Early Biblical Canons

The canon (the group of books included in the Bible) is often taken for granted because the Bible itself does not contain any list or references as to what books should be considered inspired and thus included in the Bible.  It is often assumed that there may have been a list composed by the Apostles, but even a cursory look at history shows that this was not the case.  There were actually several competing lists among Christians that varied on which books they included.  Not all of the books included in the New Testament were originally accepted by the entire church.  James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelations were all disputed in the early church and were given the name Antilegomena, or “disputed” books.  There were also some books included in these “disputed books” that ultimately did not make it into the final canon, although they were considered Scripture by many early Christians.  These included the Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.  When the early Church formally decided upon which books would be included in the New Testament, they used the following criteria to help determine what was Scripture:

1. Apostolic Origin:  Was the writing written during the apostolic era by an apostle or a close acquaintance?

2. Orthodoxy:  Did the writing conform with what had been taught to the early Church by the Apostles?

3. Universal Recognition:  Was the writing already accepted and used liturgically by the whole Church?

The above criteria can basically be summed up as Tradition.  After all, 1: before an Apostle could commit anything to writing, they first had to hear it from Jesus and any acquaintances of the apostles would have had to hear it from an Apostle.  2: Before one can determine whether a writing is orthodox, one must first have been taught orthodoxy.  3:  Before determining the universal acceptance of a book, one would have to look at which books had been handed down as part of each church’s individual tradition.

Historically speaking, however, even the above criteria falls short.  For example, the criteria of Apostolic origin and authorship requires an even greater appeal to Tradition when one considers that the Gospels were all written anonymously and the author of Hebrews is unknown; It is only through tradition that we can claim to know the authors of the Gospels.  Questions of authorship not only pertain to the works themselves, but even to chapters and verses contained within certain works.  Biblical scholars have pointed out that certain chapters within the Gospels are not found in the earliest extant manuscripts and suggest that they were later additions to the works.  Examples include Mark 16:9-20, which is not included in the two earliest remaining manuscripts; the Greek codices Sinaiticus (ℵ01) and Vaticanus (B03).  Another example would be John 8:1-11, which tells the story of the woman caught in adultery.  The earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not include this story.  

So, how did the early Church eventually decide what books to include in the Bible?  The decision ultimately came down to authority. Various biblical canons have developed through debate and agreement on the part of the religious authorities of their respective faiths and denominations.  It was only by the authority given to it by Christ that the Church was able to author divinely inspired Scripture and so, naturally, it was also by this authority that the Church was able to authoritatively say which books were to be included in it’s canon of Scripture.  This begs the question, however; if different authorities give differing lists, then faulty authorities could include non-inspired writings or leave out important inspired texts.  This leaves the question of which authority to follow. 

“What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?”

-Irenaeus of Lyons “Against Heresies, 3:4:1” (Written 180 A.D.)

Versions of Biblical Canons
Found in the Early Church:

*The list below is not an exhaustive list, but illustrates how the early church viewed Scripture and eventually developed the Bible that we have today;