The Canon of Sacred Scripture
Bible scholars refer to the “canon” of the Scriptures. What is meant by that expression? The term “canon” is an anglicized form of the Greek kanon. Originally, the word had to do with a straight rod or rule, to which a builder would compare his work for trueness.
Gradually, the term came to be employed figuratively of a “norm or standard.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul referred to the “rule” (kanon) by which Christians are expected to live (6:16). Eventually, the expression came to signify that which has “passed the test.”
When, therefore, the word is applied to the books of the Bible, it denotes those documents which, over a period of time, have passed the test of critical examination, hence, warrant the designation “sacred scripture.” In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen (c. A.D. 185-254), one of the Greek “church fathers,” alluded to the “canonized Scriptures” (Sec. 28). Today, the “Canon” refers to those 66 books which constitute the common Bible.
But this introduces several questions. Who determined which books were to go into the Bible? Exactly when did that occur? And what are the Apocryphal books?
The Standard of Determination
The question of: “which books belong in the Bible?” was determined gradually and on the basis of evidence. By “gradually” we mean that there was not a definite historical date when a synod or council made a determination — “these are the true biblical books!” Rather, over a period of years, by the application of reasonable tests, the documents truly inspired were separated from those works that are spurious. The evidence leading to this decision is classified as external and internal.
External evidence has to do with the testimony of those who had access to the documents originally. How did they view them, and why?
Internal evidence relates to the nature of the material itself. Does it claim to be from God? Is it internally consistent? Does it harmonize with other documents that are perceived to be inspired? Is it characterized by a lofty tone, i.e., that “essence” which one would expect in a narrative that claims inspiration? Does it bear the marks of factual accuracy?
These sorts of things, as applied by reasonable minds, ultimately separated the genuinely sacred books from those unworthy of that recognition.
Old Testament Books
Jewish tradition traces the collection of the Old Testament books to the time of Ezra (mid-5th century B.C.). It may have been a while later before the entire “canon” was actually recognized. By the time Christ was born, there were two versions of the Old Testament.
The Hebrew canon consisted of the 39 books that currently make up our Old Testament — though in the Palestinean version they numbered only 24 (due to a different arrangement — some books being combined).
The Septuagint version (a Greek translation from the 3rd/2nd centuries B.C.) contained various other documents which were “bound up” with the regular 39 books of the Hebrew Bible (the number of these extra books varying in different editions). While these additional books, called the Apocrypha, reflected some historical matters, they were not perceived as “inspired” by God, and, significantly, were never sanctioned by Christ nor any New Testament writer. Some of them, though, are incorporated into Roman Catholic editions of the Bible. For a review of this, see “The Apocrypha: Inspired of God?” elsewhere on this web site.
One of the most significant evidences for the sacred nature of the Old Testament books is the manner in which they are quoted, or alluded to, in the New Testament, having the sanction of Christ and his sacred penmen.
According to one computation (Horn, p. 173), the New Testament contains 433 direct quotations from the Old Testament. No less than 30 of the 39 books are definitely quoted, with numerous additional allusions.
Moreover, it is not just the fact that the Old Testament is quoted, it is the way in which it is quoted that is significant. The technical phrase, “It is written” (used of an inspired work — cf. Thayer, p. 121) is employed in 73 New Testament passages. In some 21 New Testament passages, the Old Testament documents are referred to as “scripture.”
Quotations from at least 11 of the Old Testament books are attributed to God or the Holy Spirit. For example, Peter, quoting from Psalm 69, says that “it was needful that the scripture should be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spake before by the mouth of David” (Acts 1:1 6ff). In some 46 New Testament passages, the names of 10 Old Testament books (or authors) are mentioned.
Again, let us emphasize that no Apocryphal book from the LXX is given endorsement, even though the New Testament writers were familiar with these books.
New Testament Books
The New Testament authors considered their writings to be as authoritative as those of the Old Testament scriptures. For example, Paul quotes from the book of Deuteronomy (25:4), and the Gospel of Luke (10:7), and classifies both of these as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18).
Peter places “all” of Paul’s “epistles” in the same category as “the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). The word “other” translates the Greek loipos which denotes “the rest of any number or class under consideration” (Thayer, p. 382). Too, note how Peter puts the “apostles” in the same category as the “holy prophets” of Old Testament fame (2 Pet. 3:2).
The ancient church was unanimous in its acceptance of most of the New Testament books; for a while there was some dispute over James, 2nd & 3rd John, Jude, Hebrews and Revelation. Too, during this time period (2nd/3rd centuries), other books, which had generated some interest (e.g., the “Epistle of Barnabas,” the “Shepherd of Hermas”) were being eliminated. By the 4th century, it was a settled issue that the currently accepted 27 books of our New Testament, and only these, are canonical.
It was not a matter of any official council “deciding” which books would be acknowledged as “inspired”; it was a matter of critically examining, sorting, sifting, and identifying what had become perfectly obvious.
The writings of the New Testament were so profusely quoted by the ante-nicene “fathers” (AD. 325 and back), that it is said that if the whole New Testament were destroyed, it could be reproduced entirely from their citations — with the exception of about a dozen verses (Hastings, p. 12).
We may have every confidence, therefore, that the sixty-six books which compose our present Bible are the true embodiment of the Word of God.
- Hastings, H. L. 1890. The Inspiration of the Bible. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House.
- Horn, S. H. 1960. SDA Bible Dictionary. Washington: Review & Herald.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.