Who decided what books were included in the New Testament?

Recent books, movies and popular news reports have spread the idea of a group of church leaders meeting together to determine which of the many letters and gospels being passed around the early churches were actually authentic and Biblical. Some use this supposed meeting as proof of a conspiracy to reject certain gospels, redefine Christianity to maintain the importance of a privileged few or to exclude women from the leadership of the church. Despite the popular opinion and brash assertions by certain scholars, no such council, meeting or determination was ever held.

Possibly the most common depiction of this event accuses the council of Laodicea held in the 360’s (a council is a gathering of pastors and bishops from many churches to discuss important issues the churches were facing) of formulating a list of approved New Testament books. Copies of the Laodicea meeting notes do contain a list of New Testament books, but the inclusion of the list is very suspect. Many believe it was added in later. Even if the list is genuine, nothing in the council argued for or against the acceptance of books. No determination about which books were Biblical was made, all the council did was list the 66 books of the Bible.

Without a doubt the church council of Carthage in 397 did publish an official list of the books of the Old and New Testament. However, this list cannot be read as a determination on which books were to be included and which ones were not. The bishops did not argue about which books to include. They did not vote on which books to allow into the New Testament. They did not blackball some books from the New Testament. No church council ever created a list of New Testament books. Those councils which included a list of New Testament books were only identifying those books which the church already recognized as Biblical. They listed the books to help prevent controversies, but these pastoral meetings did not decide which books were Biblical.

To help put this in perspective, consider a couple other issues discussed by early church councils. The council of Nicea held in the early 300’s declared that Jesus is God. The council of Nicea did not devise the doctrine that Jesus’ deity and humanity were combined in one being, who is fully God and fully man. The council only affirmed the already existing Biblical teaching of Jesus’ humanity and Deity. Because of some who were spreading false teaching about Jesus, the church leaders had to address the issue in a council and issue an official statement for the benefit of the entire church. The council of Constantinople in the late 300’s had to address the Deity of the Holy Spirit. Once again, they did not gather together and create a new doctrine. They spelled out in brief and clear fashion what was already recognized Biblical doctrine. In the same fashion, no council determined which books would be in the Bible. At most the councils spelled out in a simple statement the list of books already recognized as genuine Scripture.