Where Did the Bible Come From?
The Bible is a collection of 66 books believed to have been written by more than 40 divinely-inspired authors. It’s thousands of years old, and Christians still place their trust in it today. So where did the Bible come from? How did we end up with these 66 books?
In his online systematic theology course, Dr. Wayne Grudem explores the origins of the biblical canon to answer questions like these. The following post is adapted from his course.
The formation of the Bible began with the 10 Commandments
The earliest collection of written words from God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments form the beginning of the biblical canon. God himself wrote on two tablets of stone the words which he commanded his people:
“And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Again we read, “And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (Exodus 32:16, see also Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4). The tablets were deposited in the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5) and constituted the terms of the covenant between God and his people.
Moses wrote the Law
This collection of absolutely authoritative words from God grew in size throughout the time of Israel’s history. Moses himself wrote additional words to be deposited beside the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24–26):
After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.
The immediate reference is apparently to the book of Deuteronomy, but other references to writing by Moses indicate that the first four books of the Old Testament were written by him as well (see Exodus 17:14, 24:4, 34:27, Numbers 33:2, Deuteronomy 31:22).
Joshua adds to the Word
After the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God: “Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God” (Joshua 24:26). This is especially surprising in light of the command not to add to or take away from the words which God gave the people through Moses: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it . . .” (Deuteronomy 4:2, see also 12:32).
In order to have disobeyed such a specific command, Joshua must have been convinced that he was not taking it upon himself to add to the written words of God, but that God himself had authorized such additional writing.
Prophets add to the canon
Later, others in Israel, usually those who fulfilled the office of prophet, wrote additional words from God:
“Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:25).
“The acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer” (1 Chronicles 29:29).
“Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Jehu the son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel” (2 Chronicles 20:34, see also 1 Kings 16:7 where Jehu the son of Hanani is called a prophet).
“Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote” (2 Chronicles 26:22).
“Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and his good deeds, behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel” (2 Chronicles 32:32).
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2).
The Old Testament was finished in 435 B.C.
If we date Haggai to 520 B.C., Zechariah to 520–518 B.C. (with perhaps more material added after 480 B.C.), and Malachi around 435 B.C., we have an idea of the approximate dates of the last Old Testament prophets.
Roughly coinciding with this period are the last books of Old Testament history—Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Ezra went to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., and Nehemiah was in Jerusalem from 445–433 B.C. Esther was written sometime after the death of Xerxes-I (Ahasuerus) in 465 B.C., probably during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464–423 B.C.).
After approximately 435 B.C. there were no additions to the Old Testament canon. The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.
The “400 Years of Silence”
When we turn to Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see that the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased is clearly attested in several different strands of extrabiblical Jewish literature.
Learn more about what happened between the Old and New Testaments.
In 1 Maccabees (about 100 B.C.) the author writes of the defiled altar, “So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them” (1 Maccabees. 4:45–46). They knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done.
The author also spoke of a great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (1 Maccabees 9:27, see also 14:41).
Josephus (born c. A.D. 37/38) explained, “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” (Against Apion 1.41). This statement by the greatest Jewish historian of the first century A.D. shows that he knew of the writings now considered part of the “Apocrypha,” but that he (and many of his contemporaries) considered these other writings “not . . . worthy of equal credit” with what we now know as the Old Testament Scriptures.
In Josephus’s viewpoint, there were no more “words of God” added to Scripture after about 435 B.C.
Rabbinic literature reflects a similar conviction in its repeated statement that the Holy Spirit (in the Spirit’s function of inspiring prophecy) departed from Israel. “After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the bath qôl’ (Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b, repeated in Sota 48b, Sanhedrin 11a, and Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs, 8.9.3).
The Qumran community (the Jewish sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls) also awaited a prophet whose words would have authority to supersede any existing regulations (see 1 QS 9.11), and other similar statements are found elsewhere in ancient Jewish literature (see 2 Baruch 85.3 and Prayer of Azariah 15). Thus, writings subsequent to about 435 B.C. were not accepted by the Jewish people generally as having equal authority with the rest of Scripture.
What about the apocryphal books?
The Apocrypha was never accepted by the Jews as Scripture, but the early church was divided on whether those books should be part of Scripture or not. The earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.
The fact that these books were included by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (completed in A.D. 404) gave support to their inclusion, even though Jerome himself said they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful and useful for believers. The wide use of the Latin Vulgate in subsequent centuries guaranteed their continued accessibility, but many people rejected or were suspicious of these books for three reasons:
- They had no Hebrew original behind them.
- Their exclusion from the Jewish canon.
- The lack of their citation in the New Testament.
The New Testament authors didn’t consider them Scripture
In the New Testament, we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus, his disciples, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times (Revelation and the Bible), but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. The absence of any reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the frequent reference to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, seems to confirm that the New Testament authors agreed on the established Old Testament canon.
Many early church fathers did not consider them canonical
The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books that exists today is by Melito, bishop of Sardis, writing about A.D. 170:
“When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms, two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.”
Melito names none of the books of the Apocrypha, but he includes all of our present Old Testament books except Esther. Eusebius also quotes Origen as affirming most of the books of our present Old Testament canon (including Esther), but no book of the Apocrypha is affirmed as canonical, and the books of Maccabees are explicitly said to be “outside of these [canonical books]” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.15.2.)
Similarly, in A.D. 367, when the great church leader Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote his Paschal Letter, he listed all the books of our present New Testament canon and all the books of our present Old Testament canon except Esther. He also mentioned some books of the Apocrypha such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Judith, and Tobit, and said these are “not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness” (Letter 39).
Other early church leaders did call several of these books Scripture.
Can canonical works contain errors?
There are doctrinal and historical inconsistencies with a number of the Apocryphal books. E. J. Young notes:
“There are no marks in these books which would attest a divine origin. . . . both Judith and Tobit contain historical, chronological, and geographical errors. The books justify falsehood and deception and make salvation to depend upon works of merit. . . . Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon inculcate a morality based upon expediency. Wisdom teaches the creation of the world out of preexistent matter (11:17). Ecclesiasticus teaches that the giving of alms makes atonement for sin (3:30). In Baruch it is said that God hears the prayers of the dead (3:4), and in I Maccabees there are historical and geographical errors” (Revelation and the Bible).
The Roman Catholic Church declared the Apocrypha as canon
In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). The Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone.
How do we decide what counts as Scripture?
By affirming the Apocrypha as canonical, Roman Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as “Scripture.” Protestants hold that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already caused to be written as his own words.
A police investigator can recognize counterfeit money as counterfeit and can recognize genuine money as genuine, but he cannot make counterfeit money to be genuine, nor can any declaration by any number of police make counterfeit money to be something it is not. Only the official treasury of a nation can make money that is real money; similarly, only God can make words to be his very words and worthy of inclusion in Scripture.
The Apocrypha shouldn’t be considered Scripture
We must conclude that they are merely human words, not God-breathed words like the words of Scripture:
- They do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings.
- They were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated.
- They were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors.
- They contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.
The Apocryphal books have value for historical and linguistic research, and they contain a number of helpful stories about the courage and faith of many Jews during the period after the Old Testament ends, but they have never been part of the Old Testament canon, and they should not be thought of as part of the Bible. Therefore, they have no binding authority for the thought or life of Christians today.
The New Testament began with the apostles
In John 14:26, Jesus promised his disciples that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to remember his words and teachings:
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Jesus also promised further revelation from the Holy Spirit when he told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14).
In these verses the disciples are promised amazing gifts to enable them to write Scripture: the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things,” would cause them to remember “all” that Jesus had said, and would guide them into “all the truth.”
The apostles claimed to have divine authority
The apostles claimed to have an authority equal to the Old Testament prophets—an authority to speak and write words that came directly from God.
Peter encourages his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). And to lie to the apostles (Acts 5:2) was equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and lying to God (Acts 5:4).
Paul especially claimed to speak the words of God. He claimed not only that the Holy Spirit revealed to him “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9), but also that when he declared this revelation, he spoke it “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting Spiritual things in Spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13, author’s translation).
Similarly, Paul tells the Corinthians, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). The word translated “what” in this verse is a plural relative pronoun in Greek (ha) and more literally could be translated “the things that I am writing to you.” Thus, Paul claims that his directives to the church at Corinth are not merely his own but a command of the Lord.
Later, in defending his apostolic office, Paul says that he will give the Corinthians “proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Corinthians 13:3). He makes similar claims elsewhere (for example, Romans 2:16, Galatians 1:8–9, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 4:8, 15, 5:27, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14).
Peter affirms Paul’s writings as Scripture
In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter shows not only an awareness of the existence of written epistles from Paul, but also a clear willingness to classify “all of his [Paul’s] epistles” with “the other scriptures.”
Peter says, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16). The word translated “scriptures” here is graphē, a word that occurs fifty-one times in the New Testament and that refers to the Old Testament Scriptures in every one of those occurrences. Thus, the word Scripture was a technical term for the New Testament authors, and it was used only of those writings that were thought to be God’s words and therefore part of the canon of Scripture.
But in this verse, Peter classifies Paul’s writings with the “other Scriptures” (meaning the Old Testament Scriptures). Paul’s writings are therefore considered by Peter also to be worthy of the title “Scripture” and thus worthy of inclusion in the canon.
Which books did the apostles write?
Because the apostles, by virtue of their apostolic office, had authority to write words of Scripture, the authentic written teachings of the apostles were accepted by the early church as part of the canon of Scripture. If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles. This would include Matthew; John; Romans to Philemon (all of the Pauline epistles); James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation.
This leaves five New Testament books which were not written by apostles: Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude.
Books written by associates of the apostles
The details of the historical process by which these books came to be counted as part of Scripture by the early church are scarce, but Mark, Luke, and Acts were commonly acknowledged very early, probably because of the close association of Mark with the apostle Peter, and of Luke (the author of Luke-Acts) with the apostle Paul.
Paul even calls a portion of Luke’s gospel “Scripture” in 1 Timothy 5:17-18:
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”
The first quotation from “Scripture” is found in Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quotation, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It does occur, however, in Luke 10:7 (with exactly the same words in the Greek text).
So here we have Paul apparently quoting a portion of Luke’s gospel and calling it “Scripture.” We see evidence that very early in the history of the church the writings of the New Testament began to be accepted as part of the canon.
Similarly, Jude apparently was accepted by virtue of the author’s connection with James (see Jude 1) and the fact that he was the brother of Jesus.
What about Hebrews?
Many in the early church believed Hebrews should be considered canonical because they assumed it was written by Paul. But from very early times there were others who rejected Pauline authorship in favor of one or another of several different suggestions.
Origen, who died about A.D. 254, mentions various theories of authorship and concludes, “But who actually wrote the epistle, only God knows.”
The intrinsic qualities of the book itself must have finally convinced early readers (as they continue to convince believers today) that whoever its human author may have been, its ultimate author can only have been God himself.
The majestic glory of Christ shines forth from the pages of Hebrews so brightly that no believer who reads it seriously should ever want to question its place in the canon.
What makes a book of the Bible canonical?
For a book to belong in the canon, it must have divine authorship. If the words of the book are God’s words (through human authors), and if the early church, under the direction of the apostles, preserved the book as part of Scripture, then it belongs in the canon.
But if the words of the book are not God’s words, it does not belong in the canon. Christ primarily gave the apostles the ability to write words with absolute divine authority. If a writing can be shown to be by an apostle, then its divine authority is automatically established. Thus, the early church automatically accepted as part of the canon the written teachings of the apostles which the apostles wanted preserved as Scripture.
But the existence of some New Testament writings that were not authored directly by apostles shows that there were others in the early church to whom Christ also gave the ability (through the Holy Spirit) to write words that were God’s own words and also therefore part of the canon.
In these cases, the early church had the task of recognizing which writings had the characteristic of being God’s Word.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the early church could recognize Hebrews and other writings not written by apostles as God’s words. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). It’s not impossible or unlikely, that the early church would be able to use a combination of factors to decide that a writing was in fact God’s words (through a human author) and therefore worthy of inclusion in the canon.
Those factors could include things like:
- Apostolic endorsement
- Consistency with the rest of Scripture
- An overwhelming acceptance of writing as “God-breathed” by a majority of believers
The church could use this process over a period of time—as writings were circulated to various parts of the early church—and finally to come to a completely correct decision, without excluding any writings that were in fact “God-breathed” and without including any that were not.
The canon we have today was finalized in the fourth century A.D.
In A.D. 367 the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius contained an exact list of the twenty-seven New Testament books we have today. This was the list of books accepted by the churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world.
Thirty years later, in A.D. 397, the Council of Carthage, representing the churches in the western part of the Mediterranean world, agreed with the eastern churches on the same list. These are the earliest final lists of our present-day canon.
At the end of the last chapter in the final book in the biblical canon, John writes:
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” —Revelation 22:18-19
Learn more by signing up for Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology online course.