The Canon of Scripture

The Canon of Scripture

The word canon means, “a measuring rod, or rule; a standard by which something may be evaluated.”

In general the process of collecting the books of the Old Testament involved a four step process.

  1. God inspired the writers
  2. Throughout that time, Israel recognized the divine origin of writing inspired by God.
  3. Those scrolls so recognized were left in the care of the priest for safekeeping.
  4. Ultimately, the present 39 books of the Old Testament were accepted as Scripture.

The Old Testament was written over 1,000 years (1450 BC to 400BC) on leather or papyrus (a paper like substance made from a plant that grew in the region of Galilee and the Nile).

The Old Testament

Exodus 17:14

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

Isaiah 8:1

Moreover the LORD said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man’s pen concerning Maher-shalal-hashbaz.

Jeremiah 1:9

“. . . I have put my words in your mouth. . . “

Jeremiah 30:2

Thus speaketh the LORD God of Israel, saying, Write thee all the words that I have spoken unto thee in a book.

Ezekiel 6:3

And say, Ye mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD; Thus saith the Lord GOD to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys; Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places.

Ezekiel 43:11

And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them.

Habakkuk 2:2

And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that readeth it.

Christ referred to the Old Testament as the written Word of God.

Matthew 5:17

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. . . .”

Matthew 5:18

“. . . one jot or one tittle shall by no means pass. . . .”

Christ instructed His disciples out of the Old Testament.

Luke 24:45

“. . . that they might understand the Scriptures. . . .”

The Apostles referred to the Old Testament as Divine.

Romans 3:2

“. . . that unto them were committed the oracles of God”

2 Timothy 3: 15-17

“…Holy Scriptures…Inspiration of God…”

2 Peter 1:21

“. . . as they were moved by the Holy Ghost”

The Old Testament was translated into Koine Greek (Koine = Common, the common language of the people) into a version called the Septuagint, around the years 280 -150 BC.

While not going into all of the specific details of how the Old Testament canon was established,  there are six basic supports for it.

  1. The books themselves claimed divine authority.
  2. The books were written by men recognized as prophets.
  3. The message of the books is consistent with various books attesting to the authenticity of others.
  4. The books speak with the power of God, evidenced in part by the multitude of fulfilled prophecies found in them.
  5. The books were immediately accepted as inspired, received as the Word of God, and preserved by the people of God.
  6. Finally, Jesus and the apostles attested to their authority and inspiration.


The Intertestamental Period

At the completion of Malachi’s prophecy, the Old Testament canon was complete; Israel had no further word from God until the coming of the incarnate word, Jesus Christ.  This four hundred year period with no prophet is usually called the “Intertestamental Period.”  It was during this time period that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek language.  This translation was called the Septuagint (LXX).


The New Testament

The Apostles claimed divine authority for their letters.

1 Thessalonians 2:13

“. . . but as it is in truth, the word of God . . .”

1 Corinthians 4:37

“. . . that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”

Revelations 1:1

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him”

The Apostles commanded the public reading of their letters.

2 Thessalonians 2:15

“. . . ye have been taught . . . by word or our epistle”

2 Peter 3:1-2

“. . . words . . . by the prophets and of the apostles. . .”

The Apostles recorded in the Gospels the very works and words of Christ. The early church had a collection of Paul’s letters and were familiar with them around AD 66 (2 Pt. 3:16). A heretic named Marcion (A.D. 140) circulated a partial list of what he saw fit to be the Bible. While rejected, it showed the churches the need for an accurate list of what was to be included in the “Bible”.

By AD 200 a document called the “Muratorian Fragment” gives the canon of Scripture as including the O.T. and all of the N.T. except Hebrews, James, 2 Peter 2&3 John, Jude and Revelation. These seven books were still not universally accepted as part of the canon.  This hesitancy to include these seven books shows the carefulness of the early church in receiving books as apostolic/divinely inspired.   This “fragment” being one man’s idea of the canon forced the church into gathering and establishing the true canon of Scripture.

The decree of Diocletian (A.D. 303) to burn the sacred books made it necessary for the church to know which books to protect – with their lives. The church at Alexandria, Egypt was the first to come up with a canon of 27 books in the mid 4th century. Council of Laodicea (AD 363) established the criteria to be canonical, 26 books were agreed upon.

Third Council of Carthage (AD 397) provided further refinements to the canon. In (AD 419) a large group of church leaders gathered in north east Africa at a place called Hippo. This synod of Hippo put an official “stamp of approval or recognition” on the 27 N.T. books as the complete canon. The synods of Carthage (AD 397, 419) declared the 27 books as the complete canon.

During the third century, the East disputed the inspiration of Revelation, while the West disputed Hebrews. The above listed councils were called by the churches to help establish a bible.

“Such councils did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity (F. F. Bruce The books and the Parchments103-4).”

The criteria used to determine the N.T. canon.

  • Did the writing have the marks of apostolicity? (was it written by an apostle?)  Was the book written by a recognized, authoritative religious leader such as a prophet or an apostle?
  • Did the book have the capacity to edify the listener when read publicly?  Was the book widely circulated and universally found profitable for spiritual purposes?
  • Did the book agree with previously given doctrine? Is the book orthodox, i.e., consistent with the doctrine of other Scripture?
  • Did the book receive universal acceptance by the churches?
  • Is the book Christ-centered strongly representing the Living word in written form?
  • Is the book’s character distinct from secular writings?

In the final analysis, it was the historical verification of apostolic authorship or influence and the universal consciousness of the church, guarded by the Holy Spirit, which resulted in the final decision concerning what books should be included in the N.T.

From A.D. 419 forward, no one seriously challenged the composition of the canon by Roman Catholics or Protestants until the modern-day critics denied the doctrine of inspiration and the fact of any canon.

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