God has been revealing Himself throughout history. His creation declares His glory and His creative genius as Psalm 19 declares; “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. His unlimited power and infinitude are seen as we consider the stars in the heavens. According to the book of Romans mankind is able to see these certain aspects of God’s character by His general revelation, but God went further in His self-revelation. He has given us His Son as supreme revelation, and He has graciously given us His word, so that we could know Him.

This Word of God comes to us in the Bible, a collection of 66 documents inspired by God, written by human instruments of His choosing under the supervision of the Holy Spirit, and preserved by God’s powerful hand throughout the centuries.

The Bible is “comprised of 66 books, 1189 chapters, 31173 verses and 774746 words”[1]. It claims of itself that it is the word of God in over 2000 instances in the Old Testament and the phrase “the Word of God” appears over 40 times in the New Testament. Paul claims that it is entirely breathed and inspired by God[2], and Peter describes the process not to human ingenuity but to the hand of God on men who wrote under direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit[3].

As we come to the Bible as we have it today, however, we must consider several questions. First, how do we know that what we have in front of us is indeed the inspired, pure Word of God? Second, on what basis are some documents admitted to be part of the canon of scripture and other contenders are disqualified? And finally, third, how do we deal with the difference in the Catholic Canon and the Protestant Canon of Scripture?

These questions are crucially important, since “If we can’t identify what is Scripture, then we can’t properly distinguish any theological truth from error”[4].

The word canon is a word that came from the Greek word ‘kanon’ which carries the “idea of a measuring rod, later a rule or norm of faith, and eventually a catalogue or list.”[5] The term canon has also been used to “identify those books considered to be spiritually superlative, by which all others were measured and found to be of secondary value in general church use”[6]. This term in connection with the 66 books that make up the Old and New Testaments conveys the idea of an authoritative standard in the selection of which books should be considered as part of the whole and therefore considered inspired, accurate and authoritative. Canonicity in turn is the right of any literature to be accepted as the Word of God.

Many have made the claim that the process by which we determine how we came by the 39 books of the Old Testament or the 27 New Testament writings is a “purely historical investigation” that deals not with authorship or content but with their history; not with the part of God but with the part of man.

Today we have three Canons; the Jewish canon, consisting of 39 books, the Protestant canon, consisting of 66 books and the Catholic canon consisting of 80 books. From Abraham till Moses the faith of the Israelites had flourished without the help of a written codex, but Moses is the first one who put their history into written form. It states several times throughout the Pentateuch that God told Moses to write things down, which seems to give credence to his authorship of at least portions of the first 5 books of the Old Testament called the Pentateuch. A similar claim is made regarding Joshua, who wrote the Law of God down in a book.[7] A statement in Proverbs describes that many proverbs were copied by Hezekiah’s scribes[8]. There are a number of other passages that describe God’s command to put His law or His words to Israel into writing.  Early on these passages of scripture were given authoritative status among the Israelites, as we can see in the account of Josiah instituting his religious reforms upon finding the Law in the temple.

The books of the Old Testament were written in the course of approximately 1000 years with Moses writing the Pentateuch at the direction of God and Malachi writing the last book during the time of the Persian Empire. On a whole these writings making up the canon of the Old Testament seem to have been much less disputed than that of the New Testament. From early on the Jewish people believed that God revealed himself to his people through the written word of their scriptures. The Mosaic Law was instantly recognized by the 12 tribes as having ultimate authority in questions of faith and practice and was kept in with the Ark of the Covenant.

Likewise “Each book that issued from a person acknowledged to be a prophet of God was accepted as the divine Word as soon as it appeared, because it had been written with the intention of upholding faith in God and regulating behavior in conformity with the spiritual traditions of the Torah. Thus the canon derived its authority from its consonance with the nature and will of God as revealed to man from Adam to Moses.”

Jewish tradition holds that Ezra, the priest, inspired by God compiled the Old Testament. Be that as it may there seems to be good evidence that early on a definite catalogue of canonical books was compiled and other books, such as the Apocrypha we find in the Catholic Bible today, were known but not considered canonical by most. The Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha (books that were written during the Maccabean time period and attributed to one of the greats of the Old Testament) were written during the intertestamental period, and were widely distributed but for the most part not included in the Canon of the Old Testament. For the most part the Old Testament was written by men prophetically gifted by God, and inspired to first proclaim and then pen His words. Even though R.T. Beckwith rightly states that, “not all the writers of the OT books were prophets, in the narrow sense of the word; some of them were kings and wise men. But their experience of inspiration led to their writings also finding a place in the Canon. The inspiration of psalmists is spoken of in 2 Sa. 23:1-3; 1Ch. 25:1, and of wise men in Ec.12:11f.”[9]

The Old Testament, or the Jewish Bible, is historically separated into three parts to which Jesus himself attests[10]; the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (or Hagiographa – other scriptures). The first of these the Law, comprised of the first five books of the Bible was complete and considered canonical no later than the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C., but probably much earlier. Even though Samaritans and Jews experienced a schism (ca. 432 B.C.), both point to the Pentateuch as common property and as their canonical scriptures, which indicates that it was complete and commonly held as authoritative before that date. In the 3rd century B.C. it was translated into Greek as the first part of the LXX.

The Prophets and Writings were long read, revered and preserved or re-copied, but we say with relative certainty that they were canonized no later than 165 BC. 2 Maccabees speaks of the collection of the books that had been lost because of the war saying that “Judas Maccabaeus collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are still in our possession”[11] So Judas collected all the scrolls and listed the complete collection of scrolls, which from that time on became traditional. Even though some debate continued about several of the included writings the synod of Jamnia settled the dispute and affirmed the same books as Canon of the Old Testament.

The work of the council can be described as affirming what already had been established by the work of the Holy Spirit through the centuries, not, as so often is assumed, a bunch of old men voting which books were in or out.

The New Testament Canon came about with more difficulty, but ultimately was affirmed by Church Councils in a similar fashion as that of the Old Testament. The council of Carthage in 397 A.D. essentially affirmed what had always and by all congregations (i.e. Spain, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Rome and others) been considered as canonical writings. They published the 66 books of the Bible as named by Athanasius in 367. In this process they nonetheless applied some very definite standards to their decisions.

First, they asked the question whether a book was to be considered Apostolic, that is did it have the authority of an Apostle to back it. Matthew, John and Peter were Apostles, as was Paul, who had seen the Lord. James and Jude were half-brothers of the Lord Jesus and primary leaders in the early church. Luke and Mark wrote under the authority of Paul and Peter respectively. Second, was the book accepted by the Body of Christ at large? Third, did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching, and did it stand in compatibility to what had been written in the other scriptures? Fourth, did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit?

Even though the last book of our present Canon was most likely written in the 90’s AD, we find a near-complete canon only a few decades later which was compiled by Irenaeus (AD 130-200) who only omitted Hebrews, 2Peter and 3 John. The Muratorian Canon (ca. AD 170-210) has a virtually identical list of books, but adds James and first Peter to the omitted books, whereas Eusebius has a listing that includes all of the books but lists James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude as disputed. Athanasius (39th Paschal letter AD 367) includes the totality of the present Canon, but adds one of the Apocryphal books called the Wisdom of Solomon. In addition some of the early Church Fathers quote from what they considered Canonical books in their own letters and writings. Clement of Rome (ca. AD 95), for example, mentioned at least eight New Testament books while Ignatius (A.D. 115) makes mention of seven books, and Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235) recognized 22 books as scripture.

As we can see in the case of the New Testament, the process of canonization began in the first centuries of the Christian church. Very early on, some of the New Testament books were being recognized. The New Testament writers themselves give credence to each other’s writings. “Paul considered Luke’s writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Some of the books of the New Testament were being circulated among the churches (Colossians 4:16; 1Thessalonians 5:27).”[12]

The later church councils (similarly as in the case with the OT canon) acknowledged what churches everywhere already had accepted, and ratified those books that the Holy Spirit had affirmed among them. “In A.D. 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) also affirmed the same 27 books as authoritative.”[13] This collection of 66 books is what Protestants today affirm as Scripture, the God-breathed, inspired, inerrant, miraculously preserved and authoritative word of God.

As more ancient manuscripts have become available we have recognized that some passages contained in our canonical books are not in the best and most reliable manuscripts, which has led many (including several of my professors) to believe that we have approximately 104% of the Bible today. The consensus among these conservative scholars is that we are not missing any part of scripture but that we have several minute scribal additions to the text of scripture, none of which declare new doctrine or take away any primary Christian doctrine. Some examples of the passages made doubtful by close attention to those “better manuscripts” are portions of the Gospel of Mark, namely the last chapter (including the obscure passage on snake-handling) and a one very attractive summary of the Trinitarian doctrine in 1 John.[14]

Being sure that God has thus preserved His complete word and no less and trusting that He is an all-powerful, all-loving God we can be sure of the inspiration and therefore trustworthiness, completeness and accuracy of scripture. We confidently declare the Bible as God’s Word, affirming the verbal, plenary inspiration in its original autographs and therefore bow to its ultimate authority in questions of faith and practice.

The difference between the Catholic Canon of Scripture and the Protestant Canon are the addition of the Apocrypha. Apocrypha means hidden things, and are books that were found non-canonical by the Jews and considered as outside books, a designation continued by Cyril of Jerusalem. Even though the Jews uniformly rejected the Apocrypha as non-canonical they somehow made it into the Septuagint (LXX) a Greek translation of the Old Testament, which includes “them as an addendum to the canonical OT. In the second century A.D. the first Latin Bibles were translated from the Greek Bible, and so included the Apocrypha.”[15]

Jerome distinguished the Apocrypha as secondary writings in his Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible), but at the Council of Carthage they were included in the Vulgate (despite Jerome’s resistance) and deemed suitable for reading. The Church Council of Trent in 1548 declared the Apocrypha except I and II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses, “as having unqualified canonical status”[16].

While the Reformers in general rejected the Apocrypha, describing these books as unworthy and contradictory to the canon, Martin Luther stated that, while they were not at the same level with the 66 canonical books they were nonetheless “profitable and good to read”.

  Bromiley, Geoffrey W.  The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Volume One: A-D. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979. Elwell, Walter AEvangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1984. Douglas, Bruce, Packer, HIllyer, Guthrie, (Eds.).  New Bible Dictionary ,Second Edition. Downers Grove, Illinois:   Inter Varsity Press1982. Mac Arthur, John.  The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Internet Sources  Contents copyright © 2001-2005 by Michael D. Marlowe.  What is the Canon of Scripture. By Got Questions Ministries. The Holy Canon of Scripture. By J. Hampton Keathley,III Th.M.

[1] John MacArthur Jr.: The MacArthur Bible Handbook, p.xvii [2] 2 Timothy 3:16 [3] 2 Peter 1:20,21 [4] [5] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume1 p.591-592 [6] Walter A. Elwell: Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.140 [7] Joshua 24:26 [8] Proverbs 25:1 [9] Beckwith: New Bible Dictionary, p.169 [10] Luke 24:44 [11] 2 Macc.2:14 [12] [13] [14] 1 John 5:7 [15] Walter A. Elwell: Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.66 [16] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.66

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