The canon of Scripture is a hugely important incident in church history, but very few people have any concept of it. Most are perfectly fine accepting the Bible as is because millions have agreed, but if you are in any way curious how the Bible we have came to be, then continue on with me.
Wayne Grudem defines the canon as “the list of all of the books that belong in the bible”. God is the one who decided that we needed to have a collection of written words when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18). He later commands Moses to write the book of law and then Joshua and others added to it (Joshua 24:26).
Now the importance of the canon is to make sure that the words that we have are actually God’s words to us. Thus the number one, absolute requirement for something to be in the canon is that it has divine authorship. We need to make sure that we are not adding or subtracting from God’s word (Deut 32:47). So let’s look at how we got the Old Testament…
The short answer to how we got the OT is “we don’t know”. But there are several clues that point us to the timing and one major thing that gives us confidence in it’s accuracy.
As mentioned before, God commissioned the writings of the Old Testament with the first piece being the Ten Commandments. That doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments are the oldest writings in the Bible. Many believe Job is actually the oldest book, probably written sometime during the patriarchal period (2100 BC). The final book of the Old Testament is likely Malachi, written somewhere around 435 BC or possibly Chronicles (before 400BC).
The OT grew as new writings from prophets were added, but had to have been finalized sometime after 400BC and sometime before 150BC. After 400BC the Hebrews wrote that there were no more trustworthy prophets (Maccabees) and that the prophets had fallen asleep (2 Baruch). Remember, no prophets means no new scripture. By 150BC, they had translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek which was the common tongue of the world at the time. That version of the Bible, called the Septuagint, is what we base our modern Bibles off of.
So we have an approximate time period, but how do we know that they chose the right books? The biggest reason why the Christian church accepts the Old Testament is because there is no recorded dispute from Jesus about the OT canon. So if it was good enough for Jesus, it must be good enough for us right.
There are a few books written in the intertestamental period (after 400 BC) known as the apocrypha that are included by the Roman Catholics. I won’t get into it too much, but just know that the Hebrews themselves acknowledged that there were no more prophets during this time and of the nearly 300 OT quotes by NT authors, not one of them comes from one of these books. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these are bad books, just not scripture. Josephus, the first century historian, confirms this saying they were “not deemed worthy of equal credit”.
The New Testament canon is decidedly more complex, mainly because we have a little more detail about that time period and there was no centrally organized entity until it became the official religion of Rome in 391 AD. However, the idea that the Roman government decided the canon is incorrect since the earliest complete listing of books comes in 367AD. Plus we have the four gospels recognized all the way back in 172 AD.
The problem of canonization in the New Testament was defining who was allowed to write Scripture. Christ gave the apostles the charge to write Scripture (John 14:26, 16:12-14), so it was necessary to define what it meant to be an apostle. There are three requirements to be an apostle:
- Be commissioned by Christ
- Have seen the resurrected Christ
- Perform miraculous works
Every NT author meets these requirements except for five: Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews and Jude. Mark is accepted because of his close association with Peter while Luke (also the author of Acts) is accepted for his association with Paul. Jude gets in because of his association with James, but also being Jesus’ brother helps. That only leaves us with Hebrews whose author is unknown. Hebrews was accepted very early on into the canon, even though as early as 254 AD Origen claimed that no one knew who the author was.
So how do we know if we have the right books? That is really the work of the Holy Spirit who will have to convince us that we have all that we need (John 16:14). God knows we need his word (Matthew 4:4) and if he is faithful to us then he would not keep his word from us. In fact, for us to revisit the canon and say that a certain book should be in or out is the same as saying that God has intentionally misled his people for centuries.
It is also worth noting that there are really no strong candidates for addition or subtraction to the canon. Even books that were at one time considered have very strong issues that warrant their exclusion and were never accepted by any major church councils.
Now you might ask yourself if we can expect any new books to be written, perhaps a New New Testament? When John died in 100AD, he was the last one qualified to write scripture since he was the last apostle. The early church recognized this, as Ignatius the church father wrote in 105 AD “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were apostles”.
God has given us the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelation), so there really is no need for any more Scripture. The very end of the very last book (Revelation 22:18-19) seems to agree that the canon is closed.