The canon of the Bible: A brief review
Of all the books known to human history, none is so unique in its origin, so stupendous in its claims, so dynamic in its promises, so comprehensive and encompassing in its message as is the Bible. It is no ordinary book. Indeed, it is not a single book, but a library of books—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Its composition took centuries; its authority has lasted even longer. The first of the 40 authors who wrote the Bible (Moses) was separated from the last author (John) by approximately 1,600 years. The writers came from different walks of life, and had every conceivable level of education from the highest to the lowest. They differed in what they were and what they did: Some were herdsmen, shepherds, soldiers, and fishermen; and others were kings, legislators, statesmen, courtiers, priests, poets, and physicians.
Inevitably their literary styles reflected the differences among them. Some were writing law; others, religious poetry; still others, history; some, lyrical prose; others, lyrical poetry; some were writing in parables and allegories; others, biographies or personal memoirs and diaries; and some were writing prophecy; and still others, quite simply, personal correspondence.
With all this diversity, how were the sixty-six books deemed to be sufficiently “different” or “holy” to be included in what is called the “canon” of the Bible?
The first thing to understand is that no individual or committee of individuals compiled the Bible. The Bible grew. This principle applies to both the Old and New Testaments. The unifying principle that makes the Bible holy, different, a living whole, is this: Christ Himself, the bringer of salvation. As we watch the process by which the books were written and came to be accepted as God-breathed, we receive a sense that the One who was the unifying principle, the bringer of salvation, the source of inspiration, was also at work.
The Old Testament canon
“Few realize,” wrote George Smith, “that the Church of Christ possesses a higher warrant for her canon of the Old Testament than she does for her canon of the New.”1 This higher warrant lies in the relationship that Jesus established between Himself and the Old Testament. Frequently, He quoted from it as the source of His authority. After His resurrection, He told His disciples that the Cross and everything that had happened to Him was but a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Indeed, Messianic prophecy was scattered throughout the Old Testament. Of course, the New Testament did not have similar weight of authority from the Lord because it had yet to be written.
The authority of the Old Testament was accepted by the people to whom it was addressed—Israel—long before the arrival of the Messiah. One example will suffice. In the course of a clean-up in the temple in Josiah’s reign, the “Book of the Law” long neglected was discovered. The book was presented to the king, and he read it. It had, he realized, been lost owing to the indifference of his predecessors. In former times, it was kept in the tabernacle, then the temple, and the priests frequently read from it. The king had a second copy. The recovery of the Book of the Law was seen by Josiah and later chroniclers as an event of great significance. The king read passages aloud to the people. The portions that were read came from Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and 29. From this it may be deduced that the “Book of the Law” represented the first five books of the Bible or, at least, part of them. The rediscovery of the book was used as a springboard for the reformation of the kingdom.
During the 70 years of the Babylonian exile, the words of the prophets, then extant, came to be valued a great deal. Judah as a nation ceased to exist, and with it its capital and its temple. But here was still the Book of the Law—and the books of the prophets.
The Jewish Talmud asserts that Ezra, who led the people at the end of the Exile, undertook the collecting and editing of the Law and the Prophets. It also suggests that “a Great Synagogue” was convened and that over a period of years all the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings came under discussion. In addition to any work carried out by Ezra, many scholars have suggested that over the decades, members of the Great Synagogue undertook the work of editing.
The Old Testament books are usually divided into four sections: The Pentateuch (the books of Moses), the historical books (Joshua to Esther), the five books of poetry and ethics (Job to the Song of Solomon), and the books of the prophets (Isaiah to Malachi).
The work of forming what we call the Old Testament had, thanks to Ezra and the Great Synagogue, begun as early as 450 B.C. Most scholars now accept that by the time of Christ, the Old Testament existed in the form we have outlined.
Following the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there was considerable discussion about the canon of Scripture. A rabbi called Yochanan ben Zakkai obtained written permission from the Roman authorities to convene the Council of Jamnia in order to discuss the canon of Scripture. However, the debate at that council simply centered around four books that were considered “marginal”: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and Esther. After the pros and cons of these four books were discussed, the council decided to include them within the canon, along with the rest of what we know as the Old Testament books. In fact, the council could have done little else; “the books which they decided to acknowledge as canonical were already generally accepted, although questions had been raised about them. Those which they refused to admit had never been included. They did not expel from the canon any book which had previously been admitted.”2
The Council of Jamnia did not invest the books of the Bible with authority by including them in some sacred list. They were included in that list—the canon—because they were already acknowledged as God-inspired, authoritative, and had been, in most cases, for a number centuries.
A contemporary of Christ, Philo of Alexandria, accepted the Old Testament canon in the form in which it is accepted today. The same is true of first-century Josephus Flavius. The earliest list of Old Testament books extant was drawn up by Melito, Bishop of Sardis, about A.D. 170, and is preserved by Eusebius in the fourth volume of his Ecclesiastical History.3
The New Testament canon
The New Testament has three categories of books: the narratives (the four Gospels and the Acts), the letters, and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.
Although it took only 50 years to write the New Testament, it took far longer for it to assume the form that it has today. Not until A.D. 367 do we find the New Testament books listed in exactly their present form. The list is contained in an Easter letter written by a Christian bishop, Athanasius.
In the two-and-a-half centuries or so between the completion of the last book of the New Testament and the list of Athanasius, there had been much discussion as to which books should or should not be included in the canon. The Old Testament formed the Scriptures of the earliest Christians. Gradually, however, some Christian writings were placed on a par with the Old Testament, “not by any decree of a council…but by the common agreement of the faithful; the spiritual intuition of the Church came slowly to decide which of its writings should be regarded as ‘canonical.’”4
What brought about “the common agreement of the faithful”? What informed “the spiritual intuition of the Church?”
The books discarded from the Old Testament canon came to be called the Apocrypha. A further group of wrongly attributed books—called the Pseudepigrapha—was also discarded. The Apocrypha contained history and wise sayings. The Pseudepigrapha contained a lot of magic and little history. As we examine the books discarded from the New Testament canon—the New Testament “Apocrypha”—again we sense the presence of supernatural guidance.
The books included were those accepted as God-inspired and proven in their ability to help men and women and to make Christ known. They were acknowledged to have been written by men close to Jesus and involved in the great first-century adventure that took the Christian gospel to the limits of the then-known world.
A Greek contemporary of Athanasius spoke of “the echo of a great soul” and professed to hear this echo in the canonical New Testament books. William Barclay, the noted New Testament scholar, says: “The ring of sublimity is to be found in the New Testament books. They carry their greatness on their faces. They are self-evidencing.”
When Bible translator J. B. Phillips came to compare the New Testament books “with the writings which were excluded from the New Testament by the early Fathers,” he could only “admire their wisdom.” He continued, “Probably most people have not had the opportunity to read the apocryphal ‘gospels’ and ‘epistles,’ although every scholar has. I can only say here that in such writings we live in a world of magic and make-believe, of myth and fancy. In the whole task of translating the New Testament I never for one moment, however provoked and challenged I might be, felt that I was being swept away into a world of spookiness, witchcraft and magical powers such as abound in the books rejected from the New Testament. It was the sustained down-to-heart faith of the New Testament writers which conveyed to me that inexpressible sense of the genuine and the authentic.”5
The “self-evidencing” point comes across most powerfully when one reads the books that almost got into the New Testament but did not; books that were intended by their authors to be accepted, but were not.
In the second century, a number of books were written called “infancy gospels.” The four Gospels of the canon provide little detail on the first three decades of the life of Jesus prior to the commencement of His public ministry. These infancy gospels were intended to “fill the gaps.”
The so-called “gospel of Thomas” is supposed to give a record of the infancy of Jesus. The child Jesus, while at play, is represented as creating live sparrows out of clay, and of striking dead a small child who “run and crashed against his shoulder.” Jesus the apprenticed carpenter is depicted stretching wooden beams like elastic and exercising an assortment of magical powers to no practical purpose.
No one could possibly mistake this for Scripture. Indeed, Scripture is self-evidencing. When you compare the Gospels with these books, there is no question as to why some are “in” and others, without argument, “out.” The line is clear-cut. There is no room for debate.
Immense care was taken to ensure that the people who had authored the books that were accepted into the canon had known Jesus personally. The hallmark of these men was that they were concerned to demonstrate that the Jesus who did those things in the past is the living Christ who still does things.
In the Book of Acts, every single sermon finishes with the fact of the Resurrection. For the New Testament, Jesus is, above all, the living Christ. Because the four Gospel writers were speaking about the living Christ, they gave a vastly disproportionate amount of space to the last week prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. The central concern of the disciples, of Christianity, of Christian theology, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The books where this was not the central concern were quite simply either not considered or deliberately excluded from the canon.
“We may believe,” says Professor F. F. Bruce, “that those early Christians acted by a wisdom higher than their own in this matter, not only in what they accepted, but in what they rejected.” “What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last the Church Council—the Synod of Hippo in AD 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.”6
In short, the process by which the books of the New Testament came to be accepted was, in all essential respects, the same process by which the books of the Old Testament came to be accepted. Thus these two books—the Bible of the apostles and the Bible the apostles wrote—together came to comprise what Christians accept as the written Word of God, the unifying principle of which is Christ Himself, the bringer of salvation. Thus the Bible, the inspired Word, had its origin, authority, and genuineness in Christ the Incarnate Word.
David Marshall (Ph.D., University of Hull) taught for several years before becoming a writer and magazine editor. He has published 20 books on historical, travel, and biblical themes. He is currently the senior editor of Stanborough Press. His address: Alma Park; Grantham, Lincs. NG31 9SL; England. This article is adapted from his book The Battle for the Bible (Autumn House, 2004).
- G. A. Smith, Modern Criticism and the Preaching of the Old Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1901), p. 5.
- F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1963), p. 89.
- Ibid., pp. 89-92.
- G. W. H. Lampe, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1963-1969), vol. 2, p. 42.
- J. B. Phillips, Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 95.
- Bruce, pp. 103, 104.