I remember sitting down with the man discipling me near the window at Starbucks. Every month I would bring him questions and we would talk through them together. This month I was curious about the Bible. The question I asked him was, “How did the Bible come to be put together?” I think I jokingly said, “Was there an explosion in a paper factory, and the Bible got put together in that explosion? How did it happen?” I did not realize it, but I was asking about what I now know is the Canon.
With that story, let’s take a look at the methodical and God-directed way that the Bible was compiled. The process I am broadly describing is called “canonization” or “the canon of Scripture.” What does the word “canon” mean? The word has Hebrew and Greek backgrounds. In Hebrew the word is קָנֶה (canew) which literally means “rod” for measuring (that “rod” used for measuring came from a reed-type plant). The rod was used as a rule or standard against which things were measured. Two examples of this use are in Ezekiel:
“As he brought me nearer, I saw a man whose face shone like bronze standing beside a gateway entrance. He was holding in his hand a linen measuring cord and a measuring rod.” (Ezekiel 40:3, NLT, emphasis added)
“He measured the east side with his measuring rod, and it was 875 feet long. Then he measured the north side, and it was also 875 feet. The south side was also 875 feet, and the west side was also 875 feet.” (Ezekiel 42:16–19, NLT, emphasis added)
In the New Testament the word is κανων (canon). Two examples of this use are in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Philippians:
“And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:16, ESV, emphasis added)
“however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.” (Philippians 3:16, NASB95, emphasis added)
First, I want to show you when the New and Old Testaments were completed. Then, we will look at when those Testaments were recognized as Scripture. Next, I want you to know the exact criteria that were used when recognizing what made New Testament Scripture. Lastly, we will take a brief look at the books that made it into the Bible.
The Canon of Scripture
I. SCRIPTURE COMPLETION DATE
A. Old Testament (435 B.C.)
The last books of the Old Testament to be written were likely Nehemiah and Malachi. Most scholars say Malachi was written somewhere between 433-420 B.C. near the reign of the Persian King Artaxerxes II (Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books, 94; Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Prophetic Books, 407-408).
B. New Testament (A.D. 95)
The last book of the New Testament that was written was the book of Revelation. The apostle John likely completed it around A.D. 95. How do we know when John wrote? The clearest evidence is seen in Irenaeus‘s letter titled, Against Heresies. In it he talks about the prophecy written in the book of Revelation and opinions about the Antichrist. He writes,
“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen [John’s visions] no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign. (Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 559–560, emphasis added).
This short little statement makes it clear that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation towards the end of Domitian’s reign, which would place the date of the book around A.D. 95.
II. EARLY ACCEPTANCE OF SCRIPTURE
Now that you know when the last books (chronologically) of Old Testament and New Testament were written, let’s look at when the Old Testament and New Testament were recognized and accepted as Scripture.
(Portions of this section are adapted from Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, pp. 55-60).
A. Old Testament
The Old Testament was recognized as Scripture quickly after it was completed. There are five examples that show the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament being accepted as Scripture.
1. I Maccabees 4:45-46; 9:27
The book of 1 Maccabees was written about 100 B.C. 1 Maccabees 4:45-46 talks about how the temple altar had been torn down and some stones were stored in a safe place until a prophet could interpret them. There were no prophets at that time because the office of the prophet had ceased with the time of Malachi. Therefore, it seems to be the opinion of people at that time that there was no new Scripture being written.
The historian Josephus was born A.D. 38 and wrote an amazing amount of historical books during his time. In his work, Against Arion, he describes what we now know was the Apocrypha and that it was not on the same level of authority as the Bible (Against Arion 1.41). Furthermore, Josephus mentions that he was not the only one to regard the Apocrypha as less authoritative than the Old Testament Scripture.
3. Rabbinic Literature
The Rabbinic literature that we have from after the times of Malachi reflects a belief that the Holy Spirit and his role in giving prophecy had departed from Israel after the book of Malachi was written. See the Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b, Sota 48b, Sanhedrin 11a, and Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs, 8.9.3.
4. Qumran Community
The Qumran community is the group of people that wrote and kept the Dead Sea Scrolls. This community of people eagerly expected a prophet who would have more authority than anything they had written (1 QS 9.11). This view that they had the Old Testament but were waiting for the prophetic Messiah is also seen in 2 Baruch 85.3; Prayer of Azariah 15.
5. Melito of Sardis
Tired of me giving obscure references and lite evidence that the Old Testament was compiled and recognized shortly after it was completed in 435 B.C.? This point is for you!
The clearest and most direct evidence for the Old Testament being canonized comes from Bishop Melito of Sardis in A.D. 170. The church historian, Eusebius, records Melito of Sardis’s words in Ecclesiastical History which includes all 39 books of the Old Testament (Ecclesiastical History 4.26.14).
B. New Testament
1. 1 Tim 5:17-18
In Paul’s letter to his disciple Timothy, Paul quotes a verse that is used earlier in the New Testament.
“Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.’ And in another place, ‘Those who work deserve their pay!’” (1 Timothy 5:17–18, NLT, emphasis added)
The point here is that Paul is quoting a phrase spoken by Jesus, recorded in Luke 10:7. Luke likely completed his gospel in A.D. 60. (Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 130-131), and Paul wrote his letter to Timothy in A.D. 64 (Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 651). So perhaps Paul is referencing a statement he knew that Luke had recorded in Luke’s gospel.
It seems to be that Luke’s gospel had been written and known by Paul when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy. Furthermore, the quote by Paul of Luke is an exact quote in the Greek! It is not paraphrased or simply referenced. Paul’s quote of Luke is a word-for-word quote!
2. 2 Peter 3:15-16
Peter’s second letter was likely written in A.D. 68. (Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 844) which was about three years after Paul died. Paul had written thirteen letters that likely were circulating all around by the time Peter wrote this second letter. Towards the end of Peter’s letter he references Paul saying,
“And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15–16, NLT, emphasis added)
Here we see Peter–the leader of the first century church–referencing the writings of Paul. Peter says Paul wrote “letters,” thirteen of which made it into the canon. The bottom line is that as early as A.D. 68 there was recognition and acceptance of Paul’s letters as Scripture.
3. Athanasius Letter in A.D. 367
My point from the two sections above is to show that the New Testament books were recognized early on and accepted as God’s Scripture. The Canon was an early development in the church. As soon as those letters and books were written they were quickly used in local churches as God’s inspired Word. However, over time there began to be controversy about what was and was not Scripture. Some people wanted to add additional books that were discovered later or even written much later than the New Testament books. Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria and gave a list of what made up the New Testament books. Lots of people reference Athanasius and his letter, but rarely anyone quotes him directly. Here’s the paragraph where he outlines the New Testament books.
Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John. (Athanasius of Alexandria, “Festal Letters,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, p. 552, emphasis added).
With that said, Dr. Michael Kruger makes a strong point that there is an earlier list of the New Testament books.
4. Council of Carthage in A.D. 397
As time progressed there needed to be a concrete view among churches as to what made up the New Testament canon. The Council of Carthage brought together pastors from northern African and they officially recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as Scripture.
III. CRITERIA FOR NEW TESTAMENT SCRIPTURE
Earlier in this post I shared with you that “canon” literally means a ruler or ruling standard that something has to measure up to. In this section I want to show you the four criteria that New Testament books had to measure up to in order to be recognized as Scripture.
A. An Apostolic Source
The first criterion that books of the New Testament had to meet was having an apostolic source. The person who was writing the book or letter had to have gotten his material from someone who was an apostle. What’s an apostle? When Jesus did his three years of ministry on earth he had twelve disciples. Those twelve disciples became apostles after Jesus ascended to heaven (with the exception of Judas who killed himself). I like to think of it as a disciple is the learner, an apostle is the doer.
Important note! I did not say that for a New Testament book to be considered Scripture that it had to be written by an apostle. Know why? Because not all the New Testament books were written by apostles! For example, Mark and Luke were not apostles. Yet, Mark got his material from Peter and Luke got his material from Paul and others.
B. Agreement with Old Testament
This point is obvious. Every book of the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament except for the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 122). Since the Old Testament was recognized as Scripture and agreed on at the time of Jesus, then any new writings that would be considered as Scripture had to agree with the Old Testament teachings. Everything has to match up.
A New Testament letter or book could not teach something opposite from what the Old Testament had already taught. There were new interpretations given of the Old Testament, but nothing could contradict.
C. Early Recognition as Inspired Writings
The one thing that is most easily seen when studying canonization is how quickly the books of the New Testament began being circulated, copied, and used in local churches. Almost immediately after these letters were sent, the first century churches were spreading them around as they were excited to get teachings and instructions from the big hitters of their time: Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, and James.
D. Christ as the Central Focus
After thousands of years of waiting for the Messiah (Gen 3:15; 12:3; 18:18; Isa 53), any writing after Jesus’s death and resurrection had to have Christ as the central focus. Jesus makes this point clear after his resurrection on the walk to Emmaus with two of his followers.
“’Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.’” Then Jesus said to them, ‘You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?’ Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:24–27, NLT)
Here Jesus shows the two men that the Old Testament Scriptures were about him, and therefore the New Testament Scriptures should be about Jesus too.
A little later Jesus appears to his disciples and restates the idea that the Old Testament was about him in a more specific way.
“Then he said, ‘When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, ‘Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’” (Luke 24:44–47, NLT)
IV. THOSE THAT MADE THE CUT
The Bible (or canon) contains a total of sixty-six books. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. Most books of the Bible were recognized as Scripture early on and accepted quickly while others were evaluated more strictly and almost were not considered as Scripture. Here’s a brief survey of those books that made it into the Bible.
A. Thirty-four of the Thirty-nine Old Testament Books Undoubtedly Accepted
Thirty-four of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were quickly recognized as Scripture. However, five books had to undergo more evaluation than the others. Here’s a listing of the five books and why they almost didn’t make it into the Bible:
- Esther – No mention of God so some questioned if a book that doesn’t mention God should be in the Old Testament.
- Proverbs – Some people said it was self-contradictory.
- Ecclesiastes – Its a cynical book so that raised some red flags.
- Song of Songs – As a very sensual book it was questioned.
- Ezekiel – Some said chapters 1-10 slightly contradict Moses’s teachings (yet I don’t see that), and some said there was a question of whether or not God exists in chapters 1-10.
With that said, these five books were eventually canonized into the Old Testament.
B. Twenty-two of Twenty-seven New Testament Books Undoubtedly Accepted
Like the Old Testament, there were five New Testament books that were questioned in considering them to be Scripture. Here’s a listing of these five books and why they almost didn’t make it into the Bible:
- James – At first glance it appeared to contradict Paul’s teachings.
- 2 & 3 John – author is not clearly identified as the apostle John so some questioned the requirement for apostolic source.
- 2 Peter – The word choices and grammar are very different than 1 Peter, so some questioned if it was truly written by the apostle Peter.
- Jude – The second chapter of 2 Peter and Jude are very similar, so some questioned Jude’s authenticity.
While these were the five that were questioned when canonizing the New Testament, there are two other books that sometimes show up on the books that were not canonized as early on. The first is the book of Hebrews. Hebrews does not directly state who the author was, so some early church fathers were not sure if the book should be included in the Bible since there was no clear apostolic source. The second is the book of Revelation. The visions of judgement and a future millennium did not match some early church views, so they were not sure if it should have been included into the New Testament.
V. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. From the beginning God has guided the process.
As soon as these books were written you can begin to see God guiding the local churches to recognize and use the books that he wanted them to use. This is the “canon” or canonization process I’ve tried to layout in detail in this post. These books and letters were written and quickly circulated, copied, and used in many churches. God had a hand in the process of ensuring what he wanted the church to use.
B. Tradition is a good thing.
I’ve heard some people who dearly love God say, “All I want is the Bible! I don’t want any church dogma or tradition or rituals. I just want the Bible!” Yet, with that statement there is a false assumption that if we read the Bible there is no tradition that will guide us in our faith. If you read the post above, you will know that the Canon: thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-nine books of the New Testament all represent a tradition that was followed from the early church. Therefore, by reading the Bible you are taking part in a tradition that is centuries old. Some traditions are a good thing.