There were three main criteria used in canonization:

I think there is a lot of misconceptions as to how the Bible was canonized. It was not some sort of formulaic decision based on the criteria.

  • Arthur Darby Nock, a professor at Harvard said to illustrate, "The most traveled roads in Europe are the best roads, that's why they're so heavily traveled."
  • William Barclay said, "It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became cononical because no one could stop them doing so.
  • Bruce Metzger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary gave the example: suppose a group got together today to pronounce the works of Bach and Beethoven as great music. We know it is, but not because of this pronouncement. It is great because of the merit of the music itself, and because we have a sensitivity as to what is good music and what is not.

    See also: Are the gospels reliable?

Note that there was no official canon of the Bible in the Western church until the 1500s, when the Council of Trent set down the list of books in the Bible. In addition to the Catholic and Protestant canons there are a couple of "Bibles" from the Eastern (meaning Middle Eastern/Greek/Egyptian) traditions that contain books not accepted as Biblical in the West. However, all of the canons contain the same New Testament; the differences lie only in which Jewish writings are accepted as scripture.

The New Testament canon was not completely settled until the fourth century, but it was mostly settled long before that time. As early as 130 AD a guy by the name of Marcion started a controversy because he only accepted Luke and the Pauline epistles as scriptural--his movement attracted many followers and so churches began to set down a canon. Every canon included four gospels, the Pauline epistles, and Acts; most included James, Jude, 1 Peter, and the 3 epistles of John as well. A few works were disputed into the 3rd and 4th centuries. These included:

There are two points that need to be made: First, even though the Biblical canon was developed over hundreds of years, its basic form is recognizable by 150 AD. The following 200 years of development and refining deal with more peripheral books.

Second, the early church did a pretty good job of historical criticism when it set the canon. Nothing in the modern canon was written after 130 AD, and most of the works are significantly older. There were a lot of books that claimed to be old, but the early church was able to distinguish those from true accounts of the 1st 100 years after Jesus.

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