What does the biblical “canon” mean? The word “canon” comes from the Hebrew word qaneh and the Greek word kanon, which both mean “measuring rod.” According to this concept of a standard or rule for measuring things, the biblical canon is the collection of books that the church accepts as its standard for beliefs and practices. We know that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, but how did the individual books in our Old and New Testaments come to be accepted and included in the canon?
By Jesus’ time, the Old Testament was largely established. Jesus’ comments in Luke 24:44 provide evidence for defined sections of the Torah, as he mentions “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” The modern Hebrew Bible still follows these divisions: the Law refers to the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy); the Prophets refer to Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets; and the Psalms (often called the Writings) include Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles. Despite many disputes between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, the Gospels never mention a disagreement over the canonical Scriptures, and New Testament writings often quote the Old Testament, never referencing a book as Scripture that is not in our current Old Testament canon.
As for the New Testament, many of the writings were established as Scripture by the second century. In the late second century, Irenaeus, an early church leader who argued against the Gnostic heresy, compiled a list of twenty-two of the twenty-seven canonical NT writings we recognize as Scripture today. A list from the Christian leader Athanasius in 367 contains all twenty-seven; however, throughout the ages this New Testament canon has been challenged. Martin Luther, for example, believed that James, Jude, and Revelation should not be included with other biblical texts.
When the early church fathers debated which books the New Testament should include, they considered the authorship, reception, and content of the writings.
- Authorship. The books of the New Testament had to be linked to apostles, either directly or through collaboration. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, for example, the author himself did not witness Jesus’ life, but he is thought to have received his information from the apostle Peter. Evidence for this theory appears in the book’s lack of specific praise for Peter, clear accounts of events involving Peter, and the structural similarity to the apostle’s speech in Acts 10.
- Reception. As the Holy Spirit works in Christians individually, He also works in the body of Christ as a whole. Thus, we can expect that He would guide Christians to recognize and generally agree on God’s words, and indeed, throughout the years the church has come to a consensus on many of the biblical books.
- Content. All New Testament writings were required to align with the teachings of the apostles. For example, although the Gospel of Thomas was attributed to the apostle Thomas, its teachings contradicted those of the other apostles. Also, canonical books in both the Old and New Testaments share divine qualities. As they are the Word of God, they must display His attributes, such as beauty and excellency, power and efficacy, and unity and harmony.
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Bibles all contain the same New Testament books. However, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles include the Apocrypha in the Old Testament, a collection of writings such as 1-2 Maccabees, Judith, and additional chapters in Daniel and Esther. Protestants do not consider the Apocrypha canonical, believing that though it can be helpful and instructive, it should not contribute to Christian doctrine. Ultimately, we should remember that although the Bible was transcribed and organized by humans, our God is a God of order and clarity, and he works through people to make his truth known.
I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in vain.” I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right.
Isaiah 45:19 (ESV)
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Garris, Zachary. “Why We Should Use the Hebrew Order of the Old Testament.” Knowing Scripture, 21 Dec. 2016, knowingscripture.com/articles/why-we-should-use-the-hebrew-order-of-the-old-testament. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
Hoover, Roy W. “How the Canon Was Formed.” The Fourth R, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1992, Westar Institute, 18 Feb. 2013, www.westarinstitute.org/resources/the-fourth-r/how-the-canon-was-formed/. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
Houghton, Myron J. “Why We Reject the Apocrypha.” Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary, 2007, faith.edu/faith-news/why-we-reject-the-apocrypha. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
Kruger, Michael J. “The Biblical Canon.” The Gospel Coalition, 14 Jan. 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-biblical-canon/. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
McRay, John. “Bible, Canon of The.” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, 1997, Bible Study Tools, www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/the-bible-canon-of.html. Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
Wilder, Terry L. “How Did We Get the New Testament Canon?” Biblical Illustrator Magazine, 22 May 2014, www.lifeway.com/en/articles/bible-study-establishing-new-testament-canon. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
Burden, Aaron. “Open Bible, Psalms.” 09 July 2017, unsplash.com/photos/UIib0bAvWfs. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.