History of the Biblical canon

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Many people do not realize that the Bible wasn't written by a select few people, in singular sittings, but rather is a cobbled-together collection of books and texts that were assembled together into "The Bible" at different stages, including or excluding different sources. Here, we will give a brief history of construction of Biblical canon.

A much more comprehensive article can be found on Wikipedia.


33rd c. BCE: Earliest known writings

30th c. BCE: Sumerian cuneiform script

27th c. BCE: First Egypt alphabet

11th. c. BCE: Phoenician script

10th c. BCE: Cyrillic script

9th. c. BCE: Aramaic and Greek script

7th c. BCE: Latin alphabet

622 BCE: Hilkiah found the Torah

4th c. BCE: Torah (Law) and Nevi'im (Prophets) were canonized

3rd c. BCE: Hebrew script

250 BCE – 40 CE: Dead Sea Scrolls

  • Collection of 972 texts
  • Some biblical, some not

250 BCE – 100 CE: Septuagint

  • First "official" translation of the Tanach into Greek

48 – 58 CE: Paul's Epistles

48 – 120 CE: Earliest Christian writings

50 – 90 CE: Signs-Gospel

  • The Signs-Gospel is the hypothetical source of the Gospel of John which focuses on "demonstrating" the godliness of Jesus

50 – 140 CE: Gospel of Thomas

65 – 120 CE: Gospels

  • Christians like to date the Gospels around 35 CE to lend prophetic character to the hints of the destruction of the temple
  • We don't know the authors

First known fragment dated ca. 125 CE

ca. 125 CE: Oldest known fragment of any Christian writing

350 CE: Earliest complete copies of Christian writings

50 – 97 CE: Clemens Romanus

  • We have many of his letters.
  • He never quoted any gospel, not even Mark. He would have known about the Gospel of Mark if Mark had written it for a Roman audience.
  • He frequently referred to Paul's Epistles and considered them to be wise advice (but not divinely inspired!)

80 – 180 CE: Didache

  • Exact dating is impossible, probably 110 CE
  • Authors are unknown
  • One of the oldest church regulations
  • Contains the Gospel of Matthew completely and refers to it as "The Gospel"
  • It doesn't quote any other Gospels
  • Considered canonical by Clement of Alexandria and others

ca. 100 CE: Synode of Jawne

  • Ketuvim (Writings) were canonized
  • The Tanach (Jewish "Bible") was officially finished

ca. 130 CE: Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis

  • Wrote 5 books "Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord", a collection of orally conveyed quotes of the apostles.
  • No original copies, fragments passed on by Eusebius of Caesarea
  • Interested in written text, but shows that oral tradition was more important back then

ca. 130 CE: Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna

  • Wrote a letter containing ca. 100 quotes attributed to Jesus. Some of them match quotes from the Gospels, some match quotes from the Epistles
  • Polycarp didn't name sources

ca. 135 CE: Basileides, a Gnostic from Alexandria,

  • Wrote the "Exegetica", a Bible commentary in 24 volumes considered heretical
  • His sources are unknown
  • To this point "Jesus" or "Christ" was the only named authority. Now the doctrinal debates began and church leadership became a necessity to dictate and preserve official church doctrine

ca. 140 CE: The Shepherd of Hermas

ca. 144 CE: Marcion proposes a reformation of Christianity

  • He called the Old Testament contradictory, barbaric and untrue (and he's right about that!), only considered Paul's writings as inspired
  • Gnostic beliefs: Jesus wasn't human, there is no hell
  • Compiled the first Biblical canon: Gospel of Luke (w/o Nativity story and references to the Old Testament) and 10 Epistles
  • Was excommunicated and founded his own church, but his prefaces to the biblical texts made it into the Latin Vulgate

157 CE: Montanism

160 – 180 CE: Melitio, Bishop of Sardis

  • Asked the Hebrews in Palestine, which writings are to be considered holy
  • Accepted their opinion without critical questioning and the Old Testament came into being
  • Also accepted apocryphal books (1st and 2nd Maccabees, Book of Wisdom and Jesus Sirach)

Around this time the church began to send out priests to examine churches' doctrines after travelers reported doctrinal differences. The larger, stronger and richer churches dictated their doctrine on the smaller ones.

Despite Marcion's canon, the heresy of the Montanism and doctrinal disputes there still was no official attempt to create an orthodox canon.

150 – 200 CE: Acts of Paul

  • Apocryphal book, written to honour Paul
  • The priest who wrote it was ousted for falsification
  • Despite that his work stayed popular in the churches and is part of the Armenian Bible to this day

172 CE: Tatian founded a church in Syria

  • after he was converted and trained by Justin the Martyr
  • Banned wine, meat and marriage
  • Compiled the Syrian canon: Diatessaron, which is an edited and harmonized version of the 4 Gospels, several Epistles of Paul (which ones is unknown) and Acts.

177 CE: Athenagoras invented the Trinity

200 CE: Serapion visited the churches in Asia

  • He was confronted with disputes, whether the Gospel of Peter can or can't be read in churches. As quickly as he approved of it, he declared it heretical after reading it.

NB: The Gospel of Peter also contains the Apocalypse of Peter, an extremely graphic depiction of hell that still is considered divinely inspired.

200 CE: Dionysus

  • Demanded, that his letters and the "writings of the Lord" are revised, thus questioning the veracity of all Scripture

NB: Even Paul points out the numerous forgeries.

200 CE: Talmud was canonized

200 CE: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum (Lyon, France)

  • Quoted almost every book in the modern New Testament which points to an unofficial canon
  • He stated that there have to be exactly 4 Gospels, since there are 4 directions, 4 winds, etc

150 – 215 CE: Titus Flavius Clemens aka Clement of Alexandria

  • First serious scholar among the church fathers
  • Quoted written sources ca. 8,000 times
  • 2,500 of the quotes were not Christian or Jewish
  • Agreed with Tatian's Diatessaron but also accepts the Gnostic Egyptian Gospel, the Hebrew Gospel, the Traditions of Matthias, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Barnabas-Epistle, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache and oral tradition

The "secret Gospel of Mark"

Clement mentioned 3 different versions of the Gospel of Mark in a letter to Theodoros:

  • A short version written in Rome, based on the teachings of Peter
  • A longer, more spiritual version written in Alexandria after Peter's death
  • A "secret" version, 2 fragments of which are preserved together with the letter

ca. 195 CE: Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus aka Tertullian

  • Compiled a commented list of books he accepted including, among others, the traditional unofficial canon and the Shepherd of Hermas

203 CE: Origenes Adamantius aka Origen

  • Became head of the Christian Seminar of Alexandria at the age of 18
  • Performed the first scientific examination of Christianity

In 231 CE he fled to Caesarea after a clash with Bishop Demetrius. He founded a new school there that soon outshone the school in Alexandria. He converted Ambrosius from gnostic Valentianism to Orthodoxy. Ambrosius became his financier. He agreed with Tatian's Diatessaron and calls it the only reliable piece of work criticized by no one (only talking about non-heretics, which indicates that non-heretics, too, argued about the Gospels). He also accepted the Gospel of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, the Barnabas-Epistle as holy scriptures but he doubted the veracity of the 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John, the 2nd Epistle of Paul and the Hebrew Epistle.

Late 2nd to 4th c. CE: Canon Muratori

  • Fragment of a commented Latin list of writings including the Apocalypse of John, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Book of Wisdom
  • Calls the Shepherd of Hermas commendable but not inspired
  • Doesn't include Hebrews, Jacob, 1. and 2. Peter and 3. John
  • Contradicts Marcionism, Montanism, Valentianism and other Gnostic flavours
  • Indicates an existing canon as soon as the 2nd century CE

260/264 – 339/340 CE: Eusebius of Caesarea

  • Followed Origen's teachings
  • Agreed with the Trinity-concept, albeit with Jesus on a lower rank than God
  • Agreed with forgeries and lies in favour of God and against heresy

4th c. CE: Codex Sinaiticus

  • Bible manuscript found at the Mount Sinai
  • Contains large portions of the Old Testament, the entire New Testament from Matthew to Revelations, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Barnabas-Epistle

ca. 350 CE: Cyril of Jerusalem published his own canon

  • as part of his 23 catechetical lectures
  • First official canon of a high-ranking church leader
  • Insisted that only books from his list may be read, even in private
  • Identical with today's canon without the Apocalypse of John

363 – 364 CE: Synode of Laodicea

  • Ca. 20 – 30 Bishops gathered to constitute an official canon
  • They agreed on Cyril's canon

367 CE: Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria

  • Listed the 27 books of the modern New Testament in his 39th Festal Letter thus adding the Apocalypse of John to the canon
  • Ruled that the canon may not be changed anymore

NB: Again one single man decided!

692 CE: Concilium Quinisextum aka 2nd Trullan Synode

  • Convoked by Emperor Justinian II in Trullo
  • Upheld the Synode of Laodicea and Athanasius despite the disagreement about the Apocalypse of John
  • Declared the Clement-Epistles as holy and part of the Bible
  • Added 8 more books "which it is not appropriate to make public before all, because of the mysteries contained in them"

1443 CE: Council of Florence

  • Upheld Athanasius' list
  • finally sealed the 27-books-canon of the New Testament
  • Was convoked because the authenticity especially of the Hebrew-Epistle were doubted when the people of the Renaissance began to read and think for themselves

1516 CE: First edition of the Textus Receptus in Greek

  • Published by Erasmus of Rotterdam
  • The first edition was fairly flawed
  • Many Bible translations are based on the Textus Receptus

1521 CE: Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German

  • Used the 2nd edition of Erasmus' Textus Receptus, Erasmus' Latin translation and the Latin Vulgate

1523 CE: Luther translated the first part of the Old Testament into German

1534 CE: Luther finished his translation of the Old Testament

1545 - 1463 CE: Council of Trent

  • Affirmed the Council of Florence

1604 – 1611 CE: Translation of the KJV

  • From now on Jesus speaks English!



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