What is the Biblical Canon?

My last several articles have been about the Gospels, and now I want to change directions slightly and research how the Bible became comprised of the books we know: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. At some point in the past, some group of people put these 66 pieces of writing together into one book. When did that happen? Who was involved? Why did they believe these books are the Word of God and not others? I’ll be writing several articles on the subject as I research it. For now, I’ll focus on the New Testament and come back to the Old Testament later.

Justin Martyr, an early church father who lived in the second century, wrote:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.1

The “memoirs of the Apostles” (New Testament) and the “writings of the prophets” (Old Testament) were considered worthy of being read, and must have been instructive to the community. A large part of the New Testament is made up of letters written to churches in different place, and a few to specific people. At this point in history, the first hundred years after Jesus’s resurrection, the 27 books we have in our New Testament were not being circulated together; churches in different places would have had different Gospels and letters to read from. Christians were being persecuted, so collecting all of the books would have been quite difficult. The churches must have had a standard they used to learn which books were worthy of reading, and which weren’t.

The English word Canon comes from the Greek word κανών (kanṓn; Strong’s G2583), which meant cane or reed. The reeds were used as measuring sticks, and kanṓn came to mean rule or standard. The Biblical Canon is the standard books which teach orthodox Christian beliefs. To be included in the canon, the books had to be authentic (based on the experiences of those who knew Jesus), authoritative (accurately teaching God’s will) and inspired (written by people with guidance of the Holy Sprit).

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 CEB)

The Apostle Paul emphasized the fact that the Word of God should be treated differently than the word of man, and that it should have an effect on the lives of Christians. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV)

Another verse which shows the inspiration of God is 2 Peter 3:15 (NIV): “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.”

The early church fathers also affirmed all the Scriptures were given by God:

…all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things.2

The Biblical Canon is a compilation of the Word of God. The 66 books of the Bible were written over a period of about 1,500 years, by 40 authors. The authors were prophets, kings, royal officials, musicians, poets, scribes, soldiers, fisherman, a tent-maker and a doctor. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek, and both have a few words in Aramaic thrown in. Throughout all this, there is one theme: God’s love for people.

For various reasons it was necessary for the church to know exactly what books were divinely authoritative. The Gospels, recording ‘all that Jesus began both to do and to teach’3, could not be regarded as one whit lower in authority than the Old Testament books. And the teaching of the apostles in the Acts and Epistles was regarded as vested with his authority. It was natural, then, to accord to the apostolic writings of the new covenant the same degree of homage as was already paid to the prophetic writings of the old.4

Resources

  • Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) (Amazon)
  • Geisler, Norman and Shawn Nelson. Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2015; Kindle ebook) (Amazon)
  • McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 31. (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165). First Apology (A.D. 150-160) Chapter 67.
  2. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies (On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis) (A.D. 175-190) Book 2, Chapter 28, Paragraph 3. (Early Christian Writings)
  3. The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and to teach…. (Acts 1:1 ASV) (Acts is a continuation of the Gospel off Luke.)
  4. Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Sixth Edition (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 1981; Kindle) Location 495. (Amazon)
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  1. […] my first article on the Biblical Canon, What is the Biblical Canon?, I listed three criteria the early church used to recognize if a book should be considered part of […]

  2. […] week’s article, What is the Biblical Canon?, was my first in a series on the Canon. This week I’m researching why a written canon exists. […]

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