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How Did We Get *These* 27 Books in the New Testament?

I often receive questions about how we got the canon of the New Testament.   We have twenty-seven books in it.  Who decided?  On what grounds?  And when?  Here is a recent question on the matter.

 

QUESTION

I have always wondered about the men (only men!) who decided “this one’s in . . . that one’s out!” back in 325 (was it 325?) at Trullan, Rome, Trent and where else? Nicea?

 

RESPONSE:

The first thing to emphasize is that the most common answer one hears – an answer that seems to have become common sense among people-interested-in-such-things-at-large —  is completely wrong.   It appears that people have this answer because they read it someplace, or heard it from someone who had read it someplace, and that someplace was a place in particular: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code!    (If you don’t know, I wrote an entire book pointing out the historical mistakes in the book.  [title: Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code].  That was a particularly fun book for me to write. Some of the mistakes were real howlers…)   Contrary to what Brown says (and claims is a historical fact, and NOT part of his fiction!), the canon of the New Testament was decidedly not, I emphasize, NOT, decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.  It was not even discussed there.  We have records of what they discussed.  This was not one of the topics.

And, related, it was not decided by ….

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  October 4, 2019

    I’ve heard that Marcion was the first to put together a canon (as far as we know), although it was obviously not the canon we have today.

    And I can report that the backlash was too big for the Swedish School Board. Swedish kids will be learning about antique civilizations even in the future.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  October 4, 2019

    “For a book to be considered Scripture, it had to be written by an apostle or a companion of the apostles. That’s why the Gospels were attributed to the people they were.”

    It seems like if they wanted a book in, then they applied an approved name as the author so that the book would be accepted. Is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Yup — except they weren’t thinking about whether it would be “in” or not. They didn’t know that a canon was forming. They just wanted people to read the book.

  3. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  October 4, 2019

    If you could add one of these books to the NT which one would you pick?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Well, there are lots of books that I wish were read more widely — Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Proto-Gospel of James, etc. But I wouldn’t wish them as *Scripture* on anyone!

      • Avatar
        quadell  October 7, 2019

        I’m very glad the Gospel of Peter didn’t make it in. And I’m extremely relieved that we didn’t end up with the Epistle of Barnabas! (Europe’s history of anti-Jewish persecution might have been even worse.)

  4. Avatar
    fishician  October 4, 2019

    1. Have you had any personal interactions with Dan Brown about his book? 2. I don’t think Brown invented the idea that the Council of Nicea decided the canon (but I could be wrong about that). Where did that idea originate? I’m wondering if that idea was promoted to “prove” that our 27 books had the seal of approval of the early church.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Nope! And no, he didn’t invent the idea. He made it “common knowledge”

  5. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 4, 2019

    Would really appreciate any thoughts you have on the topic of Apostolic Succession, how and why it developed and why it doesn’t work.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Interesting idea — I’ll add it to my list of things to post on.

  6. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  October 4, 2019

    Thank you! I learned a lot. If forced to answer in an exam paper I would have said ‘Nicea’ and then I’d never have been ordained! – I’m still not? Oh, well . .

  7. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 4, 2019

    I appreciate your humility on Metzger, but I don’t know another scholar alive who could. All the believing scholars these days seem to be Conservative. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable situation given the nature of the subject. I wish there were more truly scientifically minded scholars working in this field. Not interested in the topic to buttress their faith, but for the love of knowledge.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 4, 2019

    Thanks. For those new to the blog, Dr. Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities” is a really good and helpful book.

  9. Avatar
    Damian King  October 5, 2019

    So in a way, the old saying “Catholic Church gave us the Bible” makes sense? Because, the “Church that won the battle” is the direct predecessor of the Roman Catholic Church? Am I missing anything?

  10. Avatar
    qditt  October 5, 2019

    Thanks for the insightful information. The world could use a few more Dr. Ehrmans. Happy birthday!

  11. Avatar
    jrhislb  October 5, 2019

    It seems to be me that the canonical NT books are older than the competing apocryphal ones, not just in the view of the ancient Christians but according to the opinion of modern scholars. Is that correct, or are there any apocryphal books that are older than one that became canonical?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      BAsically correct. Though the Gospel of Thomas may be as old as, say, 2 Peter.

  12. Avatar
    Damian King  October 5, 2019

    Hey Bart, here is what I wanted to ask. All over the world, there are many legendary accounts of how one or the other Apostle went and spread the faith. For example, Andrew in Russia, Thomas in Syria, Mark in Egypt etc. I understand that most of these accounts are legendary and probably have not much evidence to support them.

    But I am interested, do you think, at its core, the dispersion of the apostles actually happened? Do you think it is historical that the Apostles really did disperse to spread the gospel in different parts of the world? Or go on missionary journeys? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Nope. I think most of them stayed in Jerusalem. The ones that went out stay in the empire.

      • Avatar
        Damian King  October 6, 2019

        Ok, but the Roman Empire consisted of a lot of different provinces, so do you think they did go out and preach in what now are different countries?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 7, 2019

          We know that Peter did, but we have no evidence for others, and I completely doubt it, since they were uneducated Aramaic speaking peasants with no experience of the world or means of support.

          • Avatar
            VaulDogWarrior  October 7, 2019

            What is the evidence that Peter went out? Of course these stories see used to support the claims of Apostolic Succession. Each Patriarchy tried to claim an Apostle for themselves.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2019

            Paul refers to it in 1 Corinthians (he was in Corinth apparently).

          • Avatar
            Damian King  October 7, 2019

            So what do you think about the travels to Ephesus and other Asia minor places, where Paul and Barnabas, and Silas went? Do you think that sort of missionary activity was common among the Apostles?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2019

            There were certainly other “apostles” — people taking the mission afield. But there is almost no evidence that members of Jesus’ original “twelve disciples” were among them (except for Peter).

  13. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  October 5, 2019

    I started attending Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church and while I am there I read the New Testament. I am starting with Paul’s books because they were written before the others.

    In personal development, you need to focus on positive words, stories, etc. more than the negative to change beliefs. I once heard for every negative, you need to say 5 positives. You may need more than that.

    So I am staying out of Mass, Communion, and Confession and only going to Adoration.

    Insider tip: anyone can go to Adoration… you don’t have to be Catholic, attend Mass, etc. Just check local churches for days & times.
    It is like the Christmas story of people from all over going to adore Christ. Anyone can adore Christ.

    One thing I did find is the story of Paul giving the Good confession (He did not sin) to the King (and others).

    I found more and need to start writing and putting it together.

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  October 6, 2019

    Hi Dr Ehrman.
    In your books you use a lot the term Orthodox. but I think that group was or became the catholic church. Am I correct? Or it was a different group of christians? Did the catholic church called itself catholic before Nicea?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2019

      Yes, eventually the group that called itself orthodox found its center in Rome, and then called itself the catholic (i.e., the “universal” church) and then the “Roman” catholic church. But it’s all a set of staged developments.

      • Avatar
        Duke12  October 8, 2019

        And then in 1054, the pope of Rome, through a visiting cardinal, excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople because the latter refused to accept the pope as leader of the entire Church rather than just those churches under his immediate jurisdiction (Italy and Western Europe). The ultimate result was what are now called the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Just a reminder that there is much more to Christianity than the Roman Church and its Protestant offshoots.

  15. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 7, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, understanding that there was no ‘Bible’ – as most people think of it – for, literally, centuries after Christ’s death, is one of the starkest problems with conservative, fundamentalist theology.

    When you were conservative yourself, how did you envision the early church(es) vis-a-vis the ‘Bible’? I suspect your response will be what i think most conservatives today would say: that they never really thought about how, exactly, and, when, exactly, it appeared.

    If so (or even if not), did you ever have an ‘aha’ moment, when the reality of it, from a logistical perspective, hit you?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 7, 2019

      I did think about it. I thought the entire NT was composed within about 30-40 years of Jesus’ life, and that as soon as each book was composed, or soon after, it was recognized as Scripture, so that basically what we think of as the NT was available already in the second century, even if there were some “heretics” who had other opinions.

  16. Avatar
    jrhislb  October 7, 2019

    In Jesus’ time, did the Pentateuch have a special status like in modern Judaism or was all scripture seen as equally holy?

  17. Avatar
    barackobush  October 8, 2019

    I apologize I believe I asked this question in last couple days but can’t remember where in the blog.. When did the first compilation of the 66 book Protestant Bible appear? Maybe a better way to ask is simply when we’re these particular set of 66 books proposed as what belongs in the Christian Bible?

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 11, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In Galatians: “When Cephas came to Antioch…” So the historical Peter was a traveling preacher as well, and didn’t just stay in Jerusalem? Was it James that leads the Jerusalem mother church in Galatians? I know Acts has more to say, but forget it, as you well know, most serious scholars don’t think it’s reliable.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      Yes, on both scores (though Galatians doesn’t explicitly name James as the head of the Jerusalem church; he’s one of three “pillars.” I once wrote a scholarly article arguing that Peter and Cephas may have been two different people. I posted on it on the blog, if you want to search for Cephas. Not sure I buy it any more….

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