Here’s an interesting question I received from a blog reader long ago!


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 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 traveling companion of Paul).

The problem was that there were lots of books claiming to be written by apostles, which were in fact not.   I talk about that at length in my book Forged, and at greater length in my scholarly monograph Forgery and Counterforgery.

In the various debates over canon, different church leaders and regular ole church folk urged for the inclusion of various books: the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of Barnabas, 1 Clement, the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and so on.   Most of these were thought to pass the “apostolic” criterion by one group of Christians or another.   But church leaders had to decide.  And how did they decide?

Not so much on literary grounds for the most part, that is, by careful analysis of grammar and writing style.  In large part the decision was made on the basis of contents.  If a book’s contents seemed at all aberrant, then it obviously was not written by an apostle.  If the book’s contents were completely acceptable and even commendable, then the apostolic label could “stick.”  But the church fathers were sometimes – often, in fact – wrong.

What happens when today scholars have established beyond reasonable doubt that whoever wrote Revelation did not write the Gospel of John (as even some scholars in antiquity argued, convincingly)?   Or that Hebrews could not have been written by Paul (again, as was sometimes recognized in antiquity)?   Even more, what happens when scholars show that Paul did not write six of the letters that go under his name in the New Testament, that Peter didn’t write either of “his” letters; that Jude and James did not actually write theirs?

These latter instances are different from those of Hebrews and Revelation.  Hebrews is anonymous, so the author is not claiming to be anyone in particular;  Revelation claims to be written by someone named John, but he doesn’t claim to be “that” John.   Whoever wrote 1 Timothy, on the other hand, claimed to be Paul.  And he wasn’t Paul.  He was lying about it.  So too the author of Ephesians.  And the author of 1 Peter who claimed to be Peter.  Etc. etc.  (I discuss all this at length in my books and show how ancient readers considered this kind of literary practice deceptive and a form of lying.  That’s why I don’t think “lying” is too strong a term for us to use either)

So.   Shouldn’t we get rid of these books since they were accepted into the canon on false pretenses?

The reality – to get back to my point – is that we do not have a say in the matter.   On the one hand, plenty of Christians today continue to think that the alleged authors of these books were the real authors, and for the vast majority of them, there is NOTHING scholars can say that will change their minds.  Nothing.  Trust me.

On the other hand, by now the canon is so very firmly set that there is, realistically speaking, absolutely no way – NO WAY – that it is ever going to change.  No one, no matter how much they want or how hard they try, is going to be able to add a book (some of my students would love to see the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in there) or take away a book.  The canon is the canon is the canon, and will be, world without end.

Scholars can, however, continue to do their work on the books of the canon (and those outside the canon) and discuss who really wrote them (or rather, who really did not, since it is easier to show that Paul did not write Titus than it is to say who did – since we have no idea who did, other than that it was not Paul).   This is a matter of historical scholarship, however, not a claim of faith.  But the canon is constructed on the basis of claims of faith (e.g., that these books are uniquely inspired; that they are a revelation from God; that they should serve as Scripture for the church), not on the basis of historical scholarship.  Like it or not!

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  1. DoubtingTom October 25, 2022 at 7:08 am

    Practically speaking, seems there would be no NT. Only some of the books attributed to Paul would qualify, if he was truly an apostle, and not some guy claiming to be an apostle via an unverifiable vision.

  2. Seeker1952 October 25, 2022 at 9:13 am

    In “Heaven and Hell,” you argue convincingly that Jesus believed in the eventual annihilation of evil people rather than everlasting torture. A huge improvement over what we used to think.

    To push it a step further, might Jesus have talked about annihilation more as a warning in the form of something like a parable than as a threat? Something to wake people up and take their lives seriously? Something that described what their current-rather than future-lives were like unless they repented and loved one another?

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:32 am

      I think it was indeed a warning, but I don’tthink he saw it as an empty thrat.

  3. Stephen October 25, 2022 at 9:23 am

    What a tremendous opportunity for a new “Jesus Seminar” type effort where critical scholars get together and vote on which books in the Bible should be removed! Think of the headlines! Think of the fundraising opportunities for conservative evangelicals, warning their followers against liberal scholars attacking scripture! (James White would mine this for years.) Don’t neglect media celebrities like Taylor Swift and you should include at least one Kardashian.

    How could you possibly let this chance go by?

  4. Seeker1952 October 25, 2022 at 9:41 am

    Don’t some people talk about a “Canon” within the Canon? What does it consist of? Is there a common understanding of what that sub-Canon is?

    My impression is that it’s mainly Paul, especially the Letter to the Romans, and maybe other parts of the NT that support Paul and his “faith alone” message.

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:34 am

      Oh yes, it’s a very common theological trope. The idea is that Scripture guides all theolgoical thinking, but there are some parts of scrpture more authoritative than others (e.g., the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul are more central to the canonical core than, say, the books of Numbers and 2 Peter)

  5. SnowFire October 25, 2022 at 9:56 am

    Any suggestions on books to add or remove from the Old Testament as well, at least from the perspective of Christianity’s use of it (though that question in Judaism would be interesting too, of course)? Ezra & Nehemiah aren’t great what with the “mandatory divorce your non-Jewish spouses and exile them from the city” stuff, and being recent enough to not be legendary stuff like Joshua’s conquests, but maybe there are worse offenders out there. And I don’t get the impression Christianity cited those books THAT much, thankfully.

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:35 am

      I think a number of the OT books ave created numerous problems for the world over the years; teh conquest narratives are especailly harrowing….

  6. KeitaTakahata October 25, 2022 at 4:34 pm

    Paul considered Christianity the fulfillment of Judaism. What about Jesus himself?

    Did Jesus consider himself the fulfillment of the Law of Moses? Or anything similar to that?

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:37 am

      He appears that he believed he was the messiah taht God had chosen to be the ruler of the coming kingdonm.

  7. apmorgan October 25, 2022 at 6:54 pm

    You’ve expressed a wish in the past that Bible translations such as the NRSV would omit certain passages that don’t appear in our earliest manuscripts, rather than simply noting the fact in the margins. But you concede that omitting entire books when the authentic manuscript upon which their inclusion in the canon is predicated is shown never to have existed (even though you might still wish it) is unrealistic.

    It is interesting to ask if your position is consistent. An alternative policy would be to leave in passages, suitably marked, that were part of the books when the canon was compiled, but at the same time to clearly mark books accordingly if their authorship claims are not sustainable.

    Comparing the consistency of these and other policies might be the topic of a follow-up blog post, or a student debate!

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:43 am

      Yes, there is a significant difference between a textual alteration of a text and teh production of non-authentic text. People who want to read a text — whether it is authentic or not — want to know waht the author wrote, not what someone later changed hsi writing to say. So if they want the Gospel of John in their BIbles, it’s certainly worth discussing with them whether John wrote it. But whether he wrote it or not, peo;le who read it want to know what the author originally said. In other words thew question of cnon is different from the quest of text, and different questions have different answers.

  8. MichaelHenry October 25, 2022 at 8:11 pm

    Hi Bart,

    Have you ever thought to propose to Oxford Press to release a Bible ( Hebrew Bible/ New Testament) in compositional order? The end of the Hebrew Bible with Daniel and begin the New Testament with 1 Thessalonians?

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:44 am

      It would be great if it were possible! The problem is that it’s impossible to date all the books in chronological sequence.

  9. fragmentp52 October 25, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Thanks for that post Bart.

    Let’s face it, the vast majority of those who cling to Biblical inerrancy really don’t think of the Bible as a whole. That would be near impossible IMO. They wouldn’t know the contents of most of the Bible because they haven’t read it, or have read it badly. What they really do is pick a verse or book here and there, and create what is in essence their own personal canon, a canon within the Canon as it were. I think it’s quite plausible to argue that most Christians omit certain books or verses anyway, but in a roundabout, indirect way IMO.

  10. brenmcg October 25, 2022 at 9:18 pm

    How would you read Hebrews 13:23 “I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free; and if he comes in time, he will be with me when I see you.”?

    Is this to trick people into believing its Paul – or is it genuine information in a genuine letter from an unnamed writer?

    • BDEhrman October 27, 2022 at 10:45 am

      Clair Rothschild wrote an entire book a few years ago arguing that the answer is yes. It was a forger’s trick to make readers think it was produced by Paul. I talk about the quesiton and weigh the evidence in my book Forgery and Clunterforgery.

  11. Clair October 26, 2022 at 1:14 am

    At the time, these books were not meant to be read and interpreted by the general public, that would be heresy. Scholars, bishops and Synods picked the verses and decided what they meant and how to use them.

  12. anthonygale October 26, 2022 at 3:30 am

    I get what you are saying, yet still ask why the hell not. I’ve met many Christians who believe in God, and that mistakes in the Bible are explained by people being human and simply screwing things up. I’ve also heard fundamentalist folks say that if you acknowledge that there is an error, then why should we accept anything else, that is a problem, and we can’t have that. Why not just admit there is a problem and deal with it? If we got it wrong, let’s try again to get it right. Mistakes will be made, but we probably are right about many (hopefully most, or at least the most important) things. I get there are loads of people who are unwilling to do that. I’m surprised though there isn’t, to my knowledge at least, a more organised group or denomination of more liberal Christians (at one time during my deconversion I sought this). Or suggestions of alternative canons, even if not mainstream.

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:42 am

      Sorry not to get to your comment earlier; it somehow got lost in the shuffle. My view is that yo ucan suggest getting rid ofbooks in the Bible, just like you can suggest getting rid of cars and those annoying scooters. But the pressure of public opnion just ain’t gonna let it happen. Except, please god, the scooters.

  13. bramkoert October 26, 2022 at 4:19 am

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    How certain are we that the book of Daniel was seen as scripture in Jesus’ day? And how do we know that? How likely is it that Jesus himself believed that it was scripture?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:44 am

      Sorry not to get to your comment earlier; it somehow got lost in the shuffle. It’s usually thought that it was not everywhere accepted in Jesus’ day as Scripture (that’s why in the Hebrew Bible it’s included among the Writings rather than in the Prophets). That Jesus thought it was authoritative is mainly suggested by his use of the image of teh coming Son of Man. It may be that it found acceptance mainly among apocalyptic Jews at that time.

      • bramkoert November 6, 2022 at 2:09 pm

        Thank you Dr. Ehrman,

        How about the Christian movement? We know from Matthew that at least he considered Daniel a prophet from “The abomination of desolation, spoken about by the prophet Daniel”. Do you think this is the case for the Christian movement as a whole? What about the phrase “abomination of desolation”?

        • BDEhrman November 9, 2022 at 9:18 am

          Yes, I thin Christians generally looked to Daniel, especially ch. 7, as prophetic. 2 Thess. 2 indicates that the desolation will involve tne antichrist figure will do so by entering the temple to decalre himself god (possibly modeleed on the idea that Caligula tried to put up a statue of himself there earlier?)

  14. bramkoert October 26, 2022 at 4:23 am

    I wouldn’t want to change a thing, simply because the removal of material leaves us with less evidence as to what the followers of Jesus teached and believed.

    It is exactly because of the ability of Christians to remove books from subsequent history (book burnings, sometimes along with its author) that we know as little as we do about differing opinions in their day.


  15. rezubler October 26, 2022 at 9:46 am

    The removal of some books from the Bible may be unlikely, but continuing research and explanations of each of the books as a prefix (like it is done in the Jewish Study Bible for the OT) within the newer editions of the Bible would certainly balance the weighting of the writings in a manner that is more useful that the problematic red/pink/grey text/quotes used by the Jesus Seminar that tried to accomplish a similar goal. Or maybe someday someone might successfully compose a worthy ‘Diatessaron’-like Christian New-NT text with the problematic areas removed and gain traction in the future (yes, some early attempts have been tried.) However, a massive, Tertullian-like trashing (see “Against Marcion”: refuting Marcion’s Evangelikon and Apostolikon) would surely be imposed on any perceived authoritative attempt to diminish any parts of our current Bible until several more generations have passed.

    For the NT, if I could only keep two books, I could probably be content with just the Gospel of Mark and Romans. Looking from things that way (what books to keep in what order) is a slightly different challenge!

    What two (or three if you must) would you keep?

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 9:32 am

      Mark, John, and James.

  16. giselebendor October 26, 2022 at 10:33 am

    I am in no position to recommend any NT book to be rid of, but if I could have a wish, it would be that Matthew 27:25 be excised.

    The report that the Jews said ” may his blood be on us and on our children” is false and perverse.The Biblical expression was, with one exception that I will describe as well, ” may his blood be on *his *head” ( Ezequiel 33:4 and Joshua , first part of 2:19) or ” may your blood be on your head”( 2 Samuel 1:16) , making clear that people were responsible for their crimes. No one else was.

    This expression continued to be used in the Talmud and publicly by contemporary leaders. Surely, nothing was said of blaming children.

    The exception ( ” may his blood be on *our *heads” , second part of Joshua 2:19) refers to one’s responsibility for anything that should hurt a guest inside your own home. Outside your home, the blood was on his head.

    The (maliciously) equivocated version in Matthew caused much harm to Jews, justifying unspeakable crimes committed against adults and children.

    Now, if one could remove the crudely anti-semitic passages in John….. that would be something.

  17. Kvogt October 26, 2022 at 11:40 am

    “IF” you (Bart) had the authority to delete the current books in the NT you don’t think are authentic, or authors are “suspicious” and should be removed, what books would remain?

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 9:39 am

      My view is that of the 27 books of the NT only 8 are almost certainly written by the authors under whose names they go, the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul and the book of Revelation by someone (who?) named John/ The others are either literary forgeries or anonnymous works that later came to be falsely attributed (e.g., the Gospels)

  18. MikeMolloy October 26, 2022 at 6:45 pm

    There are too many books in the Bible these days, please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot. /AbeSimpson

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 9:43 am

      I think there are the same number now as there have been for about 1800 years…

  19. BetaGater October 27, 2022 at 4:57 am

    If I was a Christian, I wouldn’t bother trying to “change the canon” for everyone. But neither would I be a Christian who followed tradition and I’d personally decide for myself which books I thought best represented my idea of God. I would have been personally glad to find that Martin Luther was skeptical of the Book of Revelation as well.

  20. KevCCoast October 27, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    Dr. Ehrman: Somewhat in line with this topic, Karen Armstrong recently responded in a NYT interview that her favorite book of the Bible is “The Book of Paul,” which she articulates as, if it existed, wd be comprised of the books included in canon which “he indisputably wrote,” including 1 Thess, Galations, 1&2 Corinth, Romans, Philippians & Philemon. I am in process of creating a “study” in my church centered around these 7. As far as you can tell, are these “letters”/books listed in order of their chronological writing? Is there a place in your blog or books where you discuss the approximate dates thought written, and their themes? (I do recall a magnificent discussion on 1 Corinth in Heaven & Hell).

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 10:04 am

      It’s usually thought that 1 Thessalobians was written first, and Romans last. The other five may well have been written in teh chronologial sequence they are still found in the canon, but the matter is disputed.

  21. Josh.kramer October 27, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    If someone were so inclined, would anything stop them from just publishing a version of the NT with just the undisputedly “genuine” books? Or whichever ones they wanted to include? My hopeful side wants to think that any awareness of the various problems with some of the books would at least get people thinking, and part of me also thinks it’d be good to start a rash of counter-publications of differently edited but still non-traditional/canon assortments, and bring to light how many disagreements christians actually have among themselves as they argue about why certain books are essential, why some are disposable, etc. Less focus on trying to harmonize what’s there and more focus on actually asking the books to justify themselves seems like it’d be progress.
    My realistic side knows that’s unlikely, but still.

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 10:09 am

      Oh yes, it’d be easy to do. If by “genuine” you mean “books almost certainly actually written by the authors they are attributed to” then it would be simple: you would just publish the seven undisputred letters of Paul and the book of Revelation.

  22. KimS October 29, 2022 at 9:44 am

    I don’t see where the problem is with removing or adding books. Nobody is stopping you (well, in most countries) from creating your own church with its own canon and its own theology. It’s not like Christianity is some sort of registered trademark. 😁 Publishing a new Bible is not a problem either. Let’s get on with it! 😁 Or maybe this has already happened and we just didn’t hear about it? Alternatively, you can always join a church that does not consider the bible inerrant or infallible and the whole question becomes much less of an issue.

  23. bsteig October 29, 2022 at 6:00 pm

    The sensible thing to do to just read what you believe is likely to be authentic — guided by the research conducted by Bart and other NT scholars — and the parts of what is authentic that you believe is true and worth reading. I believe that 1) some of what Jesus is thought to have said is likely based on how God wants us to live and treat others, and 2) much is obviously incorrect and/or bad theology. In other words, pick and choose what to parts of the Bible to read, and ignore what is not worth spending any time on. I learned quite a lot by reading Bart’s very detailed book, “How Jesus Became God.”

    Bill Steigelmann

  24. Sgarlockdavis October 29, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Would be interesting if you wrote your own Bible, New and Old Testament. Include books, based on the evidence today, you believe should have been canonized. From the perspective of, if you were a church father then with today’s historical evidence. I believe all of your followers want to know what books you would choose and why. Your comments above lead the reader wanting more.

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2022 at 6:51 pm

      The problem I suppose is what it means “should” have been. I’m not a Jew or a Christian, so I don’t actually get a vote in the matter. The canon is a theological construction by members of religious communities who decide on which books they consider to be ultimately authoritative, and that would be their decision rather than mine. As a non-believer, I have no personal reason to want a canon — I’m interested in ancient Jewish and Christian literature, whether canonical or not.

  25. DEBourque October 31, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    I find it interesting that in one of your responses on Oct 30, you would keep Mark, John and James. I myself, when trying to collaborate the four gospels into one continuous narrative, I kept running into what I call, ‘The John Issue’. So to help myself, I did jointly put the first three synoptic ones together. But still, trying to put John in afterwards, seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.

    So, I thought about testing my problem. I had a bible copy, that had subtitles to every episode in all its text. I then wrote down all the subtitles from John. Then I read through his work and put a checkmark beside the subtitle that issued a strain and put it down. A week later, I read all the episodes in his gospel from the subtitle list that didn’t have any checkmarks and put it down. A week later, I picked up that list again and only read the episodes from his gospel that had checkmarks beside their subtitles. I could have sworn, I was reading about someone else. It’s also been agreed, a second writer was involved in his work.

    I welcome your comments.

    • BDEhrman November 2, 2022 at 7:30 pm

      The subtitles, of course, are not part of the Gospel; they are added by modern English translators to assist the reader.

  26. Naifeh November 1, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    Apparently, removing books is relatively easy to do – as long as you just start your own sect or religion. Didn’t Martin Luther remove several books in the Septuagint because they did not agree with his theology? What was left of the Jews after the Bar Kokhba Revolt also took out several books to appease the Romans. Different branches of the Eastern Orthodox churches have different books in their canon. On the other hand, the Mormons added a few books. Then, the Jehovah Witnesses just wrote their own version of the Luther’s canon (not as creative – IMHO).

    So, Yes. One can certainly remove books of the NT – as long as you start your own religion or sect to go along with the new canon!

    We could call the new sect Bartism! 🙂

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:28 am

      Luther didn’t remove any books from the Septuagint. He started the movement to define the canon of the Old Testament strictly in terms of the books accepted in the Jewish tradition — the books of the Hebrew Bible, not the additional ones found in the Septuagint.

  27. fragmentp52 November 2, 2022 at 3:39 am

    Whilst it sounds glib, the problem IMO is not the Bible, it’s people and how they read and use it. Rather than insisting on timelessness and other related notions, I think it would be better if religion tried to learn from science : where you can appreciate the origins for what they are (sketchy first attempts) but also understand the overall trajectory of the enterprise, and understand where we’re at now. I think it would be great if religious types could look at the Bible and say ” wow, they had some funny ideas about gays. They’re our theological ancestors, haven’t we made good progress since then” etc. You don’t have to throw things out, just read them in a more mature, modern way.

  28. DEBourque November 3, 2022 at 8:44 pm

    I response to your reply Nov 2, 7:30
    I was only using the subtitles to help me identify the episodes that are in John’s Gospel. It is still John’s gospel I was working with, no matter how many bibles copies I have, which is seven, to help me compare their translations. The catholic bibles have used subtitles to assist the reader and they are consistent, even to their improved versions.

    My point still remains, there are episodes in John’s work, that suggest, a second writer was involved and my research found that most theologians and scripture historians are aware of it. This is what I am asking your opinion on.

    • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:08 am

      ah, sorry — I thought you were saying something else. Yes, it is widely thought among scholars that John was composed out of a variety of sources written at different times in the history of the community that produced the text, and that different passages represent different theologies written by different authors. I explain the evidence, logic, and significance of that in my chapter on John in The New Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction. A key example I use with my students is that the style, perspective and theology of 1:1-18 is *strikingly* different from 1:35-51.

  29. Helen Young December 5, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    Thing is, there’s nothing preventing people from forming their own canonical society. Call it the Authentic Canon Society or something like that.

    It’s not the dark ages, where people go to war over something like this. (hopefully)

    How many people would join or would agree is another question.

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