How and when was the book we call “The Bible” actually assembled? What was the process by which books were or were not included in it? Who made the decisions? These are important questions, especially here in the South where there are many Protestant “Bible-only” denominations around us.
In fact, the book we know as the Bible was assembled over a period of time. It was basically complete by the 4th century when St Jerome made his translation of the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin (called the Vulgate because the Latin language was the “vulgar,” that is, “common” or “ordinary” language the folks could read). It included certain books or portions of books from the Old Testament that would later become disputed, especially by Protestants in the 16th century. St Jerome, by the way, knew that those books were also disputed by the Jews of the time, and he noted that fact, but he still translated them.
For about the first 400 years things were very fluid with regard to recognizing writings as inspired New Testament Scripture or not. Sometimes Christians in the East (around Constantinople and Alexandria) differed from Christians in the West (around Rome) about the relative merits of certain books: especially, the Book of Revelation (sometimes also called “The Apocalypse”). But once there was more or less universal agreement, those books became our Bible. This agreement was made by the Church, and the criterion for admission into the Bible was apostolic authorship (real or thought to be real). The 4 Gospels were either believed to have been written by Apostles (Matthew and John) or else by authors with apostolic associations (Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul). The same was true of the other writings in the New Testament.
There are many writings that are noble, beautiful, and expressions of faith and truth that are not regarded as “Scripture”—the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century are a good example. He was a very important figure in the early Church, but he was not an apostle, so his letters were not included in the Bible. He is at the head of a different collection of writings by men that are known collectively as the “Apostolic Fathers.” Besides Ignatius, they would include names like Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, and so on.
Was the Bible a “best seller” from the get-go? Not really, but that’s not surprising when it’s remembered that literacy was not universal by any stretch of the imagination back then, and since manuscripts were mostly hand-copied, Bibles were very labor-intensive and therefore very expensive, and typically they were found only in churches—often chained because of their value. It was only in the 16th century when Gutenberg developed his printing press of movable type that the Bible (his first printing effort, by the way) became available widely, and as literacy increased so did the demand for Bibles. The most famous English translation, of course, is the Authorized Version of 1611—the King James Bible. Somewhat earlier, Catholics made a translation into English from Jerome’s Vulgate. It was known as the Douay-Rheims Bible from the place where it was made. Until Vatican II it was the standard Catholic Bible in English. Now we can talk about best-sellers, and the Holy Bible (in all its different translations) is the world’s best-selling book.