The Compilation of the Canon of Scripture
From “How Did We Get The Bible?” by Tracy M. Sumner
(“canon of Scripture”: the books, or texts, considered the inspired and authoritative word of God)
The short story on the 66 books of the Bible
There is the idea that the Bible has been translated “so many times” that it has become corrupted through stages of translating. That might be true if the translations were being made from other translations. But translations are actually made directly from original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic source texts based on thousands of ancient manuscripts.
The apostle Paul makes an important statement: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
This passage points out two very important facts about the Word of God.
- FIRST: that God has inspired all Scripture. God, through the Holy Spirit, spoke His own words through the human writers of Scripture.
- SECOND: that every believer, past and present, could depend on the words as being the promises and warnings, the instructions and guidelines, that God has given to show believers how to live a growing, victorious life of faith.
How can we know for certain that every word of every book in the Bible is indeed inspired?
At the time the canon of Scripture was established, there were many, many letters and “Gospels” making their way around what was then the Christian world. But where in the Bible does God tell us specifically which books He intended to be part of His written Word? The answer lies in the great care God put into making sure all the words He inspired the writers to record were kept in the Book He prepared and gave us.
That work began with the Old Testament.
The Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament
The Hebrew Scriptures – known as the Old Testament – were written from about 1400 BC through approx. 400 BC, when the prophet Malachi recorded his book.
All of these books were written in Hebrew and passed down from generation to generation of Jewish people, who from the time of their writing accepted them as the authentic, inspired Word of God. [Rom 9:4]
Between 400 BC and the birth of Christ, several other books (known as the Apocrypha) made their way into Jewish popular culture. Most of the Jews valued these works as literary sources of history and some spiritual insight, yet they clearly ruled them out by the confession that there was, throughout that period, no voice of the prophets in the land.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the canon of Hebrew Scripture was pretty much decided. The Jews recognized that Moses, the prophets, and other writers were God’s messengers and therefore accepted their work as the inspired Word of God. Jesus Himself referenced Moses, John 5:45-47.
About AD 90, Jewish elders met at the council at Jamnia (in Judea), and affirmed the Jewish canon, at the same time rejecting the books of the Apocrypha as Scripture.
Around AD 95, Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian and priest, recognized the Hebrew canon as the books which are now in the OT. Like the council at Jamnia, he listed 22 books, not 39, which can be accounted for in the way books were kept at that time. Josephus said that the Jews, unlike the Greeks, “… have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.”
By the mid-third century, the church was in almost complete agreement about the Hebrew canon of Scripture. There was some debate about the books of the Apocrypha, which to this day are still included in Roman Catholic Bibles, but are not considered part of the canon in Protestant circles. And, though the OT is quoted extensively in the NT, nowhere in the NT is any book outside the accepted Hebrew canon quoted.
(SIDEBAR about the Apocrypha, the books are as follows: 1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Letter of Jerremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 & 2 Maccabees, as well as additions to Esther and Daniel. The Jews had great respect for these books, but never accepted them as part of the Hebrew canon).
The process of canonizing the NT books began during the times of the apostles, some of whom recognized one another’s writings as inspired, and therefore scriptural. For example, Paul quoted from Luke, and Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings were truly inspired.
The early Christians recognized the apostles as men divinely appointed and gifted to communicate God’s Word to the world around them, 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16.
The process of acknowledging the canon of NT scripture continued during the time of the early church fathers: Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Hippolytus.
The first known list of NT scripture, called the “Muratorian Canon”, was discovered in the 18th century and is believed to date to the 2nd century. It included all the NT books, except Hebrews, James, and 3 John.
As the Christian faith began to expand and churches became more established, the rise and acceptance of false teachers made the faithful realize that they needed to take a stand against those errors and formally acknowledge which writings were truly inspired by God.
The Council of Laodicea in 363 AD, the Council of Hippo in 393, and the Council of Carthage in 397 affirmed the NT canon.
The process of adopting the canon included putting each “questionable” book through a rigorous five-part test to make certain it deserved a place in the Bible.
- APOSTOLIC: Does it come from an apostle? Is the book’s author a true apostle or closely connected to one or more of the apostles?
- AUTHENTIC: Does it have the ring of truth? Does the body of Christ at large accept the book as inspired? The internal witness of the texts being the Holy Spirit.
- ANCIENT: Has it been used from the earliest times?
- ACCEPTED: Are most of the churches using it? Is the book consistent with accepted Christian doctrine?
- ACCURATE: Does it conform to the orthodox teaching of the churches?
How did such a large number of people come to the agreements necessary to produce such a perfect piece of work as the Holy Bible? The answer lies in the guiding hand of God in bringing the process to completion.
No one man or group of men decided what books would be kept in the canon and which would be rejected. That happened when God Himself, using the guidance of His Holy Spirit, allowed people to understand which of the books written in the first few centuries of Christianity were truly inspired, or “God-breathed.”
In othe words, the inclusion of the books we have in the Bible today was God’s decision and God’s work, not man’s.