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Week 3 - The Canon
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What Belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?

Deuteronomy 32:47 ESV

47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”

Deuteronomy 4:2 ESV

2 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.


Last week we looked at what is meant by the word of God.

That is Jesus, the decrees of God, the personal address of God, speech through human lips such as the prophets, and then the written word.

The written word is the focus of our study but it leads us to walk we will discuss today.

What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?

The what belongs is canon.


So lets define the canon of Scripture: the canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.

We must not underestimate the importance of this question.

The words of Scripture are the words by which we nourish our spiritual lives.

To add to or take away from God’s words would be to prevent God’s people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded.

If we are to trust and obey God absolutely, we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God’s own words to us.

If there are any sections of Scripture about which we have doubts whether they are God’s words or not, then we will not trust them as much as we would trust God himself.

There is one singular theme common to what leads someone into liberalism, it is a rejection of God’s Word or a doubt that the books in the Bible are actually the Words of God.


A. The Old Testament Canon

Where did the idea of a canon begin—the idea that the people of Israel should preserve a collection of written words from God?

Scripture itself bears witness to the historical development of the canon.

The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments thus form the beginning of the biblical canon. God himself wrote on two tablets of stone the words which he commanded his people: “He gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). Again we read, “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets” (Ex. 32:16; cf. Deut. 4:13; 10:4).

The tablets were deposited in the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:5) and constituted the terms of the covenant between God and his people.

This collection of absolutely authoritative words from God grew in size throughout the time of Israel’s history.

Moses himself wrote additional words to be deposited beside the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:24–26). This is a reference to the book of Deuteronomy, but other references to writing by Moses indicate that the first four books of the Old Testament were written by him as well (see Ex. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:22).

After the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God: “Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God” (Josh. 24:26).

This is especially surprising in light of the command not to add to or take away from the words which God gave the people through Moses: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it” (Deut. 4:2; cf. 12:32).

How can Joshua add to the words of Moses without violating God’s comand.

Later, others in Israel, usually those who fulfilled the office of prophet, wrote additional words from God:

Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. (1 Sam. 10:25)

The acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the book of Chronicles.

We read in Jeremiah “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you." (Jer. 30:2)

After approximately 435 BC there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.

When we turn to Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see that the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased is clearly attested in several different strands of extrabiblical Jewish literature.

In 1 Maccabees (about 100 BC) the author writes of the defiled altar, “So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:45–46 RSV). They apparently knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done. The memory of an authoritative prophet among the people was one that belonged to the distant past, for the author could speak of a great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (1 Macc. 9:27 RSV; cf. 14:41).

Josephus (born c. AD 37/38) explained, “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets”

The collection of books included in the canon of Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church but not included in the canon by Protestants (from the Greek word apocrypha, “things that are hidden”). (3A)

This statement by the greatest Jewish historian of the first century AD shows that he knew of the later writings now considered part of the “Apocrypha,” but that he (and many of his contemporaries) considered these other writings “not … worthy of equal credit” with what we now know as the Old Testament Scriptures. Q4

There had been, in Josephus’s view, no more “words of God” added to Scripture after about 435 BC.

In this same context, Josephus (writing in about AD 95) also indicated that there was a fixed number of books that the Jewish people counted as “Scripture,” and that this number of books had been fixed for “long ages.”

He wrote,

We do not possess myriads of inconsistent books, conflicting with each other. Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time.

So lets examine the 22 books compared to our 39 books of the Old Testament

5 books of Moses - covering about 3000 years.

13 books of history

4 books of wisdom and poetry

Five books of Moses:

1. Genesis

2. Exodus

3. Leviticus

4. Numbers

5. Deuteronomy

Thirteen historical books:

1. Joshua

2. Judges-Ruth

3. 1-2 Samuel

4. 1-2 Kings

5. 1-2 Chronicles

6. Ezra-Nehemiah

7. Esther

8. Job

9. Isaiah

10. Jeremiah-Lamentations

11. Ezekiel

12. Daniel

13. The Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) Q5

Hymns and precepts for conduct:

1. Psalms

2. Song of Solomon

3. Proverbs

4. Ecclesiastes

Both Jesus and the earliest generations of New Testament Christians accepted all the books found in the Hebrew Bible, no more and no less, as their “Old Testament” (see Paul’s reference to the “old covenant” in 2 Cor. 3:14).

One bit of evidence in support of this is that in the New Testament we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

This fact is confirmed by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority.

The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent reference to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agreed that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God’s very words.

What then shall be said about the Apocrypha, the collection of books included in the canon by the Roman Catholic Church but excluded from the canon by Protestantism?

These books were never accepted by the Jews as Scripture, but throughout the early history of the church there was a divided opinion on whether they should be part of Scripture or not. In fact, the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in some parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.

The fact that these books were included by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (completed in AD 404) gave support to their inclusion, even though Jerome himself said they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful and useful for believers.

The wide use of the Latin Vulgate translation in subsequent centuries guaranteed their continued accessibility, but the lack of any known Hebrew text behind most of them, and their exclusion from the Jewish canon, as well as the lack of their citation in the New Testament, led many to view them with suspicion or to reject their authority.

For instance, the earliest Christian list of Old Testament books that exists today is by Melito, bishop of Sardis, writing about AD 170:10

When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms, two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.

Similarly, in AD 367, when the great church leader Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote his Paschal Letter, he listed all the books of our present New Testament canon and all the books of our present Old Testament canon except Esther. He also mentioned some books of the Apocrypha such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Judith, and Tobit, and said these are “not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.”16 However, other early church leaders did quote several of these books as Scripture.17

It was not until 1546, at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation. Q6

What was it about Luther’s teaching that the response was to declare parts of the Apocrypha as the Word of God?

In affirming the Apocrypha as within the canon, Roman Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as “Scripture,” while Protestants have held that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already caused to be written as his own words.

One analogy here would be to say that a police investigator can recognize counterfeit money as counterfeit and can recognize genuine money as genuine, but he cannot make counterfeit money to be genuine, nor can any declaration by any number of officers make counterfeit money to be something it is not. Only the official treasury of a nation can make money that is real money; similarly, only God can make words to be his very words and worthy of inclusion in Scripture.

Thus the writings of the Apocrypha should not be regarded as part of Scripture:

(1) they do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings;

(2) they were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated;

(3) they were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and

(4) they contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.


We must conclude that they are merely human words, not God-breathed words like the words of Scripture. They do have value for historical and linguistic research, and they contain a number of helpful stories about the courage and faith of many Jews during the period after the Old Testament ends, but they have never been part of the Old Testament canon, and they should not be thought of as part of the Bible. Therefore, they have no binding authority for the thought or life of Christians today.

In conclusion, with regard to the canon of the Old Testament, Christians today should have no worry that anything needed has been left out or that anything that is not God’s words has been included.


B. The New Testament Canon

The development of the New Testament canon begins with the writings of the apostles. It should be remembered that the writing of Scripture primarily occurs in connection with God’s great acts in redemptive history. The Old Testament records and interprets for us the creation of the world, the calling of Abraham and the lives of his descendants, the exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings, the establishment of God’s people in the land of Canaan, the establishment of the monarchy, and the Exile and return from captivity. Each of these great acts of God in history is interpreted for us in God’s own words in Scripture. The Old Testament closes with the expectation of the Messiah to come (Mal. 3:1–4; 4:1–6).

The next stage in redemptive history is the coming of the Messiah, and it is not surprising that no further Scripture would be written until this next and greatest event in the history of redemption occurred.

This is why the New Testament consists of the writings of the apostles. It is primarily the apostles who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and to interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.

Jesus promised this empowering to his disciples (who were called apostles after the resurrection) in John 14:26:

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Similarly, Jesus promised further revelation of truth from the Holy Spirit when he told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14).

In these verses the disciples are promised amazing gifts to enable them to write Scripture: the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things,” would cause them to remember “all” that Jesus had said, and would guide them into “all the truth.”

Furthermore, those who have the office of apostle in the early church are seen to claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets, an authority to speak and write words that are God’s very words.

Peter encourages his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). To lie to the apostles (Acts 5:2) is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and lying to God (Acts 5:4).

This claim to be able to speak words that were the words of God himself is especially frequent in the writings of the apostle Paul. He claims not only that the Holy Spirit has revealed to him “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Cor. 2:9) but also that when he declares this revelation, he speaks it “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting Spiritual things in Spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:13, author’s translation).

The apostles, then, have authority to write words that are God’s own words, equal in truth status and authority to the words of the Old Testament Scriptures. They do this to record, interpret, and apply to the lives of believers the great truths about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

It would not be surprising therefore to find some of the New Testament writings being placed with the Old Testament Scriptures as part of the canon of Scripture. In fact, this is what we find in at least two instances.

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter shows not only an awareness of the existence of written epistles from Paul but also a clear willingness to classify “all of his [Paul’s] epistles” with “the other Scriptures.”

Peter says, “Just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16).

A second instance is found in 1 Timothy 5:17–18. Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’ ” The first quotation from “Scripture” is found in Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quotation, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It does occur, however, in Luke 10:7 (with exactly the same words in the Greek text).

So here we have Paul apparently quoting a portion of Luke’s gospel and calling it “Scripture,” that is, something that is to be considered part of the canon.

In both of these passages (2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Tim. 5:17–18) we see evidence that very early in the history of the church the writings of the New Testament began to be accepted as part of the canon.

Because the apostles, by virtue of their apostolic office, had authority to write words of Scripture, the authentic written teachings of the apostles were accepted by the early church as part of the canon of Scripture.

If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles. This would include Matthew; John; Romans to Philemon (all of the Pauline Epistles); James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation.

This leaves five books, Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude, which were not written by apostles. The details of the historical process by which these books came to be counted as part of Scripture by the early church are scarce, but Mark, Luke, and Acts were commonly acknowledged very early, probably because of the close association of Mark with the apostle Peter, and of Luke (the author of Luke-Acts) with the apostle Paul. Similarly, Jude apparently was accepted by virtue of the author’s connection with James (see Jude 1) and the fact that he was the brother of Jesus.

The rule in early church came to be that for the NT it must have been a direct eye witness to the life and ministry of Jesus or someone who had first hand access to an eye witness.

This would leave us with only book not firmly meeting this criteria.

That is the book of Hebrews.


The acceptance of Hebrews as canonical was urged by many in the church on the basis of an assumed Pauline authorship.

But from very early times there were others who rejected Pauline authorship in favor of one or another of several different suggestions. Origen, who died about AD 254, mentions various theories of authorship and concludes, “But who actually wrote the epistle, only God knows.”

Thus the acceptance of Hebrews as canonical was not entirely due to a belief in Pauline authorship. Rather, the intrinsic qualities of the book itself must have finally convinced early readers, as they continue to convince believers today, that whoever its human author may have been, its ultimate author can only have been God himself. The majestic glory of Christ shines forth from the pages of the epistle to the Hebrews so brightly that no believer who reads it seriously should ever want to question its place in the canon.

This brings us to the heart of the question of canonicity. For a book to belong in the canon, it is absolutely necessary that the book have divine authorship.

If the words of the book are God’s words (through human authors), and if the early church, under the direction of the apostles, preserved the book as part of Scripture, then the book belongs in the canon. But if the words of the book are not God’s words, it does not belong in the canon.

The process of copying the New Testament books by hand, circulating them throughout hundreds of churches, and confirming their authenticity while rejecting spurious books that were circulating occurred slowly by modern standards, but eventually the churches throughout the ancient world reached agreement on the extent of the canon.

In AD 367 the Thirty-Ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius contained an exact list of the twenty-seven New Testament books we have today. This was the list of books accepted by the churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world.

Thirty years later, in AD 397, the Council of Carthage, representing the churches in the western part of the Mediterranean world, agreed with the eastern churches on the same list. These are the earliest final lists of our present-day canon.

Should we expect any more writings to be added to the canon? The opening sentence in Hebrews puts this question in the proper historical perspective, the perspective of the history of redemption: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:1–2).

The contrast between the former speaking by the prophets and the recent speaking “in these last days” suggests that God’s speech to us by his Son is the culmination of his speaking to mankind and is his greatest and final revelation to humankind in this period of redemptive history. The exceptional greatness of the revelation that comes through the Son, far exceeding any revelation in the old covenant, is emphasized again and again throughout chapters 1 and 2 of Hebrews. These facts all indicate that there is a finality to the revelation of God in Christ and that no more is to be expected once this revelation has been completed.

In this way, then, Hebrews 1:1–2 shows us why no more writings can be added to the Bible after God’s greatest revelation, his revelation in his only Son, a revelation which is recorded and explained in the books that make up the New Testament. Therefore the canon is now closed.

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CHAPTER REVIEW

1. Define the canon of Scripture.


2. Place the following “canon” events or authors in order chronologically: Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, the Book of the Kings of Israel, Joshua, the Ten Commandments, and Samuel.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

3. What is meant by the term Apocrypha?


4. Why does Josephus not consider the Apocrypha “worthy of equal credit” with the books of the Old Testament?


5. Which twelve books were combined into one in the Hebrew scriptures?


6. When did the Roman Catholic Church adopt the apocryphal texts into their canon?


7. What four reasons does Grudem give for not regarding the Apocrypha as Scripture?

1.

2.

3.

4.

8. What office did many of those who wrote the New Testament hold?


9. How did the New Testament authors understand the term Scriptures when they used it?


10. Was all that was written by the apostles considered Scripture? Why or why not?


11. What is the ultimate reason books are considered canonical?


THINKING CRITICALLY

12. How have you seen doubt in God’s Word expressed in ministry? How have you seen faith in God’s Word expressed in ministry?


13. In light of what you have learned about canon, how should Christians approach Christian nonfiction books today?


14. If someone came to you claiming to have written a new book of the Bible, how would you respond to them based on what you have learned in this chapter?


PERSONAL ENGAGEMENT

15. Have you ever had someone question you regarding the legitimacy of the books of the Bible? Did you feel like you had answers to their questions? How has this chapter helped your understanding of the formation of Scripture?


16. Close your time in this chapter in prayer, thanking God for his faithfulness to preserve his Word unto this day.