How Did We Get the Bible?

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Reaching Unified Standards

Even with such criteria in place, however, churches often came to idiosyncratic conclusions on this book or that one until they listened to the voices of the churches as a whole. Ultimately crisis forced Christians to come up with more unified standards. 

For example, the anti-Jewish schismatic Marcion rejected the Old Testament, accepting only Paul’s letters and a carefully mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel. By contrast, the orthodox majority of the church followed Jesus in accepting the Old Testament as God’s Word. Countering Marcion and others, they affirmed books that Marcion rejected.

Most early Christians used the books that we use, including the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s collected letters and some other works. By about A.D. 180, Irenaeus mentions most of our New Testament as Scripture, though he also accepted Shepherd of Hermas, rightly rejected by others. 

Only a few books remained in dispute: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and, in some circles, Revelation. By the early fourth century, church leader Eusebius accepted roughly the same books that Christians did in the late second century.

More importantly, Athanasius, the persecuted defender of the Trinity, has exactly our list, as does Jerome’s Vulgate. The canon was becoming settled—not by Roman emperors, as some writers today charge, but by recognition of the writings in which Christians as a whole found God’s consistent message.

Revisiting Scripture

During a period when European scholars were revisiting original sources, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus provided an edition of the New Testament in Greek. Scholars previously dependent on Jerome’s Latin translation now began revisiting the original apostolic teaching.

Luther translated the Bible into German. Questioning tradition, he viewed some biblical books that articulated Christ’s message most clearly as more authoritative than others. In the New Testament, he especially valued John’s Gospel, then Paul’s writings and 1 Peter. He treated James, Jude, Revelation and Hebrews as least authoritative.

By contrast, another major Reformer, John Calvin, accepted the full New Testament as authoritative with no qualms. Most Christians today share this approach. Calvin appealed not to earlier church councils but to the witness of the Holy Spirit to Scripture.

The Bible Today

Followers of English scholar John Wycliffe offered difficult English renderings of the Vulgate in 1384 and 1395, but producing a readable English Bible fell to the scholar William Tyndale, whose work was cut somewhat short by martyrdom. The King James Version of 1611, approved by the king of England, became the dominant English translation for 300 years.

Today a variety of versions in contemporary English have supplemented the King James Version, bringing God’s Word to more people in a language form they are accustomed to. The same is true for current translations into other languages. 

This survey of how we got our Bibles today cannot include, due to space, the persecutions believers faced to preserve the Bible and to make it available in languages that people understand. But we can still discern God’s providence through history in providing the Bible for His people. 

Although most of Scripture was accepted as authoritative from the beginning, some books such as Isaiah or Matthew were favorites, while others such as Esther or Jude were questioned. Despite these individual uncertainties, God led the church together to embrace the canon we now use. Today, as in the time of Jesus’ earliest followers, many claim that God told them this or that. How do we discern which voices speak God’s message?

The canon invites us to evaluate each message to see if it is consistent with Scripture, understood in its original context. God spent centuries guiding His people to these norms, and we have the privilege of using them today. 

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University in Wynnewood, Pa. He is the author of 16 books, including The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.

Watch as Craig S. Keener discusses the power found only in the Word of God at


Key Events in the Bible’s History

  •  Jesus (“the Word made flesh”) resurrected: c. A.D. 30
  •  The four Gospels we recognize today are written: c. A.D. 64-95
  •  Paul’s epistles are written: c. A.D. 48-65
  •  Completion of the apostle John’s Revelation: c. A.D. 95
  •  Early teachers Tatian and Irenaeus emphasize the same four Gospels we use today: c. A.D. 170-180
  •  Church leader Athanasius recognizes a New Testament list that is identical to ours today: A.D. 367
  •  Jerome translates the Latin Vulgate: c. A.D. 405
  •  Martin Luther translates the Bible into German: A.D. 1534 
  •  John Calvin accepts New Testament as authoritative: c. A.D. 1536
  •  William Tyndale translates portions of the Old Testament and the New Testament into English: A.D. 1530-1535
  •  The King James Version, authorized by British crown, is published: A.D. 1611

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