It took more than a thousand years for the books of the Bible to be written. Afterward, it took several centuries for the Church to determine which of the books written were Scripture and which weren’t.
God didn’t simply give the Church a revelation saying, “The following books and only the following books are Scripture.” Instead, the Holy Spirit guided the Church as it conducted a process of discernment. This means we don’t find early, universal agreement on the books of Scripture. We find churchmen having different opinions.
There was always a broad consensus about the core books of the Bible. All orthodox Christians recognized works such as the five books of Moses in the Old Testament or the four Gospels in the New Testament. There also was broad agreement about the prophets and the letters of Paul.
But there was debate about other books. Certain churchmen questioned or opposed books that were eventually included. Some had reservations about seven books of the Old Testament—1-2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Sirach, and Wisdom. Others had reservations about seven books of the New Testament—Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation.
All these were eventually included in the Bible, but there were books that some early churchmen did regard as Scripture but that didn’t find a place in the canon. We’re going to take a look at these books that “almost” made it into the Bible. We have to put quotation marks around “almost” because the Holy Spirit was in charge of the process, and God always knew which books he had inspired and which he hadn’t. But, on the human level, there was uncertainty about the status of certain books for some time.
The criterion of discernment
The criterion the early Church used to determine the status of a book was whether it had been handed down from the apostles as authoritative.
Of course, if a book was written by an apostle, it was authoritative. But apostolic authorship wasn’t required. The apostles also regarded the books of the Old Testament as authoritative, so they counted as Scripture. Even certain books of the New Testament that had been written by associates of apostles—such as Mark and Luke—were held to be authoritative and so found a place in Scripture.
The fact the apostles didn’t have to write a book led to differences in opinion in the early Church. Just how far removed from the apostles did a book have to be before it wouldn’t count as Scripture? If it was an orthodox book written in the Apostolic Age, did that imply apostolic consent to it? If it was thought to be written by someone who knew the apostles—though not a traveling companion such as Mark or Luke—was that enough?
The heretical books that were written after the first century could be recognized as fakes because of the false doctrine they contained. However, the early orthodox books were another matter.
The fact some were considered Scripture by orthodox Christians illustrates the important role that the Church played, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in determining what belongs in the Bible. (For more information, see my book The Bible Is a Catholic Book.) What were these books?
What it is: A Church manual giving basic instruction on morality, the sacraments, prayer, church officers, and prophecy.
When it was written: The Didache likely appeared in more than one edition, but the earliest clearly was penned when there were traveling apostles and prophets, because the document includes instructions on how to tell true ones from false ones. This edition thus belongs to the apostolic age.
Who thought it was Scripture: Although this work was popular in the early Church, the evidence for people thinking it was Scripture is thinner than for some other works we’ll consider. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) quoted it and may have considered it Scripture (Stromateis 1:20:100:4). In the 300s, Pseudo-Cyprian refers to it as “Scripture” (De Centesima 14). And in the late 300s, the Syriac Book of Steps, or Liber Graduum, refers to it using the scriptural citation “it is written” (7:20).
Why they thought it was Scripture: The first edition of this work dates to the Apostolic Age, and the Didache (Greek, “teaching”) often circulated under the titles “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or “The Teaching of the Apostles.”
Why it isn’t in the Bible: Too many in the early Church doubted its apostolic authorship. The titles under which it circulated indicate it is a good summary of the teaching of the apostles, not that it was written by them.
What it said: The Didache touches on many matters connected with Christian morality and Church discipline. It contains a noteworthy passage discussing the ways (plural) in which baptism was performed in the first century.
Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: After you have reviewed all these things, baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (7:1-3).
What it is: A letter written by Pope St. Clement I to the church of Corinth.
When it was written: Many scholars think it was written in the A.D. 90s, but a careful examination of the text suggests it was written in the first half of A.D. 70, after the disastrous “year of four emperors” in 69 but before the destruction of the temple in August of 70.
Who thought it was Scripture: Apparently, quite a few people. Eusebius notes that this letter was “publicly read for common benefit, in most of the churches” (Church History 3:16), and because of its early origin “it is probable that this was also numbered with the other writings of the apostles” (3:38). In the early 400s, it was included in the Codex Alexandrinus, an important copy of the Bible.
Why they thought it was Scripture: Clement was a man who lived in the apostolic age and who apparently knew and was approved by the apostles Peter and Paul. He was often thought to be the Clement that Paul mentions in Philippians 4:3 (Church History 3:15), and early traditions indicate that he was ordained at least to the priesthood by St. Peter. Some even held that he was Peter’s immediate successor as pope. St. Jerome notes that “the greater part of the Latins think that Clement was second after the apostle” (Lives of Illustrious Men 15:1).
The letter has great literary merit and is often compared in style to the book of Hebrews. In fact, in the early 200s, Origen knew a tradition that held Clement was the author of Hebrews (Church History 6:25:14), which would be another reason for thinking the letter might be Scripture.
Why it isn’t in the Bible: Despite its considerable merits, its long use in the churches, and Clement’s connection to the apostles, not enough churchmen came to regard it as Scripture. Thus, in the list of approved, disputed, and rejected books that Eusebius made in the early 300s, he didn’t mention “1 Clement.”
What it said: Clement wrote because the Corinthians had appealed to the Church of Rome to settle a dispute in their community. A faction had kicked out the duly ordained leaders of the church, and Clement argued they needed to be reinstated. This apparently happened, because Clement’s letter was kept and read in Corinth for many years.
The book contains a number of points of interest, including the earliest surviving reference to the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul:
There was Peter, who, because of unrighteous jealousy, endured not one or two but many trials, and thus having given his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance (5:4-7).
The Letter of Barnabas
What it is: An early document offering a spiritual interpretation of Jewish law and customs and how they are fulfilled in Christ and the Church.
When it was written: Shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (ch. 16), perhaps around A.D. 75.
Who thought it was Scripture: Around 200, Clement of Alexandria considered it Scripture (Church History 6:14). In the 300s, it also was included in the important Bible known as Codex Sinaiticus.
Why they thought it was Scripture: Barnabas was a companion of the apostles (Acts 4:36), including Paul, and Luke even describes Barnabas as an apostle (Acts 14:14).
Also, around A.D. 200, Tertullian recorded a tradition that the book of Hebrews was written by Barnabas (On Modesty 20), which would provide additional reason to think the “Letter of Barnabas” might be Scripture.
Why it isn’t in the Bible: Barnabas was an apostle of a lesser rank. Also, the letter does not claim to be written by him (his name is found only in the title), which may have led to doubts about its authorship. Eusebius lists this letter among the books “rejected” by most orthodox Christians in his day as Scripture (Church History 3:25). St. Jerome apparently thought it was written by Barnabas but nevertheless was not Scripture (Lives of Illustrious Men 6). Scholars today generally don’t think it was written by the biblical Barnabas.
What it said: There are many fascinating things in this letter, but I’m personally glad that it’s not in Scripture. When allegorizing various Old Testament commandments, the author makes several scientifically inaccurate statements that I would not like to have to explain as an apologist. Consider:
“You shall not eat the hare.” Why? Do not become, [Moses] means, one who corrupts boys, or even resemble such people, because the hare grows another opening every year, and thus has as many orifices as it is years old.
Again, “Neither shall you eat the hyena.” Do not become, he means, an adulterer or a seducer, or even resemble such people. Why? Because this animal changes its nature from year to year and becomes male one time and female another.
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But he also hated the weasel, and with good reason. Do not become, he means, like those men who, we hear, with immoral intent do things with the mouth that are forbidden, nor associate with those immoral women who do things with the mouth that are forbidden. For this animal conceives through its mouth (10:6-8).
The Shepherd of Hermas
What it is: A collection of visions by a simple and sincere man named Hermas who was a former slave living in Rome.
When it was written: Although sometimes wrongly dated to the mid-second century, Hermas lived during the time of Pope St. Clement I (“The Shepherd,” Vision 2:4[8:3]). He began receiving the visions perhaps around A.D. 80.
Who thought it was Scripture: Around A.D. 175, St. Irenaeus of Lyons described it as “Scripture” (Against Heresies 4:20:2). About the same time, Clement of Alexandria repeatedly used the work and said it was written “by divine inspiration” (Stromateis 1:29:181:1). In the early 200s, Origen also referred to it as Scripture, though he said it was “not acknowledged by all to be divine” (Commentary on Matthew 14:21). In the 300s, it was included in Codex Sinaiticus.
Why they thought it was Scripture: It’s a work of prophecy that dates to the first century. Also, many at the time believed that Hermas was the man whom Paul greets in Romans 16:14.
Why it isn’t in the Bible: Almost every author in the early Church who mentioned “The Shepherd” had a high opinion of it and regarded it as valuable for private reading, even those who didn’t regard it as Scripture. Ultimately, the latter came to be the majority, and Eusebius lists it among the books “rejected” by most orthodox Christians in his day as Scripture (Church History 3:25).
What it said: “The Shepherd” is astonishingly long for a book of this period. Its visions deal with virtue, forgiveness, and the need to repent. A central theme of the book is that repentance and forgiveness are possible for Christians who have sinned. A major figure in the visions is an angel who appears to Hermas dressed like a shepherd and thus gives the book its title. He is identified as “the angel of repentance” (Vision 5[25:7]).
After I had prayed in my house and sat down on my bed, there came a man glorious in appearance, dressed like a shepherd, with a white skin wrapped around him and with a bag on his shoulders and a staff in his hand. He greeted me, and I greeted him in return. He immediately sat down beside me and said to me, “I was sent by the most holy angel to live with you the rest of the days of your life” (Vision 5[25:1-2]).
The Apocalypse of Peter
What it is: A series of revelations allegedly given by Christ to St. Peter.
When it was written: Likely between A.D. 132-135, during the rebellion under the Jewish leader Simon bar-Kokhba, who is likely the false Christ discussed in 2:7-9 of the “Apocalypse.”
Who thought it was Scripture: Around 200, Clement of Alexandria referred to the “Apocalypse of Peter ”as Scripture (Eclogae Propheticae 41) and attributes it to Peter (48-49). The Muratorian Fragment, an early work dated between the late second and the fourth century, accepts the Apocalypses of John (i.e., the book of Revelation) and Peter as Scripture, but it acknowledges that “some of us are not willing that the latter be read in church.” Other early churchmen also supported it.
Why they thought it was Scripture: It is an early work claiming to preserve the words of St. Peter.
Why it isn’t in the Bible: Many recognized that it wasn’t actually by Peter—that the tradition supporting its apostolic authorship wasn’t strong enough. Thus, in the early 300s, Eusebius included it among the books “rejected” by most orthodox Christians of his time as Scripture (Church History 3:25).
What it said: The book contains prophecies about Israel as well as descriptions of hell and heaven. Its descriptions of the punishments of the damned are particularly vivid, but the book also contains a description of the blessings of the righteous. It concludes with an account of the ascension of Christ:
A large, very white cloud came above us and picked up our Lord and Moses and Elijah. I shook and was terrified. We watched as this heaven opened up and men with physical bodies came to welcome our Lord and Moses and Elijah. They went into the second heaven. The saying of Scripture was fulfilled, “This generation looks for him; it looks for the face of the God of Jacob.”
There was great awe and amazement in heaven. The angels flocked together to fulfill the saying of Scripture, “Open the gates, ye princes.” Then this heaven, the one which had been opened, was closed.
We prayed, and as we descended from the mountain, we praised God who has written the names of the righteous in the book of life in heaven (17:2-7).
How the Bible Came Together
Many in the Protestant community find it hard to imagine the Church existing for centuries without a closed, fixed list of the books of the Bible. This is because of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura—the idea that Christian doctrine should be determined “by Scripture alone.” If you use sola scriptura, then there is an urgent need to know the precise boundaries of the canon.
If you’re uncertain about the status of a book, you don’t know whether it’s authoritative for doctrine or not. You could err in either extreme: ignore statements God meant to be authoritative or treat something as authoritative when it isn’t.
But the early Church didn’t employ sola scriptura. Instead, Christians used the same principles for formulating doctrine that had been used since the Apostolic Age: Yes, Scripture was authoritative, but so was the Tradition that Christ and the apostles had passed down—and one could rely on the Church’s divinely guided Magisterium to settle cases of dispute. Therefore, pre-Reformation Christians felt no urgency to know the exact status of lesser books.
Early in the 300s, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his famous Church History in which he described the state of views in his own day (Church History 3:25:1-6 with 3:3:5-6). He divided the books into several categories: those that orthodox Christians accepted, disputed, or rejected.
By later that century, the borders of the canon were firmer. In 382, Pope Damasus I held a council at Rome that taught essentially the same canon that Catholics have today. Pope Innocent I affirmed this list in A.D. 405, and it was endorsed by various local councils including Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 and 419. The traditional canon continued to be affirmed down through history, such as at the Council of Florence in 1442.
When the Protestant Reformers began a major controversy about the authority of certain books, the need to define the canon became more urgent, and in 1546 the Council of Trent infallibly defined which books the Church holds as sacred and canonical..