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

  • Creation (Matthew 19:4-5, Mark 13:19).
  • The personality and character of Satan (John 8:44).
  • The universal flood (Luke 17:26-27).
  • Destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah (Luke 17:28-30).
  • Moses and the burning bush (Mark 12:26).
  • Manna in the wilderness (John 6:32).
  • Jonah swallowed by a big fish (Matthew 12:39-40).
  • The existence of the tabernacle (Luke 6:3-4).
  • The unity of Isaiah (Matthew 8:17, Luke 4:17-18).

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

  • The Gospels. Jesus said, “Have you never read in the scriptures; You are mistaken, not knowing the scriptures; How then could the scriptures be fulfilled; But all this was done that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled; You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me; The scripture cannot be broken” (Mathew 21:42, 22:29, 26:54, 56, John 5:39, 10:35).
  • The Apostle Paul. “Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the scriptures” (Acts 17:2); Paul in his letters: “Which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures; what does the scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness; For the scripture says to the Pharaoh; For the scripture says, Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame; Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah; Whatever things were written before were written for our learning; Now made manifest, and by the prophetic scriptures made known to all nations; I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and the scripture has confined all under sin; What does the scripture say?; For the scripture says; and all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (Romans 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Galatians 3:8, 22; 4:30; 1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Timothy 3:16). By these we see the Apostle Paul testified to the sacredness of Old Testament scripture.
  • The Apostle Peter. Peter said, “No prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Peter said of Paul, “In all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter and the New Testament in its entirety gives witness to the sacredness of Old Testament scripture.

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.

  • They abound in historic and geographical inaccuracies.
  • They teach doctrines which are false and foster practices which are at variance with inspired scripture.
  • They resort to literary types and display an artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired scripture.
  • They lack the distinctive elements which give genuine scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling.
  • Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher (20 B.C.-40 A.D.), quoted the Old Testament and recognized the three divisions of the Old Testament but never quoted the apocryphal books as inspired.
  • Josephus, Jewish historian (30-100 A.D.), referenced a number of Old Testament books but never quoted any apocryphal books as inspired.
  • Jesus and the New Testament writers never quoted from any apocryphal books, though there are hundreds of quotes from most canonical books.
  • The Jewish scholars at Jamnia, 90 A.D. never recognized them.
  • No canon or counsel for the first four centuries recognized them.
  • Jerome, who did most of the work on the Latin Vulgate (fourth century Latin translation of the Bible), refuted them and often debated with Augustine over this.
  • Most church fathers rejected them and frequently spoke against them.
  • Many Roman Catholic scholars through the reformation period rejected them.
  • Martin Luther and the reformers rejected them.
  • They are not consistent with the rest of scripture.

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

  • Apostolicity. Was the writer one of the apostles? If he was not an apostle, did he have a close relationship with one of the apostles, in order to raise it to the level of an apostolic book? For example, Mark had been Paul’s disciple and Luke was not an apostle but he accompanied Paul throughout the book of Acts.
  • Content. Did it maintain a strong spiritual character? This is where most apocryphal books were rejected.
  • Universality. Was it universally accepted by the church? For example, did the church fathers accept it?
  • Inspiration. Did the book give evidence of being inspired? By the fourth century all 27 books of the New Testament were accepted as canonical. After Counsel of Rome (382 A.D.) and the Third Counsel of Carthage (397 A.D.) the question of what books were in the canon was closed. By the year 500 A.D. all the Greek speaking church had accepted all books presently in the New Testament.

Five Facts Concerning the Credibility of the New Testament Books

  • The writers were competent. They were qualified to witness and teach divine truth. Most of them were eye witnesses and those who were not eye witnesses were intimately involved with one of them who were.
  • The writers were honest. This can be observed by the moral overtone of what they wrote, their high regard for truth, and that they were in dangered in every area of life for what they wrote. Many of them were martyred for what they preached and wrote. It stands to reason, if they had not been honest in their testimony and writings that they would have retracted their testimonies before giving up their lives. William Paley (1743 – 1805), an English Christian apologist, philosopher and utilitarian, said, “There is no evidence any false witness has ever so acted.”
  • Their writings agree with each other. The gospels can be put together and Acts is the historic background for most of Paul’s writing. Some have tried to infer that James and Paul stood in contradiction in their writings, but they merely stood back to back fighting opposite foes.
  • Their accounts agree with history and experience. There were many accounts to contemporary history in the New Testament. As an example, Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). There is no evidence that the Bible contradicts one fact of history.
  • Miracles also attest to the credibility of New Testament writers. The scriptures were birthed in the miraculous. Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3).

    The Apostles were promised that “These signs will follow those who believe” and “they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the Word signs following” (Mark 16:17, Mark 16:20).

    “God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (Hebrews 2:4). Paul ministered with “Mighty signs and wonders by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:19).