When Was the Bible Assembled?

Learn about the official beginning of the biblical canon.

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Ancient Bible manuscripts displayed at the "Book of Books" exhibition in Jerusalem. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

It's often interesting to learn when famous books were written throughout history. Knowing the culture in which a book was written can be an invaluable tool when it comes to understanding everything that book has to say.

So what about the Bible? Determining when the Bible was written poses a bit of challenge because the Bible is not a single book. It's actually a collection of 66 separate books, all of which were written by more than 40 authors across a time span of more than 2,000 years.

That being the case, there are really two ways to answer the question, "When was the Bible written?" The first would be to identify the original dates for each of the Bible's 66 books.

The second way to answer that question would be to identify the moment when all 66 books were collected together for the first time in a single volume. That's the historical moment we will explore in this article.

The Short Answer

We can say with some safety that the first widespread edition of the Bible was assembled by Saint Jerome around 400 A.D. This was the first manuscript that included all 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament, all together in a single volume and all translated into the same language -- namely, Latin.

This Latin edition of the Bible is commonly referred to as the Vulgate.

The Long Answer

It's important to recognize that Jerome was not the first person to put together the 66 books we know today as the Bible -- nor did he alone decide which books should be included in the Bible.

What Jerome did was translate and compile everything into a single volume.

The history of how the Bible was assembled contains a few more steps.

The first step involves the 39 books of the Old Testament, which are also referred to as the Hebrew Bible. Beginning with Moses, who wrote the first five books of the Bible, these books were written by various prophets and leaders over the course of centuries.

By the time Jesus and His disciples came on the scene, the Hebrew Bible had already been established -- all 39 books were written and accounted for.

So, the 39 books of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) were what Jesus had in mind whenever He referred to "the Scriptures."

After the launch of the early church, things began to change. People such as Matthew started writing historical records of Jesus' life and ministry on earth. We call these the Gospels. Church leaders such as Paul and Peter wanted to provide direction and answer questions for the churches they planted, so they wrote letters that were circulated throughout congregations in different regions. We call these the epistles.

Within a hundred years after the launch of the church, there were hundreds of different letters and books explaining who Jesus was, what He did, and how to live as His disciples. It quickly became clear, however, that some of these writings were more authentic than others. People in the early church began to ask, "Which of these books should we follow, and which should we ignore?"​ 

What the Bible says about itself

Eventually, the primary leaders of the church gathered from all across the world to answer important questions about the Christian church -- including which books should be regarded as "Scripture." These gatherings included the Council of Nicea in A.D.

325 and the First Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

These councils used several criteria to decide which books should be included in the Bible. For example, a book could only be considered Scripture if it:

  • Was written by one of Jesus' disciples -- someone who was an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry (such as Peter), or someone who interviewed eyewitnesses (such as Luke).
  • Was written in the first century A.D. Meaning, books were not included if they were written long after the events of Jesus' life and the first decades of the church.
  • Was consistent with the other portions of Scripture known to be valid. Meaning, the book could not contradict another element of Scripture that was trusted.

After a few decades of debate, these councils largely settled which books should be included in the Bible.

And just a few years later, they were all published together by Jerome.

Again, it's important to remember that by the time the first century came to a close, most of the church already agreed on which books should be considered "Scripture." The earliest church members were already taking guidance from the writings of Peter, Paul, Matthew, John, and so on. The later councils and debates were largely useful in weeding out additional books that claimed the same authority, yet were found to be inferior.

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O'Neal, Sam. "When Was the Bible Assembled?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/when-was-the-bible-assembled-363293. O'Neal, Sam. (2017, February 4). When Was the Bible Assembled? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-was-the-bible-assembled-363293 O'Neal, Sam. "When Was the Bible Assembled?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-was-the-bible-assembled-363293 (accessed November 24, 2017).