Biblical Canon Part 2 – How were the books of the New Testament chosen?

Have you ever wondered why Christians say that the books of the New Testament are the inspired Word of God, but other books written about the same time and about the same subjects are not? What about the Gospel of Thomas? Or the Shepherd of Hermas? Were these taken out of the Bible over the course of time as some would have you believe? Let’s talk about it.

If you have not already read it, I would suggest before you dig in here, read the post Biblical Canon Part 1 – How were the books of the Old Testament chosen?  This will give you a great starting point for what we are going to talk about here.

Just as the Old Testament was written by and about prophets of God who made impossible predictions, did miraculous things, or chronicled the history of the people of Israel, the books and letters of the New Testament were written either by one of the best friends of Jesus Christ, or were written by one of their followers on their behalf (like a biography). These authors included Peter, Paul, James, John, and Matthew. Some of their followers wrote a few books as well, including Luke and Mark who were followers of Peter and Paul. Every one of these authors walked and talked with Jesus during His life and ministry, watched the things happen that they wrote about, and then went and spread the news to others after His death and resurrection (with the exception of Paul, who met Jesus post-resurrection).

These men were all present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on them and inspired them to preach the Gospel in languages they did not know, which was a miraculous sign to all of those around them who did know those languages. Jesus commanded them to go and preach His Gospel to all nations, with the help of His Holy Spirit. These men were miracle workers just like Jesus was. Paul and Peter even raised people from the dead. Paul himself was raised from the dead after he was stoned by the prayers of those companions who were with him. God’s authority was in these men, so it is fitting that their books be considered as authoritative words of God. In 97 AD, 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Clement of Rome wrote that the Apostles are the foundation of our faith.

Throughout the life and teaching of the apostles, no book was needed. They were actively preaching, healing, starting churches, and writing letters of encouragement to the churches they started. However, after the apostles were martyred for their faith (every one of them with the exception of John), the early church(es) relied on those teachings they had received from the Apostles, who had started their churches. It was at this point that church leaders around the world put the words of the Apostles together into a single book (much the same idea as the canon of the Old Testament). There are lists of the books of the New Testament virtually identical to what our New Testaments contain today that date back to the early second century.

In the mid-second century, a man named Marcion challenged the more commonly accepted canon of the New Testament because he rejected the entire Old Testament and any part of the New Testament that seemed to support Judaism in the slightest, arguing that it portrayed a different God than the one Jesus talked about. He attempted to gain support for his own canon, which became known as the Marcion Canon, which only included the Gospel of Luke, Paul’s letters, and an extra letter that Paul supposedly wrote to the church at Alexandria. Leaders of the church met to decide this issue in AD 144, and after hearing all sides of the story they excommunicated Marcio as a heretic.

10 years later a man named Montanus came around with 2 prophetesses and started telling Christians about visions they had had from God and purporting an end of the Age of Christ and the start of the Age of the Holy Spirit with ‘new prophecies’. This spurred the Church to come up with a set of rules (that had not been necessary until this time) to determine what was ‘canon’ and what was not. Could new books be added? Or was the Canon closed?

The rules they came up with are the following:

  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? (did the author do miracles that were witnessed by others during his ministry?)
  3. Does the message tell the truth about God?
  4. Did it come with the power of God? (was the message convicting and contain the authority of someone writing for God?)
  5. Was it accepted by God’s people?

The Muratorian Fragment, which dates back to about 190 AD, has the exact list of New Testament books we use now, with 3 extra books. These extra books were the Revelation of Peter, The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which were later redacted from the Canon because, although useful to some extent for Christian instruction (like a modern Christian book would be), they did not meet all 5 criteria for canonicity listed above.

The first Canon that we have that matches what is in our Bibles today dates back to 367 AD, a list in an Easter letter written by the Church leader Athanasius. In 393 this list was affirmed by the Synod of Hippo (a council of church leaders from all over the world), and in 397 it was published by the Council of Carthage (another council of church leaders from all over the world), who affirmed it.

So think twice when someone tells you that books were taken out of the Bible. Our Canon of the New Testament has been just about identical to what it is today since the Apostles died in the late first century. The books and letters were written by those who knew Jesus best and were the closest to what He actually said and did, making them the most trustworthy witnesses. We can rely on these writings to tell us the truth about Jesus and the facts surrounding the spread of the Christian faith in the first century.


Biblical Canon Part 1 – How were the books of the Old Testament chosen?

As you may know, the books that make up our Bible are not the only books that were written on the subjects they cover or even the only books written by the authors who wrote the books of the Bible. Why, then, aren’t all of these other books included? What sets the Biblical canon apart from other ancient texts that seem to be also relevant to Jews and Christians?

First, let’s get a few basic terms down. A Canon is not just a giant gun found on pirate ships (no, not just a camera company either). It is also a transliteration of the Greek word κανών, which means ‘rule’ or ‘measuring stick’. It means a group of texts (books, letters, prophecies, etc.) that a certain religious group considers to be authoritative. Christians believe the Canon of Scripture (i.e. The Bible) is inspired by God, or ‘God-breathed’, which makes the texts that are included in this Canon pretty significant. If these are the words of God, how did the list of books we have today come to be? Who made it? When? Do we have good reason to believe that these books, and no others, can legitimately be called the “Word of God”?

Let’s dig in.

First, the Old Testament and New Testament were canonized somewhat differently from one another. Why? Because the Old Testament (OT) comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish religion, God’s holy people who he brought out of Egypt and made a name for in the ancient world. The New Testament (NT) comprises the sacred texts of the Christian religion. Judaism and Christianity are separate, but related, belief systems.

They are separate because many Jews do not consider themselves Christians and most Christians do not consider themselves Jews. The sticking point is centered around the person and deity of Jesus Christ. The Jewish scriptures (OT) prophesy a coming Messiah, or Savior of the Jewish people and of the world, a man who would save His people from their sins. The Christian scriptures (NT) are all about a man named Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be that Messiah and gave many convincing evidences that He indeed was who He claimed to be. Traditional Jews will not accept that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah. Christians base their entire faith on the idea that He is that Messiah.

They are related because Christianity is (in secular terms) an off-shoot of Judaism. That’s another way of saying that Christianity came out of Judaism. In reality, the Christian canon (NT) picks up where the Jewish canon (OT) leaves off. The Old Testament begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the people waiting for a Savior to come and rescue them from evil. The New Testament begins with that Savior being born and ends with prophecies of the end of the world and the final judgment of all mankind.

So now that we know how the Old and New Testaments are related, let’s talk about how the books in them were selected.

The Old Testament, or Jewish Canon, was assembled and made authoritative by the Jewish teachers and leaders long before Jesus was born. The entire canon of the Old Testament was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, parchments that date back to 30 B.C., which means that the books had been collected and considered to be the Jewish scriptures before that time, likely well before that time. The tests of ‘canonicity’ (whether a book should be considered authoritative or not) were the following:

  1. Was the book written by a proven prophet of God, or by someone closely associated with a proven prophet of God? A proven prophet of God was someone who made predictions about the near future that came true within that person’s lifetime and just as they said it would. The Jews considered these predictions, or prophecies, to be divinely inspired because no mere man can predict the future like that. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that, unlikely the more general predictions of men like Nostradamus, are extremely detailed and had many points of possible failure. But the prophecies passed all of these tests, and so the prophets who wrote them were trusted to be true prophets of God. If the books were not written by the prophet himself, they were written by a close friend and follower who acted as a biographer to document the words and actions of the prophet. Any prophet who made predictions that did not come true in their lifetime was killed, so it did not make a lot of sense to write false predictions.
  2. The books that were selected for the Canon told the truth about historical events. They told the same story and did not contain contradictions between them in doctrine or in their representation of who God is.
  3. Many of the writings (the Prophets, specifically) actually claimed to be the very words of God. The words “The Lord says”, or “Thus says the Lord”, or “The Lord declares”, appear more than 600 times throughout the writings of the Old Testament. Out of 23,145 verses in the Old Testament, that comes out to a whopping 2.5% of them starting with the phrase “The Lord says”. Leave some room to write exactly what it is the Lord had to say, and you are covering quite a bit of the real estate in the Old Testament with this introduction.
  4. The subject of the books is, largely, God’s relationship with mankind, and on a smaller scale, they follow the history of the people of Israel, or the Jews (or Hebrews, or sons of Abraham, or whatever you want to call God’s chosen people). There are only two books in the Old Testament that do not mention God directly, although He is arguably the main character in the background. These are the books of Esther and Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). Song of Solomon is a high poem written by Solomon, the greatest king Israel ever had, who also wrote two other books of the Old Testament (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). Esther is the story of a young Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia by marriage and (with prayer and fasting) just in the nick of time saves the Jewish people from an evil plot to completely exterminate them throughout the entire known world. Purim, a major Jewish holiday, is the celebration of this event.

The books of the Old Testament were chosen by the leaders of the Jewish people before there were Christians. The Canon (or list of books), exactly as we see it in our Christian Bibles, was solidified before Jesus was born. There were other books written in these times as well that some say should have been included but were not. The above qualifications for a canonical book are the reason. The Jewish scholars who assembled the Old Testament did not believe that those books met the criteria. We’ll talk about specific examples of this in the post What is the Apocrypha?

If you have not read the Old Testament, I encourage you to do so. A good understanding of the Old Testament is essential to a correct understanding of the New Testament. The Bible that Paul and Peter and Jesus read was the 40 books of the Old Testament. It’s what they based most of their sermons and teachings on and contains countless treasures about God and His promises and love for us, as well as the keys to open up the meaning of some of our favorite New Testament passages.

What is the Bible?


The Bible is an anthology made up of 66 texts, written in 3 different languages by at least 40 authors over the course of almost 1,500 years. These books were written by mostly Jewish authors at different times and to different audiences for different purposes. The subject of every book is God, who He is, and how He relates to the people and the universe that He created.

The story of the Bible starts with the creation of the universe and of people, who were created in God’s own image. Those people very quickly fall into sin and rebellion against God and His rules. The rest of the Bible is about God’s redemption story – His plan to bring those people back to Him and back to perfection.

The anthology is broken into two sections, or testaments, the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). The Old Testament consists of books or texts that were written before Jesus Christ was born (about the year 4 BC, or BCE). The Old Testament tells the story of the creation, the fall, and then follows the people of Israel, whom God set apart from the other people of the world as special, and how He related to His people, what He expected of them and how they consistently disobeyed Him. God’s relationship with Israel was complicated because they continued to fall away from Him into sin.

The New Testament consists of books or texts that were written after Jesus Christ was born (and they are all about Him too!). These books tell the story of the birth, ministry, life, death, and resurrection from the dead of a very special man named Jesus (who came from the people of Israel, which is what that was all about), who was literally God’s son (He had no human father, only a mother because His father was God). The first half of the New Testament tells the story of Jesus and His friends and how they changed the Roman world in the first century AD (BCE). The second half consists of letters written by His friends and relatives after He was executed by the Romans and tell of who He is, and how people should live because of those truths. They also say that Jesus is coming back one day to bring those who believe in Him to heaven and those who don’t to judgment and punishment for their sins.


The Bible is not only about God, but it claims to be written by God, via divine inspiration through human authors. In fact, a large part of the Old Testament records prophets writing down the very words God had spoken to them. The New Testament contains many words and quotations of Jesus Christ Himself, who claims to be God come to earth in human form. The apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ close friends, tells us in 1 Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is inspired by God [literally ‘God-breathed’], and useful for teaching and training in righteousness”.

The last book of the Bible was written over 1,900 years ago. It was fully assembled into one book as we see it now by about 300 AD (BCE). There were other texts written by other people who were alive at the time of Jesus, but they have not been included in this divinely inspired anthology mostly because they disagreed in some major aspect with the consensus of the rest of the books and their teachings, which early Christians realized meant they must be mistaken. The books of the Bible tell a unified story of God and agree on His attributes and character. There are many other reasons to think the Bible is divinely inspired as well. We can take this far into the weeds. But that is for another post.

It’s a great book, and I highly encourage you to read it.

Welcome to CazQuestions

Hi everyone. My name is Jeremy McCool, and I get to be an associate pastor at Cazenovia Park Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York. As an extension of our ministry here, we’re happy to provide this resource for those seeking answers to tough questions about God, the Christian faith, or how to live out your Christian convictions in a post-modern world.

The site is organized in a question – answer format, so each post title is a question, and the post is an answer to that question. The answers may draw from the texts of the Old and New Testaments, other ancient documents, scientific research, the news media, books by apologists and theologians, and personal experience. The goal of this site is to arm you with the information you need to answer questions that may bother you about God or Christianity, or perhaps questions you have been asked by others or encountered while talking with others about your faith.

I hope that this is a useful tool and it is helpful for you in becoming a better ambassador for Christ.