The canon of Scripture

Bible is derived from the Greek, biblos, meaning book. As such it is applied by Christians, by way of eminence, to the collection of sacred writings of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The word itself, biblos, is found in Matthew 1:1, "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ...".

Apparently it originated from the Lebanese town of Biblos, which produces papyrus sheets for writing in ancient times.So the oracles of God, His inspired Word, is collectively known today as the Holy Bible, a book set apart from all the others as unique, one of its kind.

The Old Testament Canon

There are 39 books in the Old Testament, no more and no less, for the simple yet profound reason that only these books have the stamp of divine authority on them.

Only these - before the incarnation of the Son of God - subdivided into the Law (Torah), the Writings (Ketubim), and the Prophets (Nabiim), proceeded from the mouth of the living God, and as such were kept, preserved, read, held dear, believed and obeyed by the covenant people of God before the appearance of Jesus Christ, their long-awaited for Deliverer.

From all the literature of ancient times, only these 39 books carry with them the divine seal, originating from above and being given through the instrumentality of holy men who were moved by the Spirit of God and who spoke with the authority of God.

Only these 39, because these and no more have withstood the test of time, close scrutiny and scholarship. And more than that, they speak to the renewed heart as bearing the imprimatur of the Almighty. Other writings, whether it be by Seneca or Aristotle or Buddha, though ancient, do not enjoy this divine impress.

How were the 39 Old Testament books authorised? Though the Jewish nation had its scribes, scholars and men of authority among them, there is absolutely no evidence that they at some point in time declared these or those books as inspired and therefore canonical.

All the evidence we have is that as they books were written and delivered to the nation they were accepted for what they were: the rule by which the people were to live and abide. They were looked upon as the oracles of God, His authentic message for them which He wanted to be passed on from generation to generation.

These 39 books are canonical by virtue of what they are intrinsically and inherently, as coming from the mouth of God Himself. By virtue of their content, their authorship by God's prophets in general, and the stamp and seal of their sanctifying power, they were received by the Jews - being entrusted with such a task - as God's Word. Some contend that the canon of the Old Testament was not closed before the Council of Jamnia (90 A.D.). They say this because there were still some doubts about Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.

But others, more numerous, such as David Kimchi (1160-1232) and Elias Levita (1465-1549), two Jewish scholars, maintained that the final collection of the Old Testament canon was completed by Ezra and the members of the Great Synagogue, in the fifth century before the coming of Christ.

We have the testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus to the effect that the Old Testament canon was closed in the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus in the time of Ezra. Ezra was peculiarly concerned with the sacred oracles. He is described as the Scribe (Nehemiah 8:1,4,9,13; 12:26,36), and a specialist in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6), being taught in the commandments of the Lord and teaching His statutes to Israel (Ezra 7:11).

Whatever Ezra and others of like mind did and contributed to the final compilation of the Old Testament canon, it is evident that God's supervising providence brought the final result about. Ezra and others only recognised what was inspired from its very inception.

The testimony of Josephus

Though unsympathetic with the infant Christian church, Joesephus gives this testimony about the inherited collection of books that the church enjoyed, namely, the Old Testament.

Writing about the year 100 A.D., he states: "For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another (as the Greeks have), but only 22 books, which contain the record of all time; which are justly believed to be divine...It is true our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.* And how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation, it is evident by what we do; for, during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them" (Against Apion, I.8).

*In this sentence Josephus is referring to the intertestamental uninspired books known commonly as the Apocrypha. Accidentally, such an interesting testimony agrees perfectly with the Protestant position of excluding the Apocrypha from the biblical canon, as against the Romanist position.

Melito of Sardis

“Melito, bishop of Sardis, the capital of Lydia, was a shining light among the churches of Asia Minor in the third quarter of the second century...Melito was a man of brilliant mind and a most prolific author. Tertullian speaks of his elegant and eloquent genius...

“To Melito we owe the first Christian list of the Hebrew Scriptures. It agrees with the Jewish and the Protestant canon, and omits the Apocrypha. The books of Esther and Nehemiah are also omitted, but may be included in Esdras. The expressions “the Old Books,” “the Books of the Old Covenant,” imply that the church at that time had a canon of the New Covenant. Melito made a visit to Palestine to seek information on the Jewish canon” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol.2, page 736-738).

In accordance with the orthodox Jewish and the primitive Christian view, Protestantism excluded the Apocrypha from the Old.

The New Testament canon

What was the primary factor in the completion of the New Testament canon? Was it the decision of the Roman Catholic church? No; for the obvious reason that the Roman Catholic church (at least as it showed its distinctive features later on) was non-existent at this early stage in history (4th to 5th century).

Romanist apologists, though, insist that it was through the initiative and intervention of the Roman church that we have the Bible as we know it today. Their reasoning is that the church caused the New Testament books to be written, so the church is above the books of the New Testament (she being their originator).

If I, as a jeweller, were to inspect and upon verifying, issue a certificate that a certain ruby is genuine, that does not automatically make me the owner of the precious stone. And yet, this is what the Roman church is saying: in insisting that she recognised the books of the New Testament, that makes her the sole possessor of those same books. As the most, she may be credited with insight and discernment, but not with the ownership (and sole right to interpret) the Scriptures.

The blatant falsity of Rome's claim needs no answer. The Holy Spirit was He who gave the New Testament writings, just as He moved the prophets to write the Old Testament: same Source (heaven), same Author (God), same method (by inspiration), same instrumentality (holy men).

The fact is, God gave the Bible to His church, and not the church gave the Bible to itself.

Was it the then an accidental drawing together of the various documents? This proposal is even more ludicrous, for in so saying we would be virtually denying the wise and all-powerful providence of God. Nothing happens by accident, not even as sparrow falling to the ground. How much less the collection of the inspired writings into one canon! No Christian would entertain such an absurd thought in his mind, especially as he reads what the Bible says about itself and its origination (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Was it the decision of the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D.? Historically, the church was forced to pronounce what constitutes Scripture and what doesn't. This was because of false teachers, such as Marcion, who were either rejecting parts of the established canon or else adding uninspired writings to the Bible. The Council convened at Carthage was the first gathering of bishops that issued a list of the 27 canonical books of the New Testament, recognising that as inspired, and rejecting all other (sometimes competing) literature. This council was simply the culmination of a current within the church that was needed in order to have the canon of Scripture made known for what it was: fixed and unalterable.

Individual preachers, such as Chrysostom, had already compiled lists of the canonical books, no more and no less, before 397 A.D. But such actions, significant as they may be, are not determining or prime factors in the completion of the New Testament canon (see the final assignment for the real and crucial factor).

The documents that make up the New Testament were recognised as having Apostolic Authority. The church, which hears the voice of her Good Shepherd (John 10), has certainly been instrumental in the recognition of the canonical books. Being what she is - the assembly of the living God - she will not go after strange voice (pseudopigraphical books), but will rather find concord with the voice of her Master, who teaches her by His Word and Spirit.

Though the church of the early centuries had a unique role to play in the recognition of what constitutes the Holy Bible and what not, she was not the primary factor.

The books of the Bible

We have 66 books in the canon of Scripture, no more and no less

The formal conclusion of the New Testament is at least intimated at the end of Revelation (22:18). The difference of how the two Testament close is highly significant. The anticipatory and unfulfilled hope of the Old Covenant is articulated at the end of the last book, Malachi. It gives an assurance of the coming of another prophet. But on the other hand, no continuing revelation is mentioned at the end of the New Testament. Rather we find an announcement about the Lord's soon return and thus the consummation of all things at the Eschaton. The natural conclusion is that no other voice will be heard from heaven before the second Advent of Christ.

An important proof of all this is that, since the close of the biblical canon, no attempt was made by anyone to add some other book to the established and recognised sixty-six.

As God wrote His message though the instrumentality of holy men, so also He made known the canon of Scripture through men, particularly His people who know Him and hear His voice. The canon, comprising sixty-six books, no more and no less, was recognised by His own covenant people, to whom the Scripture was given to be believed and obeyed.

This is a great wonder. His infallible Word not only was received and written down in incomparable documents, but was also infallibly collected in one volume to be the sole rule of faith (cf. the Greek kanon, meaning measuring rod or rule).The same collection of books was preserved from corruption, destruction or any human and devilish attempt to change it.

The canon was not added to or deducted from; we may rest assured that it is not adulterated by non-inspired writings. God took special care to determine the formation of the canon, as it is also obvious that He ruled its transmission so that His truth may reach to all His elect.

This was His way of giving His Scriptures to His people, and nobody can accuse God that His purpose has somehow failed.So when it comes to determine the crucial and indispensable factor that determined the collecting together of the sixty-six books, it must be expressed as being the wise and all-powerful providence of God, who certainly operates through second causes (His church). But the determinative reason why Jude is in the canon, when it has so much in common with 2 Peter, and why four gospels narrating mostly the same events, instead of just one longer Gospel, the reason must be the inscrutable and ineffable wisdom of God, who thought it proper and fit to give just those sixty-six and no more, with all the repetitions and similarities between books (Kings and Chronicles, and so on).

He knows best, and He knows what issued from Him and what not. There must we rest.

If it were left to mere human agency, I am positively sure the canon would have been far different.

There were principles upon which the church has largely determined which were the inspired books and which not. I emphasise "largely," because the criterion of apostolicity does not strictly account for Mark, Luke-Acts, and possibly Hebrews.

The criterion of antiquity is really a variation on apostolicity and fails to explain why Paul's "previous" letter (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9) was not included in the canon.No matter how strong the evidence for apostolicity (and therefore of canonicity) may be in many instances and no matter how forceful the arguments in favour of the apostolicity of certain other writings may be, historical judgements cannot be the final and sole ground for the church's accepting the New Testament as canonical.

Just these sixty-six books God has chosen to preserve, and He has not told us why. In the matter of the New Testament as canon, too, until Jesus comes "we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). But that faith, grounded in the apostolic tradition of the New Testament, is neither arbitrary nor blind. It has its reasons, its good reasons; it is in conflict only with the autonomy of reason.

I conclude by saying that the books which were to form the future completed canon forced themselves on the Church by their intrinsic prophetic and apostolic authority, as they still do, because the Lord Christ speaks in them.