Canons Of The Bible Essay


The fact of the inspiration of the Bible as God’s special revelation to man naturally leads to the question (since many other religious books were written during both the Old and New Testament periods) what particular books are canonical, that is, what books are inspired and should be recognized as a part of God’s authoritative revelation? Are any inspired books missing? Are any books included that should not be in our Bible? Is our Old Testament Bible the same as the Lord’s and is our New Testament the same as the Bible of the church fathers? These are obviously vital questions for the people of God to determine.

Meaning of “Canon” or “Canonicity”

The word canon is used to describe those books recognized as inspired of God. The word comes from the Greek and most likely from the Hebrew qaneh and Akkadian, qanu. Literally, it means (a) a straight rod or bar; (b) a measuring rule as a ruler used by masons and carpenters; then (c) a rule or standard for testing straightness.

Historically, the word was first used by the church of those doctrines that were accepted as the rule of faith and practice. The term came to be applied to the decisions of the Councils as rules by which to live. All these employ the word in the metaphorical sense of a rule, norm, or standard.

In the course of time, the terms canon and canonical came to be applied to the catalogue or list of sacred books distinguished and honored as belonging to God’s inspired Word. “Greek Christians by the fourth century A.D. had given the word a quasi-technical religious meaning, applying it to the Bible, especially to the Jewish books.”60

… It is important to note that religious councils at no time had any power to cause books to be inspired, rather they simply recognized that which God had inspired at the exact moment the books were written.

Jews and conservative Christians alike have recognized the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament as inspired. Evangelical Protestants have recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as inspired. Roman Catholics have a total of eighty books because they recognize the Apocrypha as semicanonical.61

The Logical Necessity for a
Canon of Scripture and Its Preservation

That God would provide and preserve a Canon of Scripture without addition or deletion is not only necessary, but it is logically credible. If we believe that God exists as an almighty God, then revelation and inspiration are clearly possible. If we believe in such a God, it is also probable that He would, out of love and for His own purposes and designs, reveal Himself to men. Because of man’s obvious condition in sin and his obvious inability to meet his spiritual needs (regardless of all his learning and technological advances), special revelation revealed in a God-breathed book is not only possible, logical, and probable, but a necessity.

The evidence shows that the Bible is unique and that God is its author. The evidence declares that “all Scripture is God breathed and profitable …” (2 Tim. 3:16) and that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). In view of this, the logical question is: “Would it not be unreasonable for God to fail to providentially care for these inspired documents to preserve them from destruction and so guide in their collection and arrangement that they would all be present with none missing and none added that were not inspired?”62

Important Considerations

There are a number of important considerations that must be kept in mind when considering the issue of canonicity or how the books of the Bible came to be recognized and held to be a part of the Bible. Ryrie summarizes these issues as follows:

1. Self-authentication. It is essential to remember that the Bible is self-authenticating since its books were breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the books were canonical the moment they were written. It was not necessary to wait until various councils could examine the books to determine if they were acceptable or not. Their canonicity was inherent within them, since they came from God. People and councils only recognized and acknowledged what is true because of the intrinsic inspiration of the books as they were written. No Bible book became canonical by action of some church council.

2. Decisions of men. Nevertheless, men and councils did have to consider which books should be recognized as part of the canon, for there were some candidates that were not inspired. Some decisions and choices had to be made, and God guided groups of people to make correct choices (not without guidelines) and to collect the various writings into the canons of the Old and New Testaments.

3. Debates over canonicity. In the process of deciding and collecting, it would not be unexpected that some disputes would arise about some of the books. And such was the case. However, these debates in no way weaken the authenticity of the truly canonical books, nor do they give status to those which were not inspired by God.

4. Completion of canon. Since A.D. 397 the Christian church has considered the canon of the Bible to be complete; if it is complete, then it must be closed. Therefore, we cannot expect any more books to be discovered or written that would open the canon again and add to its sixty-six books. Even if a letter of Paul were discovered, it would not be canonical. After all, Paul must have written many letters during his lifetime in addition to the ones that are in the New Testament; yet the church did not include them in the canon. Not everything an apostle wrote was inspired, for it was not the writer who was inspired but his writings, and not necessarily all of them.

The more recent books of the cults which are placed alongside the Bible are not inspired and have no claim to be part of the canon of Scripture. Certainly so-called prophetic utterances or visions that some claim to be from God today cannot be inspired and considered as part of God’s revelation or as having any kind of authority like that of the canonical books.63

Canonicity of the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible of today is substantially the same as the original writings, with only physical changes like the addition of vowel pointings, reading aids in the margins, and a change to a more open form of the letters, etc. In Romans 3:2 we are told that the “oracles of God,” the Old Testament Scripture, had been entrusted to the Jews; they were to be the custodians of the Old Testament. This precisely fits what we know about the Jews and the Old Testament. They have always been a people of one book who have guarded it with extreme care and precision. From the time of Ezra and even before, there were priests (Deut. 31:24-26) and later scribes called sopherim who were given the responsibility to copy and meticulously care for the sacred text so they could hand down the correct reading.

To ensure this accuracy, later scribes known as the Masoretes developed a number of strict measures to ensure that every fresh copy was an exact reproduction of the original. They established tedious procedures to protect the text against being changed. For instance, (a) when obvious errors were noted in the text, perhaps because a tired scribe nodded, the text was still not changed. Instead, a correction was placed in the margin called qere, “to be read,” and that which was written in the text was called, kethibh, “to be written.” (b) When a word was considered textually, grammatically, or exegetically questionable, dots were placed above that word. (c) Minute statistics were also kept as a further means of guarding against errors: in the Hebrew Bible at Leviticus 8:8, the margin has a reference that this verse is the middle verse of the Torah. According to the note at Lev. 10:16 the word darash is the middle word in the Torah, and at 11:42 we are assured that the waw in a Hebrew word there is the middle letter. At the end of each book are statistics as: the total number of verses in Deuteronomy is 955, the total in the entire Torah is 5,845; the total number of words is 97, 856, and the total number of letters is 400,945.64

In this we see something of the painstaking procedures the Jews went through to assure the accurate transmission of the text. Our English Bible is a translation of this Hebrew text which has been handed down to us. God made the Jews the custodians of the Old Testament record. Though their eyes may be blind to its truth (Isa. 6:10; John 12:40; Rom. 10:1-3; 11:7), they have guarded its transmission with great accuracy.

The original copies of the Old Testament were written on leather or papyrus from the time of Moses (c. 1450 B.C.) to the time of Malachi (400 B.C.). Until the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 we did not possess copies of the Old Testament earlier than A.D. 895. The reason for this is simply that the Jews had an almost superstitious veneration for the text which impelled them to bury copies that had become too old for use. Indeed, the Masoretes (traditionalists) who between A.D 600 and 950 added accents and vowel points and in general standardized the Hebrew text, devised complicated safeguards for the making of copies (as described above) … When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, they gave us a Hebrew text from the second to first century B.C. of all but one of the books (Esther) of the Old Testament. This was of the greatest importance, for it provided a much earlier check on the accuracy of the Masoretic text, which has now proved to be extremely accurate.

Other early checks on the Hebrew text include the Septuagint translation (middle of third century B.C.), the Aramaic Targums (paraphrases and quotes of the Old Testament), quotations in early Christian writers, and the Latin translation of Jerome (A.D. 400) which was made directly from the Hebrew text of his day. All of these give us the data for being assured of having an accurate text of the Old Testament.65

The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament contains twenty-four books, beginning with Genesis and ending with 2 Chronicles. Though this arrangement of the Old Testament is in only twenty-four books, the subject matter is identical with the thirty-nine book division of our Protestant English Bible. The difference is in the order and division of the arrangement of the books. The reason for this is that the Protestant canon of the Old Testament has been influenced by the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX) made about 250-160 B.C.

The Septuagint divided the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah each into two, which makes eight instead of four. The Twelve Minor Prophets were divided into twelve, instead of being counted as one book as in the twenty-four book division. This adds fifteen making a total of the thirty-nine books as in the Protestant English Bible.

Since the year 1517, modern Hebrew Bibles divided the books into thirty-nine, but kept the three-fold division including the arrangement of the books (Genesis through 2 Chronicles) as in the ancient Hebrew Bible. In Matthew 23:35, Jesus said, “that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” The murder Jesus spoke of is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. Abel’s death is recorded in Genesis and in the Hebrew Bible 2 Chronicles is the last book. In essence then, Christ was saying “from the first to the last murder in the Bible.” This was equivalent to saying from Genesis to Malachi and demonstrated what He considered as the canon of the Old Testament.

This twenty-four book division in its three-fold division which became the thirty-nine book division is as follows:

(1) The Law or The Pentateuch (5 books)—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

(2) The Prophets (originally 8 books, then 21)

  • The Former Prophets (originally 4 books, then 6)—Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 & 2), Kings (1 & 2)
  • The Latter Prophets (originally 4 books, then 15)
    Major: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (3 books)
    Minor: The 12 (originally 1 book, then 12)

(3) The Writings (originally 11 books, then 13)

  • Poetical (3 books) —Psalms, Proverbs, Job
  • The Rolls (5 books) —Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther
  • Historical (originally 3 books, then 5) —Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (2), Chronicles (1 & 2)

… By the time of the New Testament this three-fold division was recognized (Luke 24:44). Other designations such as “The Scripture” (John 10:35) and “The Sacred Writings” (2 Tim. 3:15) suggest a generally accepted Old Testament canon. This three-fold division was also attested to by Josephus (A.D. 37-95), Bishop Melito of Sardis (ca. A.D. 170), Tertullian (A.D. 160-250), and others (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Moody, Chicago, 1964, pp. 62-65). The Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90 is generally considered the occasion whereby the Old Testament canon was publicly recognized (while debating the canonicity of several books).

There is evidence of the manner in which the Old Testament books were recognized as canonical. Laird Harris (R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1969, pp. 62-65), traces the continuity of recognition: Moses was recognized as writing under the authority of God (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; cf. Josh. 8:31; 23:6). The criterion for acknowledging the Pentateuch was whether it was from God’s servant, Moses. Following Moses, God raised up the institution of prophecy to continue revealing Himself to His people (cf. Deut. 18:15-19; Jer. 26:8-15). The prophets to whom God spoke also recorded their revelation (cf. Josh. 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Isa. 8:1; Ezek. 43:11). Harris concludes, “The law was accorded the respect of the author, and he was known as God’s messenger. Similarly, succeeding prophets were received upon due authentication, and their written works were received with the same respect, being received therefore as the Word of God. As far as the witness contained in the books themselves is concerned, this reception was immediate.” (Ibid., p. 167).66

Specific tests to consider canonicity may be recognized.

(1) Did the book indicate God was speaking through the writer and that it was considered authoritative? Compare the following references: (a) God was speaking through the human author—Ex. 20:1; Josh. 1:1; Isa. 2:1; (b) that the books were authoritative—Joshua 1:7-8; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 21:8; 23:25; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Daniel 9:11; Malachi 4:4. Note also Joshua 6:26 compared with 1 Kings 16:34; Joshua 24:29-33 compared with Judges 2:8-9; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 compared with Ezra 1:1-4; Daniel 9:2 compared with Jeremiah 25:11-12.

(2) Was the human author recognized as a spokesman of God, that is, was he a prophet or did he have the prophetic gift? Compare Deuteronomy 18:18; 31:24-26; 1 Samuel 10:25; Nehemiah 8:3.

(3) Was the book historically accurate? Did it reflect a record of actual facts?

      Historical Evidence Supporting the Canonicity of the Old Testament

There are a number of important historical evidences drawn from the ancient writings that give support to the Old Testament canon as we have it in our Protestant Bible.

1. Prologue to Ecclesiasticus. This noncanonical book refers to a threefold division of books (namely, the Law, the Prophets, and hymns and precepts for human conduct) which was known by the writer’s grandfather (which would be around 200 B.C.).

2. Philo. Philo (around A D. 40) referred to the same threefold division.

3. Josephus. Josephus (A. D. 37-100) said that the Jews held as sacred only twenty-two books (which include exactly the same as our present thirty-nine books of the Old Testament).

4. Jamnia. Jamnia (A. D. 90), was a teaching house of rabbis who discussed canonicity. Some questioned whether it was right to accept (as was being done) Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These discussions concerned an existing canon.

5. The church fathers. The church fathers accepted the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. The only exception was Augustine (A. D. 400) who included the books of the Apocrypha (those “extra” books that some Bibles include between the books of the Old and New Testaments). However, he did acknowledge that they were not fully authoritative. The books of the Apocrypha were not officially recognized as part of the canon until the Council of Trent (A.D. 1546) and then only by the Roman Catholic church.67

      New Testament Evidence for the Canonicity of the Old Testament

(1) Old Testament quotations in the New. There are some 250 quotes from Old Testament books in the New Testament. None are from the Apocrypha. All Old Testament books are quoted except Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

(2) Old Testament quotations by Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:17-18, the Lord declared that the Law and the Prophets, a reference that includes all of the Old Testament, then summarized as “the Law” in verse 18, would be fulfilled. This declared it was therefore God’s authoritative Word. Christ’s statement in Matthew 23:35 about the blood (murder) of Abel to the blood of Zechariah clearly defined what Jesus viewed as the Old Testament canon. It consisted of the entire Old Testament as we know it in our Protestant English Bible. This is particularly significant in view of the fact there other murders of God’s messengers recorded in the Apocrypha, but the Lord excludes them suggesting He did not consider the books of the Apocrypha to belong in the Canon as with the books from Genesis to 2 Chronicles.

The above evidence shows the books of the Old Testament, as we have them in our Protestant Bible, were God breathed and therefore authoritative and profitable the very moment they were written. “There was human recognition of the writings; normally this was immediate as the people recognized the writers as spokesmen from God. Finally, there was a collection of the books into a canon.”68

Canonicity of the New Testament

      Factors Leading to the Recognition of the New Testament Canon

What were the factors that led to the recognition of a New Testament canon as we have it today? For almost twenty years after the ascension of Christ none of the books of the New Testament were even written and about sixty-five years elapsed before the last New Testament book was written. James was undoubtedly the first, being written between 45-50 A.D., and Revelation was most surely the last, being written about 90 A.D. But several things began to happen that promoted the formation of the New Testament canon. Enns summarizes these:

(1) Spurious writings as well as attacks on genuine writings were a factor. Marcion, for example, rejected the Old Testament and New Testament writings apart from the Pauline letters (he altered Luke’s gospel to suit his doctrine). (2) The content of the New Testament writings testified to their authenticity and they naturally were collected, being recognized as canonical. (3) Apostolic writings were used in public worship, hence, it was necessary to determine which of those writings were canonical. (4) Ultimately, the edict by Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303, demanding that all sacred books be burned, resulted in the New Testament collection.69

      The Process of Recognition of the New Testament Canon

(1) In the Apostolic Era. Since the books were inspired when they were written, they were already canonical and possessed authority as being a part of God’s Word. The responsibility of the church was simply to attest to the fact of their inspiration. This process began immediately with the writers recognizing that their own writings were the Word of God (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 4:15). But they also recognized that other writings of the New Testament were Scripture and on a par with the Old Testament. In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quoted Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 and referred to both passages as Scripture. Peter likewise attested to Paul’s writings as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Furthermore, the New Testament epistles were being read and circulated among the churches as authoritative revelation from God (cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27).

(2) In the Post-Apostolic Era.

Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 95) mentioned at least eight New Testament books in a letter; Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 115) also acknowledged about seven books; Polycarp, a disciple of John, (c. A.D. 108), acknowledged fifteen letters. That is not to say these men did not recognize more letters as canonical, but these are ones they mentioned in their correspondence. Later Irenaeus wrote (c. A.D. 185), acknowledging twenty-one books. Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235) recognized twenty-two books. The problematic books at this time were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John.

Even more important was the witness of the Muratorian Canon (A.D. 170), which was a compilation of books recognized as canonical at that early date by the church. The Muratorian Canon included all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and one epistle of John.

In the fourth century there was also prominent recognition of a New Testament canon. When Athanasius wrote in A.D. 367 he cited the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as being the only true books. In A.D. 363 the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) recognized the twenty-seven books, and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) affirmed that only those canonical books were to be read in the churches.70

Ryrie has an important note in connection with Martin Luther’s opinion of the epistle of James.

Sometimes it is claimed that Martin Luther rejected the Book of James as being canonical. This is not so. Here’s what he wrote in his preface to the New Testament in which he ascribes to the several books of the New Testament different degrees of doctrinal value. “St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. Peter’s Epistle—these are the books which show to thee Christ, and teach everything that is necessary and blessed for thee to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book of doctrine. Therefore, St. James’ Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them, for it has in it nothing of an evangelic kind.” Thus Luther was comparing (in his opinion) doctrinal value, not canonical validity.71

The question naturally arises, what process and by what means did the early church recognize which books were canonical and which books were not? The following summarizes the tests used to discern which books were canonical.

(1) Authentication on the Divine side—Inspiration. Did the book give internal evidence of inspiration, of being God breathed? Was it of proper spiritual character? Did it edify the church? Was it doctrinally accurate? “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were rejected as a result of not meeting this test. The book should bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit.”72

(2) Authentication on the human side. Three issues were important here: (a) Was the author an apostle or did he have the endorsement of an apostle? Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, but he did so under Peter’s endorsement. Luke, as a close associate of the Apostle Paul, wrote under the endorsement of his authority. (b) Universal acceptance was another key factor. On the whole, was the book accepted by the church at large? The recognition given a particular book by the church was important. By this standard, a number of books were rejected. There were some books that enjoyed an acceptance by a few, but were later dropped for a lack of universal acceptance. Then there were a few books that some questioned because of doubts about the author, not the content, but were later accepted because the majority accepted them.73

      The Reliability of the New Testament

Just how reliable are the New Testament documents?

There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. This means that no other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.74

This contrast is startling and tremendously significant.

Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C-A.D 17), only 35 survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books III-VI, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh.… The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 480-425 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use are over 1,300 years later than the originals.75

The fact of the many documents plus the fact that many of the New Testament documents are very early (hundreds of parchment copies from the 4th and 5th centuries with some seventy-five papyri fragments dating from A.D. 135 to the 8th century) assures us we have a very accurate and reliable text in the New Testament.

60 Merrill F. Unger, Introductory Guide to the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1951, p. 47.

61 Enns, p. 170.

62 For an excellent treatment of these evidences, see Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence Demands a Verdict, Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Revised Edition, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc. San Bernardino, CA, 1979.

63 Ryrie, electronic media. For other articles on canonicity, see our web page at under “Theology,” and then under “Bibliology--The Doctrine of the Written Word.”

64 Frederick W. Danker, Multipurpose Tools For Bible Study, Concorida Publishing House, St. Louis, 1960, p. 57.

65 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine, Moody Press, Chicago, 1972, pp. 45-46.

66 Enns, p. 170-171.

67 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, electronic media.

68 Enns, p. 171.

69 Enns. P. 171.

70 Enns, p. 172.

71 Ryrie, electronic media.

72 Enns, p. 172-173.

73 For more reading on canonicity, see the BSF web page under the Theology/Bibliology section

74 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Revised Edition, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., San Bernardino, 1979, p. 39.

75 F. F. Bruce, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?, InterVarsity, Chicago, 1943, p. 16-17.

Scholar's Article by Wayne Grudem (may not be edited)

Chapter 3 from Systematic Theology. An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994)
"The Canon of Scripture. What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?"
Used with permission. Copyright 1994 Wayne Grudem. All Rights Reserved.

What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?


The previous chapter concluded that it is especially the written words of God in the Bible to which we are to give our attention. Before we can do this, however, we must know which writings belong in the Bible and which do not. This is the question of the canon of Scripture, which may be defined as follows: .

We must not underestimate the importance of this question. The words of Scripture are the words by which we nourish our spiritual lives. Thus we can reaffirm the comment of Moses to the people of Israel in reference to the words of God’s law: “For it is no trifle for you, but and thereby you shall live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess” ().

To add to or subtract from God’s words would be to prevent God’s people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded. Thus Moses warned the people of Israel, “You shall not which I command you, ; that you may keep the commandments of the your God which I command you” ().

The precise determination of the extent of the canon of Scripture is therefore of the utmost importance. If we are to trust and obey God absolutely we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God’s own words to us. If there are any sections of Scripture about which we have doubts whether they are God’s words or not, we will not consider them to have absolute divine authority and we will not trust them as much as we would trust God himself.

A. The Old Testament Canon

Where did the idea of a canon begin — the idea that the people of Israel should preserve a collection of written words from God? Scripture itself bears witness to the historical development of the canon. The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments thus form the beginning of the biblical canon. God himself wrote on two tablets of stone the words which he commanded his people: “And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, ” (). Again we read, “And the tables were the work of God, and graven upon the tables” (; cf. ; ). The tablets were deposited in the ark of the covenant () and constituted the terms of the covenant between God and his people.3:1

This collection of absolutely authoritative words from God grew in size throughout the time of Israel’s history. Moses himself wrote additional words to be deposited beside the ark of the covenant (). The immediate reference is apparently to the book of Deuteronomy, but other references to writing by Moses indicate that the first four books of the Old Testament were written by him as well (see ; ; ; ; ). After the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God: “Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God” (). This is especially surprising in light of the command not to add to or take away from the words which God gave the people through Moses: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it … ” (; cf. ). In order to have disobeyed such a specific command, Joshua must have been convinced that he was not taking it upon himself to add to the written words of God, but that God himself had authorized such additional writing.

Later, others in Israel, usually those who fulfilled the office of prophet, wrote additional words from God:

Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the . ()
The acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer. ()
Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Jehu the son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel. (; cf. where Jehu the son of Hanani is called a prophet)
Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote. ()
Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and his good deeds, behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel. ()
Thus says the , the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you.3:2 ()


The content of the Old Testament canon continued to grow until the time of the end of the writing process. If we date Haggai to 520 , Zechariah to 520-518 (with perhaps more material added after 480 ), and Malachi around 435 , we have an idea of the approximate dates of the last Old Testament prophets. Roughly coinciding with this period are the last books of Old Testament history — Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Ezra went to Jerusalem in 458 , and Nehemiah was in Jerusalem from 445-433 3:3. Esther was written sometime after the death of Xerxes I (= Ahasuerus) in 465 , and a date during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-423 ) is probable. Thus, after approximately 435 there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.

When we turn to Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see that the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased is clearly attested in several different strands of extrabiblical Jewish literature. In 1 Maccabees (about 100 ) the author writes of the defiled altar, “So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them” (). They apparently knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done. The memory of an authoritative prophet among the people was one that belonged to the distant past, for the author could speak of a great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (; cf. ).

Josephus (born c. 37/38) explained, “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” ( 1.41). This statement by the greatest Jewish historian of the first century shows that he knew of the writings now considered part of the “Apocrypha,” but that he (and many of his contemporaries) considered these other writings “not … worthy of equal credit” with what we now know as the Old Testament Scriptures. There had been, in Josephus’s viewpoint, no more “words of God” added to Scripture after about 435

Rabbinic literature reflects a similar conviction in its repeated statement that the Holy Spirit (in the Spirit’s function of inspiring prophecy) departed from Israel. “After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the ( + , Yomah 9b, repeated in Sota 48b, Sanhedrin 11a, and Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs, 8.9.3).3:4

The Qumran community (the Jewish sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls) also awaited a prophet whose words would have authority to supersede any existing regulations (see 1 QS 9.11), and other similar statements are found elsewhere in ancient Jewish literature (see and ). Thus, writings subsequent to about 435 were not accepted by the Jewish people generally as having equal authority with the rest of Scripture.

In the New Testament, we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This fact is confirmed by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times,3:5 but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority.3:6 The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent reference to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agreed that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God’s very words.

What then shall be said about the Apocrypha, the collection of books included in the canon by the Roman Catholic Church but excluded from the canon by Protestantism?3:7

The Greek word means “things that are hidden,” but Metzger notes (p. ix) that scholars are not sure why this word came to be applied to these writings.

These books were never accepted by the Jews as Scripture, but throughout the early history of the church there was a divided opinion on whether they should be part of Scripture or not. In fact, the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in some parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.3:8 The fact that these books were included by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (completed in 404) gave support to their inclusion, even though Jerome himself said they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful and useful for believers. The wide use of the Latin Vulgate in subsequent centuries guaranteed their continued accessibility, but the fact that they had no Hebrew original behind them, and their exclusion from the Jewish canon, as well as the lack of their citation in the New Testament, led many to view them with suspicion or to reject their authority. For instance, the earliest Christian list of Old Testament books that exists today is by Melito, bishop of Sardis, writing about 170:3:9

When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms,3:10 two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom,3:11 Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.3:12

It is noteworthy here that Melito names none of the books of the Apocrypha, but he includes all of our present Old Testament books except Esther.3:13 Eusebius also quotes Origen as affirming most of the books of our present Old Testament canon (including Esther), but no book of the Apocrypha is affirmed as canonical, and the books of Maccabees are explicitly said to be “outside of these [canonical books].”3:14 Eusebius himself elsewhere repeats the statement of the Jewish historian Josephus that the Scriptures contain twenty-two books, but nothing since the time of Artaxerxes (3.10.1-5), and this would exclude all of the Apocrypha.

Similarly, in 367, when the great church leader Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote his Paschal Letter, he listed all the books of our present New Testament canon and all the books of our present Old Testament canon except Esther. He also mentioned some books of the Apocrypha such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Judith, and Tobit, and said these are “not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.”3:15 However, other early church leaders did quote several of these books as Scripture.3:16 There are doctrinal and historical inconsistencies with a number of these books. E.J. Young notes:

There are no marks in these books which would attest a divine origin … .both Judith and Tobit contain historical, chronological and geographical errors. The books justify falsehood and deception and make salvation to depend upon works of merit … .Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon inculcate a morality based upon expediency. Wisdom teaches the creation of the world out of pre-existent matter (). Ecclesiasticus teaches that the giving of alms makes atonement for sin (). In Baruch it is said that God hears the prayers of the dead (), and in I Maccabees there are historical and geographical errors.3:17

It was not until 1546, at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone. In affirming the Apocrypha as within the canon, Roman Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as “Scripture,” while Protestants have held that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already caused to be written as his own words.3:18 (One analogy here would be to say that a police investigator can recognize counterfeit money as counterfeit and can recognize genuine money as genuine, but he cannot make counterfeit money to be genuine, nor can any declaration by any number of police make counterfeit money to be something it is not. Only the official treasury of a nation can make money that is real money; similarly, only God can make words to be his very words and worthy of inclusion in Scripture.)

Thus the writings of the Apocrypha should not be regarded as part of Scripture: (1) they do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings; (2) they were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated; (3) they were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and (4) they contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. We must conclude that they are merely human words, not God-breathed words like the words of Scripture. They do have value for historical and linguistic research, and they contain a number of helpful stories about the courage and faith of many Jews during the period after the Old Testament ends, but they have never been part of the Old Testament canon, and they should not be thought of as part of the Bible. Therefore, they have no binding authority for the thought or life of Christians today.

In conclusion, with regard to the canon of the Old Testament, Christians today should have no worry that anything needed has been left out or that anything that is not God’s words has been included.

B. The New Testament Canon

The development of the New Testament canon begins with the writings of the apostles. It should be remembered that the writing of Scripture primarily occurs in connection with God’s great acts in redemptive history. The Old Testament records and interprets for us the calling of Abraham and the lives of his descendants, the exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings, the establishment of God’s people in the land of Canaan, the establishment of the monarchy, and the Exile and return from captivity. Each of these great acts of God in history is interpreted for us in God’s own words in Scripture. The Old Testament closes with the expectation of the Messiah to come (; ). The next stage in redemptive history is the coming of the Messiah, and it is not surprising that no further Scripture would be written until this next and greatest event in the history of redemption occurred.

This is why the New Testament consists of the writings of the apostles.3:19 It is primarily the apostles who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and to interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.

Jesus promised this empowering to his disciples (who were called apostles after the resurrection) in . “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Similarly, Jesus promised further revelation of truth from the Holy Spirit when he told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (). In these verses the disciples are promised amazing gifts to enable them to write Scripture: the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things,” would cause them to remember “all” that Jesus had said, and would guide them into “all the truth.”

Furthermore, those who have the office of apostle in the early church are seen to claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets, an authority to speak and write words that are God’s very words. Peter encourages his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (). To lie to the apostles () is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit () and lying to God ().

This claim to be able to speak words that were the words of God himself is especially frequent in the writings of the apostle Paul. He claims not only that the Holy Spirit has revealed to him “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (), but also that when he declares this revelation, he speaks it “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting Spiritual things in Spiritual words” (, author’s translation).3:20

Similarly, Paul tells the Corinthians, “If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (). The word translated “what” in this verse is a plural relative pronoun in Greek () and more literally could be translated “ that I am writing to you.” Thus, Paul claims that his directives to the church at Corinth are not merely his own but a command of the Lord. Later, in defending his apostolic office, Paul says that he will give the Corinthians “proof that Christ is speaking in me” (). Other similar verses could be mentioned (for example, ; ; ; , ; ; , ).

The apostles, then, have authority to write words that are God’s own words, equal in truth status and authority to the words of the Old Testament Scriptures. They do this to record, interpret, and apply to the lives of believers the great truths about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

It would not be surprising therefore to find some of the New Testament writings being placed with the Old Testament Scriptures as part of the canon of Scripture. In fact, this is what we find in at least two instances. In , Peter shows not only an awareness of the existence of written epistles from Paul, but also a clear willingness to classify “all of his [Paul’s] epistles” with “the other scriptures”. Peter says, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, ” (). The word translated “scriptures” here is () a word that occurs fifty-one times in the New Testament and that refers to the Old Testament Scriptures in every one of those occurrences. Thus, the word was a technical term for the New Testament authors, and it was used only of those writings that were thought to be God’s words and therefore part of the canon of Scripture. But in this verse, Peter classifies Paul’s writings with the “other Scriptures” (meaning the Old Testament Scriptures). Paul’s writings are therefore considered by Peter also to be worthy of the title “Scripture” and thus worthy of inclusion in the canon.

A second instance is found in . Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”’ The first quotation from “Scripture” is found in , but the second quotation, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It does occur, however, in (with exactly the same words in the Greek text). So here we have Paul apparently quoting a portion of Luke’s gospel3:21 and calling it “Scripture,” that is, something that is to be considered part of the canon.3:22 In both of these passages ( and ) we see evidence that very early in the history of the church the writings of the New Testament began to be accepted as part of the canon.

Because the apostles, by virtue of their apostolic office, had authority to write words of Scripture, the authentic written teachings of the apostles were accepted by the early church as part of the canon of Scripture. If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings,3:23 then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles. This would include Matthew; John; Romans to Philemon (all of the Pauline epistles); James;3:24 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation.

This leaves five books, Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude, which were not written by apostles. The details of the historical process by which these books came to be counted as part of Scripture by the early church are scarce, but Mark, Luke, and Acts were commonly acknowledged very early, probably because of the close association of Mark with the apostle Peter, and of Luke (the author of Luke-Acts) with the apostle Paul. Similarly, Jude apparently was accepted by virtue of the author’s connection with James (see ) and the fact that he was the brother of Jesus.

The acceptance of Hebrews as canonical was urged by many in the church on the basis of an assumed Pauline authorship. But from very early times there were others who rejected Pauline authorship in favor of one or another of several different suggestions. Origen, who died about 254, mentions various theories of authorship and concludes, “But who actually wrote the epistle, only God knows.”3:26 Thus, the acceptance of Hebrews as canonical was not entirely due to a belief in Pauline authorship. Rather, the intrinsic qualities of the book itself must have finally convinced early readers, as they continue to convince believers today, that whoever its human author may have been, its ultimate author can only have been God himself. The majestic glory of Christ shines forth from the pages of the epistle to the Hebrews so brightly that no believer who reads it seriously should ever want to question its place in the canon.

This brings us to the heart of the question of canonicity. For a book to belong in the canon, it is absolutely necessary that the book have divine authorship. If the words of the book are God’s words (through human authors), and if the early church, under the direction of the apostles, preserved the book as part of Scripture, then the book belongs in the canon. But if the words of the book are not God’s words, it does not belong in the canon. The question of authorship by an apostle is important because it was primarily the apostles to whom Christ gave the ability to write words with absolute divine authority. If a writing can be shown to be by an apostle, then its absolute divine authority is automatically established.3:27

It is also very likely that the living apostles themselves gave some guidance to the churches concerning which works they intended to be preserved and used as Scripture in the churches (see ; ; ). There were apparently some writings that had absolute divine authority but that the apostles did not decide to preserve as “Scripture” for the churches (such as Paul’s “previous letter” to the Corinthians: see ). Moreover, the apostles did much more oral teaching, which had divine authority (see ) but was not written down and preserved as Scripture. Thus, in addition to apostolic authorship, preservation by the church under the direction of the apostles was necessary for a work to be included in the canon.

Thus, the early church automatically accepted as part of the canon the written teachings of the apostles which the apostles wanted preserved as Scripture.

But the existence of some New Testament writings that were not authored directly by apostles shows that there were others in the early church to whom Christ also gave the ability, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to write words that were God’s own words and also therefore intended to be part of the canon. In these cases, the early church had the task of recognizing which writings had the characteristic of being God’s own words (through human authors).

For some books (at least Mark, Luke, and Acts, and perhaps Hebrews and Jude as well), the church had, at least in some areas, the personal testimony of some living apostles to affirm the absolute divine authority of these books. For example, Paul would have affirmed the authenticity of Luke and Acts, and Peter would have affirmed the authenticity of Mark as containing the gospel which he himself preached. In other cases, and in some geographical areas, the church simply had to decide whether it heard the voice of God himself speaking in the words of these writings. In these cases, the words of these books would have been ; that is, the words would have borne witness to their own divine authorship as Christians read them. This seems to have been the case with Hebrews.

It should not surprise us that the early church should have been able to recognize Hebrews and other writings, not written by apostles, as God’s very words. Had not Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice” ()? It should not be thought impossible or unlikely, therefore, that the early church would be able to use a combination of factors, including apostolic endorsement, consistency with the rest of Scripture, and the perception of a writing as “God-breathed” on the part of an overwhelming majority of believers, to decide that a writing was in fact God’s words (through a human author) and therefore worthy of inclusion in the canon. Nor should it be thought unlikely that the church would be able to use this process over a period of time — as writings were circulated to various parts of the early church — and finally to come to a completely correct decision, without excluding any writings that were in fact “God-breathed” and without including any that were not.3:28

In 367 the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius contained an exact list of the twenty-seven New Testament books we have today. This was the list of books accepted by the churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. Thirty years later, in 397, the Council of Carthage, representing the churches in the western part of the Mediterranean world, agreed with the eastern churches on the same list. These are the earliest final lists of our present-day canon.

Should we expect any more writings to be added to the canon? The opening sentence in Hebrews puts this question in the proper historical perspective, the perspective of the history of redemption: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” ().

The contrast between the former speaking “of old” by the prophets and the recent speaking “in these last days” suggests that God’s speech to us by his Son is the culmination of his speaking to mankind and is his greatest and final revelation to mankind in this period of redemptive history. The exceptional greatness of the revelation that comes through the Son, far exceeding any revelation in the old covenant, is emphasized again and again throughout and of Hebrews. These facts all indicate that there is a finality to the revelation of God in Christ and that once this revelation has been completed, no more is to be expected.

But where do we learn about this revelation through Christ? The New Testament writings contain the final, authoritative, and sufficient interpretation of Christ’s work of redemption. The apostles and their close companions report Christ’s words and deeds and interpret them with absolute divine authority. When they have finished their writing, there is no more to be added with the same absolute divine authority. Thus, once the writings of the New Testament apostles and their authorized companions are completed, we have in written form the final record of everything that God wants us to know about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and its meaning for the lives of believers for all time. Since this is God’s greatest revelation for mankind, no more is to be expected once this is complete. In this way, then, shows us why no more writings can be added to the Bible after the time of the New Testament. The canon is now closed.

A similar kind of consideration may be drawn from :

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The primary reference of these verses is clearly to the book of Revelation itself, for John refers to his writing as “the words of the prophecy of this book” in verses and of this chapter (and the entire book is called a prophecy in ). Furthermore, the reference to “the tree of life and … the holy city, which are described in this book” indicates that the book of Revelation itself is intended.

It is, however, not accidental that this statement comes at the end of the last chapter of Revelation, and that Revelation is the last book in the New Testament. In fact, Revelation has to be placed last in the canon. For many books, their placement in the assembling of the canon is of little consequence. But just as Genesis must be placed first (for it tells us of creation), so Revelation must be placed last (for its focus is to tell us of the future and God’s new creation). The events described in Revelation are historically subsequent to the events described in the rest of the New Testament and require that Revelation be placed where it is. Thus, it is not inappropriate for us to understand this exceptionally strong warning at the end of Revelation as applying in a secondary way to the whole of Scripture. Placed here, where it must be placed, the warning forms an appropriate conclusion to the entire canon of Scripture. Along with and the history-of-redemption perspective implicit in those verses, this broader application of also suggests to us that we should expect no more Scripture to be added beyond what we already have.

How do we know, then, that we have the right books in the canon of Scripture we now possess? The question can be answered in two different ways. First, if we are asking upon what we should base our confidence, the answer must ultimately be that our confidence is based on the faithfulness of God. We know that God loves his people, and it is supremely important that God’s people have his own words, for they are our life (; ). They are more precious, more important to us than anything else in this world. We also know that God our Father is in control of all history, and he is not the kind of Father who will trick us or fail to be faithful to us or keep from us something we absolutely need.

The severity of the punishments in that come to those who add to or take from God’s words also confirms the importance for God’s people of having a correct canon. There could be no greater punishments than these, for they are the punishments of eternal judgment. This shows that God himself places supreme value on our having a correct collection of God-breathed writings, no more and no less. In the light of this fact, could it be right for us to believe that God our Father, who controls all history, would allow all of his church for almost two thousand years to be deprived of something he himself values so highly and is so necessary for our spiritual lives?3:29

The preservation and correct assembling of the canon of Scripture should ultimately be seen by believers, then, not as part of church history subsequent to God’s great central acts of redemption for his people, but as an integral part of the history of redemption itself. Just as God was at work in creation, in the calling of his people Israel, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in the early work and writings of the apostles, so God was at work in the preservation and assembling together of the books of Scripture for the benefit of his people for the entire church age. Ultimately, then, we base our confidence in the correctness of our present canon on the faithfulness of God.

The question of how we know that we have the right books can, secondly, be answered in a somewhat different way. We might wish to focus on the process by which we become persuaded that the books we have now in the canon are the right ones. In this process two factors are at work: the activity of the Holy Spirit convincing us as we read Scripture for ourselves, and the historical data that we have available for our consideration.

As we read Scripture the Holy Spirit works to convince us that the books we have in Scripture are all from God and are his words to us. It has been the testimony of Christians throughout the ages that as they read the books of the Bible, the words of Scripture speak to their hearts as no other books do. Day after day, year after year, Christians find that the words of the Bible are indeed the words of God speaking to them with an authority, a power, and a persuasiveness that no other writings possess. Truly the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” ().

Yet the process by which we become persuaded that the present canon is right is also helped by historical data. Of course, if the assembling of the canon was one part of God’s central acts in the history of redemption (as was stated above), then Christians today should not presume to take it upon themselves to attempt to add to or subtract from the books of the canon: the process was completed long ago. Nevertheless, a thorough investigation of the historical circumstances surrounding the assembling of the canon is helpful in confirming our conviction that the decisions made by the early church were correct decisions. Some of this historical data has been mentioned in the preceding pages. Other, more detailed data is available for those who wish to pursue more specialized investigations.3:30

Yet one further historical fact should be mentioned. Today there exist no strong candidates for addition to the canon and no strong objections to any book presently in the canon. Of those writings that some in the early church wanted to include in the canon, it is safe to say that there are none that present-day evangelicals would want to include. Some of the very early writers distinguished themselves quite clearly from the apostles and their writings from the writings of the apostles. Ignatius, for example, about 110, said, “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; I am a convict; they were free, I am even until now a slave” (Ignatius, 4.3; compare the attitude toward the apostles in 1 Clement 42:1, 2; 44:1-2 [ 95]; Ignatius, 7:1; 13:1-2; et al.).

Even those writings that were for a time thought by some to be worthy of inclusion in the canon contain doctrinal teaching that is contradictory to the rest of Scripture. “The Shepherd” of Hermas, for example, teaches “the necessity of penance” and “the possibility of the forgiveness of sins at least once after baptism … .The author seems to identify the Holy Spirit with the Son of God before the Incarnation, and to hold that the Trinity came into existence only after the humanity of Christ had been taken up into heaven” ( p. 641).

The which for a time was held by some to belong to the canon, ends with the following absurd statement (par. 114):

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”3:31

All other existing documents that had in the early church any possibility of inclusion in the canon are similar to these in that they either contain explicit disclaimers of canonical status or include some doctrinal aberrations that clearly make them unworthy of inclusion in the Bible.3:32

On the other hand, there are no strong objections to any book currently in the canon. In the case of several New Testament books that were slow to gain approval by the whole church (books such as 2 Peter or 2 and 3 John), much of the early hesitancy over their inclusion can be attributed to the fact that they were not initially circulated very widely, and that full knowledge of the contents of all the New Testament writings spread through the church rather slowly. (Martin Luther’s hesitancies concerning James are quite understandable in view of the doctrinal controversy in which he was engaged, but such hesitancy was certainly not necessary. The apparent doctrinal conflict with Paul’s teaching is easily resolved once it is recognized that James is using three key terms, and in senses different from those with which Paul used them.)3:33

There is therefore historical confirmation for the correctness of the current canon. Yet it must be remembered in connection with any historical investigation that the work of the early church was not to bestow divine authority or even ecclesiastical authority upon some merely human writings, but rather to recognize the divinely authored characteristic of writings that already had such a quality. This is because the ultimate criterion of canonicity is divine authorship, not human or ecclesiastical approval.

At this point someone may ask a hypothetical question about what we should do if another one of Paul’s epistles were discovered, for example. Would we add it to Scripture? This is a difficult question, because two conflicting considerations are involved. On the one hand, if a great majority of believers were convinced that this was indeed an authentic Pauline epistle, written in the course of Paul’s fulfillment of his apostolic office, then the nature of Paul’s apostolic authority would guarantee that the writing would be God’s very words (as well as Paul’s), and that its teachings would be consistent with the rest of Scripture. But the fact that it was not preserved as part of the canon would indicate that it was not among the writings the apostles wanted the church to preserve as part of Scripture. Moreover, it must immediately be said that such a hypothetical question is just that: hypothetical. It is exceptionally difficult to imagine what kind of historical data might be discovered that could convincingly demonstrate to the church as a whole that a letter lost for over 1,900 years was genuinely authored by Paul, and it is more difficult still to understand how our sovereign God could have faithfully cared for his people for over 1,900 years and still allowed them to be continually deprived of something he intended them to have as part of his final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. These considerations make it so highly improbable that any such manuscript would be discovered at some time in the future, that such a hypothetical question really does not merit further serious consideration.

In conclusion, are there any books in our present canon that should not be there? No. We can rest our confidence in this fact in the faithfulness of God our Father, who would not lead all his people for nearly two thousand years to trust as his Word something that is not. And we find our confidence repeatedly confirmed both by historical investigation and by the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling us to hear God’s voice in a unique way as we read from every one of the sixty-six books in our present canon of Scripture.

But are there any missing books, books that should have been included in Scripture but were not? The answer must be no. In all known literature there are no candidates that even come close to Scripture when consideration is given both to their doctrinal consistency with the rest of Scripture and to the type of authority they claim for themselves (as well as the way those claims of authority have been received by other believers). Once again, God’s faithfulness to his people convinces us that there is nothing missing from Scripture that God thinks we need to know for obeying him and trusting him fully. The canon of Scripture today is exactly what God wanted it to be, and it will stay that way until Christ returns.


1. Why is it important to your Christian life to know which writings are God’s words and which are not? How would your relationship with God be different if you had to look for his words that were scattered among all the writings of Christians throughout church history? How would your Christian life be different if God’s words were contained not only in the Bible but also in the official declarations of the church throughout history?

2. Have you had doubts or questions about the canonicity of any of the books of the Bible? What caused those questions? What should one do to resolve them?

3. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of other cults have claimed present-day revelations from God that they count equal to the Bible in authority. What reasons can you give to indicate the falsity of those claims? In practice, do these people treat the Bible as an authority equal to these other “revelations”?

4. If you have never read any parts of the Old Testament Apocrypha, perhaps you would want to read some sections.3:34 Do you feel you can trust these writings in the same way you trust Scripture? Compare the effect these writings have on you with the effect Scripture has on you. You might want to make a similar comparison with some writings from a collection of books called the New Testament Apocrypha,3:35 or perhaps with the or the . Is the spiritual effect of these writings on your life positive or negative? How does it compare with the spiritual effect the Bible has on your life?








history of redemption



(For an explanation of this bibliography see the note on the bibliography to chapter 1, p. 38. Complete bibliographical data may be found on pp. 1223-29.)

In the “Other Works” section of this chapter’s bibliography I have included some works written from a nonevangelical perspective because of their importance for investigating the historical data relevant to the question of canon.

Sections in Evangelical Systematic Theologies

1. Anglican (Episcopalian)

1882-92 Litton, 10-18

1930 Thomas, 101-15

2. Arminian (Wesleyan or Methodist)

1875-76 Pope, 1:193-230

1940 Wiley, 1:185-214

1983 Carter, 1:291-94

3. Baptist

1907 Strong, 145-72; 236-40

1976-83 Henry, 2:69-76; 4:405-75

1987-94 Lewis/Demarest, 1:147-48

4. Dispensational

1947 Chafer, 1:95-102, 124-28

1949 Thiessen, 50-61

1986 Ryrie, 105-9

5. Lutheran

1917-24 Pieper, 1:330-48

6. Reformed (or Presbyterian)

1861 Heppe, 12-21, 28-31

1871-73 Hodge, 1:152-53

1887-1921 Warfield, 411-18

1889 Shedd, 1:134-47

1938 Berkhof, . 116-43

1962 Buswell, 1:193-98

Sections in Representative Roman Catholic Systematic Theologies

1. Roman Catholic: Traditional

1955 Ott (no explicit treatment)

2. Roman Catholic: Post-Vatican II

1980 McBrien, 1:50-62, 201-43; 2:817-42

Other Works

Beckwith, R.T. “Canon of the Old Testament.” In 1:235-38.

Beckwith, Roger. . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Birdsall, J.N. “Apocrypha.” In 1:75-77.

_______. “Canon of the New Testament.” In 1:240-45.

Bruce, F.F. . Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Carson, D.A., and John D. Woodbridge, eds. . Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.

Dunbar, David G. “The Biblical Canon.” In . Ed. by D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.

Green, William Henry. . New York: Scribners, 1898.

Harris, R. Laird. “Chronicles and the Canon in New Testament Times.” . Vol. 33, no. 1 (March 1990): 75-84.

_______. . Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.

Kline, Meredith G. . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Leiman, S.Z. . Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1976.

McRay, J.R. “Bible, Canon of.” In pp. 140-41.

Metzger, Bruce M. . Oxford: Clarendon; and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Packer, J.I. “Scripture.” 627-31.

Ridderbos, Herman N. . Formerly, . 2d rev. ed. Trans. by H.D. Jongste. Rev. by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988.

Westcott, Brooke Foss. . First ed. with alterations. London: Macmillan, 1901.

Zahn, Theodor. . 2 vols. Erlangen: Deichert, 1888-90. Reprint ed., Hildesheim and New York: Olms, 1975.





O Word of God incarnate, O wisdom from on high,
O truth unchanged, unchanging, O light of our dark sky;
We praise thee for the radiance that from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.

The church from her dear Master received the gift divine,
And still that light she lifteth o’er all the earth to shine.
It is the golden casket, where gems of truth are stored;
It is the heav’n-drawn picture of Christ, the Living Word.

It floateth like a banner before God’s host unfurled;
It shineth like a beacon above the darkling world.
It is the chart and compass that o’er life’s surging sea,
’Mid mists and rocks and quicksands, still guides, O Christ, to thee.

O make thy church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold,
To bear before the nations thy true light, as of old.
O teach thy wand’ring pilgrims by this their path to trace,
Till, clouds and darkness ended, they see thee face to face.

Author: William Walsham How, 1867

3:1 See Meredith Kline, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), esp. pp. 48-53 and 113-30.

3:2 For other passages that illustrate the growth in the collection of written words from God see ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; . Additions to it were usually through the agency of a prophet.

3:3 See “Chronology of the Old Testament,” in 1:277.

3:4 That “the Holy Spirit” is primarily a reference to divinely authoritative prophecy is clear both from the fact that the ( + , a voice from heaven) is seen as a substitute for it, and from the very frequent use of “the Holy Spirit” to refer to prophecy elsewhere in Rabbinic literature.

3:5 See Roger Nicole, “New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” in ed. Carl F.H. Henry (London: Tyndale Press, 1959), pp. 137-41.

3:6 does cite and , and Paul at least twice quotes pagan Greek authors (see ; ), but these citations are more for purposes of illustration than proof. Never are the works introduced with a phrase like, “God says,” or “Scripture says,” or “it is written,” phrases that imply the attribution of divine authority to the words cited. (It should be noted that neither nor the authors cited by Paul are part of the Apocrypha.) No book of the Apocrypha is even mentioned in the New Testament.

3:7 The Apocrypha includes the following writings: 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Rest of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch (including the Epistle of Jeremiah), the Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. These writings are not found in the Hebrew Bible, but they were included with the Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, which was used by many Greek-speaking Jews at the time of Christ). A good modern translation is ed. Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965). Metzger includes brief introductions and helpful annotations to the books.

3:8 A detailed historical survey of the differing views of Christians regarding the Apocrypha is found in F.F. Bruce, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 68-97. An even more detailed study is found in Roger Beckwith, (London: SPCK, 1985, and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), esp. pp. 338-433. Beckwith’s book has now established itself as the definitive work on the Old Testament canon. At the conclusion of his study Beckwith says, “The inclusion of various Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in the canon of the early Christians was not done in any agreed way or at the earliest period, but occurred in Gentile Christianity, after the church’s breach with the synagogue, among those whose knowledge of the primitive Christian canon was becoming blurred.” He concludes, “On the question of the canonicity of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha the truly primitive Christian evidence is negative” (pp. 436-37).

3:9 From Eusebius, 4.26.14. Eusebius, writing in 325, was the first great church historian. This quotation is from the translation by Kirsopp Lake, two vols. (London: Heinemann; and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1975), 1:393.

3:10 That is, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.

3:11 This does not refer to the apocryphal book called the Wisdom of Solomon but is simply a fuller description of Proverbs. Eusebius notes in 4.22.9 that Proverbs was commonly called Wisdom by ancient writers.

3:12 Ezra would include both Ezra and Nehemiah, according to a common Hebrew way of referring to the combined books.

3:13 For some reason there was doubt about the canonicity of Esther in some parts of the early church (in the East but not in the West), but the doubts were eventually resolved, and Christian usage eventually became uniform with the Jewish view, which had always counted Esther as part of the canon, although it had been opposed by certain rabbis for their own reasons. (See the discussion of the Jewish view in Beckwith, pp. 288-97.)

3:14 Eusebius, 6.15.2. Origen died about 254. Origen names all the books of the present Old Testament canon except the twelve minor prophets (which would be counted as one book), but this leaves his list of “twenty-two books” incomplete at twenty-one, so apparently Eusebius’s citation is incomplete, at least in the form we have it today. <\p>

3:15 Athanasius, in 2d ser., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), vol. 4: pp. 551-52.

3:16 See Metzger, pp. xii — xiii. Metzger notes that none of the early Latin and Greek church fathers who quoted from the Apocrypha as Scripture knew any Hebrew. Beckwith, pp. 386-89, argues that the evidence of Christian writers quoting the Apocrypha as Scripture is considerably less extensive and less significant than scholars often claim it to be.

3:17 E.J. Young, “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in pp. 167-68.

3:18 It should be noted that Roman Catholics use the term rather than to refer to these books. They understand this to mean “later added to the canon” (the prefix - means “second”).

3:19 A few New Testament books (Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude) were not written by apostles but by others closely associated with them and apparently authorized by them: see the discussion below, pp. 62-63.

3:20 This is my own translation of the last phrase of : see Wayne Grudem, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation,” in ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p. 365, n. 61. But this translation is not crucial to the main point: namely, that Paul speaks words taught by the Holy Spirit, a point that is affirmed in the first part of the verse, no matter how the second half is translated.

3:21 Someone might object that Paul could be quoting an oral tradition of Jesus’ words rather than Luke’s gospel, but it is doubtful that Paul would call any oral tradition “Scripture,” since the word (Gk. , , “writing”) is always in New Testament usage applied to written texts, and since Paul’s close association with Luke makes it very possible that he would quote Luke’s written gospel.

3:22 Luke himself was not an apostle, but his gospel is here accorded authority equal with that of the apostolic writings. Apparently this was due to his very close association with the apostles, especially Paul, and the endorsement of his gospel by an apostle.

3:23 For a defense of traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, see Donald Guthrie, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970).

3:24 James seems to be considered an apostle in and . He also fulfills functions appropriate to an apostle in ; ; ; , : see p. 908 below.

3:26 Origen’s statement is quoted in Eusebius, 6.25.14.

3:27 Of course, this does not mean that everything an apostle wrote, including even grocery lists and receipts for business transactions, would be considered Scripture. We are speaking here of writings done when acting in the role of an apostle and giving apostolic instructions to churches and to individual Christians (such as Timothy or Philemon). <\p>

3:28 I am not discussing at this point the question of textual variants (that is, differences in individual words and phrases that are to be found among the many ancient copies of Scripture that still exist). This question is treated in chapter 5, pp. 96-97.

3:29 This is of course not to affirm the impossible notion that God providentially preserves every word in every copy of every text, no matter how careless the copyist, or that he must miraculously provide every believer with a Bible instantly. Nevertheless, this consideration of God’s faithful care of his children should certainly cause us to be thankful that in God’s providence there is no significantly attested textual variant that would change any point of Christian doctrine or ethics, so faithfully has the text been transmitted and preserved. However, we must say clearly that there are a number of differing words in the different ancient manuscripts of the Bible that are preserved today. These are called “textual variants.” The question of textual variants within the surviving manuscripts of the books that belong in the canon is discussed in chapter 5, pp. 96-97.

3:30 A very helpful recent survey of this field is David Dunbar, “The Biblical Canon,” in ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), pp. 295-360. In addition, three recent books are of such excellent quality that they will define the discussion of canon for many years to come: Roger Beckwith, (London: SPCK, 1985, and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); Bruce Metzger, (Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and F.F. Bruce, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988).

3:31 This document was not written by Thomas the apostle. Current scholarly opinion attributes it to an unknown author in the second century who used Thomas’s name.

3:32 It is appropriate here to say a word about the writing called the . Although this document was not considered for inclusion in the canon during the early history of the church, many scholars have thought it to be a very early document and some today quote it as if it were an authority on the teaching of the early church on the same level as the New Testament writings. It was first discovered in 1875 at a library in Constantinople but probably dates from the first or second century Yet it contradicts or adds to the commands of the New Testament at many points. For example, Christians are told to let alms sweat in their hands until they know to whom they are giving (1.6); food offered to idols is forbidden (6.3); people are required to fast before baptism, and baptism must be done in running water (7.1-4); fasting is required on Wednesdays and Fridays but prohibited on Mondays and Thursdays (8.1); Christians are required to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (8.3); unbaptized persons are excluded from the Lord’s Supper, and prayers unknown in the New Testament are given as a pattern for celebrating the Lord’s Supper (9.1-5); apostles are prohibited from staying in a city more than two days (11.5; but note that Paul stayed a year and a half in Corinth and three years in Ephesus!); prophets who speak in the Spirit cannot be tested or examined (11.7, in contradiction to and ); salvation requires perfection at the last time (16.2). Such a document, of unknown authorship, is hardly a reliable guide for the teachings and practices of the early church.

3:33 See R.V.G. Tasker, TNTC (London: Tyndale Press, 1956), pp. 67-71. Although Luther placed James near the end of his German translation of the New Testament, he did not exclude it from the canon, and he cited over half of the verses in James as authoritative in various parts of his writings (see Douglas Moo, TNTC (Leicester and Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p. 18; see also pp. 100-117 on faith and works in James.

3:34 A good recent translation is (RSV), ed. Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965). There is also a collection of nonbiblical writings from the time of the New Testament called “New Testament apocrypha” (see next note), but these are much less commonly read. When people speak of “the Apocrypha” without further specification, they are referring only to the Old Testament Apocrypha.

3:35 E. Hennecke, ed. W. Schneemelcher; English trans. ed. R. McL. Wilson (2 vols.: SCM Press, 1965). It should also be noted that some other, more orthodox literature from the early church can be found conveniently in a collection of writings referred to as the “Apostolic Fathers.” A good translation is found in Kirsopp Lake, trans., Loeb Classical Library (2 vols.: Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912, 1913), but other useful translations are also available.

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