The Canon of Scripture – Terry Wheeler

The number of books in the Holy Bible is important for a variety of reasons. The Protestant edition contains 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The book of Psalms contains 150 songs. The order of the books in your Bible’s table of contents is based originally on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate edition of the Scriptures, finished in AD 384.

However, the Catholic edition contains some 11 additions called the Apocrypha. They are Jewish literature written between the Testaments (425 BC to 4 BC) which many through the ages have counted useful in their walk with God. Yet no Jew that we know of ever counted them as the Word of God, nor do any of these works claim inspiration. It wasn’t until the Catholic Council of Trent, 2000 years later, that these works were accepted as Scripture. The reason for this change was that the first book of Maccabees allowed for an interpretation of Purgatory. With this vote, the Catholic authorities could say with a straight face that Purgatory was in the Bible. Seriously.

There are also New Testament apocrypha that have been around from the second century which Christians have valued as well. Yet none were added to the 27 books of the New Testament canon, except in certain limited regions or ethnic fellowships.

How did the canon of the Bible develop? Why are only these books in it? These are very important questions that deserve serious consideration.

The term “canon” means “measuring line” and refers to a standard of uniformity, a recognized standard of acceptability. For the Bible, it is that standard that distinguishes men’s writings from God’s Word. A quick consideration of this standard involves a book passing the following tests: Is it authored by an apostle of Christ or a faithful associate of an apostle? Is it true as a whole and in particulars of fact? Is it consistent within itself? Is it consistent in doctrine and fact with other known Scripture? Is it old enough (first century or older)? Does it confess (or deny) inspiration within its pages?

Christianity owes much to Jewish understanding and practice. The Christian canon developed in light of the established Jewish canon–the first Bible. Translated from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint version of the Old Testament was what the early evangelists carried with them to prove Jesus was the Christ. Of course, that brings on the question of how the Jews established their canon.

It began with Moses, Sinai, and the establishment of the Levitical priesthood.   When Moses finished compiling what God desired at first for Israel, Moses deposited the books (scrolls) into the care and keeping of the priests (Deut. 31:9). And so it continued to the end of the Restoration after Babylon. Therefore many of the Old Testament books have that priestly distinction about them. For instance, note the emphasis on Samuel and how the book of Psalms was authored by priests as well as King David, whose affinity for the priesthood is well documented. Plus, so many of the prophets being priests or having priestly connections is explained by the fact that Moses in the beginning appointed the Israelite priests as caretakers of the holy books.

It started with Moses, continued with Samuel, carried through the temple worship leaders, and ended with Ezra, a Levite and scribe who authored at least three books of the Old Testament and who tradition says compiled the final list of the Old Testament canon. This list is upheld by Josephus, Philo, the Septuagint (with the exception of some additions to the psalms), and the papyri found at Masada. It was well established before the council (or school) of Jamnia reiterated and confirmed its belief in the Old Testament books as we have them (ca AD 97). One thing to note is that the book count is different in the Hebrew Bible from what we have only because the books are arranged differently. But the books themselves and their content are the same as are in our Bibles today.

With this background, it was not a big jump for the Christians (the first of whom were Jews at the beginning) to determine that God’s Word, the New Testament, was needed in writing for the church. Even in Paul’s time false writings were being circulated in the name of the apostles which prompted a demand for a true list of apostolic writings to distinguish them from the false (2 Thess. 2:1, 2; 3:17).

The apostles were quick to start sending letters to the infant congregations to help them grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus. Paul’s letters were the most well known among the churches, Paul urging copies to be made and circulated through the established congregations (1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17; 14:37; 1 Thess. 5:27).

Paul’s epistles were bundled and put into church libraries for authority and reference. As the first century proceeded and the apostles began to show their age, they realized the need to document their knowledge of the life of Christ. The three synoptic gospel accounts were readily received by the church and circulated as a separate collection. When Paul went to Spain, the other apostles (especially Peter) determined to fill in the gap left by his absence and continued writing to the churches. Others continued after the deaths of Paul and Peter, so that these general epistles began yet another collection to be bundled and stored with the churches.

When John was the last apostle standing and after the Lord visited him on Patmos with the Revelation (AD 94), the church urged a gospel account from his hand, which at first was circulated by itself, but then was later bundled with the three others. Tradition holds that John gave final approval in Ephesus to the 27 books of the New Testament canon.

Modern scholarship has wanted to deny the first century authorship of many of these books, saying that a New Testament canon cannot be earlier than the fourth century. But that theory, like so many other theories of the unbelievers, is dashed to pieces by archaeological and textual evidence.

It is true that not every book of the 27 was originally received by all the churches. Hebrews and the Revelation especially had a hard time to be received, as well as 2 Peter. Yet it is just as true that all the early churches knew of them from the second century onward, John having died in AD 98. Hebrews eventually was bundled with the letters of Paul for circulation and distribution.

From a negative perspective, the heretic Marcion sought to remake the New Testament according to his own ideas (he hated the Old Testament and anything that validated it) around AD 145. Diocletian ordered the books of the New Testament confiscated and burned in 303. If there were no New Testament canon already in existence, then what were these enemies of Christ about in these instances?

The facts are that the churches were compiling their canon in the second century. The Gallic Christians reported their persecution to their brethren in 177 and referenced most of the New Testament books in their report. Only ten are missing. Yet that cannot mean these ten were rejected, for the missing books include the book of Mark and four of Paul’s letters.

The earliest list of canonical New Testament books is called the Muratorian Fragment, dated AD 170. Though Matthew and Mark are missing, Luke and John are not. Plus, they still count the gospel as four-fold. In any list of the New Testament canon, these four are at the top. Thus, we can expect the first two books to be lost to wear and tear. With that, there are only four books missing: Hebrews, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and James. Yet it is difficult to say these are rejected because if the others might be, it is unheard of that 1 Peter would ever be. By the third century, church leaders reported that there was an accepted canon for both Old and New Testaments.

With the work of Lucian of Antioch (ca 310) in his efforts to establish a standard Greek text of the New Testament and Constantine’s order for fifty copies of the Bible in Greek (AD 331), it is obvious that by this time the New Testament canon was known and established throughout the empire.

There is no justification for the idea that Constantine created the present New Testament canon for the churches, simply because he could not have gotten away with that. These Christians were used to putting their lives on the line for the Lord. They knew the books they cherished as God’s Word. If Constantine were to have tried to insert himself into the discussion of what was Scripture, adding a book or taking one out, the church would have put that down to government interference and walked away as quickly as possible. That would have been disaster for the emperor who desperately wanted the Christians on his side. No, we can be certain the whole of what Constantine did was to seek to gain their political backing, not try to change their religion.

Even if one ignores Eusibius’ documentation (AD 324) of the biblical canon being well established years before he came along, the fact is no government official, not even Constantine himself, had enough clout to effect a change in the canon which the church had for long years before held as dear to them as their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. Athanasius, famous preacher of the fourth century, published a list of the accepted books in 367. The church council of Carthage in 397 did reiterate to all the churches the books counted authoritative and inspired, which are the 27 books we have known and cherished ourselves all our lives.

Every generation seems to find it necessary to prove again the validity of the canon of the Bible. That’s okay. Cream always rises to the top and its flavor is unmistakable. In like manner, truth cannot be hidden nor God’s revelation lost (2 John 2). The incomparable word of God can never be honestly mistaken for the shallowness of mere men. Every time men look, they will see the light from these pages that can only be classified as divine, the product of inspiration of the Holy Spirit that is God’s Word to us, eternal and indestructible, and all we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1).

One thought on “The Canon of Scripture – Terry Wheeler

  1. Thank you Terry for the September 5 issue of the Carolina messenger i enjoyed reading The canon of scripture was very interesting to read and learn more of God’s Holy Word and how we now have it to read and obey God word Bless all that have put the Carolina Messenger out there for this purpose Thank you

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