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What is the Bible?

2Thessalonians 3:11-18, and Hebrews 1:1-2 from Codex Vaticanus B

This article focuses on the text of the Bible, its collection and transmission. See future articles about ethics and theology.

The New Testament

The Christian Bible is made up of two volumes, The New Testament and Old Testament. The New Testament is the collection of 1st century books and letters collected about Jesus and the early church. The Christian Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. Individual books of the Bible are written in either Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The New Testament, considered the first volume of the Christian Bible, is a collection of 1st century books and letters about Jesus and the early church. The individual books of the New Testament were not written by a single author at a specific time. Consequently, it is a tapestry of leaders, writers and editors spanning around 70 years.

Historians consider them the primary source documents for Jesus and the primitive church. They are the story of Jesus and the church, told by the church. While advocates and critics of the Bible’s pedigree will fight over these books’ accuracy, the important point to keep in mind is that no matter what else we can or cannot say about these books, they contain some of the best sources we have for Jesus and the early church.

The New Testament is made up of four genres:

  • Four gospels which outline the life, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah,
  • The Acts of the Apostles, a history of the 1st century church,
  • Twenty-one letters, known as epistles, of the 1st century leaders,
  • Revelation, a 1st century Apocalypse.

Christianity before the Bible

These books are believed to have been written in the 1st century, no later than 150AD. In its infancy, Christianity existed without authoritative texts. The books that arose from that movement and eventually came to be our Bible did not themselves claim to be revelation. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He didn’t dictate his sayings to an author. Following his death and resurrection, sayings of Jesus were passed around. These included sayings, sermons, and stories about his life, death and resurrection. Spirit-filled believers and teachers traveled from place to place sharing the gospel.

Writing of gospels and letters

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you. Luke 1:1-3

Eventually, authors collected these traditions into the four books we know today as gospels. These gospels contain a tapestry of sayings, parables, and narrative from a variety of sources. The titles of these books come from the names of the authors that Christian tradition attributed to them, though the authors wrote anonymously. Three of them, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called synoptic gospels because they are collections of stories and sayings that appear to have relied on common sources.

Each author seems to have had a variety of sources at their disposal. The majority of NT scholars believe Mark was the primary source for Matthew and Luke. Where stories and sayings overlap in Matthew and Luke that have parallels to Mark, it is understood that those gospels used Mark as a source. [See Daniel B. Wallace: The Synoptic Problem.] But Matthew and Luke also overlap in ways that are independent from Mark. Modern scholars believe these sayings existed in a written collection lost to history. They call this collection “Q,” short for “source” in German.

The choices each gospel author made of what to include and exclude, and how to organize their writing allowed each author to tailor his message to the specific needs of their audience.


Christianity also spread through the exchange of letters attributed to Jesus’ apostles, most notably Paul. These letters were addressed to specific city churches throughout the Roman empire. But they were also circulated amongst other churches.

Other books written at the time of the early church

In the 20th century, we became aware of many other gospels and letters circulating at the time that didn’t make the final cut of our Bible. We have found books attributed to the apostles Thomas, Judas, and Peter, as well as Jesus’ mother Mary. For a variety reasons, these documents are not considered authentic. But they give us a window into the diversity of the early church.

Diversity of first century Christianity

This variety of letters and gospels helps us to see that first century Christianity was a very diverse movement. The books of our Bible are representative of a movement that was being shaped and formed over time, from a variety of influences. Scholars call this time “proto-orthodox” because it is a time when orthodoxy was being worked out. This is a different perspective on early christianity that contradicts the common view that the bible represents a unified message originating from the apostles.

Collecting the gospels and letters into the canon

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, different Christian groups began to identify specific gospels and letters as legitimate and held them as collections.

The process of collecting these books was motivated by the necessity to nail down the authoritative voice of Christianity. Some groups told fanciful tales about Jesus to lend credence to their philosophy. The early church fathers identified these groups “gnostics,” but we now know that gnosticism, like early Christianity, was not a unified movement either. There were many different groups with different beliefs and ideas.

As the church developed towards orthodoxy, her leaders tried to determine which of these writings to include in the canon, by ascertaining which they believed came from the authentic oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, and which were legitimate letters of the apostles. They based their decisions on the claim that they had been written by an apostle or close associate of an apostle. On whether the message of the book reflected the character of Jesus, and if it agreed with other writings. And finally, the degree to which the book was being read and practiced by a wide spectrum of churches.

The Old Testament

As a sect of 1st century Judaism, the early church believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies of a Messiah. Acknowledging Christianity’s Jewish origins, the early church adopted the Septuagint, the latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. It includes the stories, experiences, myths, history, and prayers of the Jewish people and how they understood and interacted with their god.

“In approximate round dates, the process which produced [the earliest books] Exodus and the Pentateuch probably began around 600 BCE when existing oral and written traditions were brought together to form books recognisable as those we know, reaching their final form as unchangeable sacred texts around 400 BCE.” [9] Around the 3rd century BCE, work began to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This work was completed in 132 BCE, and came to be known as the Septuagint. This was the version of the Old Testament used by the church for centuries. It includes many books not found in the Protestant Bible.

Final setting of the canon

The writings of the early church fathers and historians identified many different lists of what different Christians believed should be included in the Christian Bible. But by the 4th century, there was near unanimous agreement about which gospels and letters should be included in the Bible we have today. In a letter from 367 AD Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria listed the 27 books that we now consider the New Testament canon, using the word “canonized.”

With the setting of the limits of the canon, such reinterpretation and development did not cease. We distinguish the biblical witness from the postcanonical tradition, but it was a historical decision of the church that determined the breakpoint. And the lines are blurred. Common agreement as to the canonical books was not reached until around a.d. 400. The problem of the canon reopened at the time of the Reformation. The Protestant churches excluded the Apocrypha, a whole series of Old Testament writings that had been recognized as canonical for over a thousand years. Luther, in his September Bible of 1552, openly separated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the other New Testament writings, thereby constituting a dual canon. Erasmus questioned the authenticity and authority of Hebrews, James, Jude, and 2 and 3 John. Zwingli thought Revelation should be rejected, and Calvin’s expositions cover every book except Revelation. In the introduction to his commentaries it is clear, according to Barth, that he had doubts not only about the books mentioned by Luther, but also concerning 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. The Book That Binds Us Richard A. Rhem Page © Grand Valley State University 7

Identifying the books of the Bible as holy scripture

As the New Testament books made their journey from their original author to their inclusion in the canon, a change occurred in how to understand them. These books became more than mere books. Leaders claimed these authors were inspired by God and that their words were His revelations. The label of divine scripture was assigned to them in an effort to discriminate orthodoxy from heresy, though none of the texts themselves claimed to be oracles. The church adopted the word “scripture” to describe them, and elevated these books to the same level the Jews held the Old Testament.

To learn more:

The Formation of the Proto-Orthodox New Testament

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