How the Sixty-Six Books of the Bible Were Collected and Preserved

Willmington's Guide to the Bible

I. The Writing Materials of the Bible. The Spirit of God moved upon the authors of the Bible to record their’ precious messages upon whatever object was in current use at the time of the writing. Thus once again we see the marvelous condescension of God. These writing materials would include:

A. Clay (Jer. 17:13; Ezek. 4:1).

B. Stone (Ex. 24:12; 13:18; 32:15, 16; 34:1, 28; Deut. 5:22; 27:2, 3; Josh. 8:31, 32).

C. Papyrus (made by pressing and gluing two layers of split papyrus reeds together in order to form a sheet) (2 Jn. 12; Rev. 5:1).

D. Vellum (calf skin), parchment (lamb skin), leather (cowhide) (2 Tim. 4:13).

E. Metal (Ex. 28:36; Job 19:24; Mt. 22:19, 20).

II. The Original Language of the Bible.

A. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with the following exceptions appearing in Aramaic: Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4–7:28. Why did God choose Hebrew? In their book A General Introduction to the Bible, authors Geisler and Nix note the following:

"It is a pictorial language, speaking with vivid, bold metaphors which challenge and dramatize the story. The Hebrew language possesses a facility to present ‘pictures’ of the events narrated. ‘The Hebrew thought in pictures, and consequently his nouns are concrete and vivid. There is no such thing as neuter gender; for the Semite everything is alive. Compound words are lacking.…There is no wealth of adjectives.…’ The language shows ‘vast powers of association and, therefore, of imagination.’ Some of this is lost in the English translation, but even so, ‘much of the vivid, concrete, and forthright character of our English Old Testament is really a carrying over into English of something of the genius of the Hebrew tongue.’ As a pictorial language, Hebrew presents a vivid picture of the acts of God among a people who became examples or illustrations for future generations (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11). The Old Testament was intended to be presented graphically in a ‘picture-language.’

Further, Hebrew is a personal language. It addresses itself to the heart and emotions rather than merely to the mind or reason. Sometimes even nations are given personalities (cf. Mal. 1:2, 3). Always the appeal is to the person in the concrete realities of life and not to the abstract or theoretical. Hebrew is a language through which the message is felt rather than thought. As such, the language was highly qualified to convey to the individual believer as well as to the worshiping community the personal relation of the living God in the events of the Jewish nation. It was much more qualified to record the realization of revelation in the life of a nation than to propositionalize that revelation for the propagation among all nations." (pp. 219, 220)

B. The entire New Testament was written in Greek. Again, to quote from Geisler and Nix:

"Greek was an intellectual language. It was more a language of the mind than of the heart, a fact to which the great Greek philosophers gave abundant evidence. Greek was more suited to codifying a communication or reflection on a revelation of God in order to put it into simple communicable form. It was a language that could more easily render the credible into the intelligible than could Hebrew. It was for this reason that New Testament Greek was a most useful medium for expressing the propositional truth of the New Testament, as Hebrew was for expressing the biographical truth of the Old Testament. Since Greek possessed a technical precision not found in Hebrew, the theological truths which were more generally expressed in the Hebrew of the Old Testament were more precisely formulated in the Greek of the New Testament.

Furthermore, Greek was a nearly universal language. The truth of God in the Old Testament, which was initially revealed to one nation (Israel), was appropriately recorded in the language of the nation (Hebrew). But the fuller revelation given by God in the New Testament was not restricted in that way. In the words of Luke’s gospel, the message of Christ was to ‘be preached in his name to all nations’ (Lk. 24:47). The language most appropriate for the propagation of this message was naturally the one that was most widely spoken throughout the world. Such was the common (Koine) Greek, a thoroughly international language of the first century Mediterranean world.

It may be concluded, then, that God chose the very languages to communicate His truth which had, in His providence, been prepared to express most effectively the kind of truth He desired at that particular time, in the unfolding of His overall plan. Hebrew, with its pictorial and personal vividness, expressed well the biographical truth of the Old Testament. Greek, with its intellectual and universal potentialities, served well for the doctrinal and evangelistic demands of the New Testament." (p. 221)

III. The Reason for the Writing of the Bible. Perhaps the one supreme difference between man and all other creatures (apart from his immortal soul, of course), is his God-given ability to express his thoughts on paper. It has been observed that while it was no doubt desirable to speak to the prophets "in divers manners" in time past, the best way to communicate with all men of all ages is through the written record. The advantages of the written method are many, of course.

A. Precision—one’s thoughts must be somewhat precise to be written.

B. Propagation—the most accurate way to communicate a message is usually through writing.

C. Preservation—men die, and memories fail, but the written record remains. It may be said that the New Testament especially was written for the following reasons:

1. Because of the demands of the early church (1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

2. Because of false doctrines (to counteract them).

3. Because of missionary endeavors (to propagate them).

4. Because of persecution and politics.

IV. The Old Testament.

A. The order of the books in the Hebrew Old Testament. The thirty-nine books in our English Old Testament appear somewhat differently in a present-day Hebrew Bible. They cover the identical material but number twenty-four and are arranged in a threefold division:

1. The Law (Torah).

a. Genesis

b. Exodus

c. Leviticus

d. Numbers

e. Deuteronomy

2. The Prophets (Nebhiim).

a. Former Prophets—four books:

(1) Joshua

(2) Judges

(3) Samuel

(4) Kings

b. Latter Prophets (major and minor):

Major Section

(1) Isaiah

(2) Jeremiah

(3) Ezekiel

Minor Section

(1) Hosea

(2) Joel

(3) Amos

(4) Obadiah

(5) Jonah

(6) Micah

(7) Nahum

(8) Habakkuk

(9) Zephaniah

(10) Haggai

(11) Zechariah

(12) Malachi

3. The Writings.

a. The poetical books (3)

(1) Psalms

(2) Proverbs

(3) Job

b. The Scrolls (5)

(1) Song of Solomon

(2) Ruth

(3) Lamentations

(4) Ecclesiastes

(5) Esther

c. Prophetic—historical (3)

(1) Daniel

(2) Ezra—Nehemiah

(3) Chronicles

B. The suggested order of the writings. Many believe the book of Job to be the oldest in the Word of God. It may well have been written as early as 2000 b.c. One of the earliest written parts was that section found in Exodus 17. This recording occurred on Israel’s route to Palestine. Joshua had just won a tremendous victory over a fierce desert tribe called the Amalekites. After the battle was over we read:

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and release it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (Ex. 17:14).

Other early sections of the Word of God would of course include the Law of Moses. (See Deut. 31:24-26.) The following is a mere suggestion of the time of the writing of the Old Testament books:

1. Job—2150 b.c.

2. Pentateuch—1402 b.c.

3. Joshua—before 1350 b.c.

4. Judges and Ruth—before 1050 b.c.

5. Psalms—before 965 b.c.

6. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon—before 926 b.c.

7. 1 and 2 Samuel—before 926 b.c.

8. 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles—before 848 b.c.

9. Obadiah—848 b.c.

10. Joel—835 b.c.

11. Jonah—780 b.c.

12. Amos—765 b.c.

13. Hosea—755 b.c.

14. Isaiah—750 b.c.

15. Micah—740 b.c.

16. Jeremiah and Lamentations—640 b.c.

17. Nahum—630 b.c.

18. Habakkuk and Zephaniah—625 b.c.

19. Ezekiel—593 b.c.

20. 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles—before 539 b.c.

21. Daniel—before 538 b.c.

22. Haggai and Zechariah—520 b.c.

23. Esther—after 476 b.c.

24. Ezra—after 458 b.c.

25. Nehemiah—after 445 b.c.

26. Malachi—432 b.c.

C. The location of the Old Testament books.

1. Before the Babylonian captivity. Prior to this period (606 b.c.) the Old Testament books were apparently laid beside the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. This is indicated in the following passages:

"And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.…And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient" (Ex. 24:3, 4, 7).

"And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee" (Deut. 31:24-26).

"And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought the king word again, and said, Thy servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of them that do the work, that have the oversight of the house of the Lord. And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king" (2 Ki. 22:8-10).

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord" (Josh. 24:25, 26).

"Then Samuel told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the Lord. And Samuel sent all the people away, every man to his house" (1 Sam. 10:25).

2. During the Babylonian captivity. The books were probably carried to Babylon and later collected by Daniel. In 9:2 of his book, the prophet Daniel writes:

"In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem."

Here Daniel specifically states he was reading Jeremiah and "the books," a reference no doubt to the other Old Testament books written up to that time.

3. After the Babylonian captivity. These books may have been taken back to Jerusalem by Ezra the prophet and kept in the newly completed Temple. (See Ezra 3:10, 11; 6:15-18; Neh. 8:1-8.)

V. The New Testament. The New Testament was written over a period of about fifty years (approximately a.d. 50-100), by eight separate human authors.

A. A suggested chronological order and possible dating of the New Testament books.

1. James—a.d. 49 (written from Jerusalem)

2. 1 and 2 Thessalonians—a.d. 52 (written from Corinth)

3. 1 Corinthians—a.d. 55 (written from Macedonia)

4. 2 Corinthians—a.d. 56 (written from Macedonia)

5. Galatians—a.d. 57 (written from Ephesus)

6. Romans—a.d. 58 (written from Corinth)

7. Luke—a.d. 59 (written from Caesarea)

8. Acts—a.d. 60 (written from Rome)

9. Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon—a.d. 61, 62 (written from Rome)

10. Matthew—a.d. 63 (written from Judea)

11. Mark—a.d. 63 (written from Rome)

12. Hebrews—a.d. 64 (written from Jerusalem)

13. 1 Timothy—a.d. 65 (written from Macedonia)

14. 1 Peter—a.d. 65 (written from Babylon)

15. 2 Peter—a.d. 66 (unknown)

16. Titus—a.d. 66 (written from Greece)

17. Jude—a.d. 67 (unknown)

18. 2 Timothy—a.d. 67 (written from Rome)

19. John—a.d. 85-90 (written from Ephesus)

20. 1 John—a.d. 90-95 (written from Judea)

21. 2 and 3 John—a.d. 90-95 (written from Ephesus)

22. Revelation—a.d. 90-95 (written from the Isle of Patmos)

B. The human writers.

1. Matthew—author of Matthew

2. Mark—author of Mark

3. Luke—author of Luke and Acts

4. John—author of John, 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation

5. James—author of James

6. Jude—author of Jude

7. Peter—author of 1 and 2 Peter

8. Paul—author of the fourteen remaining New Testament epistles

VI. The Determination of the Canon.

A. The tests given to the biblical books. Various books of the Bible, especially those of the New Testament, were submitted to certain rigid tests by the early church. These tests included:

1. Authorship—who wrote the book or the epistle?

2. Local church acceptance—had it been read by the various churches? What was their opinion?

3. Church fathers’ recognition—had the pupils of the disciples quoted from the book? As an example, a man named Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle. Therefore one test of a book might be, "What did Polycarp think of it?"

4. Book subject matter (content)—what did the book teach? Did it contradict other recognized books?

5. Personal edification—did the book have the ability to inspire, convict, and edify local congregations and individual believers?

In closing this section it should be stated that it was a combination of these five steps which helped determine whether a book was inspired or not. Canonicity was not determined at all by either the age or the language of a given book. For example, there were many ancient books mentioned in the Old Testament (see Num. 21:14; Josh. 10:3) which were not in the Old Testament canon. Also, some of the apocryphal books (such as Tobit) were written in Hebrew but were not included in the Old Testament, while some books (like portions of Daniel) written in Aramaic were included in the canon.

B. The writings that were unacceptable. After the Old Testament canon was recognized by the Jews as officially closed, and prior to the New Testament period, there arose a body of literature called the Apocrypha. This word literally means "that which is hidden" and consists of fourteen books.

1. The contents of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

a. 1 Esdras covers much of the material found in Ezra, Nehemiah, and 2 Chronicles. But it also includes a fanciful story concerning three Jewish servants in Persia. They were all asked a question by King Darius concerning what was the greatest thing in the world. One said wine, another replied women, while the third claimed it was truth. He won, and when offered a reward, suggested the king allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

b. 2 Esdras contains certain visions given to Ezra dealing with God’s government of the world and the restoration of certain lost Scriptures.

c. Tobit is the story of a pious Jew (Tobit) who is accidentally blinded (by sparrow dung) and is later healed by an angel named Raphael, who applies a concoction of fish heart, liver, and gall to his eye.

d. Judith is the story of a beautiful and devout Jewish princess who saves Jerusalem from being destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s invading armies. This she does by beguiling the enemy general through her beauty, then returning to Jerusalem with his head in her handbag!

e. The remainder of Esther. There are additional inserts to this book to show the hand of God in the narrative by putting the word "God" in the text. The word God does not appear in the Old Testament book of Esther.

f. The Wisdom of Solomon has been called "The Gem of the Apocrypha," and is one of the loftier books of the Apocrypha.

g. Ecclesiasticus, also called "the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach," resembles the book of Proverbs, and gives rules for personal conduct in all details of civil, religious, and domestic life.

h. 1 Maccabees, an historical account on the Maccabean period, relates events of the Jews’ heroic struggle for liberty (175-135 b.c.).

i. 2 Maccabees covers in part the same period as 1 Maccabees but is somewhat inferior content-wise.

j. Baruch was supposedly written by Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch. It contains prayers and confessions of the Jews in exile, with promises of restoration.

k. The Song of the Three Children, inserted in the book of Daniel, right after the fiery furnace episode (Dan. 3:23), contains an eloquent prayer of Azariah, one of the three Hebrew men thrown into the fire.

l. The story of Susanna is a story relating how the godly wife of a wealthy Jew in Babylon, falsely accused of adultery, was cleared by the wisdom of Daniel.

m. Bel and the Dragon is also added to the book of Daniel. The book contains two stories:

(1) The first concerns how Daniel proves to the king that his great god Bel is a dead idol, and that the Bel priests are religious crooks.

(2) Unger’s Handbook describes the second story in the following words:

"The other legend concerns a dragon worshiped in Babylon. Daniel, summoned to do it homage, feeds it a mixture of pitch, hair, and fat, which causes it to explode. The enraged populace compels the King to throw Daniel in the den of lions where he is fed on the sixth day by the prophet Habakkuk, who is angelically transported to Babylon by the hair of his head while carrying food and drink to the reapers in Judea. On the seventh day the King rescues Daniel and throws his would-be destroyers to the hungry lions." (p. 459)

n. The Prayer of Manasses is the supposed confessional prayer of wicked King Manasseh of Judah, after he was carried away prisoner to Babylon by the Assyrians.

2. Reasons for rejecting the Apocrypha. "Why don’t you Protestants have all the books of the Bible in your King James Version?" Often Christians and Bible lovers are confronted with this question by those who have accepted the Apocrypha into their translations of the Bible. Why indeed do we not include these fourteen books? There are many sound scriptural reasons.

a. The Apocrypha was never included in the Old Testament canon by such recognized authorities as the Pharisees, Ezra the prophet, etc.

b. It was never quoted by the Jews, by Jesus, or by any other New Testament writers.

c. The great Jewish historian Josephus excluded it.

d. The well-known Jewish philosopher Philo did not recognize it.

e. The early church fathers excluded it.

f. The Bible translator Jerome did not accept the books as inspired, although he was forced by the Pope to include them in the Latin Vulgate Bible.

g. None of the fourteen books claim divine inspiration; in fact, some actually disclaim it.

h. Some books contain historical and geographical errors.

i. Some books teach false doctrine, such as praying for the dead.

j. No Apocryphal book can be found in any catalogue list of canonical books composed during the first four centuries a.d. In fact, it was not until 1596 at the Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic Church officially recognized these books, basically in an attempt to strengthen their position, which had been grievously weakened by the great reformer Martin Luther.

C. Some canonical books were at first doubted but later fully accepted. During the first few years of early church history there were some twelve biblical books which were temporarily objected to for various reasons.

1. Old Testament books.

a. The Song of Solomon—because it seemed to some to be a mere poem on human love.

b. Ecclesiastes—because some felt it taught atheism. (See 9:5.)

c. Esther—because it did not mention the word "God" in the entire book.

d. Ezekiel—because it seemed to contradict the Mosaic Law.

e. Proverbs—because it seemed to contradict itself. (See 26:4, 5.)

2. New Testament books.

a. Hebrews—because of the uncertainty about the book’s authorship.

b. James—because it seemed to contradict the teachings of Paul. (Compare Jas. 2:20 with Eph. 2:8, 9.)

c. 2 and 3 John—because they seemed to be simply two personal letters.

d. Jude—because the author refers to an uncanonical Old Testament book, the book of Enoch.

e. Revelation—because of the uncertainty about the book’s authorship and because of its many mysterious symbols.

VII. The Finalization of the Canon.

A. The Old Testament. By the year 300 b.c. (at the latest) all Old Testament books had been written, collected, revered, and recognized as official, canonical books. Many believe Ezra the prophet led the first recognition council.

B. The New Testament. During the Third Council of Carthage, held in a.d. 397, the twenty-seven New Testament books were declared to be canonical. However, it absolutely must be understood that the Bible is not an authorized collection of books, but rather a collection of authorized books. In other words, the twenty-seven New Testament books were not inspired because the Carthage Council proclaimed them to be, but rather the Council proclaimed them to be such because they were already inspired.

Taken from: Willmington's Guide to the Bible  1981, 1984 by H. L. Willmington.