Who decided what books got into the Bible?

Q: Who decided which prophets/authors of the Bible were valid? I know that they were inspired by God, but who decided who really was genuine and who wasn’t? Being from a Catholic background we were told that popes spoke to God and their messages were inspired by God.

A: I’ll give you far more than you probably want here, but I will put it under three headings so skip to the heading that you really want to focus on and you can avoid some of the verbiage. The three headings are OLD TESTAMENT, NEW TESTAMENT, APOCRYPHA. We call the list of inspired books a canon (from the Greek word ‘Kanon’ which means “reed, rod, bar, measuring stick, standard”), so I will be using that word to refer to the final standard or list of inspired books of the Bible.


The Old Testament itself says that collections of inspired and recognized books were being put in the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9-11,24-26; 1 Samuel 10:25) and then the temple (2 Kings 22). It was the job of the priests to watch over and guard these books (Deuteronomy 33:9). Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that the Old Testament canon was completed and recognized as completed by the Jews after their return from Babylon in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (around 400 B.C.). By Jesus’ day the Jewish people still held to Ezra’s collection (Ezra 7:6,10; Nehemiah 8:2-8,18), which they called ‘the Scriptures, that is “the writings.”

Christians accept the Jewish Old Testament collection of books, because Jesus accepted them. Jesus quoted Scripture authoritatively (Matthew 4:4; Mark 14:27); referred to it as ‘the Word of God’ (Matthew 19:4ff; Mark 7:11-13; John 10:34ff) and believed it to be the revelation of God given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36). Jesus believed the whole Old Testament to be authoritative (Luke 24:25-27,44). Jesus cited each of the Old Testament’s main divisions: the law (Matthew 4:4); the poetic books (Mark 12:10ff); and the prophets (Mark 7:6). This is the same way that Jews of Jesus’ day referred to the Old Testament: the law, the prophets, and the writings (or Psalms – Psalms being the first and most prominent book in the writings) – See Luke 24:44.

The apostles of Jesus also recognized the authority of the ‘Scriptures.’ The ‘Scriptures’ were the Word of God in written form (Acts 4:25; 2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:3; 10:15-17; 2 Peter 1:21). The apostles consistent attitude to the Old Testament is aptly summarized by Paul’s phrase, ‘the oracles of God’ (Romans 3:2). The Old Testament is authoritatively quoted 239 times, cited 1,600 times, and alluded to many other times by the apostles. Most of the 39 books of the Old Testament are quoted as God’s Word somewhere in the New Testament.


Before Jesus left earth, He provided everything that was necessary for the creation of a New Testament canon. Jesus made promises to His apostles. He pledged that the Holy Spirit would:

  • Teach them what they ought to say – Luke 12:12, Matthew 10:19.
  • Give them perfect recall of Jesus’ words – John 14:26.
  • Guide them into all truth – John 16:12-13b.
  • Tell them what is yet to come – John 16:14b.
  • Convey the very words of the resurrected Jesus to them (a continuing open line of communication with the apostles) – John 16:14-15.

These promises provide all that is required for the formation of an authoritative, inspired, inerrant New Testament.

As you read the New Testament you can see how Jesus’ apostles viewed their own teaching:

  • It is the “mystery now revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” – Ephesians 3:3-5.
  • They claim that their teaching was received by revelation from Jesus – Galatians 1:6-12, 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.
  • The apostles claim to have the mind of Christ – 1 Corinthians 2:8-16.
  • They claim to be giving an eyewitness account of what really happened – Luke 1:1-4, 2 Peter 1:16-18, 1 John 1:1-5.
  • They claim that their word = God’s Word – 1 Corinthians 14:36-38, 2 Corinthians 13:3, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:23-25, 2 Peter 3:2.
  • They claim to foretell the future – 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Jude 17.

Even before all the New Testament books were written, there were discussions about which New Testament books were inspired writings from God and which were not. Paul had to defend his writings. At one point he says: “Did the Word of God originate with you?… If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Corinthians 14:36-38). That’s strong language claiming that what he writes is God’s Word and it is ignored at the reader’s peril.

Portions of the New Testament are already being called ‘Scripture’ by Peter and Paul (2 Peter 3:14-16; 1 Timothy 5:18)! Revelation 22:18-19 is further evidence of a distinction between authorized and unauthorized writings. John warns against adding or taking away from what he has recorded (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32). This tells us that a New Testament canon was already developing, even as it was being written!

There were various lists of a New Testament canon being made throughout the first centuries of the church’s existence. Specific mention about books being part of ‘Scripture’ or not part of ‘Scripture’ is made by Clement of Rome (AD 95), Polycarp (115), the epistle of Barnabas (132), Justin Martyr (150), Irenaeus (180), the Muratorian Canon (175), Tertullian (190), Origen (225), Eusebius (340), and Athanasius of Alexandria (367).

For a survey spanning the first four centuries of Christianity of which books were considered trustworthy see The Development of the Canon of the New Testament. This site has a wonderful table listing the evidence for each book of the New Testament.

For the core of the New Testament including the four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 John, and 1 Peter there was virtually no serious question raised about their canonical authority. Only a handful of books that are now included in our New Testament Bible were ever under serious question. They include such books as Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, and the second and third epistles of John. All of these were finally considered to be of canonical stature and formalized within the canon.

The first official meeting of churches which listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament was the Synod of Hippo in 393. It did not confer upon them any authority, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. The Third Synod of Carthage reaffirmed the Hippo decision in 397. The earliest know confirmation of this list by a Bishop of Rome comes from Pope Innocent in 405.

The Synod of Carthage used three criteria in recognizing books as part of the New Testament canon:

  1. Was the book prepared by an apostle or under the direction of an apostle? (Ephesians 2:20; John 16:13).

  2. Was the book used and recognized by the churches? (John 10:4).

  3. Did the book teach sound doctrine as compared with books that were already accepted as Scripture? (1 Corinthians 14:29).

It is important to realize that a book did not become inspired by being included in the canon. Rather inclusion in the canon was merely recognition of the authority that the book already possessed from God. It is a little bit like an purple elephant walking into the room and us deciding that “Yes, indeed! That’s a purple elephant and he is in the room.” We did not make him a purple elephant and we did not put him in the room — we merely recognize what is obvious.

The canon of Scripture was NOT formed by the declaration of a church council any more than Isaac Newton created the law of gravity. Rather, as written revelation came from God through God’s chosen writers, the people of God recognized God’s voice and affirmed that the writing was indeed the word of God.

Jesus said, “His sheep follow Him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). The people of God knew the word of God when they heard it and read it and, as a result, the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament were recognized and collected into the canon.


The most striking difference between Bibles used by Roman Catholics and Bibles used by Protestants is the presence in the former of a number of writings that are not found in the latter or also in the Hebrew Bible. These number seven books:

  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
  • Wisdom of Solomon (also called The Book of Wisdom)
  • Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus)
  • Baruch

and five passages (which were added to books):

  • The Letter of Jeremiah, which became Baruch, chapter 6
  • A 107 verse expansion of the Book of Esther
  • The Prayer of Azariah, which became Daniel 3:24-90
  • Susanna, which became Daniel 13
  • Bel and the Dragon, which became Daniel 14

(Of these works, Tobias and Judith were written originally in Aramaic, perhaps in Hebrew; Baruch and 1 Maccabees in Hebrew, while Wisdom and 2 Maccabees were certainly composed in Greek. The probabilities favor Hebrew as the original language of the addition to Esther, and Greek for the enlargements of Daniel.)

The Protestants call these apocryphal books and by this they mean books that are not inspired. The word “Apocrypha” means hidden or secret, and was introduced by Jerome, a 4th century Christian teacher, to indicate non-inspired books with either a secret origin or secret authority. Roman Catholics call them deuterocanonical books (deuteros meaning “second”). They view them as a second inspired canon, coming after the first canon (the books that Jews and Protestants accept as inspired).

These books did not receive full canonical status by the Roman Catholic Church until AD 1546 at the Council of Trent. According to the fourth session of the Council of Trent the Old Testament catalogue is to contain the following:

The five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Josue, Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, the first and second of Esdras (which latter is called Nehemias), Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Davidic Psalter (in number one hundred and fifty Psalms), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaias, Jeremias, with Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, the twelve minor Prophets (Osee, Joel, Amos, Abdias, Jonas, Micheas, Nahum, Habacue, Sophonias, Aggeus, Zacharias, Malachias), two books of Machabees, the first and second.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the decree of the Council of Trent was “the first infallible and effectually promulgated pronouncement on the Canon, addressed to the Church Universal.” The Council of Trent made the status of the deuterocanonical books clear:

If anyone does not hold as sacred and canonical the books of Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, and Maccabees, let him be anathema [that is, cut off from the church and condemned to eternal fire unless he repents].

For a short description of the books recognized by the Roman Catholic Church see Bible-researcher.com. To view their content see Sacred-texts.com.

Along with other Protestants, I do not consider these seven books (and the additions to Esther and Daniel) to be divinely inspired and authoritative. I would consider them apocryphal, rather than deuterocanonical. Here are the reasons why these books should not be included in the canon of Scripture:

  1. Not one of the writers of these books claimed to be inspired. In fact, 1 Maccabees 9:27 actually says “there hasn’t been a prophet in Israel for some time.” (See also 1 Maccabees 4:46; 14:41.) This is in sharp contrast to the rest of the Old Testament. You cannot read through the Old Testament without coming across “thus says the Lord” or “the Lord spoke unto me saying” everywhere – over 3000 times!

  2. These books abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies, such as “Nebuchadnezzar reigned over the Assyrians at Nineveh” (Judith). The book of Baruch claims to be written by the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah (7th century B.C.), but he quotes from the prophet Daniel (who wrote in the 6th century B.C. — 70 to 80 years after Baruch’s death). For more on inaccuracies see Biblequery.org.

  3. They teach doctrines and foster practices which are in disagreement with the 66 books that both Roman Catholics and Protestants recognize as Scriptural. The Apocryphal books contain assertions that “almsgiving will atone for sin” (Tobit), an angel can have a human father (Tobit), and the pre-existence of souls (Wisdom 8:19,20).

  4. Jesus and the apostles quoted hundreds of times from the Old Testament, but they never quoted from any of the books of the Apocrypha. Jesus affirmed the prevailing Jewish view that the Old Testament was made up of “the law, the prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), which was the common manner of referring to the three-fold division of the 39 books of the Old Testament.

  5. The Jewish people never accepted the Apocryphal books as divinely inspired.

    Josephus, the Jewish historian (AD 37-100), explicitly excludes the Apocrypha from the inspired books of the Old Testament. In giving the view of Jewish people he quite explicitly says: “From Artaxerxes until our time everything has been recorded, but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased” (Josephus writing in Against Apion i. 8.41,42). In this statement Josephus commits himself to a very precise date for the closing of the Old Testament canon (Artaxerxes reigned from 465 to 425 BC) and says that nothing inspired was written after that date, because God ceased to speak through prophets to His people.

    While there is some disagreement about the dates of composition of the Apocryphal books, even Roman Catholics agree that some deuterocanonical books were written between the Old and New Testaments, that is, after 425 BC and before Jesus’ birth. But Josephus says there was no one receiving direct revelation from God at this time. Without prophecy there can be no inspired writings.

    The Jewish scholars of Jamnia (A.D. 90) who gathered after the destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70, did not recognize the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture. This gives us some insight into the Jewish view during the 1st century and agrees with what Josephus recorded. This has been and continues to be the view of Jewish people to this day.

    This is a very crucial point. Paul wrote in Romans 3:2, “To the Jew was entrusted the keeping of God’s oracles” and again in Romans 9:4 he said that the Jewish people “received the law… and the promises.” If prior to the coming of the Messiah, Jewish people were entrusted with God’s Word, God’s law, and God’s promises and they did not recognize the Apocrypha as inspired, then on what basis can we include these extra writings as part of God’s Word?

  6. Unlike the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament, there was never uniform agreement in the Christian church concerning the Apocrypha.

    Many of the great Fathers of the early church spoke out against the Apocrypha, for example Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius bishop of Alexandria, the church historian Eusebius, and Gregory Nanzianzus. While there were also some that believed the Apocryphal books were divinely inspired, the view of the church fathers on this issue is far from uniform – some include the apocryphal books, others do not include them, some include books beyond the seven held by the Catholic church.

    Even though there is no uniform agreement, the testimony of some should hold greater weight. By the fourth century, the church had become overwhelmingly Gentile. The scholar Jerome (340-420) at this stage in the church’s history is one of the few individuals who had a knowledge of Hebrew and of Jewish practice. Jerome was also the translator of the Vulgate, the New Latin version of the Bible, which became the Roman Church’s translation for many, many centuries. Jerome absolutely rejected the Apocrypha as part of the canon. He disputed across the Mediterranean with Augustine on this point. He at first refused even to translate the Apocryphal books into Latin, but after some “friendly” pressure he reluctantly inserted Judith, Tobit, the Additions to Esther, and the Additions to Daniel into his Latin Vulgate. He separated these books from the rest of the Old Testament with a statement clearly indicating that these books were not divinely inspired. The rest of the apocryphal books were added to the Vulgate literally “over his dead body,” that is after Jerome’s demise. They were copied into his New Latin Vulgate directly from the Old Latin Version. In later centuries, Roman Catholics will appeal to the inclusion of the Apocryphal books in the Vulgate as the reason for their acceptance as Scripture, but the translator of the Vulgate did not view them as having any divine origin!

    It is true that two synods formally defined the canon as including the deuterocanonical books – Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage (397 A.D.). But these meetings were regional, not general church councils. Augustine was the most prominent bishop of these North African meetings and, as already mentioned, he was in a debate with Jerome about whether the Apocrypha was inspired or not. In some measure the synod pronouncements reflect his views on the matter.

    There is even disagreement among the bishops of Rome. Pope Innocent I, sent a letter in 405 to a Gallican bishop. In this letter he reaffirmed the canon and it contains all the deuterocanonical books, without any distinction from the rest of the Old Testament. But Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), in his commentaries on Job (Lib. XIX. Cap. 16.), expressly wrote “First Maccabees is not canonical.”

    The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “In the Latin Church, all through the Middle Ages we find evidence of hesitation about the character of the deuterocanonicals. There is a current friendly to them, another one distinctly unfavorable to their authority and sacredness, while wavering between the two are a number of writers whose veneration for these books is tempered by some perplexity as to their exact standing, and among those we note St. Thomas Aquinas. Few are found to unequivocally acknowledge their canonicity.”

  7. The final and official decision to include the deuterocanonical books was quite late and motivated by a desire to safeguard certain doctrines that the Roman Catholic Church had come to practice.

    It was not until the Council of Florence (1439-43) that the pope made a pronouncement (a papal bull) on the Apocrypha – he included the deuterocanonical books in his list of Old Testament Scriptures.

    But in spite of the pope’s pronouncement, disagreement continued into the Reformation era. Many Roman Catholic scholars and church leaders in the Reformation period rejected the Apocrypha. Luther and the Reformers should not just be viewed as outsiders. They were originally part of the church. When they rejected the canonicity of the Apocrypha, they were often speaking as priests, doctors, and scholars still within the church. They believed that in doing so they were returning to the Jewish view of the canon, which Jesus shared (Luke 24:44).

    The disagreement over the Apocrypha was wide spread and included even the members of the Council of Trent which met to combat the Protestant Reformation. After Luther’s departure from the church, the council of Trent issued a definitive statement on the contents of the Bible. This was the first time that a general council of the church made the Apocrypha an absolute article of faith and confirmed it by anathema. On April 8, 1546, by a vote of 24 to 15 with 16 abstentions, a decree (De Canonicis Scripturis) was issued and the Apocryphal books received full canonical status by the Roman Catholic Church. Passages in the Apocrypha could be used to buttress doctrines like purgatory (2 Maccabees 12:39-46), praying to saints, and salvation by almsgiving (Ecclesiasticus 3:30).

– Dennis Rupert, 11/5/06.

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