Where did the Bible come from?

A friend on Facebook recently asked me how the Bible came to be in it’s present form and how Irenaeus decided which books to throw out and which books to keep.

Here’s my response:

Thanks for the question. I always love a challenge, especially since its bee a while since I’ve studied Irenaeus or the formation of the NT canon.

The first thing I would point out is that Irenaeus didn’t come up with the canon. Even though it is a popular argument from critics that Irenaeus arbitrarily chose the 4 gospels “because there are 4 winds”, the truth is that the gospels were already in widespread circulation long before Irenaeus came on the scene.

Irenaeus wasn’t the only one to list the books that were considered canonical, there were several writers that listed the accepted canonical books of the NT.

In fact, two of the biblical authors, Paul and Peter, cite eachother’s books as Scripture. Which means that by the time Paul wrote to Timothy that all Scripture was God breathed and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), he already considered at least some of the letters that the other apostles had written to be included along with the OT.

The second thing I would point out is that the “missing gospels” like Judas, Thomas, etc. were never really missing nor were they unknown by the majority of Christendom. They were known and, in the case of Judas, they were soundly rejected at the very beginning by the early believers because they simply did not meet the criteria already established for authoritative writings. Some of those criteria were:

  • clear authorship
  • written within the author’s lifetime1
  • and it must be internally consistent
  • it must be consistent with both the OT as well as the already accepted texts of the NT

The earliest collections of writings passed around included the apocryphal and deuterocanonical writings. These were in the earliest editions of the King James bible and they still exist in Catholic and a few other denominations’ Bibles. However, these writings were never considered canon by the church until after Martin Luther in the 1500s challenged some of the practices of the church of Rome. Then the RCC canonized a few of the apocryphal writings to strengthen some of their practices such as praying to saints, the exalted view of Mary, etc.

Finally, I would note that the best place to begin if you are searching for the historical basis of Christianity is to examine the gospels as historical evidence in the same fashion as any other ancient source. From this historical approach it is worth asking one central question which is “Who was Jesus?”.

The reason this question is important is that the whole of the Christian faith rests on one historical event (1 Corinthians 15) and if that event is found to be false, then all of Christianity is rendered invalid. So if you are looking for a place to start, I would highly encourage you to start with that one question, keeping in mind that the gospels in the NT are separate documents which each present an eyewitness account of one man’s life, death, and resurrection.

After examining the Gospels in light of the question above, I am willing to wager that the answer as to why other books were not accepted as canonical will be readily apparent as their goal is not the same as the gospel writers to, as Luke puts it, “provide an orderly account” (Luke 1:3) of historical events.

Here are some excellent resources regarding the formation of the NT if you are interested:

Bonus: Here is the history of our English Bible.

Extra credit: Here is a 30 part lesson series to answer the question of “Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?”

  1. by contrast the earliest known copy of the gospel of Judas is dated to the 2nd century, long after Judas’s death []
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