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Can (or Should) We Change the Canon of Scripture? A Blast from the Past


Digging around in posts from five years ago now, I came across this one –as interesting to me now as it was then!  Hope you think so too.  It’s a response to a penetrating question.


Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren’t authored by Paul or John..so why are they still in the NT?


Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy (because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years).  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote.

And that’s the problem with Hebrews and Revelation – and all the other books that were admitted when Church Fathers (wrongly) thought they were written by apostles of Jesus (in this case Paul and John).  No one is going to give any of us a vote.

By way of background, it’s absolutely true that in the early church, when the proto-orthodox and then the orthodox Christian leaders who were making decisions were debating over which books to be included in Scripture, they had several criteria in mind that books had to pass in order to “make it in.”  A book had to be ancient – going back to the time of the first generation (even a great book, if written last week sometime, wasn’t going to be counted as canonical); it had to be widely used (and not just a local favorite); it had to “toe the line” theologically (no heresy allowed!); and – among the very most important considerations, it had to be “apostolic” – i.e., written by an apostle (Peter, Paul, John, etc.) or by someone very, very closely connected with an apostle (Mark, the translator of Peter; Luke the travelling companion of Paul).

The problem was that…

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  1. doug  June 8, 2017

    The rigid views of some believers remind me of a Stephen Colbert quote about a certain past president – you always knew what he thought, because he always thought the same thing on Wed. as he did on Mon., regardless of what happened on Tues.

  2. steelerpat  June 8, 2017

    Hmm. Summon Martin luther?

  3. anthonygale  June 9, 2017

    Considering that different denominations of Christianity have different versions of the Old Testament (e.g. Catholics having 46 books), and that other religions have additional texts (e.g. Book of Mormon for LDS), why do you think there hasn’t been more variation with the accepted books of the New Testament? Has there at least been debate about possibly altering the new testament canon by people such as Martin Luther, even if the final decision was to leave the canon unaltered?

    I wonder sometimes what the impact would be if religious leaders said: Look, we can’t deny that in 2000 years times have changed and we’ve learned a thing or two, so we are going to make changes. For Catholics at least, the pope could invoke his authority. If you’ve ever read the Onion (a fake newspaper meant to be humorous), there is an article entitled “Christ Converts to Islam.” In the article, Christ’s conversion causes varied reactions. Some convert as he does, others continue to worship him against his objections, and the Jews for Jesus organization splits into three factions: Jews for Allah, Jews Still for Jesus, and Jews for Just Being Jews Again. As silly as that article is, I think the reaction to changing the canon would be something like that, at least in the short term. But in the long run, would it be good or bad for religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      Yes, it’s absolutely right: much less controversy about the New Testament. Maybe because early on Christians were more focused on it (nad getting it right) than on the OT? Worth reflecting on!

    • catguy  June 10, 2017

      I will only say that Luther had personal reasons for objecting to certain books in the cannon. Luther hated law. He hated anything that even smelled of law and obedience. I don’t think Luther necessarily thought certain books were non-canonical but merely that he objected to what they said. He also detested books in the Bible that were in his view too Jewish.

  4. John1003  June 9, 2017

    I have been reading your book forged. I am struggling in particular with the type of evidence you use to say Paul wrote this letter but not that letter. I have many questions but let me give one example. Paul uses the word saved referring to the death and resurrection but in the pastorals he refers to women being saved through child birth. I agree with you that the two words have different meanings. Does this suggest different authors. I use the same words to express different ideas in a different context all the time.
    1) That surgeon because of his great skill saved my life. 2) muhammed ali was about to get knocked out by Joe Frazier but was saved by the bell. Words are flexible. I could have used both sentences. Why cant Paul be flexible in the way he uses a single word ??

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      Yes, you’re right — it would be crazy (or at least irresponsible) to make a decision based on the use of just this word or that! There need to be a large number of arguments/pieces of evidence. If you want to see a more full-bodied explanation, take any of the books you’re interested in and see how I discuss it in my more thorough book , Forgery and Counterforgery.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 9, 2017

    I’ve been reading the Sibylline Oracles, and, let me tell ya, if those had managed to work their way into the Canon, they would have added a whole next level to the Bible.

  6. jhague  June 9, 2017

    I agree that the canon is not ever going to change. The average church goer does not have any idea that Paul did not write Hebrews or that the apostle John did not write Revelation. The leaders of the Christian churches that I know about actually tell them that the authors that are traditionally thought to have written the books did in fact write them. Other than people looking into this on their own, there does not appear to be a way to inform the average church goer. If I tell them this information, they think I’m wrong and crazy. What is your experience with your students regarding this?

  7. Robert  June 9, 2017

    What will happen in 3 million or 3 billion CE, when a digital archaeologist discovers an ancient, partially corrupt mp3 recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Broadway rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar”? Will scripture scholars dispute its validity, with ‘conservatives’ claiming it shows marks of being an eye-witness heterodox account and liberals claiming that it more likely betrays signs of a 20th-century Sitz-im-Leben, while nonetheless being a genuinely valid response to the message of Jesus? It is indeed part, not of my canon within a canon, but rather my canon upon a canon.

    By the way, here’s a link to the previous discussion of this, in case anyone is interested: https://ehrmanblog.org/should-we-change-the-canon-of-scripture-for-members/

    • anthonygale  June 10, 2017

      That’s a great point and I’ve wondered something similar. I think it would depend greatly on what else is found along with it. If they find a copy of Jesus Christ Superstar, know what Broadway is based on availability of other evidence, and maybe even find a New York Times review on it, what they think might be very different than if they found little else from the period, little from the previous 1900 years, but also had a copy of the Gospel of Mark. I wonder how people’s views might be affected if we discover additional texts from the ancient world, such as letters from 2nd century church leaders explicitly stating that the gospels aren’t meant to be taken literally, or a 4th Epistle of John telling the community that a texting sounding very much like the book of Revelation was written by someone other than their beloved leader. Or a letter from a 4th century church father discussing how such documents were considered heresy and destroyed.

      • Eric  June 21, 2017

        I would be interested in a post on what sorts of arguments were made by ancient skeptics of the Revelation, Hebrews, maybe other books’ attributions/authorship. Were they proto-textual criticism? Examples? Seeds of other current approaches? (discrepancies, arguments you’ve talked about like “not in author’s interest to include this fact” sort of thing?)

  8. erudite  June 9, 2017

    When I ride around my local area and see 15 or so Christian churches which purport to worship the same God and use the same Bible, I wonder how an all powerful God would let this happen.

  9. rburos  June 9, 2017

    I once asked a priest if they would add (if found and “verified”) an authentic Q, or even a book written by Christ himself. He said no because even if “verified” we would have no evidence of widespread use among the first generation. Of course the Catholics have a doctrine of no new public revelations (a way of closing the door on the Quran or the Book of Mormon?).

    • SidDhartha1953  June 14, 2017

      Can you provide a citation for the “no new public revelations” in the RCC? The apparitions at Lourdes seem to have been officially endorsed, at least in part.

  10. nbraith1975  June 9, 2017

    This is very interesting because one of the big questions I have always had is how was it even determined that certain writings or letters needed to be compiled in such a way as to become “scripture;” in a sense that they essentially became the “word of God?”

    It seems that for a group of men to make that determination would take a significant amount of ecclesiastical presumption on their part. Especially because there doesn’t seem to be any account of Jesus giving orders to compile an authoritative document that would be considered the “ordained” word of God concerning the church.

    Jesus specifically told the apostles that he would send his holy spirit that would guide them into all truth. Not a single word about writing that “guidance” down in a book.

    It is evident that this “book,” as scripture, has caused nothing but contentious divisions among those who call themselves Christians – to the tune of thousands of denominations that are separated and continue to spar over the content of that book.

  11. Carl  June 9, 2017

    Other than 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and Romans 16:7, do you consider any other parts of Paul’s probable books that may have been altered/added in a significant way? cheers

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      What are you thinking with respect to Romans 16:7? (There are other important interpolations — such as the passage about Belial and being unequally yoked in 2 Cor. 6)

      • brandon284  June 10, 2017

        How do scholars come to understand these verses are interpolations? Specifically 2 Cor. 6?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2017

          They interrupt the discussion of the context; they use ideas not found otherwise in Paul (being unequally yoked); and they use vocabulary unlike what Paul uses otherwise (Beliar, e.g.).

      • Carl  June 10, 2017

        That it was altered to imply that Junia/s was not female and/or not an Apostle.

        Similarly-ish, I have heard that earlier translations of 1 Corinthians 12 states that Paul was not suggesting that the gifts of the Spirit were exclusive but periodical i.e-sometimes one is called to be a prophet, on other occasions one is called to be a teacher. As is appointed by the Spirit.
        In that sense there was no heirarchy. And so if the role of an apostle is to build God’s church(Which I have interpreted as converting people to christianity), then all who become christian, male or female, are called to be apostles, prophets etc.
        Is there anything in the earliest translations that supports this?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2017

          Romans 16:7 has been altered by translators into English to make Junia a male figure Junian (even though no such male name existe din antiquity). It’s not something scribes did. I’m not aware of any early manuscripts that make that kind of change in 1 Corinthians 12.

  12. hasankhan  June 9, 2017

    Qur’an (2:79) So woe to those who write the “scripture” with their own hands, then say, “This is from Allah ,” in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.

  13. NN  June 9, 2017

    Since we can’t revise the old canon, are there any books that you would include in a canon (of sorts) from the most recent 2000 years?
    What would be the criterion for inclusion (moral principles, quest for meaning of life, hope, and healing, etc.)?
    Authors such as; Martian Luther King, Dalai Lama, Walt Whitman, Lao-Tzeon, Joel Osteen?
    Maybe you’ll answer this in your comments regarding your current beliefs as an atheist (Doctrine according to Bart)?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Since I’m not a Christian, I don’t think it would be right for me to tell Christians what books to add to their scriptures. My own favorite books (19th century English novels) would not be candidates in any event!

  14. catguy  June 9, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, if you had the opportunity to select the canonical books for the NT, do you have an idea which ones and why? You are skeptical of Hebrews and Revelation or at least their authorship. Are there other NT epistles you might omit?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      I don’t think a non-Christian like me has the right to tell the Christians which books should be in their Bible! (But note: Revelation does not claim to be written by any *particular* John; and Hebrews does not claim to be written by Paul — or by anyone else!)

  15. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  June 10, 2017

    Oh yeah, it’s time to get schwifty in here!

  16. rokoja  June 10, 2017

    Just an interresting note from me:

    Ive read that 2 Timothy 3:16 which in the king james version states:

    “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:”

    Is actually a mistranslation. The correct translation should look like this:

    Every God-breathed writing (or scripture) is profitable for (establishing) doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness

    Which gives it a completely different meaning.



    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      The problem with that alternative translation is the KAI before “profitable.” It appears that the sense must be “is inspired AND is …”

  17. RonaldTaska  June 10, 2017

    1. Great post although it is discouraging that scholarship is often not very persuasive.
    2. “Forged” is a terrific book and I highly recommend it to those new to this blog. This canonization process is also thoroughly reviewed by you in one of the Great Courses Teaching Company courses on the subject of canonization which I also highly recommend.
    3. I agree that First Timothy is the first book I would exclude from the canon. The insistence of Churches of Christ about what this scripture says about women is the main reason I left that church and the main reason I became convinced that churches can do much harm and not just good deeds. Until I struggled with this issue, I was convinced that even if churches were wrong about certain things, they still do more good than harm. I am no longer so sure about that. The last time I attended this church, they were discussing this issue in a class and I raised the question about who actually wrote First Timothy and why we think it was not Paul and why that might mean taking that scripture less seriously than other scriptures. You could have heard a pin drop. No one responded or commented. Eventually, the preacher who was teaching the class said “Well, let’s get back to the Bible” and that was that. So much for scholarship.

    • dragonfly  June 10, 2017

      That must have felt awkward.

      • RonaldTaska  June 12, 2017

        Dragonfly: It did indeed and one of the big problems is a loss of a lot of social and family activities. If one does not have the “correct” beliefs, one loses those social contacts pretty quickly. The Law of Attraction: Believers attract those with similar beliefs.

  18. ZekePiestrup
    ZekePiestrup  June 10, 2017

    If 1 Timothy is your choice for getting kicked out of the canon club, what about genocidal ideologies expressed in Joshua & Deuteronomy 7? Does not the continued inclusion of such morally reprehensible books betray that for believers canonicity > ethics? However, I perceive that young believers today have a more idealistic view of god than previous generations. These kids don’t think that god does bad stuff. God is love or riteousness, etc. Do you think this issue of a more idealistic generation & problematic texts like Joshua 6-11 will force a real reconsideration in our lifetime of reopening the canon discussion?
    Continued props to you, Professor.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Yes, I was referring only to the NT canon. My view is that hte Bible has lots of problems, but communities of faith continue to find real value even with those parts that can be seen as problematic, and it’s not really my place to tell them to get rid of their sacred texts. (!)

  19. James Cotter  June 10, 2017

    Bart Ehrman said : Greek is his first language; and he doesn’t seem to know the customs or geography of Palestine. (Customs, e.g., Mark 6, his claim that “all Jews” wash their hands before eating. Not even close to true. If he had grown up among Jews he would have known that.)

    Dr Ehrman, were you specifically talking about Jewish PRACTICES in first century palestine/israel?

    This is what is quoted by Tim mcgrw :

    “And as is the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God, …” —Letter of Aristeas (~200 BC), sec. 305
    The law “does not look upon those who have even touched a dead body, which has met with a natural death, as pure and clean, until they have washed and purified themselves with sprinklings and ablutions; …” Philo (~AD 30), The Special Laws 3.205

    “The centrality of impurity to Jewish life in the Second Temple period is supported by archaeological evidence. The discovery of mikvaot in such diverse places as Gamla, Sepphoris, Herodium and Massada suggests that in Palestine the removal of impurity was not a rite reserved only for approaching the sacred precincts of the Temple, but was common practice for Jews of all walks of life. . . . [T]he textual evidence suggests that the Jews of the Diaspora also purified themselves, if not through immersion, then by sprinkling, splashing or hand washing.”
    —Susan Haber, “They Shall Purify Themselves”: Essays on Purity

    quoting marks text

    (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,[a] thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;[b] and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.[c])

    1. washing BEFORE eating
    2.washing food from market
    3. washing of dishes

    do any of the quotes above support the list i mentioned above?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      I hope Tim McGraw doesn’t think that every Jew washed his hands in the sea before they ate. What of those who didn’t live near the sea? (!)

      I’m talking specifically about Mark’s claim that “the Jews” always “washed their hands” before they ate a meal. Your other references have to do with ritual cleansing pools (miqvoth) in which Jews would occasionally immerse themselves as a ritual act. That happened throughout Palestine (if you visit, you can see lots of ancient examples dug up by archaeologists). But it’s not the same as washing hands before meals (something some Pharisees did).

      • James Cotter  June 11, 2017

        thanks Dr Ehrman

      • James Cotter  June 11, 2017

        “I hope Tim McGraw doesn’t think that every Jew washed his hands in the sea before they ate. What of those who didn’t live near the sea? (!)”

        that was so obvious but my brains weren’t clever enough to catch that out.

  20. Benjamin
    Benjamin  June 10, 2017

    Hi Bart, is there a reason why you can’t write your own? Canons are not the absolute standards here.

  21. anthonygale  June 10, 2017

    On a somewhat related note, I think that many people are reluctant to change other dogmatic beliefs that are based (logically or not) on canon, even if they aren’t in the canon. An example that I find most disturbing is the belief that unbaptized babies who die go to hell. I don’t know how widespread that belief is today (I imagine/hope it is a very small minority), but without question there are people who believe/have believed it. There is a dogmatic belief that people are born with original sin and another that baptism is required to remove it. So, if you accept those beliefs, it would follow that an unbaptized child (or fetus that dies during a miscarriage) burns in hell for all eternity despite never having had an opportunity to make any choices. It is one thing to accept what one believes to be the inspired word of God, but this is a human conclusion drawn from the canon that is not explicitly stated in the canon (at least as far as I know). And I suspect it is a byproduct of people not thinking things through very well before establishing their dogma. How can anyone accept this, even if they believe that the Bible is inerrant? Why can’t they just say: this makes no sense, obviously we (not God) made a mistake somewhere or that God surely makes exceptions to this rule that he never told us about? I am aware that some people hold the “hope” that God does so. Since people seem so sure about other things that make no sense (e.g. soldiers dying because God is angry at homosexuals) and admit that some things are left unanswered in the Bible (e.g. where did Cain’s wife come from), why not just be sure that unbaptized babies don’t go to hell?

    That is more of a comment/rant than it is a question. If I am to ask a question, I suppose I would ask if you have any thoughts on the reluctance to change dogmatic conclusions based on the canon separate from your beliefs about the unlikelihood that the canon will ever change? I would imagine that most people share my views about unbaptized babies, but there are many issues that are more debatable. And if people agree that unbaptized babies are an exception to a dogmatic rule, than why aren’t there exceptions to many other rules?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Yes, I think people often change their beliefs once they realize the full implications of them.

  22. ron.davison  June 11, 2017

    If you used the same criteria for determining which books to include in the New Testament as the early church fathers but with knowledge gained since, what would the list of books look like? Would the Gospel of Thomas be included? Both of Peter’s letters be out? And – I know this is a non-trivial follow up – what would that change in terms of doctrine? How might the emphasis change and what notable particulars would be added or go away?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 12, 2017

      I suppose it would include only the seven undisputed letters of Paul, since none of the others was actually written by an apostle!

      • SidDhartha1953  June 14, 2017

        That would make for an interesting Sunday School curriculum (or trade book) — take the 7 undisputed letters of Paul and construct what Christianity would look like, based on them alone.
        A friend from high school and college days who is now a priest in the OCA has commented on his blog that, had Revelation not been read in the early Roman church (I think he means locally, not any early papal whatever) it never would have made it into the canon. To this day, he says, the Eastern Orthodox liturgies never include citations from Revelation.
        My comment: Churches can change the impact of the canon by choosing to ignore or de-emphasize those parts that are not conducive to “good religion.” If questions come up about one passage or another (the last verse of Psalm 137, for example) a good response might be, “Yes, that’s in the canon, but it doesn’t seem relevant or helpful now.”

      • ron.davison  June 23, 2017

        Wow. That’s a serious pruning.
        Thanks for the response.

  23. flyboydh1  June 16, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I agree with you that 1 Timothy should be removed. But what about every other NT book which dehumanizes the Jewish people and pushes the death of Jesus onto our our shoulders knowing how that has played out in history.

  24. Jayredinger  June 16, 2017

    Hi Bart, Michael J Kruger seems to largely disagree with many of your claims. He apparently was a past student of yours. Would you care to briefly comment about some of his deductions below?

    The Complete Series: 10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon
    August 24, 2012

    For the last 3-4 months I have been working through a blog series entitled “10 Misconceptions About the New Testament Canon.” This series exams some common beliefs out there in the academic (and lay-level) communities that prove to be problematic upon closer examination.

    Although the series is not quite finished (two more to go), I have received several requests to have it all one place. So, here is the list. I will update this list as we go along. Also, there will be a link to this list under the “Blog Series” heading in the left margin of my website.

    1) The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
    2) Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
    3) The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
    4) New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
    5) Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
    6) In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
    7) Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
    8) Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
    9) The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
    10) Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2017

      Was he a student of mine? Really? I don’t think I knew that. I would say that his list of ten things is incredibly un-nuanced. Very few of the things he is attacking are actually, in this rather grotesque form, what anyone actually argues. It’s always easier to knock down a straw man!!

  25. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  June 18, 2017

    From all my heart, and with all respect-
    Happy Father’s Day Bart!

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