Most Christians know that the Bible is God’s word. We are confident that it is God’s message to us. However, we don’t all know how the Bible we read each day came to us. What method or methods did God use to communicate his message to us? How did we get the 66 books in scripture? Was the Bible dictated to one person through a mediator? Is it a progressive revelation given to various people over a period of many years? Or, did we receive it miraculously from God? Who decided that one book was authoritative and another was not?
It’s important that Christians have some understanding of how the Bible was put together. It informs how we read, study, and interpret the Bible. It can also help us to gain confidence when speaking with unbelievers who doubt that the Bible is God’s word. In this article, we will define canonization, learn how the Old and New Testaments were canonized, discuss the deuterocanonical books, address whether or not the canon of scripture should be closed or open, and finally, explain why it’s important that Christians are familiar with canonization.
What does the word Canon mean?
The word “canon” comes from the similar sounding Greek word kanon. It refers to a measuring rod or carpenter’s line. Later on, it grew to describe the standard of what is authoritative scripture and what is not. When we speak of the Biblical canon, we are speaking of the writings that are considered authoritative and inspired by God. These are the writings contained in the Bible that are used for teaching and Christian living.
Who determined what writings would go into the Biblical Canon?
Before I get into this point, I want to clarify something. Canonization is the process by which the believing community determines that a work is already authoritative. It’s like putting an official stamp on something that has already been functioning as authoritative within the Judeo-Christian world. Canonization does not mean that the church can take any random ancient writing and decide if it’s scripture or not.
How did we get the Old Testament Canon?
The Old Testament Canon is also called the Tanakh. It includes three sections: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Kethubim. The Torah contains the first five books of the Tanakh. Christians tend to refer to it as the law. The Nevi’im contains the prophetic books. Finally, the Kethubim contains what is known as the writings and it includes wisdom literature, psalms, and some of the historical books.
The Jews viewed each of these sections within a hierarchy of authoritativeness. While all of it was considered authoritative, the Torah held the most weight. This is because it is attributed to Moses, the only prophet who met with God face to face (Exodus 33:11). The prophets were responsible for ensuring that the Israelites remained true to the Mosaic covenant. Because of this, their messages were based on the law. Finally, the writings often expressed the themes of the law in poetic ways.
Scholars believe that the Hebrew Scriptures started to come together during the reigns of David and Solomon around 1000 BC. The Former prophets were written down between 640 and 609 BC and the latter prophets between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Finally, the Kethubim was completed by 165 BC.
However, we have evidence that Moses began writing down parts of the Torah during his lifetime. Deuteronomy 31:24 tells us that Moses wrote down the words of the law in a book that was placed at the side of the ark of the covenant.
The parts of the Torah that were not written down immediately were likely passed down orally. Now, you might ask, wouldn’t that lead to a lot of error? In today’s time, yes. Back then, no. The cultures throughout the Ancient Near East were careful in the way they passed down information. They did not have phones or laptops like we do today, and so, if they wanted information to stay with their community through generations, they had to be careful in how they communicated it.
The Jews accepted a book as canonical if it…
- Held to the theology of the Torah
- Was considered to be divinely inspired throughout history
- Had widespread use
- Was written in Hebrew
How did we get the New Testament Canon?
The Christian Scripture, or New Testament, includes the Gospels, Historical Books, Pauline letters, General Letters, and Revelation. The early Christians viewed the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus, the words of the Apostles, and any work recognized by the Apostles to be authoritative.
The Gospels were written by Apostles, or individuals closely connected with the Apostles. They are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Christians believe that these writings are authoritative because of their direct connection to Christ.
Next, the letters were also written by Apostles or individuals within the Apostles’ circle. Rather than being seen as just letters, these writings circulated within the church and were used for teaching and instruction.
That being said, some of the standards for canonicity include…
- Apostolicity – whether or not it can be connected to an apostle
- Universality – if it is used and respected in all Christian churches
- Orthodoxy – if it lines up with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles
- Inspiration – if it is considered by the Christian community to be inspired by God
How was the Bible put together?
In AD 90, the Council of Jamnia used the above criteria to confirm the already established Hebrew Canon. Now, I know this may raise some questions. How do we know that the council was correct in their confirmation? Well, we have evidence from earlier sources that the canon confirmed at Jamnia was in fact the same canon considered authoritative prior to the council.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived around the time of Christ, mentions that the Hebrew Bible contained 22 books. This is the same number of books we have today in the Hebrew Bible.1
In Luke 24:44, Jesus mentions the division between the Law, Prophets, and the Writings. This means that before Jamnia, the Jews knew of these divisions.
Finally, the prologue to the deuterocanonical book Ecclesiasticus also mentions a tripartite canon.
Missing books in the Bible? What should we do with the deuterocanonical books?
The word deuterocanonical means second canon. Another name for the deuterocanonical books is Apocrypha. A lot of Christians get nervous when they hear the word Apocrypha. However, the books of the Apocrypha are not “bad” or problematic. Though this is the case, they are also not scripture.
The Deuterocanonical books were written in the intertestamental period, or the time between the closing of the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of the New Testament. As I mentioned before, these writings were not considered to be inspired. We know this because they contain theology that contradicts the Torah, they have historical errors, and the books themselves argue that they were not inspired (see 1 Maccabees 9:27 and 2 Baruch 85:3). Instead of viewing these books as scripture, we may use them devotionally or we may use them to help us better understand the New Testament writings (some of the New Testament authors quote or allude to the Apocrypha).
Why does the Catholic Bible include the Apocrypha?
You may know that protestant bibles do not include the Apocrypha. If so, why do the Catholic Bibles include these books? First, they include these books because they were included in the Septuagint.2 These books were originally kept with inspired scripture until they were later separated from protestant Bibles.
We know that the Jews did not consider these books as inspired and while Catholic and Orthodox groups see them as important, they do not view them as scripture.
Is the Biblical canon open or closed?
The Biblical canon is closed. In AD 170, the Muratorian Canon accepted most of the New Testament books as canonical. Next, Athanasius published his Festal Letter in AD 367, acknowledging all of the twenty-seven New Testament books without hesitation. Finally, the Council of Carthage met in AD 397 and endorsed Athanasius. This is the same canon that we recognize today.
Why is the canon closed?
Remember that for a work to be considered canonical, it needs to be accepted and widely used among the church. There are no other writings besides the ones we currently consider to be authoritative that are widely used in the church. Next, these writings need to be connected to an apostle in some way. As far as we know, there have been no other writings discovered that closely connect to any apostle. Finally, we don’t know of any other writings considered to be divinely inspired.
There may be other writings that pass the orthodoxy standard but in order for something to be considered canonical, it needs to pass all four standards.
If we go through the criteria for the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ll find that no other writings can pass those standards either.
This is important because there are two Christian cults that claim to have new scripture from God. These are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.
However, as enticing as they may seem, these so-called inspired books are not authoritative or inspired by God in any way.
Why should Christians be familiar with the process of canonization?
Christians should be familiar with the process of canonization so that they know what they are reading and where it came from. Understanding how the Bible was put together helps you gain confidence for Christian living. You know that God is true and so are his words. It’s more plausible to believe that God inspired human words than it is to believe that a book fell from heaven or was dictated by God to a prophet.
You also begin to realize that the Bible was written within the context of real people. It takes their culture, history, and lives into consideration. When you read something unfamiliar in the Bible, it’s likely because of the cultural distance between our time and the time of the original writers.
Next, understanding canonization helps you to effectively answer unbelievers’ questions about the inspiration of the Bible.
Finally, it helps you to address your own questions as well. Christians are not merely following the words of a random ancient book, they are actually following God’s timeless, revealed word.
I hope this article was helpful for you. Feel free to let me know if you have any comments or questions about anything I mentioned in the article.
For Further Reading:
- The Canon of Scripture – FF Bruce
- Chapter 4: The Canon and Translation, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard
1 Note: It is 22 and not 39 because in the Hebrew version of the Bible, some books that Christians have separated into two parts are combined and the twelve minor prophets are contained in only one book.
2 The Septuagint is the first translation of the Hebrew Bible. It was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran, the Septuagint was found together with the Apocrypha.
Founder, Daily She Pursues
Shanté is the founder of Daily She Pursues. She is passionate about teaching women how to pursue the heart of God by studying his word, spending time in prayer, and committing to a daily walk with the Lord. Shanté is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies at Liberty University and some of her favorite things include tea, journaling, art museums, essential oils, and thrift shopping.