The Biblical Canon contains all the scripture “…breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). Last week I wrote Why Create a Written Canon? Part 1, about heresies the early church was combating. However, that’s not the main reason the canon was formed. If the canon had been created to fight heresies, that would make the canon reactive, an attempt to fix problems in the church (although some of the individual books in the canon warn against heresies). The canon is proactive, teaching what God has revealed about himself, and reminds us of who God is.
The question of why the written canon exist goes back to the earliest books of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible/Torah/Pentateuch) describes the covenant, or treaty, God made between himself and the Hebrews. In the ancient world, covenants were written documents between kings and the people they ruled1. The covenants listed the responsibilities of the people (i.e. provide supplies and labor for the king), and what the king would do for the people (i.e. protect them from invaders). The covenants would also specify what would happen to the people of they didn’t fulfill their responsibilities. A written covenant helped ensure both sides knew what to expect in the future. God gave the Israelites, his chosen people, a covenant at Mount Sinai.
The LORD told you [the Israelites] about the terms of his promise, the ten commandments, which he commanded you to do. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets. The LORD also commanded me [Moses] to teach you the laws and rules you must obey after you cross [the Jordan River] and take possession of the land. (Deuteronomy 4:13-14 GW)
God himself wrote part of the Bible, which would have been in keeping with the ancient treaties the Israelites were familiar with. God also told some of the Prophets to write down parts of the Bible.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” (Exodus 34:27 NIV)
Go now [Isaiah], write it on a tablet for them [the citizens of Judah], inscribe it on a scroll, that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness. (Isaiah 30:8 NIV)
Take a scroll and write on it all the words I [God] have spoken to you [Jeremiah] concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. (Jeremiah 36:2 NIV)
Like other treaties in the ancient world, the people were not allowed to make changes to the treaty. “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2 ESV)
Try searching the Old Testament for words related to reading and writing, and you’ll see how important the concept of the written word is23: book (125), books (3), engraved (9), inscribe (1), inscribed (6), letter (27), read (40), reading (3), reads (2), scroll (26), tablet (5), write (36), writes (2), writing (23), written (128), wrote (39)
Writing is clearly not an afterthought, something the Prophets decided to do in their spare time, but an essential part of the God’s teachings. Why did God command people to write down his law?
When he [every King of the Israelites] takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20 NIV)
It wasn’t just the King of Israel who knew of the treaty. Covenants in ancient times were to be read to the people so they were aware of the terms of the covenant.
Then he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient. (Exodus 24:7 ESV)
Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law.
There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them. (Joshua 8:34-35 NIV)
And the king [Josiah] went up to the house of the LORD, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. (2 Kings 23:2 ESV).
The New Testament also has many verses related to reading and writing: book (24), books (4), letter (22), read (26), reading (6), reads (1), scripture (32), scriptures (19), scroll (16), tablet (1), write (41), writes (1), writing (16), writings (3), written (116), wrote (19)
Did the Apostles know some of their books would become scripture and eventually be included in the Biblical canon? The answer is “yes”. One verse which clearly shows the books of the New Testament were considered scripture even before all the books were written is 1 Timothy 5:18 (ESV). The Apostle Paul wrote this to his student Timothy:
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:18 ESV)
It’s not exactly clear when reading this verse why it shows the New Testament authors believed they were writing was scripture. The first saying, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” is from Deuteronomy 25:4 (ESV)4, which had been considered scripture for over a thousand years. The second saying, “The laborer deserves his wages.” is from Luke 10:7 (NIV)5. Paul considers both of the scripture. He doesn’t make a distinction between the two, even though they were written about 1,500 years apart.6
In several instances, the Apostles indicated they knew they were teaching through the authority given to them by Jesus Christ. In this first verse, Paul is clear both oral and written teachings were to be followed:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV)
If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:37-38 ESV)
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 2:13-15 ESV)
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. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)
In some cases, Paul commanded that the letters he wrote should be read in public. These are more indications that the Apostles knew they were writing with God’s authority.
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 NIV)
I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. (1 Thessalonians 5:27 ESV)
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:11-12 ESV)
If you read my End Note from my last article, Why Create a Written Canon? Part 1, you’ll see I wasn’t satisfied with the common answer to the question Why Create a Written Canon?, that is was created to fight heresies in the first few centuries after Jesus was resurrected. It’s easy to think the canon was a human invention with some divine inspiration to help it along, but that’s a completely incorrect view. The canon was created by God, and he used people to accomplish his purpose.
The concept of canon began in the Old Testament when the first writing was done8. Any book God wants in the canon becomes canonical as soon as it’s written. When the New Testament authors were writing, they knew some of their books were scripture, and therefore part of the canon. There’s no point where scripture had been written, but later becomes canonical because some people decide it should be in the canon.
The confusion comes from the fact that though God created the canon, people still have to recognize which books are in the canon. It is possible for a book to exist which people don’t realize is canonical. The problem is, sin blinds us to God’s word. Satan wants to do everything he can to keep us separated from God! One method he uses is to make us doubt God’s word, which he has been doing for a long time.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1 ESV)
The early church fathers (about A.D. 100-400) recognized the more we focus on Christ, the easier it will be to discover the authentic word of God. It’s as true to us today is today as it was two thousand years ago to the disciples.
If you want to learn more about the Biblical Canon, I recommend using resources by Dr. Michael J. Kruger. He is the President of Reformed Theological Seminary, in Charlotte, NC, and a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. His web site is Canon Fodder. Some of his resources I’ve used are listed below in the Resources section.
- Kruger, Michael J. A Curious Clue About the Origins of the New Testament Canon (Canon Fodder, February 20, 2017; web page) Accessed 27-Jul-2019.
- Kruger, Michael J. The Canonization of the New Testament (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2013, Podcast) (iTunes) (Monergism) Accessed 16-Jul-2019.
- Kruger, Michael J. The Definition of the Term ‘Canon’ (Tyndale House, 2012, PDF) (Tyndale House) Accessed 27-Jul-2019.
- Kruger, Michael J. The Origins of the New Testament Canon (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2014, Podcast) (iTunes) (The Gospel Coalition)
- What is the canon of the Bible and how did we get it? (CompellingTruth) Accessed 25-Jul-2019.
- What is the canon of Scripture? (GotQuestions) Accessed 25-Jul-2019.
- Called Suzerain Vassal Treaties.
- Some verses have several of these words. “And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever.” (Isaiah 30:8 ESV)
- I probably missed some words which could be included. Suggestions are welcome!
- You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. (Deuteronomy 25:4 ESV)
- Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. (Luke 10:7 NIV)
- 1 Timothy 5:18 ESV contradicts the theory that all of the Gospels were written late in the first century.
- Some people argue this event doesn’t take place in Heaven, but I don’t know what the other options are. Verse 11 says “earth and sky fled away”, so it doesn’t take place in the current physical universe.
- Were the stone tablets written by God the earliest part of the canon? Perhaps not. “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” (Genesis 5:1 ESV) Or “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God.” (Genesis 5:1 NIV) Moses wrote the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and we don’t know if Moses used books or written accounts which had been passed down through generations to him, but it’s an intriguing theory.