The canonicity of Scripture is a very important part of bibliology, the doctrine or study of the Bible. The word canon means “a rule or standard.” It refers to a reed used for measuring things, much like a ruler today. The classic definition of canon in church life is “rule of faith.” Over the centuries of church history, many denominations and church bodies have drawn up canons that help determine belief and practice for their people. The Roman Catholic Church has their own canon of Scripture as well as an extensive body of canon law that has been collected and revised over many centuries.
In the process of time, the word canon also came to mean a catalog or list—in this case, the authoritative list of books that make up the Bible. The process of and criteria for determining canonicity tells us how the writings of the Bible became recognized as the authoritative and inspired Word of God and how they were collected and preserved. This subject is as intriguing as it is important because the process by which the books of the Bible were included is an amazing story in itself. But my primary concern is the product that we have in our hands today—the thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books—that make up God’s inspired, inerrant Word.
Despite the official canonicity of Scripture, there exists several different lists of books that are considered by others to be part of the Bible. During the process, there were many other so-called gospels, epistles, and manuscripts—written around the same time as other books of the Bible—that did not make it into the Scriptures. But here’s the bottom line: God spoke His Word and inspired people to record every word exactly as He wanted them. Then God preserved His Word and oversaw the process by which the sixty-six books of the Bible were assembled into the complete and authoritative collection of Scripture.
Thus, the first question that must be answered concerning the Bible’s canonicity is how some writings were chosen to be included in Scripture while others were excluded. What the early church did was discern, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which books already carried the stamp of the Spirit’s inspiration, and which did not. The determining authority for the canon of Scripture was God Himself, not any church body or individual leader. God decided the canon of Scripture; people simply recognized it.
“God is perfect and His ways are perfect.”
Let me give you an everyday example of what we’re talking about. Suppose you sell something during your Saturday garage sale for one hundred dollars. On Monday, you go down to your bank to deposit the five crisp, new twenty-dollar bills the buyer gave you on Saturday, but to your horror, the bank teller informs you that all of the bills are counterfeit.
Now, after you recover your breath, you can protest all you want and remind her that you accepted the bills in good faith. You can say that the buyer seemed as honest as Abe Lincoln and even claimed to be a close friend of the bank’s president. You can show the teller that the fake bills all have Andrew Jackson’s picture on them, just like the other twenty-dollar bills in her till. You can even gather all the customers in the bank around and take a vote on whether the bills look and feel authentic to them. But none of that matters because you are still going to be out one hundred dollars. The fact is that the standard for authentic US bills has already been determined, and yours don’t meet the standard.
Now, transfer this scenario to the Bible. Let’s consider the book of Matthew, which was written by one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. There was also a text floating around in the early church that claimed to be a “gospel” written by the apostle Thomas, who was just as authentic an apostle as Matthew.
How did the early church know that the gospel of Matthew was part of God’s authentic revelation while the gospel of Thomas was not? And how can we be sure today that we’re not missing something God wanted in the Bible?
The answer is that the church ran both books under the criteria of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign guidance and direction, and the gospel of Thomas didn’t last. Church leaders examined the books carefully for internal evidence of inspiration and checked the external evidence for their authenticity, following specific criteria—which we will look at in a moment—by which a book claiming to be Scripture either authenticated or disqualified itself.
We must understand this fundamental principle that God the Holy Spirit, and not man, determined the canon of Scripture. If we do not believe and affirm that the God who guided human beings to write Scripture also guided other human beings to collect it into one book, then our entire doctrine of Scripture crumbles like a house of cards. Why? Because God is perfect and His ways are perfect.
True, the very nature of ratifying one book and rejecting another created an element of human interaction with the text in which criteria had to be established and discerning judgments made. However, there is a difference between discerning what is already true versus making autonomous decisions about what can be true.
People did not have the authority to decide what is Scripture, but God did allow, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, individuals to participate in discerning which books God had already decided and designed to authentically reveal who He is. The church only recognized the canon that God established. That’s a very important distinction, because if man determines what is Scripture, then man can add to it or take away from it.
Canonicity is not just a musty issue from ancient history, though. American founding father Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, took a pair of scissors to the Gospels and cut out the parts he didn’t accept. The Da Vinci Code, a popular novel (and later film) written by Dan Brown in 2003, highlighted several pseudepigraphal works—texts whose claimed authors are not the true authors, or works whose real authors attributed the work to a figure in the past—and brought them to the attention of the general public. Though Brown’s book was a novel, some of his fictional assertions became mainstream. Brown suggested Leonardo da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper was coded by the artist to point to Jesus having been married to Mary Magdalene. He brought to his audience’s minds the supposed “gospel of Philip” and the “gospel of Mary” that allude to this relationship.
Brown suggested that these “gospels,” among others, were hidden and unearthed among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran did not contain any New Testament documents. In fact, the scribes at Qumran were a part of a Jewish sect that copied and preserved Scripture long before the birth of Christ. Because most people are unaware of that and the process of determining the canon, these books gained worldwide attention following Brown’s assertion. The result was many people began to read these pseudepigraphal works as Scripture, causing some to question the legitimacy of the biblical canon.
Yet there are reasons why these books were not recorded as Scripture. Let’s look at some of these now.
Every university has certain standards that applicants must meet before being admitted. These standards usually include a high school diploma, a certain minimum score on standard achievement or admissions tests, evidence of financial ability to pay for school, a medical exam to determine the applicant’s health, and personal references and/or recommendations from recognized authorities. Likewise, there were also admission standards in order for a piece of writing to be recognized as Spirit-inspired and admitted to the New Testament canon.
First, for a book to be canonized, it had to have been written by a true prophet or apostle or by someone in direct contact with them. The legitimacy and authenticity of this message was confirmed by accompanying supernatural acts of God (see Acts 2:22; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4). Matthew’s, John’s, and Peter’s writings met that standard. Books like Mark, Luke, Acts, James, and Jude qualified because they were written by firsthand associates of the apostles, men who carried the apostles’ stamp of approval. Paul’s epistles bore the stamp of apostolic authorship because God called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. We know that the books of Hebrews and 1, 2, and 3 John, which do not name the author, have apostolic authority because of the writing style and that they state that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ.
Just as a contender for the New Testament had to meet the standard of apostolic authority, the standards were extremely high for inclusion in the Old Testament canon. The writer of Hebrews affirmed that God “spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (1:1). We get a glimpse of this in Exodus 24:3–4, which tells a story of Moses, the first prophet through which God spoke:
Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord.
God spoke His revelation, and Moses wrote it down by inspiration. The reason we know God created the heavens and the earth is that God the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to record these events, even though no human being was present at creation. Moses did not just sit down, look up at the stars, and begin weaving stories about God. In fact, God established strict guidelines for His prophets that help us draw the line between true and false prophets even today. God said to Moses:
I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him. But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. (Deut. 18:18–20)
You can see why there wasn’t a long line of people volunteering to be prophets in Old Testament days. If you tried to claim a true prophet’s authority falsely, it would cost you your life. A prophet had a weighty responsibility because he had to speak the very words of God, just as he received them from God, and those words became the standard by which God’s people would be judged. Thus, for a book to be recognized as canonical, it had to tell the truth from God and had to be true about God (Deut. 13:1–3).
By the time Moses was dead and Joshua had succeeded him as God’s leader for Israel, Joshua had the writings of Moses to read and obey. That’s why God commanded Joshua,
This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (Josh. 1:8)
But then Joshua wrote the book that bears his name and added to the writings of Scripture. Joshua passed the test of being associated with a prophet. He was Moses’s right-hand man. In the last chapter of Joshua, we are told: “And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord” (24:26). Joshua had the writings of Moses, but he also wrote under the Spirit’s inspiration. The Bible accumulated over time as there developed a recognized chain of prophetic leaders whose writings were accepted as Scripture (2 Chron. 9:29). These men knew they were hearing from God (Jer. 1:2; Ezek. 3:1).
When it comes to the Old Testament canon, we have a witness to the authenticity of the books that goes back even before the beginning of the church. The Jews had recognized and brought together the books of the Hebrew canon many years before the days of Jesus and the apostles. In other words, God led the Jews to assemble their inspired canon—and the fact that God’s people rejected a batch of other Jewish books, called the Apocrypha, is critically important, as we will see in a minute.
Each of the New Testament books, except Hebrews and 1, 2, and 3 John, carries the name either of an apostle or a personal associate of an apostle. Even Hebrews and 1, 2, and 3 John clearly demonstrate apostolic authority. And the apostles, particularly Paul, were not reluctant to claim God’s inspiration for their writings.
For instance, Paul wrote, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11–12). And again, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The apostles knew their writings were authoritative— and said so. But even Luke, who was not an apostle, was bold to say that he received the material for both volumes of his writings from the apostles (see Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:2).
And in a very important passage, Paul’s writings received the apostolic seal of approval from Peter, who called Paul’s letters “the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16).
A second test of canonicity included whether the people of God recognized it as authoritative and accepted it as the Word of God. In other words, a book had to win a hearing from God’s people as the Holy Spirit witnessed within them that the book’s message was from God (see Neh. 8:9, 14–18; 1 Thess. 2:13) and stayed within the rules of faith previously established. As you recall, the term canon refers to a rule or authority, similar to a measurement standard. Irenaeus, a prominent early church leader (ca. AD 130–200), wrote about the church’s discussion concerning maintaining this rule of faith (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, chapter 10), which was used to solidify consistency in teaching. This rule was a summary of what Christians had always believed, and it later became the basis for creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.
The “rule of faith” operated as a guide for teachers and preachers in the church to make sure they stayed in line with the faith handed down through the apostles, what the epistle Jude calls “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (v. 3). The rule of faith summarized God’s work in creation, redemption (through the sending of His Son, Jesus), and the consummation of His work in the final judgment. This same rule was used by church leaders (in conjunction with other things) to determine whether a written work should be considered part of the canon. Of course, this applied to the New Testament books only.
We have seen that the Hebrew canon was already established by the time of Jesus. Our Lord quoted extensively from the Old Testament during His earthly ministry, and in so doing, validated the writings of the patriarchs and prophets (see Matt. 26:56; Luke 24:27). The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:3) was a powerful testimony of their authority as representatives of these two categories of Old Testament authors and also a powerful testimony that all of the Old Testament points to Jesus.
Notice how Paul also testified to the authority of the Old Testament and urged the church to make use of it in learning how God wants us to live. Paul wrote, “For whatever was written in earlier times [the Old Testament] was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Elsewhere Paul said the events in the Old Testament “happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). The New Testament quotes the Old Testament more than 250 times and alludes to it another nine hundred times. This is overwhelming evidence that the apostles—and Jesus—considered the Old Testament to be God’s authoritative Word.
The Gospels came to the church bearing the stamp of inspiration, but they didn’t come without some questions and debates. In fact, the entire canonicity of the New Testament was not as cut and dried as the Old Testament. With four gospel accounts as well as a wide variety of writers from various backgrounds, it took a bit longer for the ecumenical church to attain consensus on the canon of the New Testament.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were among the first books of the New Testament to be widely recognized as part of the biblical canon. John’s gospel took much longer to gain full recognition because it differed in more ways than Matthew, Mark, and Luke did from each other, and it made clearer claims about the divinity of Christ.
The New Testament epistles were used in and circulated among the churches, and they gained instant recognition as the Word of God. The teachings of the apostles were considered authoritative for the church (see 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 2:4). The authors of these books often claimed inspiration for themselves (see Gal. 1:11–12; 1 Thess. 2:13). And the apostles’ doctrines are consistent with one another—another key test of canonicity.
The canon of Scripture was not being fully settled until about four hundred years after Christ. And even then, some books continued to be questioned by various leaders and councils, including 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Hebrews, and even Revelation.
Some people point to these historical facts as evidence that the process of assembling the canon was a subjective human work. Actually, they prove just the opposite. The fact that the canon of Scripture existed by informal recognition for so long shows the staying power of the books that God inspired. For instance, the gospel of Thomas had basically several hundred years to convince the church that it was from God, yet it did not make it into the canon because it is not Scripture. The lateness of the final canon is testimony to the fact that what the church had recognized and accepted all along as Scripture was valid.
Most of the doubts on these latter books had to do with the apostolic authorship of these books, but they proved their inspiration. Many of the doubts about James stemmed from a misunderstanding of James’s teaching that we are saved by works and not by faith alone. Careful study and exposition of James has shown that those who thought James contradicted Paul’s ringing declaration, “The righteous man shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), were simply wrong. James complements Paul by telling us that we authenticate our faith through our works.
The book of Revelation was the last book of Scripture to be written and the end of the canon. It was questioned in part because its apocalyptic images seemed too fantastic to be real, but again, that doubt was settled by careful biblical interpretation.
John claimed that his message came straight from heaven (see Rev. 1:11), and he even added this curse to anyone who tries to add to or subtract from Scripture:
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev. 22:18–19)
While the actual date is unclear, it probably wasn’t until the early part of the second century AD that the Christian church may have copied down, collected, and preserved every portion of the New Testament. Formal canonical lists were not established and widely circulated until the fourth and fifth centuries AD. By then, the argument over which books should be included had largely subsided, and final lists were drawn up at the synods of Hippo (AD 393) and Carthage (AD 397). Essentially, the church closed the canon of Scripture around this period. In doing so, they rejected heretical theologies. It is important to stand on the finality of the discernment of the ecumenical church, as this process was the result of surveying apostolic authorship and reception among those who lived closest to the time of Jesus Christ.
Now, let me touch on this briefly before we finish looking at the canon. Many Christians are aware that the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Bible contains about a dozen extra books the Protestant church has rejected as noncanonical. They are called the Apocrypha, which means “secret things” or “secret writings.”
One reason these books are in the Catholic Bible is that the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants take a fundamentally different approach to the issue of canonicity. The Catholic position is that the Church of Rome determines the canon. This means that even though the Hebrew canon does not contain the Apocrypha, and even though Jesus and the apostles never referred to them at all or quoted them, the Catholic Church believes it has the authority to declare these books as Scripture. (The Catholic Church canonized the Apocrypha at the Council of Trent in 1546.3)
But the books of the Apocrypha fail on each criterion for inclusion in the Bible. The fact that the Jews never accepted these books as part of the Old Testament is a hugely important witness against the Apocrypha as canonical. So is the silence of Jesus and the fact that the early church did not formally canonize the apocryphal books.
The apocryphal books also fail the test of internal evidence. They never claim to be the Word of God, and much of the content consists of the kind of “Jewish myths” that Paul warned the church to stay away from (Titus 1:14). In fact, 1 Maccabees 9:27 considers its time period as being characterized by an absence of prophetic witness. They also contain serious doctrinal errors such as teaching that we need to give money to go to heaven.
Part of the problem is that the Roman Church believes in apostolic succession: the view that the authority of the apostles was passed directly from the Twelve to the Roman Church, and is still in their hands. The Catholic Church is not alone in that view, by the way, for the Mormons also make the same claim. We know from the Bible that the era of the apostles ended when the last apostle died. How do we know? Because an apostle had to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection (see Acts 1:22). Apostolic succession is not a biblical doctrine.
For a written work to be considered and included in the official canon of Scripture, it had to pass multiple standards of authorship, doctrinal consistency, internal testimony, and external validation. Through this unique, formalizing process, God has given us His truths in Scripture through the power of the Holy Spirit.
by Tony Evans
Everything you need to know about Scripture The Wonder of the Word gives you a complete survey of the Bible and shows you how Scripture...
Sign up for resources delivered to your inbox weekly
Sign up for learning delivered to your inbox weekly