Who Chose the Books of the Bible? | Bible Book Order Explained

There are various lists that circulated during the second and third centuries that attempted to compile books considered as authoritative New Testament texts. Irenaeus of Lyons makes a formal mention of the four gospels and alludes to other books of the New Testament. Others like Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius of Alexandria give a formal list of which books should be considered authentic New Testament books. Irenaeus composed his list in his magnus opus Against the Heresies in which he combated Gnosticism. Irenaeus was among the first Christian thinkers to associate the four accounts of the Gospel with the four incorporeal beasts carrying the throne of God in the book of Revelation. Irenaeus writes,

“The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, ‘O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself ‘. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.” — Against the Heresies (3.11.8) 

Eusebius provides a commentary in his renown book “on Church History” on the New Testament writings accepted or rejected in different Christian communities. He also includes a list of writings that were considered dubious. As Eusebius puts it,

“1. […] it is proper to sum up the writings of the New Testament which have been already mentioned. First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels; following them the Acts of the Apostles… the epistles of Paul… the epistle of John… the epistle of Peter… After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings.

  1. Among the disputed writings [Antilegomena], which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name.
  2. Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books.”

You certainly can see how some writings such as the Apocalypse of John was seen differently by different communities. The Catholic epistles were contested since the times of Eusebius (236-339). Syriac copies of the New Testament did not include the Catholic epistles until much later. Prominent figures such as Ephraim the Syrian and John Chrysostom used Bibles that only comprised Pauline literature including Hebrews without the Catholic epistles. Hebrews was another disputed book as its authorship was attributed to different first-century figures like Paul or Apollos, or an anonymous disciple of Paul or Barnabas.

Athanasius of Alexandria, in his 39th festal letter also mentions the books of the New Testament that are considered canonical. Athanasius’ list most resembles the canon of the New Testament we see in Bibles today. He says…

5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.


  1. These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘You are wrong, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me’ (Matthew 22:29; John 5:39.)’

It was apparent to readers of the four Gospel accounts that discrepancies and rough edges existed among the different accounts recording  similar events. How many were present at the multiplication of the loaves and fish? Five thousand or seven thousand? How many loaves were there? Five or seven? How many times did Jesus appear after His resurrection and to whom? These were questions that early Christians often asked but were not as concerned with compared to most modern hermeneutics since the emphasis was often laid more strongly on the narrative’s spiritual significance rather than its literal historicity. They continued to regard all four accounts as authoritative even as they struggled with such “stumbling blocks.” Attempts to harmonize such texts was prominent in the second and third centuries. As David Bentley Hart puts it,

“The four Gospels were regarded as authoritative from a very early date, though they were often read not as discrete documents, but in a combined, ‘harmonized’ form. The most virtuosic of these harmonies was called the Diatessaron (literally, taken from the four), which was the work of the Christian philosopher Tatian (185 AD), a second century Hellenized Syrian.”

Tatian of Adiabene sought to synthesize the material of the four gospels (that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) into a single narrative accounting for the life, teachings, actions and Passion of Christ.

Someone like Origen of Alexandria claimed that these questions or “stumbling blocks” were placed providentially by the Holy Spirit that the reader may look for the deeper meaning reconciling these discrepancies. Origen would associate Christ’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God,” with theologians who would harmonize various texts of Scripture.

In the fourth century Jerome and Augustine also exchanged a dialogue regarding what books were to be included in the Old Testament especially the Greek books found in the Septuagint. The Church along with Augustine resolved the debate,  coming to the consensus that the Old Testament canon would include the Greek books such as Tobit and Maccabees, now known as deuterocanonical books.