Frequently Avoided Questions: How did we get the Bible? A crash course

Ignatius of Antioch WikiMedia Commons

No, the Council of Nicaea did not create the Bible

Want daily updates?

Subscribe to our Substack:

Article archives spanning back to 2020:

In 301–304AD, Roman Emperor, Diocletian, burned thousands of copies of the Christian sacred books and commanded that all Christian sacred books be destroyed. He built a monument with the words “Extincto nomene Christianorum” (“The name Christian is extinguished”).

French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) declared in 1776: “One hundred years from my day, there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” Yet, Bibles are everywhere and Christianity is the largest religion on Earth. Codex Sassoon, a rare 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York this May for an estimated $30 to $50 million. How did all this happen?

66 books (or more?! read more to find out), approximately 40 key authors over 1400 years. The Bible did not just drop down from the clouds as a neatly preserved book. No, the history of the Bible involves blood, sweat, tears, headaches, scribal errors, hiding for one’s life, dispersion through persecution and copying of text on expensive materials before a spider bites or a candle wax runs out or a soldier breaks in.

Many Christians go to church week in week out for decades and have little to no knowledge of how we got the Bible. If that’s you, today that will change. Stick with us for a few minutes — you won’t regret it. If you’re not Christian and just curious- even better.

  1. Old Testament manuscript traditions
  2. How many OT books?
  3. Old Testament in the time of Jesus?
  4. Apocrypha or not?
  5. Scribal edits?
  6. New Testament canon history
  7. Criteria for making it to the canon?
  8. Inspired church or inspired writings?
  9. Which New Testament text type?
  10. Gnostic Gospels and the Council of Nicaea
  11. Book of Enoch
  12. A Miracle?


Manuscript Traditions

There are 3 key Hebrew manuscript traditions regarding the Old Testament: the Masoretic text, the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX- Greek translation of the OT) and the Hebrew text behind the Samaritan Pentateuch. Heiser argues the Hebrew text was finalised by around 200 BC. Note, these “texts” are more accurately referred to as textual traditions in many instances.

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars were very heavily dependent on the Masoretic text tradition. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete Old Testament manuscript we had was Leningradensis from 1008 AD. The Aleppo Codex was mostly complete and also from around that time. What we know now as the Masoretic text came into being around 100 AD as Jewish scholars gathered to make a decision on a standardised biblical text in response to many Christians who were using the Septuagint. However, Jewish Rabbis continued to quote from various text types following this time.

Leningradensis- Christian Publishing House

The Hebrew texts behind the Septuagint, the Masoretic text and the Samaritan Pentateuch were all discovered in existing manuscripts at Qumran through the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery between 1947 and 1956. The Masoretic text (eg. Matt. 26:31, Matt. 27:46) and the Septuagint (Heb. 8:9) are quoted/ referenced throughout the New Testament. There are also some references more in line with the Samaritan Pentateuch (eg. Holy Place item ordering in Heb. 9:4).

Qumran- Tourist Israel

For more on differences behind these textual traditions read my two works on KJV Onlyism:

Are modern Bible translations wildly corrupted? Short conversation with a KJV Onlyist

16+11 Reasons Why You Can Forget About Being a King James Onlyist

How many OT books?

Josephus mentioned 22 books in the Hebrew Bible (Against Apion 1.38–42). Heiser notes the Modern Hebrew Bible has 36, the English Protestant versions have 39 while the Septuagint had 46.

How could this be? With the exception of the apocryphal and deuterocanonical works included in the Septuagint, the books were the same. The difference lies in the breakdown of books such as 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezra and Nehemiah etc which were broken down as two books in some versions and combined into one book in others.

Old Testament in the time of Jesus?

There are good reasons to think there was an established corpus of books by the time of Jesus. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus offers a list of 22 OT books accepted by the Jews which appears to match our current 39 book collection (Against Apion, 1.38–42). For Josephus, at least, the OT canon seems quite settled: “For although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured neither to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable” (Against Apion, 1.42).

Josephus- Biblical Archaeology Society

Moreover, Philo of Alexandria acts as an additional first century Jewish source to confirm Josephus’ view. Philo hints at a three-fold division of the OT canon, “the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets … and psalms” (On the Contemplative Life, 25). This three-fold structure seems to mirror Jesus’ breakdown of the Old Testament as “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Other echoes of a three-fold division to the OT can be found in the Jewish work Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) and a fragmentary text from Qumran known as 4QMMT. The Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh is thus split into the Torah (Pentateuch), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings including the Psalms and some other books).

Apocrypha or not?

The Protestant Reformers followed the traditional Jewish method and excluded the books which were not written in Hebrew. The apocrypha were written during a Hellenistic era and primarily written in Greek with limited textual traces back to Hebrew. Hence, many Jews also rejected them.

Jesus interestingly refers to the prophets from the time of Abel to the blood of Zechariah in Luke 11:49–51 which interestingly marks prophets from Genesis (Gen. 4) to 2 Chronicles (2 Chron 24), the first and last books of the Hebrew Bible (same amount of books as Protestant Bible with a different ordering; no mention of the apocrypha).

Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions tend to include the apocrypha (slightly different lists held by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions) as they were included in the Septuagint which was heavily used by the early church. However, New Testament authors quoted from both the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts while also providing references similar to what is found in the Samaritan Pentateuch as noted earlier.

Athanasius, Melito, Origen and Cyril of Jerusalem spoke against the canonicity of much of the apocrypha (Wegner, 2004). Jerome in the 4th century preferred to Hebrew canon whereas Augustine preferred the broader Greek canon.

Scribal edits?

There is some debate amongst scholars whether or not scribal additions to a text breach the idea that God inspired Scripture. Take for example this academic journal article written by Grisanti, where he outlines how scribal additions to a text are consistent with the doctrine of inspiration.

Some examples which show likely scribal editing include Gen 14:14 which mentions Dan although according to Judges 18:27–29, Dan was called Laish until Israel had well and truly entered the promised land which was several hundred years after Genesis 14. The reference “until this day” occurs 12 times in the Pentateuch in Gen 26:33; 32:32 [HB v. 33]; 47:26; 48:15; Exod. 10:6; Num. 22:30; Deut 2:22; 3:14; 10:8; 11:4; 29:3; 34:6. This implies a reasonable time gap between the events described and the authorship of the text.

Moses’ death is recorded in Deuteronomy 34. Although Moses is traditionally considered the author of Deuteronomy, he could not have written this section. Moreover, as noted the name of Laish was changed to Dan after Moses had died despite Dan being the name used in Gen. 14:14.

Death of Moses: WikiMedia Commons

Ezekiel 1:1–3 changes from Ezekiel speaking in the first person (v.1) to a third person reference to Ezekiel (v.3). Psalm 72:20 says the prayers of David are ended yet later on in the Psalms we see multiple Psalms from David (eg. Psalm 101, 122, 124 and 131). This could mean later scribes added in more Psalms to a previously “closed book.”

If anything this shows us the importance of God’s providence in preserving his Word rather than it falling from the clouds or being directly dictated. Heiser likens this to an analogy of a “holy stapler”, with God overseeing the process of stapling information related to individuals who were inspired by God (eg. Ezekiel).


Canon History

Paul’s quote of an early creed in 1 Cor 15:3–8 which stemmed from within 5 years of Jesus death refers to Jesus fulfilling the Scriptures, indicating the New Testament authors held close continuity with the Old Testament. There is evidence within the New Testament authors that the writings of the apostles and the Gospels were considered Scripture. 2 Peter 3:16 refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture.

In 1 Tim 5:18 Paul cites a saying of Jesus as Scripture “the laborer deserves his wages” with the only known match for this Luke 10:17. Even most atheists agree 1 Corinthians was written by Paul circa 50 AD and in chapter 11 Paul quotes Jesus at the Last Supper as quoted in Luke. Moreover, Paul claims to be writing the command of the Lord (1 Cor 14:37) and Colossians 4:16 indicates Paul’s letters were read across other churches (eg. Laodicea).

Laodicea- Wikimedia Commons

In the early days of the church, there was a heavy emphasis on oral tradition from Jesus and the Apostles. Letters were read aloud to congregations and handed from church to church. As opposition to the church grew and heretical groups rose, there became an increasing importance to define which books of the NT were authoritative.

Irenaeus in approx 180 AD, Papias in approx 125 AD, Clement of Alexandria in approx. 180 AD and also Tertullian 200 AD refer to at least some (in some cases all) of the Gospel authors despite these church fathers coming from different geographical areas. Interestingly, many heretical groups would focus on one particular Gospel being authoritative. Exemplifying this, the Valentinians (Gnostic school of thought) liked John’s Gospel while the Marcionites (believed OT God was false; NT God was different) focused on Luke.

How did the Gospels become so widely accepted across so many different regions? For the section below I rely heavily on the work of leading NT scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger in his book, The Canon of the New Testament Its Origin, Development and Significance.

Clement of Rome (died c 99 AD) quotes the Old Testament as Scripture. In several instances he refers to the words of Jesus (similar to what is found in Matthew and Luke), alludes to several of Paul’s epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Metzger notes regarding the New Testament writings “although these writings obviously possess for Clement considerable significance, he never refers to them as authoritative Scripture (p. 43, 1997).”

Ignatius of Antioch (Turkey) made many references (died c 110 AD) to apostolic preaching about Jesus, whether oral or written. Though not quoting the New Testament as Scripture, he refers to 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 Thessalonians. It is also likely he knew Gospels according to Matthew and John with a particular emphasis on theology found in John.

Papias of Hierapolis (Turkey) acted as a kind of bridge between oral and written tradition in the early church. As time went on it became increasingly important to write down oral tradition. Papias (c. 125 AD) refers to Matthew, Mark, John, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation.

Papias of Hierapolis- Wikipedia

Polycarp of Smyrna (Turkey) refers (c.120–140 AD) to the book of Ephesians as Scripture, refers to at least eight of Paul’s Epistles as well as Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, 1 Peter and 1 John. We’ve written more about Polycarp’s story here.

Marcion (c. 144) was dismissed as a heretic for claiming the God of the New Testament was completely different from the God of the Old. Marcion’s Western Text included the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s Epistles.

Justin Martyr (lived in Rome, Italy) writing between 155 and 157 AD mentions (1 Apol 66:3, 67:3–4) on Sundays it was customary read the memoirs of the Apostles (ie. the Gospels). We quote Justin Martyr in our evidence for early Christian worship on Sundays here.

Justin Martyr WikiMedia Commons

Tatian’s (Syrian) Diatessaron (c. 150–160 AD) merged the four Gospels into one account, providing evidence he regarded them as authoritative.

The Muratorian fragment from in or near Rome (approx. 170 AD) contains 22 of the 27 current books of the New Testament, however, also included the Shepherd of Hermas and Apocalypse of Peter.

Theophilus of Antioch (Turkey) referred (c. 180 AD) to at least three of the four Gospels, Acts, several Pauline Epistles and possibly Revelation. Metzger argues Theophilus presented these books as on par with the Jewish Scriptures.

Irenaeus of Lyon (France) in Adversus Haereses (180 AD) quotes 1,075 passages from almost all of the books of the New Testament. Metzger contends this reflects in 180 AD in southern France the New Testament comprised of three parts and about twenty-two books.

Irenaeus of Lyon- WikiMedia

Tertullian of Carthage (Tunisia) cites (c. 200 AD) all the writings of the New Testament excluding 2 Peter, James and 2–3 John. He originally thought highly of the Shepherd of Hermas but later claimed all early councils dismissed it as false and apocryphal.

Clement of Alexandria (Egypt) regarded the four Gospels, 13 Epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation as authoritative Scripture. Clement (died c. 215 AD) also shows awareness of Gnostic Gospels circulating in Egypt.

Cyprian of Carthage (died 258 AD) likened the four Gospels to the four rivers of Paradise and quoted close to 1/9th of the entire New Testament.

Origen (lived in Egypt and Lebanon) in his Commentary on Matthew refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the “only indisputable ones (Gospels) in the Church of God under heaven.” He refers to the Gospel of Thomas as heretical. In Origen’s Homilies on Joshua (written about 240 AD) he lists all the books of the New Testament together with no other books despite formerly having reservations regarding James, 2 Peter and 2–3 John.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Israel) in his Ecclesiastical History (c. 312–314) splits writings into three sections: homologoumena or universally acknowledged writings, antilegomena books or disputed books and lastly rejected books. The universally accepted books included the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation which Eusebius causes some confusion over by later saying some reject it. The disputed books included James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2–3 John.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt), in the year 367 AD was the first to declare the 27 books of the New Testament we have today as canonical. The Greek church did however experience some confusion and as Westcott notes in The Bible and The Church in the tenth century six different lists of the Old and New Testaments were received in the Greek Church. Hence, despite what many claim this was not a clear case of the Orthodox Church deciding for all in all time for even the Greek church fluctuated in its views.

Moreover, in Athanasius’ Contra Arianos, Athanasius repeatedly rejects Arian heresies on the basis of what is in Scripture despite him not yet breaking down what exactly the New Testament was comprised of. Thus, there was a somewhat implicit understanding that certain books were Scripture throughout the early church before an explicit decision. This was the case across different geographic regions.

Athanasius- WikiMedia Commons

These same 27 New Testament books were also agreed on at the Council of Hippo (c.393 AD) and later reaffirmed at the Council of Carthage (c. 397 AD). Both councils included some apocryphal works along with the Old Testament.

Criteria for Making it to the Canon?

Metzger outlined 3 key criteria for acceptance in the New Testament canon:

  1. Conformity to the “rule of faith” or conformity with the basic Christian tradition recognised as normative by the church
  2. Apostolicity- written by either the Apostles or people who lived simultaneously with or were closely associated with Apostles.
  3. Continuous usage and acceptance by the Church at large.

In summary, orthodoxy, apostolicity and consensus among the churches

Inspired Church or Inspired Writings?

There is a longstanding debate whether or not the church gave authority to the books of the Bible or if the books possessed an intrinsic authority which the church recognised. Some people love to say the Bible is God’s Word because it says it but the reality is nowhere does the Bible say it contains a specific 66 books. Sure, certain books in the Bible attest to the authenticity of each other but there is no canonical list in Scripture. Hence, we cannot detach the church completely from the process of determining Scripture.

Neefs Interior Gothic Church WikiMedia

Yet, we must also be wary of going to the other extreme. If the Bible is God’s Word, it has an intrinsic authority whether or not certain individuals or groups in the church recognise it. Hence, the church merely recognises the authority of the Scriptures which are “the extant literary deposit of the direct and indirect apostolic witness on which the later witness of the Church depends (Metzger, p.256)”. If a letter inspired by your mum is scattered over the school playground and I piece it together, that does not give me the same authority as your mum in inspiring the letter.

The nature of the books of the Bible being approved involved centuries of prior persecution, books being copied across the known world and people on different sides of the Mediterranean reaching similar conclusions. It was far from a centralised control process to begin with.

As Metzger notes, there is a theological question here (source of Scripture) and a historical question here (how to determine Scripture/ the artefacts/ the fingerprints). It is important not to blur theological and historical questions. Metzger adds, “The distinction between the New Testament writings and later ecclesiastical literature is not based upon arbitrary fiat; it has historical reasons. The generations following the apostles bore witness to the effect that certain writings had on their faith and life. The self-authenticating witness of the word testified to the divine origin of the gospel that had brought the Church into being (p. 286) .”

Under this view, “the books within the collection are regarded as possessing an intrinsic worth prior to their having been assembled, and their authority is grounded in their nature and source (p.283).”

This does not mean that God did not inspire other writings, but rather that these were the writings through which apostolic witness was passed down to the church. As Reformed theologian, Auguste Lecerf, acknowledges in Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, “We do not deny that God inspired other writings than those which constitute the canon.”

Ironically, those who claim the church has a special authoritative status for determining the New Testament canon never associate such authority with the Jewish scholars and Rabbis who determined the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence, I find this view inconsistent.

They fail to attribute the same level of authority to the Hebrew community as they do to the Church Leaders when the Hebrew community determined the Old Testament canon centuries before. Thus, they don’t view making decisions about a canon an intrinsically authoritative task even on their own view.

As James White asks in the White question- how would a Jew living 50 years before Jesus know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture? Was it due to an infallible Jewish Magisterium (which decided to exclude the Apocrypha) or could he not have known as there was no church to determine it for him? Jesus clearly keeps people accountable to the Hebrew Scriptures (eg. Matt 22:29) in his time despite no church formally deciding on an OT canon yet.

Even in the early church the New Testament is repeatedly quoted as Scripture before a formal list is agreed upon.

Which New Testament text type?

Byzantine or Alexandrian? There is a debate amongst Christians which text type is best to use. A tradition which primarily steps from an area near Egypt or near Turkey? We cover this in our KJV article. We also touch on key manuscripts for the New Testament- Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus.

16+11 Reasons Why You Can Forget About Being a King James Onlyist

Are modern Bible translations wildly corrupted? Short conversation with a KJV Onlyist

In short many modern translations take a reasoned eclectic approach which means there is a preference towards earlier manuscripts (primarily Alexandrian). The KJV and NKJV stem from the Byzantine textual tradition which tends to be comprised of later, fuller texts.

Codex Vaticanus at the Vatican WikiMedia

What about Gnostic Gospels and the Council of Nicaea?

To say the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD decided on the books of the Bible is false. The Council voted to confirm the prevalent church view 214–2 on Jesus’ divinity, it referred to Scriptural writings but did not determine the canon. Some of those who voted for Jesus’ divinity such as Athanasius actually faced persecution for it. Athanasius was banished five times and spent 17 years of his life in exile for the defence of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.

Since the discovery of several Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 there has been a resurgence of a theory around missing Gospels or the church intentionally leaving out books from the Bible.

Gospel of Thomas WikiMedia

The best known of these is the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not a narrative, unlike the four Gospels. Jesus teaches people how to find enlightenment (24:3) and speaks against fasting and prayer (14:1–3). Jesus appears as a Greek thinker rather than a Jewish Rabbi. Scholarly consensus is that it is a later 2nd century proto Gnostic text.

We have fragments of Thomas from c. 200 AD which are vastly different from the fragments we have in c. 340 AD, suggesting there may have been some centralised control or editing. Further reasons why Thomas likely dates to the second century include: following Tatian’s Diatessaron (written mid 2nd century), resembling later Syrian Christianity and claiming it contains secret teachings of Jesus likely responding to some texts in the canonical Gospels, implying other teachings were in existence earlier.

Nag Hammadi University of Edinburgh

Thomas ends controversially with Jesus saying a woman must make herself to a male to enter the kingdom of heaven (114:3). A vastly different Jesus from the one portrayed in the four Gospels.

We see a similar lack of historical precision/ evidence for later dating in other Gnostic texts as well. In an era where Google maps did not exist, the Gospel of Thomas mentions Judaea once but no other location. The Gospel of Judas names no locations. The Gospel of Philip names Jerusalem ( four times), Nazara/ Nazareth (once) and the Jordan (once). Meanwhile Matthew refers to 90 places (towns, regions, bodies of water, other places etc), Mark 60, Luke 99 and John 76 (for more read Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J Williams).

The Apocalypse of Peter also found at Nag Hammadi appears to be too late to be written by Peter, instead it seems to be responding to theology found in the Shepherd of Hermas (mid 2nd century) and has strong Hellenistic overtones.

Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch was written before the time of Jesus and is not included in either the Hebrew Tanakh or the Greek Septuagint. However, most scholars argue it likely falls into the pseudepigrapha (given a false name) category 400 BC to 200 BC which was written around the time of the Apocrypha.

It is a fascinating read which details stories of fallen angels having sex with women and teaching humans how to obtain hidden knowledge through the cutting of roots and trees. Several early church fathers considered Enoch scripture and Enoch is quoted in the New Testament.

Book of Enoch University of Southern California

However, Enoch is described as the Messiah/ Son of Man in the book of Enoch as is agreed by the scholarly community (1 Enoch 46:2–3; 71:13–14). This goes against the core teaching of the New Testament. People of biblical times quoted extra biblical texts at times to make a point not necessarily because something is Scripture (eg. 1 Cor 15:33 and Epimenides). Moreover, the Book of Enoch was not recognised by the Hebrew community as Scripture (what Jesus would have referred to as Scripture) as noted earlier.

A Miracle?

We could rewrite nearly the entire New Testament from church father quotes alone, without even looking at manuscripts.

Despite many trying to destroy the Bible, to date we have over 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament with a mind blowing 2.6 million pages of biblical text spread across many different geographic areas. As per Dr. Dan Wallace, of the variants in New Testament manuscripts (thousands of manuscripts), 75% are spelling or similar differences, 15% are variations of Greek synonyms and transpositions, over 9% are late changes easily detectable and less than 1% impact the meaning of the text and are from early manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scroll findings in 1947- 1956 including approximately 230 biblical manuscripts attest to the preservation of the OT.

Early Papyrus of John 18:31–33 P52 WikiMedia Commons

The Bible, unlike the Quran (eg. Caliph Uthman burning other versions early on), was not subject to centralised control. Copies spread like a wildfire throughout the known world and we can trace independent chains of transmission to see core messages remaining the same. There was no central agency able to change or corrupt Scripture. For that would be much like having a small child start capturing smoke and ashes 10 metres above the ground flying in all directions blown by the wind.

Where does that leave you? How did some low profile men who got killed by the government turn the world upside down through writings many have sought to destroy? What was it really all about?

For our comprehensive resurrection guide click here.

Were the Gospels written by eyewitnesses? Coming soon!

Can I read a shorter conversational version of this article? Also coming soon!

To find out more subscribe to our Substack newsletter as we will be writing on this in a few weeks.

Subscribe to our Substack:

Want daily updates?

Article archives spanning back to 2020:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *