How We Got The Bible

The Gutenberg Bible
Photo by NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), Wikipedia

All Christians revere the Bible as the written word of God. Few, however, know why that is. In fact, most Christians just assume that to be the case without every questioning it. They hear if from their pastors and their churches. Everybody says it. So how do we know it's true? There is really only one way. We need to know where the Bible came from.

So, where did the Bible Come from?

That's a very good question, and to understand where the Bible came from, we have to know a little bit of history. Let's go back, way back, to the 1st century AD. Jesus and his apostles were travelling the countryside in Galilee and Judea. They were Jews, and because they were Jews, they were using the Jewish Bible. Today we call that Jewish Bible the "Old Testament." This was all they had at the time.

However, there wasn't just one Jewish Bible. In fact, there were THREE! You see, each mainline Jewish sect had its own canon (Bible) of Scripture it considered authoritative. In first century Israel, this is what existed...
  1. The Torah - These were the first five books of Moses, originally written in Hebrew. All Jews considered these books authoritative. However, the Sadducees limited their canon to just those five books. Jesus and his apostles clearly disagreed with this approach.
  2. The Tanakh - These were the first five books of Moses, plus the writings of history, psalms, poetry, and prophets. Some were written in Hebrew, others in Aramaic. In total, there were about 39 books. This was the canon of the Pharisees. From the writings of the apostles we learn that Jesus and his followers agreed more with the Pharisees than they did with the Sadducees, and accepted the Pharisaical canon of Scripture as authoritative.
  3. The Septuagint - These were all the books mentioned above in the Tanakh, plus seven more, for a total of 46 books with longer editions to the books of Esther and Daniel. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Jewish canon (Old Testament) that had some additions which many Jews considered authoritative. Among those Jews were Jesus and his apostles. 
Upon examining the writings of the apostles, it becomes apparent that they accepted as authoritative both the Tanakh and the Septuagint on equal footing. This is why the early Church Councils decreed that the Old Testament would have 46 books, based on the expanded canon of the Septuagint, in addition to the shorter canon of the Tanakh. Thus, Christians have always had 46 books in their Old Testament. It wasn't until Martin Luther came along in the 16th century and systematically removed 7 books from the Old Testament, preferring to copy the canon of the Pharisees, reducing the number of books in the Christian Old Testament to 39. Today, Christians who follow the teachings of Martin Luther have 39 books in their Old Testament, while as Christians who strictly follow the apostles have 46 books in their Old Testament. How many books does your Old Testament have? If it has 39 books, your Bible is modelled after the teachings of Martin Luther and the Pharisees. If it has 46 books, your Bible is modelled after the teachings of Jesus' apostles and the early Church. Examples of some English Bibles that contain all 46 Old Testament books are as follows...
  1. New American Bible
  2. New Revised Standard Bible - Catholic Edition
  3. Revised Standard Bible - Catholic Edition
  4. New Jerusalem Bible
  5. Contemporary English Version - with Deutercanonicals
  6. Douay-Rheims Bible
  7. King James Bible - with Apocrypha
Now when it comes to the New Testament, all Christians of all types agree. There are exactly 27 books, no more and no less. How did the early Christians decide on these books?

The answer requires a little more knowledge of history. From the time of Jesus, all the way into the 4th century (about 300 years), Christians had no set New Testament. What they had instead was a number of scrolls that came from the apostolic era. What scrolls they used had a lot to do with where they were located, and each area used a different set of scroll. Thus, early Christianity had no set or standardised New Testament.

About that time, a dynamic and charismatic priest came along name Arius. He was a presbyter in the early Church. He rejected the common teaching that Jesus Christ is God, and instead insisted that he was just the greatest of prophets, who was fully human, and had no divine characteristics at all. Sensing the lack of continuity among New Testament Scriptures in the early Church, he began formulating his own list of books (canon) that his followers would use exclusively. This was known as the Arian Canon. It was the New Testament according to Arius, and he had it standardised wherever he went. The Arian canon backed Arius' teaching that Jesus Christ was not divine.

So when the early Church met at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) to refute Arius and his heresy, they made two monumental decisions that would change the history of Christianity forever. The first was the creation of the Nicean Creed. This creed would be learned and recited by all Christians every Sunday for the rest of history. The creed is still recited to this day in all Catholic churches, as well as Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, Lutheran churches, and several other churches. The second was the decision to standardised a Christian New Testament based entirely on the Tradition of the apostles, as still taught and preserved by the Catholic bishops of that time, so as to oppose the heresies of the Arian New Testament. Thus the decision was made to compile the New Testament we all know and use today. So for years the work was ongoing among Catholic bishops to discern the required books within apostolic Tradition.

In AD 367, about 40 years after the Council of Nicea, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, compiled a list of 27 books, starting with the Gospel of St. Matthew, and ending with the Apocalypse of St. John (Book of Revelation). His work was a compilation of lists derived from other Catholic bishops in Europe, West Asia and North Africa. Bishop Athanasius was a fierce opponent of Arianism, and was well known in the region for keeping his diocese clean of the Arian heresy. At the Synods of Rome, Hippo and Carthage (late 3rd century), Athanasius' list of 27 books were adopted as the Christian New Testament. In the year AD 405, Pope Innocent I decreed that all Christians would now use this 27 book list as the universal and standard Christian New Testament.

So that's how we got the Bible. It came from the tireless work of Catholic bishops in the 4th century, and the decree of a pope in the early 5th century. The Old Testament was decided early, by the apostles, and affirmed by the pope and Catholic bishops of the 4th - 5th centuries. The New Testament wasn't decided until the late 4th century, and affirmed by a pope in the 5th century. That's the historical fact of how we got the Bible.

So if you like your Bible, and you appreciate that it doesn't contain any Arian heresies, you can thank the Catholic pope and bishops of the 4th - 5th centuries. Sadly, many Christians today show no appreciation to the Catholic Church for this, and instead accept the Bible while proverbially "spitting" on its original publisher. It's an odd behaviour to be sure, but very common these days.

If you would like to learn more about the origin of the Bible, and the organisation responsible for getting it to us, contact your nearest Catholic Church and bookmark the apologetics page of this blog for further reading.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Hi Shane i found these comments on the Grace Community church web site about their beliefs. "While there are many errors in the teaching of the Catholic Church (for example its belief in the transubstantiation of the communion wafer and its view of Mary), two rise to the forefront and call for special attention: its denial of the doctrine of sola Scriptura and its denial of the biblical teaching on justification. To put it simply, because the Roman Catholic Church has refused to submit itself to the authority of God’s Word and to embrace the gospel of justification taught in Scripture, it has set itself apart from the true body of Christ. It is a false and deceptive form of Christianity." I took exception to them. Here is the link
Shane Schaetzel said…
Gervase, Grace Community Church is a typical Evangelical Church that follows the Protestant tradition of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Based on their description of Catholicism on their website, this is a classic case of Christians who gladly accept the book, but then spit on the publisher.

The irony to the whole thing is that without the Catholic Church, they wouldn't even have a Bible to begin with. So all of this is a little humorous when you look at it that way. We (Catholics) gave them a Bible, then they said "thank you very much" and proceeded to beat us over the head with it.

Another irony is their attack on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation), which actually has a lot of Biblical support, while simultaneously attacking the Catholic Church for refusing to accept Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) which has absolutely zero Biblical support and even contradicts the Bible in many places. Their attack on Catholicism for refusing to accept Luther's teaching on justification (Sola Fide or "Faith Alone") is another laughing point, when the Bible specifically (and directly) contradicts Luther's teaching on it by stating in no uncertain terms that "we are NOT justified by faith alone." Then after taking multiple unbiblical positions themselves, they call the Catholic Church a "false and deceptive form of Christianity" simply for teaching what IS clearly supported by the Bible.

This is typical, and if you don't know the BIble, it's really easy to fall for this stuff, because they quote the Bible so much when they teach it. Hundreds of millions of people buy into this nonsense, and they've been buying into it for 5 centuries now. However, if any of it were true, the Catholic Church would have imploded a long time ago. All the Christian world would be Protestant by now, and I dare say, if Protestants couldn't convert the whole Christian world in 5 long centuries, their movement has been a miserable failure. Too many people (myself included) see through the facade. My family (the Schaetzels) were among the very first Protestants in Germany. I was raised in a staunchly Protestant home, and steeped in anti-Catholic rhetoric at a very early age. Too many young people are learning what I figured out. You can't accept a book and then spit on its publisher. The Catholic Church gave us the Bible. If you don't show the Catholic Church some gratitude for that, then you're kind of living a lie.
Unknown said…
History says that it was St. Jerome., who compiled all the books in one which we today call the Bible. Pls comment.
Na Jo said…
The question for a Protestant ( being a Convert myself ) might go something like this. " Did people in the church actually get saved in the 1st 300 years ? " If the answer is yes, then the idea of Tradition and Magisterium of the church is now confirmed. Both of which were the benchmark of discerning the texts that would survive. I love being an ex Protestant. Becoming Catholic was the best move ever. To the point of the longevity of the Protestant church. It has removed everything that sustains Christian success this side of the grave whereby forcing most people to " play church " every weekend. I know there are folks that do love God truly but until they question what and why they believe, the veil and spirit of protests will remain. Prayer is needed. Thank you for this post.
Shane Schaetzel said…
@unknown: Actually, St. Jerome just translated the Bible from Greek into Latin. He did not compile the books himself. That was done before him, as I wrote above.
yourbluesmama said…
Thank you for this wonderfully informative post. Please continue writing about the writers of the New Testament. There seems to be much confusing about who actually wrote them.
shane, please give people the link to the decree of pope st.damasus the council of rome in 283ad in which he was the first to authoritatively list all the books of both testaments before he commanded st.jerome to translate it into latin which jerome finished in 304: