Canonicity of the Bible


The canon is a list of books included in the Bible officially accepted as inspired of God. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament and twenty-seven books in the New Testament. Sixty-six books in total make up our present Bible. In this study we will examine how the Old and New Testament canon was established, and what criteria was used to insure the authenticity of the Bible. The word canon comes from the Hebrew “ganeh” and the Greek “kanon” and means a rod or reed, which was used as a measuring rod, rule or standard of measurement.

The church didn’t create the canon or books accepted as scripture, but recognized they were inspired from their inception. So the canon are those books which have been measured, found satisfactory, and approved as inspired by God. Origen (184/185 – 253/254), an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, used the word to denote what we call the rule of faith – the standard by which we are to measure and evaluate.

The Establishment of the Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament canon was clearly established in the minds of the Jews before 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus. At that time the sacrificial system was halted, the Jews were scattered and there was a need for something definite. In 90 A.D. the Counsel of Jamnia solidified the canonicity of Old Testament scripture. During this time the canonicity of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon was established.

It was the view of two Jewish scholars, David Kimchi (1160-1232) and Elias Levita (1465-1549), that the Old Testament canon was completed by Ezra and the members of the Great Synagogue. Raven suggests three reasons that make this view probable (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 103):

  1. The testimony of Josephus (Jewish historian, 33-100 A. D.). Josephus said that the Old Testament canon was completed during the reign on Artaxerxes Longimanus in the lifetime of Ezra.
  2. Ezra was particularly concerned with the sacred books. He is called “the scribe” (Nehemiah 8:1, 4, 9, 13; 12:26, 36), “a ready scribe” (Ezra 7:6), and “a scribe of the words and of the commandment of Jehovah, and of his statutes to Israel” (Ezra 7:11). It therefore stands to reason that he would have been greatly concerned with the completion of the Old Testament Canon.
  3. The character of Ezra’s time was set for it. After the exile the people were founding anew the religious institutions of the nation. What would be more natural than to gather the volumes of the sacred library together?

Jesus’ Testimony of the Old Testament Canon

Jesus bore witness to the three divisions of the Old Testament. The Hebrew bible was divided into three sections: The law, the prophets and the writings. Jesus bore witness to these three divisions of the Old Testament. “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus mentions Psalms because it was the first and largest book of the writings.

Jesus never disputed the canonicity of the Old Testament. Jesus often disagreed with the Jewish leader’s tradition, yet He never disputed the canonicity of the Old Testament. He said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? You invalidated the Word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:3-9). He told them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Again He said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus constantly verified the canonicity of Old Testament scripture.

Jesus testified to the extent of the Old Testament canon. When arguing with the religious leaders Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 23:35). Abel was the first to be murdered and Zechariah was the last to be martyred in the Old Testament order. Abel was slain by his brother Cain and Zechariah was stoned in the house of God while prophesying. Genesis was the first in chronological order and Chronicles the last.

Jesus testified to the sacredness of Old Testament. He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Speaking to the disciples after His resurrection He began “With Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, 44-45).

Old Testament Scriptures Jesus Endorsed as True

Jesus endorsed these Old Testament passages as true, verifying the canonicity of the Old Testament. We must therefore accept our present collection of Old Testament books as complete and canonical as we have them.

Testimony of the New Testament Concerning the Old Testament

Why Apocryphal Literature is not Canonical

Apocryphal means hidden or concealed. Jerome, in the fourth century, was the first to call a group of literature apocryphal. Below is a list of a number of reasons why the apocryphal books, used by the Roman Catholic Church, were not canonical. The first four are reasons Unger’s Bible Dictionary gives for their exclusion from the canon. The rest are historic testimonies.

A Few Broad Principles Aimed at Determining Canonicity of the New Testament

Five Facts Concerning the Credibility of the New Testament Books

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