I am interested in researching the history behind the Bible's canonization. I am particularly interested in writings of early historians, or books that compile facts from these historians in an unbiased manner. Secular works would be great if they exist. I am trying to avoid books about the authority/infallibility/etc of the Bible. Where should I start?


New Testament canon is my focus, though I'm interested in Old Testament as well.

Edit 2:

Secular works are great, but that's not to say I'm uninterested in the nonsecular.

  • 8
    The assumption that secular works would be unbiased is false. Everyone has a bias.
    – Narnian
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 12:02
  • @Narnian I didn't explicitly say they were unbiased, but they would help balance out the nonsecular.
    – Phil
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 14:43
  • The edits you made help make this clearer.
    – Narnian
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 15:07

3 Answers 3


For a good brief overview, Wikipedia has the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon that may prove useful.

Some Authors to Consider

If you want a respected secular scholar, Bart Ehrmann's Misquoting Jesus is probably your best bet. I'm not endorsing what he says, and I'm not going to say he is unbiased (he has explicitly rejected his Christian faith and openly wishes others would do the same), but he is well respected and has a good grasp of the chain of events.

In addition to his book, the Teaching Company has a [series of lectures he did on the New Testament and on the Church Fathers (the documents, not the people!) which illustrate the early church development of practice. The "History of Jesus to Constantine" and "Lost Christianities" in particular would probably give you the secular development case the best.

In contrast, Daniel B. Wallace will give a more orthodox understanding of why particular books were accepted, and lend credence to the traditional canon.

A Breif Overview

In general, the best way to understand the "process of canonization" is to understand the unique contribution of each book in the canon to the Bible as a whole. Remember, there was no committee that sat down and said, "This is the authoritative list, and everything else is just a book!" Rather, over time, there was a general consensus amongst Christians as to what really was Scripture, and what wasn't.

Marcion would be a good example. He was one of the first to compile a "canon," and his consisted solely of the letters of Paul, and the Gospel of Luke. He considered the Old Testament to speak of a different god, and thought it useless. What Marcion, thought, however, wasn't nearly as important as the reaction of the majority of Christians in contrast. They said, "No, the Old Testament is part of who God is." The general consensus that Marcionism is heresy was pretty well established by about 200AD, and led most then to accept that the Old Testament is part of the canon.

Similar processes occurred around the adoption of the Johnanine corpus - the Gospel, the letters, etc... Likewise, the Gospel of Thomas - purported collection of 115 of Jesus' sayings - proved to be more Gnostic than Christian, and so it was rejected.

The key point is that all of this happened over time. It isn't until Athanasius' Festal Letter of 367 that we even have the first "complete" canon listed anywhere - and Patristic scholars continued to quote other works for some time as well.

Even today, there are certain Christian authors who are considered "more important" than others. If you asked me to pontificate about who is canonical, for example, I'd want to throw in C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesteron, Augustine, and a couple of others. David Barton, Joel Osteen, Tim Lahaye, not so much. And, I would clearly reject, say, (and I only speak for myself) anything by Joseph Smith or the Watchtower society. Why do I say that? Because my canon speaks to what is important to me. Many Evangelicals would probably agree with me, and do, as can be shown by what other Evangelicals tell others "should be read." The point is not what I've picked, but rather that the same process was in place 2000 - 1600 years ago.

In the end, Why did the canon close? is really the only remaining question, and that has already been answered elsewhere on the site.

  • Note on Ehrmann: He is an ex-Evangelical turned deist(?). He is not 100% all of the time, but I find his work for the Teaching Company intelligent and interesting. Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 14:25
  • From the reviews on Misquoting Jesus, it seems like it's a book about mistakes and changes in translation over the years. Very interesting subject worth looking into. Does it have much content on the actual adoption of canon?
    – Phil
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 14:58
  • This book looks interesting, Affable Geek, have you read it yourself? I was wondering then, does this author touch on how the different versions of the Bible might of changed the meaning, or does it account for the Dead Sea Scrolls as well?
    – user1946
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 15:36
  • I have not read this book myself, but I am familiar with the general strain and tenor of his work. Dan Wallace would be the anti-Ehrmann, btw :) What I have done is listened to his "After the New Testament," and I found that to be pretty interesting. It talks about the development of doctrine and practice. Pushing it forward to the canonization processes of the 300s AD (and that's really where we're talking) would, I assume, be part of what he does in the works that focus on that time period. Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 16:41

For NT canonization, a really nice (and short!) work was done by Harry Gamble The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning. Also you should take a look at Bruce Metzger's The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.

Both Metzger (Deceaced, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary) and Gamble (UVA) are recognized as experts in the field, and are well respected by secular and confessional folks alike.

Regarding the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the matter is a bit more complex, but any good OT intro should include at least something on the matter. You should look at MCDonald & Sanders' The Canon Debate, which is a collection of essays about canonization of both the OT and NT and Evans and Tov's Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. The latter I have not actually read, but both authors are stellar and to be trusted.

Make sure whatever you choose was published by a reputable academic publisher. The danger in many "popular" works is that they are made to sell rather than to convey historically accurate or peer-reviewed data--this goes for both secular and confessional types.


Narnian is right. Everyone is going to have some sort of bias one way or another (otherwise I don't think we would have all these different sects of Christianity!) Your best bet is to just check out resources on the first Council of Nicaea and read both Roman Catholic and Orthodox writings. Ignatius of Antioch certainly comes to mind. Fordham University has done extensive research into the early texts and early councils.

Edit: Interesting, I didn't notice at first but the site that contains information on Ignatius also has links to other early Christian authorities. Check out the links to the left of the page!

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