When I first began to read the Bible as an adult, while still in the research phase of determining the validity of its claim to be inspired by God, I had this idea that its books were selected by a group of men sitting around a table deciding what stayed and what went. Frankly, that was a sticking point for me. It was only when I decided to research how we got our Bible that I realized the 66 books commonly comprising the Bible came to be accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole before they were officially compiled into a compilation called the canon. Let’s take a look at that process. (Note: I highly recommend Bible.org’s excellent article and encourage you to read that entire piece in conjunction with my blog post.)
What is the canon?
The word “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “a straight rod or bar” and came to be used for anything providing a “rule or standard for testing straightness.” When we use the word “canon” to refer to Scripture, it means those books that have been proven to be part of the collection considered the inspired word of God. It is important to note that contrary to my early preconceptions, no books became Scripture because a council voted to make it so. Rather, formal acceptance of a book into the canon occurred as a result of the people of God widely receiving that book as the inspired word of God. Furthermore, the books were inspired by God the moment they were written; they did not become inspired because of people’s acceptance of them.
The role of the religious communities, however, was crucial in forming the generally accepted canons of the Old Testament and New Testament. A number of scrolls circulated – additional letters, prophecies, collections of sayings, “gospels” containing biographies of Jesus’ life, and so on. You’ve probably heard the saying, “The cream rises to the top.” When it comes to the canon, that’s a great picture. While there was sporadic acceptance of some books, the books that came to be considered the Bible had widespread acceptance. As the councils began to formalize the canon, they looked at those books with less acceptance, evaluated them in comparison to the other texts, and realized that the churches had largely rejected them for very good reasons.
Old Testament Canon. The canon of the Old Testament was recognized by the time of the New Testament. The books of Moses (the Torah or Law) had long been recognized in Judaism. Other works, such as the psalms, the historical texts, and prophets were also seen as the word of the Lord. During the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel references a collection of books. But it was after the return to Jerusalem that the books were formally put into a collection, most likely by Ezra the priest. By the time the New Testament opens, the formal collection was kept in the temple, according to the Jewish historian Josephus.
The New Testament recognizes the common three-fold division of the Old Testament canon as Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44). Paul’s reference to “The Sacred Writings” (2 Timothy 3:15) also alludes to a formal collection. After the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the Council of Jamnia publicly recognized what we call the “Old Testament” as the canon of Jewish scripture. However, this was not the first recognition, according to Bible.org:
Additional confirmation of the 39 books of the Old Testament as authoritative comes from the fact that the New Testament quotes 36 of them in more than 250 references. Only Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are not referenced. Finally, Jesus Himself referred to the fulfillment of “the Law and the Prophets” (a phrase used in Jewish thought to refer to all of Scripture) (Matthew 5:17-18), and referred to guilt stemming “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:35) – a statement providing chronological hinges to the Old Testament, which is how the Hebrew books are arranged. (Our structure of Law/History/Wisdom/Prophets follows the Septuagint’s order.)
Because of the extreme care the Jewish scribes took and because of the witness of the New Testament, we know with a high degree of certainty that the 39 books recognized as the Old Testament today are the same books that were considered authoritative by the New Testament writers.
New Testament Canon. Contrary to the order of books in our New Testaments, the earliest writings were not the gospels but the epistles. As the Gospel spread and churches formed, the apostles, particularly Paul, were careful to write back to the churches to provide instructions since they only had the Old Testament and were still learning what it meant to live in light of the truth of the resurrection. These letters were read and circulated among the churches. Later, oral histories of the life of Jesus were compiled and written into the Gospels; while Luke the physician wrote a chronological account of the life of Christ and the development of the church. (A general order of books can be found here, though dates are imprecise.)
From the earliest days after Jesus’ death, the community of believers placed a strong emphasis on apostolic authority. In replacing Judas the betrayer, they defined an apostle as one who had walked with Jesus and witnessed the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:12-26). These men had heard Jesus pray not only for them but for those “who would believe on Me through their words” (Luke 17:20), so there was an expectation that God would give them an authoritative message. As a result, one of the defining characteristics of authentic Scripture was that it came from an apostle or was authorized by an apostle (such as Mark’s association with Peter or Luke’s with Paul). In fact, Paul had to defend his apostleship since he was not part of the original 12 but instead was the apostle to the Gentiles (2 Corinthians 11-12).
The churches then had one natural means for determining authenticity of anything claiming to be Scripture. Another means was the existence of the Old Testament. Since Jesus had stated He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill, the Old Testament, any teaching that was contradictory could be eliminated. And the apostles recognized each other’s works, such as Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:15-16 in which he places Paul’s writings on par with Scripture.
Over the course of the first century when these books were written, and into the second and third centuries, churches weeded out a lot of spurious works. By the fourth century the 27 books that comprise the New Testament had been commonly accepted by the vast majority of the churches, and mentioned in the writings of the early church fathers. In the late fourth century, three separate councils formalized the 27-book canon: The Council of Laodicea; the Council of Hippo; and the Council of Carthage.
What about the Apocrypha?
The Apocrypha is a special collection of books written in the last four centuries before Christ. This was the time after Ezra organized the 39 books of the Old Testament. Because God had spoken of a “famine of the word of the Lord”, and because these books are not quoted in the New Testament, they are not recognized as canonical. Generally speaking, most Christians believe that after Malachi there was no prophetic word until the angel spoke to Zechariah in the temple to tell him he would have a son, John the Baptist.
Because the Apocrypha is commonly recognized by the Catholic and Anglican communities, a special word much be said about it. First, it’s important to note that these communities do not place the Apocrypha on par with Scripture. While it appears in their Bibles, it is considered deuterocanonical, or a second (separate) canon. Jerome, one of the early church fathers described its benefit this way: “The other books which the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”. (Brenton, Apocrypha, p. i). In other words, there are important examples in these writings, but we should not base doctrine on them. For this reason, they are eliminated from Protestant Bibles.
However, the Apocryphal books are not without value. They are an important source of history for the silent years between the testaments, including the story behind Hannukah, the “feast of lights” Jesus attended in John 7. One of the earliest hymns of the church comes from the “Song of the three children”, one of the additions to Daniel. Although the Apocrypha is not doctrinally authoritative and as such should not be studied in the same way we approach Scripture, it is beneficial and can be used effectively as a research tool.
The canon of Scripture consists of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament which are consistent with what was recognized at the time of Christ, and 27 in the New Testament which are consistent with what was recognized by the early churches and formalized in the 4th century A.D. These works were recognized because of their apostolic authority and their consistency with the existing Scriptures, as well as the recognition by the majority of the churches. Other spurious works can be rejected as authoritative because of the process these 27 books went through to be compiled into the canon.
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.