How Was the Bible Canon Determined ...and by Whom?

When I first heard the term "Bible canon" I asked: What does a canon have to do with the Bible?

After a little research I discovered that in the context of biblical studies "canon" is from the Greek kanon, meaning "reed" or "cane," and also "rule" or "measure." It denotes a measuring stick and hence the standards and criteria by which the various books of the Bible were evaluated and authenticated.

The term “Bible canon” refers to the complete number of the books of the Bible.

But how was this "canon" determined and by whom?

The Bible Canon is "Closed"

The Bible canon is a library of sixty-six books written by at least forty different authors and redactors over a period of at least 1,500 years.

New Testament scholar Robert Gundry argues that the idea of a canon implies that God guided the early church in evaluation of various books “so that truly inspired ones gained acceptance as canonical and those not inspired...did not gain acceptance as canonical.”

Protestant theologians generally affirm the notion of a closed canon (i.e., books cannot be added or removed). The term "Bible canon" designates only those books that meet the requirements of being acknowledged as divinely inspired.

The Bible itself affirms the idea of a canon:

“Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)

The Canon of the Old Testament

Deuteronomy chapter 31 gives the account of Moses’ writing the Law, which was to be kept and read to the people of Israel every seven years.

This occasion marks the earliest beginning of the Old Testament Canon:

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.”

Above: Aleppo Codex, page from Deuteronomy (10th cent. CE).

* Moses’ successor Joshua “recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God” (Josh. 24:26).

* Samuel recorded certain events of his day in a book: “Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the LORD” (1 Sam. 10:25).

The later prophets in the Hebrew tradition engaged in writing books:

* Jeremiah was instructed by Yahweh: “Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now” (Jer. 36:2).

Later generations consulted the writings of their predecessors:

* Daniel “understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years” (9:2).

* Later, when the Jewish exiles in Babylon returned to Jerusalem, it was the Law of Moses that was read and honored (Neh. 8:1-8).

The available evidence suggests that the Torah (i.e., the books of the Law) were recognized as canonical during the time of Ezra (444 B.C.) and that the Prophets were recognized as such around 200 B.C. The Writings received authorization around 100 BCE.

This means the Old Testament canon was complete before the time of Christ.

In Luke 11:51 Jesus refers to the martyrs of the Old Testament: “From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary.”

Abel was the first, as recorded in Genesis chapter four and Zechariah was the last, recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21. In the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles is the last book, while Genesis is the first.

Is this Jesus' personal stamp of approval upon the entire Old Testament Canon, from Genesis to 2 Chronicles?

This indicates that these books were in existence and were approved at the time of his public ministry.

The Canon of the New Testament

It is much easier to trace canonization of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament than those of the Old Testament. As the books that make up the New Testament were written, some were acknowledged to be Scripture almost immediately.

As early as 67 CE, Peter mentions “our dear brother Paul,” who “wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.” He further notes that some try to distort Paul’s writings “as they do also the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

Individual churches throughout the Roman world developed their own lists of writings approved for use in public worship. Many of these lists were essentially the same. The four Gospels and Paul’s Epistles were already being placed in collections of Christian writings in the first half of the second century.

Church Fathers from the second century quoted these and other New Testament works as authoritative.

However, it took the heretic Marcion to push the churches into developing a Canon. This second-century Gnostic devised his own canon, containing certain letters of Paul and a heavily edited version of Luke.

Church leaders like Irenaeus (130-202 CE) and Tertullian (160-220 CE) rallied to defend the proper Scriptures. Suddenly the churches were paying more attention to what belonged and what did not in the Bible canon.

Around 180 CE, Irenaeus affirmed the four gospels:

Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the Church in Rome. After their deaths, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing those things which Peter had preached; and Luke, an attendant of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel which Paul had declared. Afterward John...published his Gospel while staying in Asia.

Sometime before 180 CE, Melito of Sardis wrote of the “books of the old covenant” and the “books of the new covenant.” This was a clear indication that the churches were placing their own Christian writings on a par with the Old Testament canon.

Over the next two centuries, the process continued. Several church fathers list the books considered canonical in their time. There was general agreement, but James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Revelation and Hebrews were in one way or another questioned. However, the Holy Spirit guided the churches in sifting through these works to select, in time, the authoritative Scriptures.

The first official determination of a church-wide canon was made in the Eastern Church in AD 367 with the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius.

The Western Church approved the same canon in 397 CE at the Council of Carthage, establishing our present New Testament.

Gundry concludes: “The canon of the New Testament consists, then, of the authoritative record and interpretation of God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ.”

What Were the Five Tests Used to Determine a Book’s Place in the New Testament Canon?

Above: A folio from Papyrus 46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9 (175-225 CE).

(1) Apostleship. Was the book written by an Apostle, or one who was closely associated with the Apostles? This question was especially important in relation to the inclusion of Mark, Luke, Acts and Hebrews in the Bible canon. Mark and Luke were not among the original twelve and the authorship of Hebrews is unknown.

(2) Spiritual content. Was the book being read in the churches and did its contents prove a means of spiritual edification?

(3) Doctrinal soundness. Were the contents of the book doctrinally sound? Any book containing heresy, or that which was contrary to the already accepted canonical books was rejected.

(4) Usage. Was the book universally recognized in the churches, and was it widely quoted by the church Fathers?

(5) Divine inspiration. Did it give true evidence of Divine inspiration? This was the ultimate test of the Bible canon; everything finally had to give way to it.

Should We Expect More Writings to be Added to the Bible Canon?

The opening statement of the Letter to the Hebrews puts this question in proper historical perspective of salvation-history:

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (1:1-2).

Gundry argues that the closing of the Bible canon by limiting it to apostolic books “arose out of a recognition that God’s revelation in Christ needs no improvement.”

Therefore the Bible warns against either adding to subtracting from its contents. Revelation 22:18 makes a conclusive statement at the very end of the Bible canon:

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.”

While this text refers directly to the Book of Revelation, most scholars also provide a finalizing footnote on this subject: “Add to or subtract from the Bible canon at your own risk.”

Return from Bible Canon to Who Wrote the Bible.

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