How Were the Books of the Bible Chosen?

Old Testament

“Bible” is a singular word, but we of course know that the Bible contains many books, multiple books. So how did Protestants, for example, get the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament?

That story starts before the period of Christianity—before the time of Jesus Christ. Christians actually rely on the Jewish canon for the Old Testament. Some think maybe the Old Testament just sort of fell out of the sky. But no, it actually has a long period of development through the temple in Israel and then through the Jewish synagogue.

Scribes and Scripture

John D. Meade, Peter J. Gurry

In Scribes and Scripture, scholars John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry answer common questions about the writing, copying, canonizing, and translating of the Bible and give readers tools to interpret the evidence about God’s word.

And over time, Jews continually affirm and continually confess the books through which God has spoken to them. And then we come to the New Testament where Paul, in Romans 3:2, makes an interesting statement. He asks a question to the church: “What was the advantage of being a Jew?” And he says, “Much in every way,” because they possess the oracles of God.

And so early Christians, from a really early time, took note of where God had spoken, where were the oracles, and Jews possessed them. So in the story of the Old Testament canon, we shouldn’t be surprised that early Christians refer to the twenty-two-book canon of the Jews. And they constantly seem to refer to this as if they’ve received it from them. And so the church actually affirms a canon that they receive from the Jews for the Old Testament.

New Testament

What about the New Testament? Well, it does seem that if you have an Old Testament, there’s going to be a New Testament. There are going to be scriptures written down by Christ’s own apostles. And that’s exactly what we find in the record. It turns out that books that are in our New Testament had to be written by an apostle or a close associate.

So you can look at a book like Hebrews, where it’s anonymous, and yet in Hebrews 2 we see that the author makes a strong connection to the apostolic teachings confirmed among them. Or a book like the Gospel according to Mark. Mark, of course, was not an original apostle of the twelve, but Mark is a close associate of Peter. And so we actually get Peter’s apostolic preaching and teaching through the Gospel according to Mark. So that criterion of whether or not it was written by an apostle was super important. Was the book orthodox? So you had lots of orthodox writings from early Christians, and yet that wasn’t a sufficient criterion. It was a necessary one, but not a sufficient criterion to be included in the New Testament canon.

So we get our books due to a providential process where God continually orchestrated both what was going on in the Jewish synagogue for how we get our Old Testament and also how the books were being used and affirmed by Christians throughout the centuries.

Eventually we hit a period in church history where lists, or canons, are being written and drafted, and all of a sudden we see our core New Testament canon: the Gospels, Acts, Pauline letters. There are little disputes about the general epistles and 2 Peter, and yet, over time, these doubts or discussions seem to cease and the church winds up with a twenty-seven-book New Testament.

John D. Meade is coauthor with Peter J. Gurry of Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at