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Canonization of the Bible: Its Definition and Process

What is the canonization of the Bible? The canonization of the Bible refers to the process of recognizing which books were considered Scripture by the people of God at the time of compiling the Bible as we know it today. The term “canon” suggests a standard.[1]

Ultimately, when discussing the idea of canon as it relates to the Bible, we are speaking about those books that are considered the standard of the Christian faith. At times, people have come to the erroneous conclusion that the books of the Bible were chosen by a select few people. However, canonization had more to do with recognition of the books that were already in circulation and accepted as authoritative within the context of God’s covenant people.

Canonization of the Bible: A Definition

The Anchor Bible Dictionary provides a synopsis of the term canon stating:

The word “canon” comes from the Gk kanōn, “measuring stick.” By extension it came to mean “rule” or “standard,” a tool used for determining proper measurement. Consequently, the word has come to be used with reference to the corpus of scriptural writings that is considered authoritative and standard for defining and determining “orthodox” religious beliefs and practices.[2]

Old Testament Canonization Assumed in the New Testament

Jesus and his apostles assumed the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament. The New Testament either cites or alludes to the vast majority of Old Testament books, a fact which attests to the widespread acceptance of the Old Testament’s canonicity and authority by Jesus, the New Testament authors, and the Jews in their time.

In addition, the argument could be made that Jesus considers the entire spectrum of Old Testament canon when he mentions “the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Matthew 23:35). The mention of these two righteous men put to death by godless people spans the Old Testament from the Hebrew Bible’s first book (Genesis) to its final book according to the Hebrew Bible listing (2 Chronicles).

The Basis of New Testament Canonization

The process of a canon of the New Testament was already set in place by the last words of Jesus to his apostles. In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus told the apostles it was their duty to make other disciples using the teachings that he had given to them:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The teachings of Jesus, given through the apostles, formed the basis of the canon or standard of objective truth. This is why the earliest church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So the teachings and writings of the apostles—sometimes written down by their associates—formed the core of teachings of the new covenant. The existence of recognized books of the New Testament is found within the New Testament books themselves.


Canonization of the Bible: “The existence of recognized books of the New Testament is found within the New Testament books themselves.”


For instance, as mentioned earlier, Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15–16). Paul cites from Luke’s Gospel (1 Timothy 5:17–18). Paul commanded that his letters be read to other churches (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16). These are all clear indications that there were accepted letters that functioned as authoritative to the church.

The Development of the New Testament Canon

The books in the New Testament were all written before the end of the first century (that is, before AD 100).[3] New Testament scholar Michael Kruger, an expert in the formation of the canon of the New Testament, describes the attitude of the church’s leaders following the first century:

Early Christians had a high view of the apostolic office, viewing the apostles as the very mouthpiece of Christ himself. Thus any document containing apostolic teaching would have been received as an authoritative written text (and the beginning of the canon).[4]

However, after the first century, these writings were not the only ones in circulation that claimed authoritativeness. In order to protect Christians from false teaching after the death of all the apostles, the early leaders needed to delineate writings that were apostolic—and therefore the authoritative words of Jesus—from those which were not. Some books claimed authority but were, in reality, written in later centuries by people falsely claiming to be Jesus’ apostles (for example, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter).


Canonization of the Bible: “Some books claimed authority but were, in reality, written in later centuries by people falsely claiming to be Jesus’ apostles.”


All the while, there was a core of first-century books that were recognized early on as being part of the canon (the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, etc.), as well as early books that were not as quickly recognized by all regions of the church but came to be recognized as part of the canon (e.g., Hebrews and James). Kruger explains:

Not only was there a “core” canon of the New Testament books that were well established from early time, but disagreements over peripheral canonical books were less problematic than is often portrayed.[5]

The Criteria of Canonization

After persecution subsided and the church as a whole was able to publicly gather in the fourth century, they were able to land on an authoritative list of inspired books that comprised the New Testament. The early Christians recognized as authoritative those books that met three key criteria:[6]

  1. The authoritative book had to be written by apostolic authors (or authors who were closely associated with apostles).
  2. They taught the orthodox faith of the apostles.
  3. They had been widely accepted in earliest churches from the beginning.

In order for the church at large to recognize what books had already long been accepted as authoritative by the churches, it measured the books by these standards. Recall the literal meaning of the word “canon” as “measuring stick.”

We see lists containing core New Testament books. For example, the Muratorian Fragment of the late second century includes the core books, even though, as only a fragment of the original document, the list is incomplete. Other lists include the full twenty-seven books as early as AD 250 (by Origen) and AD 367 (by Athanasius).[7]


“The church was not imposing something new upon Christian communities; rather they were codifying the documents that contained the historical beliefs and practices of these communities.”


In AD 367, when the official list as we know it today was recognized by the church, the church was not imposing something new upon Christian communities; rather, they were codifying the documents that contained the historical beliefs and practices of those communities. Kruger explains, “The canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil of early Christianity—although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century, it was there from the beginning.”[8]

The Canon by which the Church Is Measured

In the process of clarifying the final list of authoritative books, these Christians affirmed the church itself had been established by the words and works of Jesus as communicated by the apostles (Ephesians 2:20). Thus, the written works associated with the apostles were the objective norm by which the church was to measure and evaluate itself.[9] What gave the New Testament canon its authority is that it contained the teachings of Jesus given to the world through his apostles or those associated with the apostles.


Canonization of the Bible: “The written works associated with the apostles were the objective norm by which the church was to measure and evaluate itself.”


In recognizing the canon, the early believers held that Christians, leaders, and churches were subject to the objective record of the apostles’ teachings. No church body could have an authority over the Bible or equal to the Bible, as Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders sometimes claim to have. The apostolic teaching created the church; the church did not create the Bible.[10] Clark Pinnock sums up the authority of the Bible over any church or ancient or modern form of Christianity:

By accepting the norm of Scripture, the church declared that there was a standard outside herself to which she intended to be subject for all time. . . . The church can fall into error and needs the Bible to measure herself by. In turn, the church serves the canon by continuing in the truth and faithfully proclaiming the Word of God.[11]

The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were combined with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament to form the canon of Scripture as the sixty-six books contained in the modern Protestant Bible.

This article on canonization is an excerpt from Orpheus J. Heyward, God’s Word: The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Renew.org, 2021). To check out the book, click here.


[1] For more detailed information about what follows on canonization, consult the seminal works of F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), and Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[2] David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v. “canon.”

[3] David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

[4] Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 206.

[5] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 292.

[6] See Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[7] Michael J. Kruger, “10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon: #10: ‘Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) Is the First Complete List of New Testament Books,’” December 11, 2012, accessed January 19, 2021, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/10-misconceptions-about-the-nt-canon-10-athanasius-festal-letter-367-a-dis-the-first-complete-list-of-new-testament-books/.

[8] Michael Kruger, The Question of Canon, 210.

[9] This is an important fact that is in contradistinction to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church as definitively stated by Oscar Cullman in the advanced debates leading up to Vatican II; see “The Tradition,” in The Early Church (London: SCM Press, 1956).

[10] Kruger, The Question of Canon, 91.

[11] Clark H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1984), 81–82.

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