Lesson 4: The Bible Is Unique In Its CanonicityRelated Media
The English word “canon” comes from a Hebrew and Greek word which means “measuring rod.”1 Later the word came to refer to a “standard” or “list.” When used of Scripture, it refers to the official list of books in the Bible. Therefore, the topic of “canonicity” refers to how the books of the Bible were recognized as authoritative. We will look first at the OT and then the NT.
Old Testament Canon
As we considered previously, revelation was continually added to the Old Testament. It started with God writing the Ten Commandments with his own hand, then Moses writing the books of the law, Joshua adding to Moses’ work, and God successively calling other prophets to write down revelation. By God’s command, these authoritative books were kept in the tabernacle and later the temple. The last Old Testament book written was Malachi, and it was written about 430 BC—430 years before Christ came.
The period between the writing of the last OT book and the appearance of Christ is called the intertestamental period (the time between the testaments). This was a period of over 400 “silent” years, throughout which there were no Scriptural additions. There were, however, historical writings produced during those silent years, such as the Apocrypha, which are not part of the Canon. These books demonstrated the common belief among Jews that God had stopped speaking authoritatively during that time period. Wayne Grudem adds:
When we turn to Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see that the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased is clearly attested in several different strands of extrabiblical Jewish literature.
In 1 Maccabees (about 100 BC) the author writes of the defiled altar, “So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:45–46). They apparently knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done. The memory of an authoritative prophet among the people was one that belonged to the distant past, for the author could speak of a great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (1 Macc. 9:27; cf. 14:41).2
Because of the general consensus that God was not speaking during the intertestamental period, the fact that the OT was kept secure by the priests and Levites who served the temple, and that the OT was preserved and taught in various Jewish synagogues throughout the world, the current list of OT books was accepted “as early as the fourth century BC and certainly no later than 150 BC.”3 Though there must have been some debate, there was early universal acceptance of the established thirty-nine books. Within the New Testament, there is no record of debate amongst Christ, the disciples, or the Jews about the canonicity of the OT.4 Since the religious leaders brought other debatable questions about the OT to Christ, if the OT Canon was in doubt, it seems reasonable to presume such doubt would have been a prominent question to pose to him; however, it never was (and if it had been, it was not deemed significant enough to include in the NT canon). Also, the fact that the NT authors quoted the OT Scriptures 295 times as divinely inspired and didn’t quote the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority, implies they were settled on the extent of the OT canon.5 The OT Canon debate, if any, was clearly settled before New Testament times.
Further confirmation of the OT Canon’s early acceptance is seen in Josephus’ writing (AD 37–100). He said that the Jews held as sacred only twenty-two books, which included exactly the same content as our present thirty-nine book OT Canon.6 Also, the Jewish council of Jamnia discussed the canonicity of the existing Hebrew Canon in AD 90. “Some questioned whether it was right to accept (as was being done) Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.”7 The council simply confirmed the already accepted Canon.
The questions must then be asked, “What is the Apocrypha?” and “Why do the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles include the Apocrypha in the Old Testament?” The Apocrypha are books written during the intertestamental period, which detail the history of that time period. Several of these books are included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. In the fourth century AD, St. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, was the first to name the books the “Apocrypha” (meaning “hidden” or “concealed”).8
The history of how the Apocrypha was created includes the Jews being exiled by Babylon, Persia’s eventual rule over Babylon and thus the Israelites, and eventually, the Greeks conquering Persia. As Greece became the world power under Alexander the Great, Greek became the known world’s official language. Consequently, many Jews began to lose their native tongue, Hebrew, and needed Old Testaments in the Greek language. The Greek translation written during the third and second centuries BC is called the Septuagint (or LXX), which means “seventy” in Latin.9 Legend says that Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (285-246 BC) commissioned seventy-two Jewish scholars to translate the Hebrew Bible.10 Within the Septuagint, the Apocrypha was added to fill in the historical gap between the Old and New Testament. The books were considered good reading but were never considered part of the Canon by the Jews. However, because it was included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and many could not read the Hebrew Canon, some began to believe the Apocrypha was part of the original Canon.
Pope Damasus I, who lived from AD 305 to 384, commissioned a scholar named Jerome to translate a Latin Bible, as Rome was the dominant world power and propagator of Christianity. Jerome created the Latin Vulgate which included the Apocrypha and was used by the Roman Catholic Church and those who spoke Latin for centuries. However, when he added them, he said they were “not books of the Canon” but “books of the Church.” Unfortunately, this clarification did not stop people from considering them as part of the Canon. In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially ruled that the Apocrypha would be part of the Canon.11 It is significant to note that this council was the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, which challenged many Catholic doctrines12 and removed the Apocrypha from Protestant Bibles.13
Why was the Apocrypha accepted into the Canon by the Catholic Church? For at least two reasons: (1) As mentioned, during this period some believed that it was part of the Canon, because it was included in the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. (2) Additionally, the Apocrypha was included because the teachings were crucial to certain beliefs in Catholic doctrine, which are not supported in the rest of Scripture. These beliefs include purgatory (a place for believers to go to be purged before entering heaven), almsgiving for forgiveness, prayers for the dead (the prayers of believers help the dead become purged in purgatory so they can enter heaven), and salvation by works.
Why is the Apocrypha not included in the Protestant Old Testament Canon? For many reasons:
1. None of the writers declared divine inspiration.
2. Jesus and the apostles never clearly quoted or applied it anywhere in the NT.
3. Many of the teachings contradict the Bible, such as purgatory, salvation by works, prayers for the dead, etc., and in general, many of its teachings do not fit with the character and nature of God. For example, consider the following verses from Ecclesiasticus:
Any iniquity is insignificant compared to a wife’s iniquity.
From a woman sin had its beginning. Because of her we all die.
It is a disgrace to be the father of an undisciplined, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.
4. The Jews never accepted it as part of the Canon.
5. The books in the Apocrypha make reference to the silent 400 years, during which there were no prophets to write inspired materials. Consider the following verses from 1 Maccabees:
And they laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, till there should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them.
1 Maccabees 4:46
And there was a great tribulation in Israel, such as was not since the day, that there was no prophet seen in Israel.
1 Maccabees 9:27
And that the Jews, and their priests, had consented that he should be their prince, and high priest for ever, till there should arise a faithful prophet.
1 Maccabees 14:41
In conclusion, the Apocrypha was written around 200-150 BC and was included in the Greek translation of the OT, called the Septuagint, and later in the Latin Vulgate. Because of this, some eventually began to consider it as inspired, even though it was initially merely considered good reading for Jews and Christians. Though Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians accept some of these books as inspired, Jews and Protestants do not accept them as inspired for many reasons, including the fact that New Testament never quotes them, that the doctrine within them at times contradicts Scripture, and that the authors of the Apocrypha never claim divine inspiration.14
New Testament Canon
What about the New Testament Canon: when was it formed and how? The NT process of canonization is more complex than the OT process. Unlike the Old Testament, New Testament books were not kept securely in the temple by the priests and Levites, with copies in every Jewish synagogue. The NT books were being circulated around the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa. At the same time, many false writings started to circulate with them and there arose a need to affirm which books were in the Canon. It should be noted that the early church did not select books for the Canon but simply recognized what God had already affirmed. Norm Geisler and William Nix said this:
A book is not the Word of God because it is accepted by the people of God. Rather, it was accepted by the people of God because it is the Word of God. That is, God gives the book its divine authority, not the people of God. They merely recognize the divine authority which God gives to it.15
Key to affirming NT books was apostolic approval. This considers whether a specific book was written by an apostle or approved by the apostles. Just as the primary writers of the Old Testament were prophets—those who proclaimed declarative words from the Lord—the primary writers of the New Testament were apostles. The apostles were Christ’s twelve disciples and a few others, such as Paul. All were official witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. In Ephesians 2:18-20, Paul described the apostles as the foundation of the church:
so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
The apostles were the foundation of the church by their teachings and their writing of the New Testament. Similarly, Peter said: “I want you to recall both the predictions foretold by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). Peter declared in his letter that Jesus was speaking through the apostles and thus classified them as having the same rank and authority as the OT prophets who recorded Scripture. Dr. Michael Kruger said this about the early church’s perspective of the apostles and their writings:
If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and it was believed that they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself. Such writings would not have to wait until second-, third-or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to be viewed as authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the early church’s view of the function of the apostles.16
Dr. Kruger’s insight highlights the role of apostolic approval, one of the primary instruments used when affirming the books of the New Testament. For example, the books of Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude were not written by apostles but were accepted and approved by them.
There were still other criteria used in determining which books were to be recognized as part of the NT Canon. The early church asked these questions:
- Is it authoritative? (Did it claim to come from the Lord with sayings such as: “Thus saith the Lord”?)
- Is it prophetic? (Was it written by an apostle or a prophet? Or, did it have the approval of the apostles, such as the books of Mark and Luke?)
- Is it consistent? (Did it agree or disagree with Scripture?)
- Is it dynamic? (Did it effect change in peoples’ lives, as Scripture does?)
- Is it received? (Did it have the approval of the early church by being widely circulated and thus bearing the witness of the Holy Spirit in believers?)17
For example, in the case of Luke and Acts, they had the affirmation of the apostles and the early church. Luke was an apostolic associate—serving with Paul in his missionary journeys. When referring to Luke’s writings, Paul called them Scripture. Consider what Paul said, in 1 Timothy 5:18: “For the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The worker deserves his pay.’” When describing Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, Paul referred to them both as Scripture. In Luke 10:7, Luke quoted Christ saying, “Stay in that same house, eating and drinking what they give you, for the worker deserves his pay. Do not move around from house to house.” Paul’s affirmation of Luke’s writing shows that it was already being widely circulated and accepted by the early church.
Similarly, Mark was not only a companion of Paul but also of Peter, and the early church readily accepted his writing. Jude and James were brothers of Christ, and James, specifically, was also called an apostle (though not of the original twelve; cf. Gal 1:19, 2:6-10). These books were affirmed by the apostles, widely circulated amongst the early church, and consistent with the rest of Scripture.
With Paul, Peter specifically affirmed his writings as Scripture. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, he said:
And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures.
Hebrews is another matter. The early church thought Paul wrote it; however, there is no clear textual evidence to support that belief. Nevertheless, it was included because of its rich truth and the external witness of the early church. Hebrews quotes the Old Testament more than any other New Testament book and was widely accepted by the early church, despite not knowing its authorship. Again, the church did not decide which books deserved to be in the Canon; it simply recognized what God had already affirmed.
Though there are many early NT Canon partial lists which have survived—including the Muratorian Canon (AD 170) and a list of twenty six NT books in the Council of Laodicea (AD 363)—the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius (AD 367) gives the first authoritative list of the NT Canon with all twenty-seven books.18 The Council of Hippo (AD 393) and the Council of Carthage (AD 397) also had the same list.19
As mentioned, many false books were being circulated in the early church, which made identifying the official books especially important. These false books were called Pseudepigrapha, which means “false writings.” They were written between 200 BC to 300 AD.20 The true authors are unknown, but they tacked the names of famous biblical characters to the books to gain a readership. Even Paul had to deal with these types of writing. He warned the Thessalonians to not be “shaken” or “disturbed” by any letter which was “allegedly” from him (2 Thess 2:2). The books not only have false names, but historical errors, gross fabrications, and even heresy in them.
A few of them are the Testament of Abraham, the Books of Enoch, the Books of Noah, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Barnabas. Why were they not included in the Canon? Simply because they failed the criteria used for recognizing canonical books. They were not written by apostles or their associates; they were not recognized by the early church; and they contradict the rest of Scripture in many aspects.
For example, the Gospel of Thomas became quite popular because of a conspiracy theory fiction book, later made into a movie, called The Da Vinci Code. In the story, the Catholic church secretly hid the Gospel of Thomas, keeping it from ever being accepted as part of the Canon. Is this possible? No. Any reader familiar with Scripture can tell that what is taught in the book doesn’t align with Scripture. For example, in The Gospel of Thomas (Saying 114), it says:
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Clearly, its teachings fail the test of consistency. The rest of the Pseudepigrapha has similar flaws.
Personal Acceptance Of The Bible
We’ve talked about the process of canonicity which the early church went through in affirming the official books of the Bible; however, we must now address the question, “Why should we personally trust that the Bible is God’s Word?” We certainly weren’t with the early church when the decisions were made, and most of us haven’t considered other potential books which could be included in Scripture. We can personally accept the Bible as God’s Word for the following reasons:
1. We can accept the Bible because of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation in our hearts.
Christ said this:
… I told you and you do not believe. The deeds I do in my Father’s name testify about me. But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand.
He also described, in John 10:4-5, how sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd and will not follow a stranger. Those who are truly born again recognize Christ’s voice in God’s Word, and that’s why they believe the Bible is true. This is a supernatural work which the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer. First Corinthians 2:12-14 says the same:
Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
If we are Christ’s sheep, the Holy Spirit confirms and enlightens his Word to us. Has the Holy Spirit confirmed the truthfulness of God’s Word in your heart?
2. We can accept the Bible based on God’s promises to preserve his Word.
In Matthew 5:17-18, Christ said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.
Part of the reason we can trust that the Bible is God’s Word is because of God’s faithfulness to his promises. Not a letter or stroke of the pen will disappear from Scripture. It is imperishable and enduring (cf. 1 Pet 1:23-25). If God wanted people to know his Word, surely he would keep and preserve it. We trust that he has.
3. We can accept the Bible because there are many evidences that confirm it as truth.
There are innumerable historical evidences of the Bible’s truthfulness. As mentioned, the Bible is the most historically reliable ancient book, a fact which manuscript evidence and archaeological findings continue to affirm. In addition, the Bible contains much prophetic evidence of its truthfulness. The Bible is a prophetic book with some 1000 prophecies in it—half of them have come true and the other half awaits completion.21 Prophecies prove the truthfulness of Scripture. We’ll study some of these soon. If these were not enough, we have the evidence of changed lives. God is continually changing lives through this book. Hopefully, we’ve all experienced this as a personal evidence, which gives us confidence in God’s Word.
Is The Canon Complete?
How do we know the Bible is complete? Will future books be added? Obviously, some have tried to add to the Canon, such as Mormons and other groups. However, historically, the church has always believed that the Canon is closed. Why? First, it should be said that the Bible never clearly says it is complete, but there are many reasons to believe it is. For example:
- The book of Revelation is the perfect closure to the Bible, just as Genesis is the perfect beginning. In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth. In Revelation, it gives future details about the judgment of the current heavens and the earth and the renewing of the heaven and earth. After creation, Genesis describes God’s presence in a garden, with people and the tree of life (Gen 2). Revelation closes with God’s presence in a city, with people and trees of life (Rev 22:2). Revelation is the perfect bookend to the Bible’s story.
- At the end of the Old Testament Canon with Malachi, there was unparalleled silence during the intertestamental period, as they awaited the coming of Christ. Similarly, since the writing of Revelation, there has been unparalleled silence as we await the return of Christ.
- It seems that the need for prophets and apostles, in the sense of those who wrote Scripture, has ceased. Therefore, there are no candidates who would be universally accepted to write other books.
- The early church—those closest to the apostles—believed Revelation was the last book of the Bible.
- In the reading, what stood out most to you and why?
- Why is it important to establish that God selected the books in the Canon and believers just affirmed them and not vice-versa?
- What questions were asked by early believers about books which could potentially be included in the Canon?
- Why did Jews and early Christians reject the inclusion of the Apocrypha? Why do the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches include them?
- How do we know that no new books will be added to the Canon?
- What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?
Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown
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2 Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine (56). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
3 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 34). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
4 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 56). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
5 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 57). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
6 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 121). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
7 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (pp. 121–122). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
8 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 38). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
11 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 40). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
12 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 59). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
14 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 59). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
15 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 26). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
16 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 27). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.