliminated from the church. Therefore the church needed to create a new Christian Bible and once created declare the Hebrew Bible as null and void for Christians. Further Marcion declared that the Christian Bible should consist only of the Gospel of Luke plus certain of Paul’s epistles. But even then it should not include the ENTIRE Gospel of Luke; what amounts to the first 4 chapters were to be eliminated since they dealt with the Jewish linage of Christ.

Marcion was widely denounced but he did gain a substantial following. No known church body adopted his proposition (at least not in the form he suggested and not until many years passed).

It’s now that the matter gets even more complicated. The Roman Empire was in turmoil and even though it was not yet a divided empire, two power centers had emerged: Rome and Byzantium (Byzantium later became known as Constantinople and today is called Istanbul, Turkey). Naturally the power centers of the church also gravitated there because with the proper political connections the leader of the church in each of those political capitals gained power, visibility and validation. Thus we have the births of the Western Church and (separately) the Eastern Church. The Western Church, the portion of the Church with its leadership based in Rome, eventually grew into the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Church based in Byzantium went on to become the various Christian Orthodox denominations that we know today as the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Slavic, Coptic, and others. Protestantism eventually grew out of the Western Church and most of us identify with one branch or another of either the Catholic or Protestant sub-branches. The Eastern Church is another matter altogether. It does not have its birth or current power structure connected to either the Catholic or Protestant churches, it is entirely separate.

When discussing the New Testament Canon there is no such thing as one Church-wide universally agreed upon New Testament even today (although the differences are not major). And there certainly is not one Church-wide universally agreed upon Bible among Christianity even today (the main difference being the order of the books and where or if the Apocrypha is included and if so how many of the original 15 Apocryphal books are included).

After around 200 A.D. when Marcion’s ideas evolved a bit, we begin to see that some of the Gospels and Epistles were being elevated to the status of Holy Scripture. But whether any group accepted these as Holy Scripture depended entirely on not only which main branch of the church (Eastern or Western) but even which city the church was located in. Some churches refused to recognize anything other than the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture, and others chose which of the various Gospels and letters that they viewed as having sufficient merit as to be elevated to Scriptural status. In fact, by 200 A.D. many of the books of the Apocrypha were also in the mix as among those that the various churches chose as God-inspired. How did they choose? Church elders and bishops formed councils and they voted with a majority rules protocol.

So, it is that by around 220 A.D. we finally see 1) certain Gospels and epistles being elevated to Holy Scripture status, and 2) therefore the concept of a New Testament being formed. It was not until well into the 3rd century A.D (not until about 200 years after the death of Christ) that even the concept of an additional body of Scripture (or as we think of it another “testament”) was seriously considered; and even then it was only accepted in some parts of the church. Further this newest testament was not at all conceived to be a replacement of (or to be held as above) the cherished Hebrew Bible.

It would not be until the latter part of the 4th century, 367 A.D., that a New Testament canon was recognized as official and even then it was ONLY so within the Western branch of the Church. Interestingly every book of the Apocrypha (which the Jews revered but did NOT hold up as Holy Scripture) became Holy Scripture alongside the Hebrew Bible and the newly canonized New Testament. Let me repeat that: the first gentile Christian Bible was the Hebrew Bible right up until around 220 A.D. The first addition to the gentile Christian Bible was the books of the Apocrypha (ironically books revered by the Jews centuries before Christianity emerged). Now that the Apocrypha was (for the first time) given the status of Holy Scripture (by gentile Christians of all people!) it would be a few more decades until a New Testament became a reality and it was included to form the Christian Bible that we’re more familiar with today.

Of course in response the Eastern Church adopted their own New Testament that accepted some of the same books that the Western did, but dismissed others and added some more not recognized by the Roman Church (the book of Hebrews has been added, deleted, added again, deleted again, and so on for centuries and is still a bone of contention). It did the same thing with the Apocrypha; the Eastern Church accepted some of the Apocryphal books as Holy Scripture and others as not.

It was Martin Luther in the 1500’s that first railed against any inclusion of the books of the Apocrypha in a gentile Christian bible (even though it had been that way for over 12 centuries), especially since they were considered Holy Scripture. And as his writings plainly attest his primary objection was because he found the books of the Apocrypha (to quote him) to be “too Jewish”. Upon the Protestant reformation some books of the Apocrypha were removed from the Biblical canon and with the Geneva Bible they were moved to a separate section of the Bible and given lesser weight than the Old and New Testaments (very similar to what the Jews had done with the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha almost 2000 years earlier).

Conclusion and Summary:

It is so terribly ironic that in the last 500 years the church has first removed the Apocrypha and then (for all practical purposes) the Old and original testament of God from the Bible. Oh, it’s still there but in name only. The Tanakh has been relegated to a similar status within the modern Church as the Jews first gave to the Apocrypha; a flawed testament of lesser inspiration.

The irony is, of course, that it is onlythe Torah and the Prophets that actually claim divine inspiration. The New Testament does not. Further for us to seriously subscribe to the notion that every reference to the term “Scripture” by a New Testament author is to include his own personal writings is simply nonsensical on its face because there wouldn’t be any thought of elevating the status of any of those writings to being “inspired of God” for almost 2 centuries after those authors died. From the moment the Torah and the Prophets were created they were self-declared Holy Scripture. There is no evidence whatsoever that a New Testament author thought that he was writing something that would someday be considered as additional, or replacement, Holy Scripture.

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V’zot HaBerachah – Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12

PARASHAH: V’zot Ha Berachah (That is the Blessing)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12

HAFTORAH: Joshua 1:1-18

BRIT CHADASHA: Acts 3:22–23; 7:37; Hebrews 3:5

Accounts of Messiah: Luke 10:39; John 1:17; 7:19;

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Ha’azinu – Deuteronomy 32:1-52

PARASHAH: Ha’azinu (Hear)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 32:1—52

HAFTORAH: 2 Samuel 22:1–22:51
For Shabbat Shuva: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27

BRIT CHADASHA: Revelation 15:3; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22; 1Corinthians 10:4; 1Peter 2:6; Acts 17:26; Ephesians 2:6; Acts 28:25–27; Revelation 3:14–21; Romans 1:18–25; 1John 5:21; Romans 11:11; Romans 9:24–29; 1Peter 2:9–10; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30; Revelation 14:14–20; 19:11–21; Revelation 6:10

Accounts of Messiah: Matthew 10:6; 15:24;

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Vayelekh – Deuteronomy 31:1-30

PARASHAH: Vayelekh (He went)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 31:1-30

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 55:6–56:8
For Shabbat Shuva: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27

BRIT CHADASHA: Hebrews 13:5; Romans 8:31,37; Ephesians 6:10; Philippians 4:13; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 10–12; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:3–4; 2 Peter 2:1–3; Acts 7:51

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Nitzavim – Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

PARASHAH: Nitzavim (Standing)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 29:9[10]–30:20

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 61:10-63:9

BRIT CHADASHA: Revelation 22:18–20; Revelation 3:5; Hebrews 8:7–12; Romans 1:18–25; Romans 2:28–29; Colossians 2:11; Romans 10:6–8;

Accounts of Messiah: John 10:1–5

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Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

PARASHAH: Ki Tavo (When You Come)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8[9]

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 60:1-22

BRIT CHADASHA: 2Corinthians 9:1–15; 1Timothy 5:17–18;
Romans 3:31; 7:12,14; 1John 2:3–6; Revelation 12:17; 14:12; 22:14; Philippians 2:15; Titus 2:14; 1Peter 2:9,12 Romans 1:18; 2:6–11; 2Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11–15; 22:11–15

Accounts of Messiah: Luke 6:38; 21:1-4; Matthew 5:17–19; John 14:15; Matthew 5:16; John 17:11,14;

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Ki Tetze – Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

PARASHAH: Ki Tetze (When You Go Out)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 54:1–10

BRIT CHADASHA: Galatians 6:2; 1Corinthians 11:2–15; 1Corinthians 6:9; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15; 1Corinthians 9:9; 1Timothy 5:18

Accounts of Messiah: Luke 10:29–37; Matthew 5:31–32; 19:3–12; 22:23–32; Mark 10:2–12; Mark 6:56; Matthew 9:20; Luke 8:44; Luke 12:6;

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Shoftim – Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

PARASHAH: Shoftim (Judges)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

BRIT CHADASHA: 1Corinthians 6:1–8; 1Corinthians 5:9–13; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Ephesians 2:22; 4:11; 2Corinthians 13:1; Hebrews 10:28–31; 1Timothy 5:17–22; 1Corinthians 9:6–14; Galatians 6:6; Acts 7:35–53; Acts 3:13–26

Accounts of Messiah: Matthew 18:15–20; Matthew 5:38–42; John 8:17;

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Re’eh – Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

PARASHAH: Re’eh (See)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 54:11-55:5

BRIT CHADASHA: Romans 2:5–11; Hebrews 4:1–10; Revelation 18:4; 2Corinthians 6:17; 1John 4:1–6; 2Peter 2:1–22; 1Corinthians 5:9-13; James 2:15–16; IJohn 3:16–17

Accounts of Messiah: Matthew 24:11;

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Eikev – Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

PARASHAH: Eikev (Because)

TORAH READING:  Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25

HAFTORAH: Isaiah 49:14–51:3

BRIT CHADASHA: 1Thessalonians 4:1–2; Hebrews 12:5–11; Revelation 3:14–22; Hebrews 12:29; Hebrews 4:1–7; Romans 2:28–29; Colossians 3:25; 1Peter 1:17; James 1:27; 1John 2:3–5; 5:3; Ephesians 6:1–4; Romans 8:31–39; 1John 4:4

Accounts of Messiah: Matthew 6:33; John 14:15; Luke 9:1; 10:19;

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