There are many things that may come to an individual’s mind when it comes to sacred scripture. Some may ask why there are so many translations. Some may wonder if the Bible as we know it fell from the sky at Pentecost. However many have questions on how we have the books we have. For sure, it was long and arduous process, but it was one guided by the Holy Spirit and the church.
One rule that was used to determine inclusion of the twenty seven books was linkage to an Apostle, or apostolic origin. In the first three centuries after the church started there were many books bearing the name of various Apostles. As an example there was the Gospel of Thomas, Luke, Peter, and the proto-gospel of James. In addition to these there were several hundred Acts and Apocalypses. Some of these writings were spurious and contradicted the Gospel being preached by the church.
Apostolic origin does not mean that it has to be written by an apostle, but that an Apostle “stands behind writing in such a way that the essential teaching is preserved within it (Nichols, 104).” This would explain why the Gospel of Luke was included in the canon. Great care was made to ensure that writings had apostolic backing, and if they did not they were denied canonical status.
Another rule that was used in determining if a book was worthy of the canon was its conformity to the faith of the church. Would a collection of Holy writings from any religion be deemed authoritative if they contradicted each other? The answer to the question is obvious. The church used great care in determining that the twenty seven books in the canon were in compliance with what the church taught.
The church was able to do this by utilizing the oral tradition that was handed down from the Apostles. As a Nichols documents “Around 190 a bishop in Antioch stopped people from using the Gospel of Peter on the grounds that its author did not regard the human body of Jesus as real (Nichols, 104).” The church teaches that Christ was a real person, divine, and bled on the cross. This writing taught that Christ was a spirit that entered into a man that was being crucified. There were many writings like this floating around, and since they did not pass the test of orthodoxy they were not included in the canon.
Thirdly the writing had to be valued by the church that was respected for its own Apostolic origin. Perfect examples of this are the Epistles of Saint Paul. There is little doubt that these writings are his for he states at the end of letters that he wrote them with his own hand. Also he wrote them to churches that he started and they knew him very well. These churches preserved these letters and read them in their liturgies.
Using these three criteria, the fathers of the church started to develop the New Testament. The letters of Paul were among the first to be recognized in A.D. 90 and were being assembled in small collections. The four Gospels were decided on around the year 200 though they had already been universally accepted. There were various canons proposed, but the Pauline letters and the four gospels seemed to have staying power. Other books such as Revelation and Hebrews were battled over. Some areas of the church accepted them and others did not. There were also books with no apostolic link that were considered such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Clements letter to the Corinthians. However they did not meet the criteria previously discussed and were denied canonical status. Through many debates and hefty quarrels we know that the canon was final by the end of the fourth century (Nichols, 105).
The church was guided by the Holy Spirit through sacred tradition to determine which New Testament books are in our Bibles today.
References: Nichols, Aiden. The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.