How Our Bible Came to Be


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Why are there 66 books in our Bible – how was this number arrived?  The modern Protestant Bible contains sixty-six books: thirty-nine books of the “Old Testament” and twenty-seven books of the “New Testament.”  Most Protestant believers recognize these books as our “canon.”  Canon comes from a Greek word, meaning reed, or measuring rod, and is used today to denote books that have been catalogued together because of their authority and divine inspiration (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Electronic Database Copyright (C) 1996 by Biblesoft).

The Old Testament books in my New American Standard Bible, find their beginnings in the oral traditions of humankind.  The oral traditions are the “stories, history, laws, prayers, and poems that were passed from one generation to the next before they were written down and collected.” (Linda B. Hinton, Basic Bible Commentary –Genesis, page 8).  From oral tradition, these collections of thoughts and understandings were recorded by various authors and formed into separate writings, or books.   Jewry classified the collection of books into three divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  The sum of books contained within these three divisions was generally recognized by the Hebrews as twenty-four, (by joining four books into two, the Jewish historian Josephus numbers them at twenty-two.  Lou H. Silberman, The Making of the Old Testament Canon, Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary [page 1209], suggests that this is not a discrepancy).  The Council of Jamnia, ca. 85-90, is often credited with officially recognizing, or “fixing”, the 24 books as canonical (Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary, page 521).  However, the Jamnia Council is under scrutiny by modern scholars. Due to the lack of supporting documentation, many doubt that the council ever took place. We do know, however, that near the end of the first century the Jewish historian, Josephus, reported that the Jews numbered their books at 22.  Later the Jews would fix the number at 24. The difference is likely explained by how the books were catalogued and numbered.

The twenty-four books contained in the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, are represented in our modern Bible by thirty-nine books.  This number was derived by separating the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, into two books each.  Also, the Jewish collection contained a single book called “The 12.”  This book is today represented in our Bible by the twelve “minor” prophets, from Hosea through Malachi.

The books of the New Testament had a root similar to those of the OT: they began through oral works.  The apostles spread the gospel of Jesus through the verbal medium of preaching and teaching.  Eventually, as noted in Nelson’s Bible Dictionary (Copyright 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers), the church, early in its history, and because of its growth, “felt a need for a written account of the teaching of Jesus.” Nelson’s adds that from around 50 A.D., it is likely that more than one collection of written sayings of Jesus was being circulated in the newly formed churches.  Josh McDowell in Evidence That Demands a Verdict (page 37) cites reasons for a need to determine a New Testament canon.  First, McDowell observes, “A heretic, Marcion (ca 140 A.D.), developed his own canon and began to propagate it.  The church needed to offset his influence by determining what was the real canon of New Testament Scripture.”  McDowell also notes “Many Eastern churches were using books that were definitely spurious.”  In addition to these outside influences that created a need, Albert C. Sundberg, in Interpreter’s (page 1217) notes that the church “felt themselves possessed by the same Spirit” that had been the inspiration for the authors of the Old Testament.  This inward testimony, Sundberg records, “carried over to Christian writings.”  It would follow that, if the same Spirit that guided Moses and the Prophets, now resided in them, then this need for a canon could be met because the early Christians possessed, “an authority similar” (Interpreter’s page 1217).

 We do not read in the New Testament, instructions from Jesus for his disciples to form a new scriptural canon.  Sundberg inInterpreter’s (page 1217), points out, “No NT author wrote as a contributor to the NT.”  The writings that circulated among the early believers, then, were for the edification, encouragement and teaching of the church, not for the making of a new canon.

As the need for a canon was recognized, and the church saw itself possessed by the same Spirit of authority as the prophets of old, a canon began to form.  McDowell in Evidence (page 29) cites five possible guiding principles used to determine if a New Testament book was canonical: was it authoritative? Was it prophetic? Was it authentic? Was it dynamic?  Was it received, collected, read and used?

The earliest list of New Testament books, recognized by the church, was provided by Athanasius of Alexandria (A. D. 367).  This list, containing 27 books, is “exactly like our present New Testament” (McDowell, Evidence, page 37).  

Who put the 66-book Bible together, and when was it done?  Although the Council of Jamnia helped recognize the Jewish canon in around 90 A.D., the early church had a “continuing problem” in recognizing its official form (Interpreter’s, page 1213).  Some books, although not considered canonical, were still being “placed among the canonical books” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary).  The Church in Asia Minor recognized one OT canon, while the Palestinian Church, and the Syrian Churches recognized each their own (Interpreter’s, page 1213).

While the OT canonical form was being accepted in various forms by the churches, the NT canon was being reviewed for acceptance.  The “complete acceptance of all of the books in our present NT canon may be dated from the councils of Laodicea (about A.D. 363) and Carthage (A.D. 397), which confirmed the catalogs of Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, and Augustine” (New Unger’s Bible Dictionary).

The Roman Catholic Church didn’t recognize its final formation of the OT canon until the “4th session of the Council of Trent, Apr. 8, 1546” (Interpreter’s, page 1213).   The Protestant churches rejected this canon because of the inclusion of Apocryphal (books considered non-canonical).  But included them in the collection “until the 19th cent. when the practice of printing it together with the OT and NT was largely discontinued” (Interpreter’s, page 1213).  Therefore, with the exclusion of the Apocryphal books at this time, the sixty-six book Bible would have finally been formed.

The purpose of the 66-book Bible.  The formation of the canon was born out of a belief in absolute truth.  Without that belief, there would be no need to recognize a standard by which truth can be applied.  If truth were relative, then there can be no such thing as error, or wrongness.

Following the “Age of the Apostles,” came an era known as the “Apologetic Period” (New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press).  During this time, Gnosticism, the belief in salvation by knowledge, worried the Christian community.  Defenders of the faith, or apologists, because they believed in an absolute truth beyond themselves, reacted to this false teaching, by encouraging the formation of a canon.

The language of the 66-book Bible.  The Old Testament was written “mostly in” Hebrew (New Unger’s Bible Dictionary), with some parts written in Aramaic: Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; and Daniel. 2:4-7:28.  The New Testament was written in everyday language, or “common Greek” (Believers Bible Commentary, page 11).

The Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX), is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text.  It is most likely that the early church, having formed its NT canon in Greek, included this Greek translation with their own writings.

Three books that almost didn’t make it into our Bible, and why.  Of the several books questioned by early Church authorities, the threemost commonly challenged were: Hebrews, James and Jude.  Hebrews was questioned because its authorship was uncertain.  James seemed to contradict the Pauline letters and Jude seemed to make reference to an Apocryphal book, which was being rejected as canonical.

Which current version of the Bible is most like the original?  McDowell, in Evidence (page 19), provides that the Bible, by 1966, appeared in “240 languages and dialects.”  To properly explore which one of these versions is “most like the original,” one would need to have a reasonable understanding of all of these 240 languages.  One would also have to have an unadulterated understanding of the original text in order to make an accurate comparison.  The fact that there are many and opposing interpretations of different passages of the Bible, proves that the understanding of the original text is a relative matter, subject to much debate.

Further compounding the difficulty of this question, some current, English versions (such as the New International Version) are considered to be a “thought for thought” translation.  This means, the translators were concerned more with the message of the passage, than for its literal translation. In translating the thought, the translators sometimes used more, or different words than found in the original text.

Other versions, such as the New American Standard Version, are considered a literal, or “word for word” translation.  These translators attempted to keep the value of each word intact.

To determine which version is “most like the original”, one would have to develop an accepted standard for determining what makes a document “most like the original”.

Do all of the 66 books of the Bible have the same basic message or theme?  Yes.

If so, what is that message?  Within the 66 books of my NASV Bible, there flows a basic theme of a God who is involved in the history of humankind.  From the creation story found in Genesis, to the new heaven and new earth in John’s Revelation, God is seen working in our world to share with humankind His will and purpose.  Even in the book of Esther, where God is not named, we find God’s purpose for us, “even though stated negatively” (Interpreter’s page 223).

Jesus also recognized a theme concerning Himself within the Jewish Scriptures.  We read in Luke 24:27, that He “explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning Himself” (emphasis mine).  I believe that this theme “concerning” Jesus is picked up and carried throughout the entire New Testament.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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