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. The Bible was written by authors who were not eye witnesses and usually long after the events described based on oral traditions. The identities of authors of most of the Bible is unknown (although still known by the traditional author's pseudonym). Here, we will give a brief history of construction of Biblical canon.

A canon, loosely speaking, is an organized collection of books, and tenets and concepts accepted as legitimate. A major difficulty in understanding the history is that different branches of the Church had developed their own canons, and thus have their own parallel sets of history of lineage. The books the compose the Bible were selected by fallible humans of the early church over the course of centuries. The selection was roughly based on their agreement with current doctrine, broad acceptance in the early church and claims of apostolic authorship. [1] Some books were included but later excluded and now forms the Deuterocanonical Apocrypha. Other books were candidates, known as the apocrypha, and some were very popular but not eventually selected. The apocrypha is occasionally published along side the Bible.

Humans are known to make mistakes in writing, copying and translating. Even given the final Biblical canon, it is written in versions of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek that differ from the modern languages spoken today. [2] This raises the possibility of translation errors.



Hebrew Bible / Tanakh

The Tanakh, would be eventually adopted as the "Old Testament", more or less mostly with the same books. Depending on whether the Christian Bible is by Catholics or Protestants, the ordering and grouping varies.

Current evidence indicates that the Tanakh and Torah were canonized through a long process, from about 400BCE to 200CE. [3]


622 BCE: Hilkiah found the Book of Deuteronomy[4]

400 BCE – 318 CE: Dead Sea Scrolls [5]

  • Collection of 972 texts
  • Some biblical, some not

New Testament

Like the Tanakh, the New Testament took many years to canonize. Many books and scriptures existed during these times, and around 140CE, Marcion of Sinope became the first known person to attempt to canonize some of the books - the first attempt included the ten of Paul's letters, and the Gospel of Luke (modern day Gospel of Marcion), that set the direction for the rest of Biblical canonization.

First known fragment dated ca. 125 CE

The New Testament canonization was virtually complete by the time the first Council of Nicea had taken place. A number of gospels did not "make the cut", in being considered canon, such as the Gospel of Marcion, Gospel of Mani, Gospel of Apelles, Gospel of Bardesanes, Gospel of Basilides, and more.

Events for Canonization

52 – ~100 CE: Paul's Epistles [6]

  • Earliest Christian writings

Estimates from 100 CE to 150 CE: Arguably oldest known fragment of any Christian writing [7]

170 CE: Melito, Bishop of Sardis

  • Established first Christian canon for the Old Testament

Approx. 200 CE: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum (Lyon, France) [8]

  • Established the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as all orthodox canon, whereas before, there was a lot of variation in which were preferred
  • Also the first time it was asserted that Luke (the companion of Paul) wrote the Gospel of Luke, and John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John

ca. 195 CE: Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus aka Tertullian [9]

  • Establish large amounts of Latin literature
  • Was one of the earliest to establish he concept, and word, of the Trinity

363 – 364 CE: Synode of Laodicea [10]

  • Ca. 20 – 30 Bishops gathered to constitute an official canon
  • Sixty canons were agreed upon, such as outlawing the Jewish Sabbath and resting on Sunday
  • Established some Biblical canons 59 and 60:
    • Restricted church readings in church to new and old testaments
    • Established the list of books of the new testament, without the Book of Revelation

367 CE: Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria [11]

  • 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
  • This is the earliest established canon that's the same books used today

692 CE: Concilium Quinisextum aka 2nd Trullan Synode [12]

  • Upheld the Synode of Laodicea and Athanasius despite the disagreement about the Apocalypse of John

Events for that which were not canonized

Estimates from 40 to 140 CE: Gospel of Thomas [13]

  • A Gospel of Jesus that was not included in New Testament canon

mid-2nd century :Gospel of Marcion [14]

  • Considered first attempt at canonization
  • Was rejected as heretical in 144CE

Estimates from 80 – 180 CE: Didache [15]

  • Authors are unknown
  • One of the oldest church catechisms
  • Omits some references to the Jesus story, like his resurrection
  • Considered canonical by Clement of Alexandria and others, but was not adopted into standard Biblical canon, ultimately

ca. 117-138 CE: Basileides, a Gnostic from Alexandria, [16]

  • Wrote a gnostic commentary about Biblical teachings, on a range of issues
  • He claimed to get his teachings from Matthew directly

ca. 140 CE: The Shepherd of Hermas [17]

  • Part of the Codex Sinaiticus
  • Was considered canonized by early church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, though not fully anymore

ca. 144 CE: Marcion's deviance from orthodox Christianity spurs orthodox canonization[18]

  • Marcion 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
  • By 144, Marcion's proposed canon provoked the formation of an orthodox canon that was decided to be divinely inspired

150 – 200 CE: Acts of Paul [19]

  • Apocryphal book, not considered canon
  • Was considered heretical due to teachings, such as allowing women to preach and baptize

160-175 CE: Tatian compiled the [[Diatessaron] [20]

  • An edited and harmonized version of the 4 Gospels, several Epistles of Paul (which ones is unknown) and Acts
  • Ultimately did not replace the Gospels in their separate orthodox form

190 CE: Gospel of Peter condemned as non-canonical [21]

203 CE: Origenes Adamantius aka Origen [22]

  • Became head of the Christian Seminar of Alexandria at the age of 18
  • Performed the first scientific examination of Christianity
  • Ultimately, his works, teachings and writings were never canonized

Late 2nd to 4th c. CE: Canon Muratori [23]

  • 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


A prevalent attitude among theists is that the Bible is the "Word of God", inspired, if not written, by God. When we examine the history of the Bible, we find that it's heavily manipulated. Mankind wrote the scriptures, wrote varying versions of the scriptures, with individual competing people struggling against each other to establish which books were "legitimately" Biblical canon, over a long period of time. This isn't the process of a divine, omniscient being, but rather the social-political power struggles of mortal humans.




  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. Wikipedia: Biblical Canon
  4. Wikipedia: Hilkiah
  5. Wikipedia: Dead Sea Scrolls
  6. Wikipedia: Pauline epistles
  7. Wikipedia: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
  8. Wikipedia: Irenaeus
  9. Wikipedia: Tertullian
  10. Wikipedia: Council of Laodicea
  11. Wikipedia: Athanasius of Alexandria
  12. Wikipedia: Quinisext Council
  13. Wikipedia: Gospel of Thomas
  14. Wikipedia: Gospel of Marcion
  15. Wikipedia: Didache
  16. Wikipedia: Basilides
  17. Wikipedia: Shepherd of Hermas
  18. Wikipedia: Marcion of Sinope - Legacy
  19. Wikipedia: Acts of Paul
  20. Wikipedia: Diatessaron
  21. Wikipedia: Gospel of Peter
  22. Wikipedia: Origen
  23. Wikipedia: Marutori fragment
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