What books belong in the Bible?
How do we know we have the right books in the Bible?
Do we have an authoritative list of books, or a list of authoritative books?
With so many today (even pastors) questioning the authority of the Bible, this question is more valuable than ever. The questions we will answer are more narrowly defined as, “What are God’s words?” Biblical skeptic, Bart Ehrman, states, “Eventually, some of these Christian books came to be seen not only as worthy of reading but absolutely authoritative for the beliefs and practices of Christians. They became Scripture.” It must be said that no person, organization, or group determines what is to be granted that status of Scripture. Rather, the church has recognized or discovered which books were actually God-breathed. God gives the word and receive it. Norman Geisler says, “Canonicity is determined or established authoritatively by God; it is merely discovered by man.”
Still, you may ask, “Why is this important to me?” Wayne Grudem has said, “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.”
How do we know what books are truly Scripture? To answer that, we need to grasp the word, kanon. The canon of Scripture – as you will hear it referred to as – is the list of all the books that make up the Bible. Canon, as we know it, comes from the Greek word, kanon and also the Hebrew equivalent, kaneh. Both kanon and kaneh mean “rule” or “standard.” In New Testament times, kanon meant “reed” or “measuring” rod. It later became known as “norm” or “rule.”
The canon was used then in a similar sense as we see a child at an amusement park today. Just as a child must meet the “standard” by being at the level or above the level of the “measuring rod,” the texts that were to be recognized as God’s word must meet the “standard” or “measuring rod” that was laid before them. All of this is the process known as canonization.
What the early church was doing in canonizing the Scriptures was dividing the inspired words of God apart from the uninspired words of man. This came through a process:
- Quotations by the church fathers led to lists
- Lists led to councils
- Councils led to the Bible as we know it
One thing that must be remembered throughout this study is that canonization is the process of discovering the canon, not creating the canon.
Old Testament Canon
There are three ways to establish the reliability of the Old Testament.
The first way to establish the reliability of the Old Testament is history. By the time of the New Testament, the Old Testament was generally accepted as authoritative. Josephus, an early Jewish historian from the first century even stated of the Old Testament, “We have not myriads of books, disagreeing with one another, but only twenty-two, containing the record of all time, and justly accredited.” There we have it! Just after the days that Jesus walked the earth, most people accepted the reliability of the Old Testament.
Second, even Jesus affirmed the Old Testament canon. In his words, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Notice that Jesus mentions three sections of the Old Testament.
- Law of Moses
These were the three divisions that the Jews affirmed within the Old Testament canon. Jesus affirmed the reliability of the Old Testament.
Third, the New Testament affirms the reliability of the Old Testament. Wayne Grudem notes that Jesus and the New Testament authors quotes the Old Testament as divinely inspired over 295 times.
With these understandings, we can affirm not only the reliability of the Old Testament, but the authority and the fact that we have the right books.
Early church fathers did not compile lists as to which writings were divinely inspired as Scripture, but simply quoted what they believed to be divinely inspired as Scripture. There are three reliable fathers that quote considerable amounts of Scripture as reliable and authoritative.
First, is Clement, born in AD 35, just after Jesus passed on the cross and ascended to heaven. Living in the first century, he interacted face-to-face with the apostles. He would have seen the original autographs (original writings) of Scripture. He wrote a letter now known as, “First Clement.” In it he quotes both the Old Testament and New Testament as “Scripture.” It is important to note that the word “Scripture,” means “sacred writings.” Only writings from God were considered to be sacred writings.
Second, is Polycarp, who lived from mid-first century to mid-second century. He is considered to have been a disciple of John the Apostle. In his writings, he also quotes both the Old Testament and the New Testament as “Scripture.”
Third, is Papias, who lived in the same time as Polycarp. He also was considered to be a disciple of John the apostle. Like the others, he quoted both the Old Testament and the New Testament as “Scripture.”
After the time of the church fathers, lists began to develop of what individuals believed what books were to be recognized as canonical.
For the Old Testament, Melito, Bishop of Sardis, wrote in AD 170. In his list, every single one of our current Old Testament books is present except for Esther. None of the apocrypa (which we will cover later) is listed. Melito is the first to give a precise list of Old Testament books. He is also the first to describe them as “the books of the old covenant.”
Before we examine the lists of the New Testament, we can answer a question as to how our Bibles came to have two divisions and be known as the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.” Let me introduce you to a guy by the name of Tertullian. Tertullian is the first to designates the documents as those of the “New Testament.” It is mainly because of Tertullian’s use of testamentum (“testament”) in this sense that we speak in English of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
When it comes to the New Testament, our lists are much more extensive. We will mention two.
First, is the Muratorian Fragment (also known as the Muratorian Canon). It comes from the late second century, around AD 170. This fragment lists twenty-two of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament canon.
Second, is the 39th Pascal Letter of Athanasius, written around AD 367. Athanasius lists the exact same New Testament canon that we have today, twenty-seven books. This is the earliest exact list that we have of our current New Testament canon.
After the establishment of the New Testament through quotations and lists, we see the use of councils come about. There are three councils that were tasked with the authority of recognizing which writings were actually inspired and to be considered as Scripture.
First, is the Council of Laodicea, taking place in AD 363. In this council, every book of the New Testament is present except for Revelation (known then as The Apocalypse of John).
Second, the Council of Hippo Regius in North Africa, took place in AD 393. The books affirmed here are the same as our present New Testament canon.
Third and finally, was the Council of Carthage in AD 397. This council read and affirmed the decision of the previous Council of Hippo Regius.
Criteria for Canonicity
In the words of a biblical scholar, “The ultimate criterion of canonicity is divine authorship, not human or ecclesiastical approval.” Even so, how do we know that a writing is from divine authorship? How can we differentiate between the inspired and uninspired writings? There were unofficial criteria that a writing had to meet. We will suggest five:
- PropheticityApostolicity: being an apostle or having direct or indirect association of a given work with an apostle
- Orthodoxy: conformed to the church’s rule of faith
- Antiquity: produced during the apostolic era
- Ecclesiastical usage/catholicity: widely used in the early church
Which books were disputed that we currently have in our canon?
Some wonder about the “extra” books that are in the Roman Catholic Bible. Depending on who you ask, there are a varying number of apocryphal books ranging from 400 BC all the way to AD 100. These works are considered to be deuterocanonical, meaning “secondly canonical.” They are not canon as they do not meet the “rule” or “standard” as being the inspired word of God.
There are three mains issues with the apocryphal books:
- Doctrinal errors
- Historical errors
- Never cited by the New Testament
It has been said that the apocrypha is helpful for understanding the historical and cultural changes leading up to the New Testament, but not to be utilized as an infallible rule of faith and practice.
What does church history have to say? Consider these examples:
- Athanasius says of the apocryphal books, “They are the invention of heretics, who write according to their own will, and gratuitously assign and add to them dates so that, offering them as ancient writings, they may have an excuse for leading the simple astray.”
- Martin Luther says these are “Books which are not to be held equal to holy scripture, but are useful and good to read.”
- The Cloverdale English Bible of 1535 included the Apocrypha with this introduction, “Apocrypha: the books and treatises which among the fathers of old are not reckoned to be of like authority with the other books of the Bible, neither are they found in the Canon of Hebrew.”
- Cyril of Jerusalem (d. AD 386) said, “But read none of the apocryphal writings, for if you do not know those which are universally acknowledged, why should you trouble yourself in vain about those which are disputed?”
The Apocrypha was officially added to the Catholic Canon in 1546 at the Council of Trent.
Throughout the second to fourth centuries, all sorts of books were being compiled under pseudonyms, claiming to be apostles from the first century. They claimed new and divine revelation, just as a prophet or apostle would. These are obviously not included in the canon of Scripture due to their contradictions to the already written books and other various errors.
Some of these books include:
- Gospel of Thomas
- Gospel of Judas
- The Apocryphon of John
- The Acts of John
- The Acts of Peter
- The list goes on and one for hundreds of books and letters
As we now live a little over 1,900 years after the canonical writings have been written, the debate of the scope of the canon will only increase in controversy. We opened with a convicting word from Wayne Grudem, and it would be appropriate to close with the same one, “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.”
Will God ever add to his word? He will always be speaking, but will he add to the canon as we have it? We must answer with an affirmative “no.” Some try to use the end of Revelation to show that the canon is closed, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone 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” (Rev 22:18–19). This is insufficient, due to the fact that this command is not written in context of canon, but of the book at hand.
The author of Hebrews opens saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, who he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1–2).
God spoke previously to man through the prophets, and now has spoken through his Son. The gospels record the words of the Son and the apostles writings record the teachings of the Son. We need no more. The canon is closed!