“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;”
2 Timothy 3:16
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;”
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Over centuries of inspired composition, the people of God received certain texts as Holy Scripture, without manufacturing or mandating them. The modern Protestant Bible, comprised of 66 books, is typically divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because these two sections are distinct (they were written several centuries apart!), it is helpful to discuss their formation and inclusion in the Bible separately. We will start with the Old Testament, then turn to the New Testament, before offering some closing thoughts on the transmission of the Bible.
Where did the Old Testament come from?
The Old Testament is a combination of historical books, prophetic writings, and poetry, centered on ancient Israel. The Pentateuch, starting with the book of Genesis, was initially written sometime between the 15th and the 13th centuries BC. The book of Malachi was written in the 5th century, marking the close of the Old Testament period. The rest of the Old Testament was developed between the Pentateuch and the book of Malachi, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament books themselves refer to a variety of sources, including Moses (Deuteronomy 31:24–26), the official records of Israelite kings, and proverbial writings from wise individuals (Proverbs 31:1).
During the transmission process, ancient editors occasionally updated linguistic details or small sections of the biblical books. The apparently parenthetical comments in the book of Deuteronomy are a famous example (Deuteronomy 2:20–23), potentially added by an inspired editor to clarify the original material for later generations (which itself points to the ancient, original nature of the Deuteronomic material). These updates were not materially substantial, and Christians believe that they were done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament was considered a complete canon around the time of Malachi, when prophetic activity largely ceased. The focus of Jewish scholars transitioned from preserving God’s revelation to translating and copying the Old Testament canon. Between the conclusion of Malachi and the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament was translated into other languages, including Greek. By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament canon was fully received and established, though there was some debate about the Apocrypha.
Where did the New Testament come from?
In the early years of the Christian church, the apostles, living witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and bearers of divine authority, traveled among the churches, teaching and exhorting Christ’s followers to live consistently with their faith (Acts 1:21–22). As the church expanded, the apostles began to write letters to the churches, which carried the same authority as their spoken word. These letters were read aloud and circulated among the churches, so that everyone could benefit from the apostolic teaching. Early on, some people within the apostolic community recorded the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, writings that became the four Gospels we have today. Near the end of the first century, the apostle John received a revelation from Jesus Christ, which he recorded in a massive letter to seven churches. This work, known today as Revelation, marked the end of the apostolic era and the close of the New Testament canon.
The process of acceptance in the New Testament church involved ensuring that a book carried apostolic authority. Many of the books within the New Testament were written directly by apostles, and some, such as Mark and Luke, were written by those in the apostolic inner circle and based on the testimony of apostles. There is evidence that the church received the Gospels extremely early, and Paul even quotes the Gospel of Luke as Scripture, alongside the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18). A collection of Paul’s writings was also circulating among the churches extremely early, and Peter refers to them as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15–16). Because the apostles could not perpetually be present in every church, their writings served as inspired and authoritative teaching for the early church. These writings perform the same function for us today: by the grace of God, when we read the New Testament, we are reading the authoritative teachings of the divinely commissioned apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit to write for our edification. The Word of God is amazing!
Where did my Bible come from?
The early church regarded the Old Testament as the revelation of God and received apostolic writings with the same authority (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:15–16). Amid persecution, they painstakingly copied and circulated apostolic works. Sometimes, works claiming to be written by an apostle crept in, and sometimes churches were skeptical of certain New Testament books. However, over time, the pretenders were rooted out, and the church faithfully received the apostolic books. At first, these “books” were maintained as separate works, generally written in Greek, and copied thousands of times. As literary technology and the economic status of churches improved, Christians could compile their readings into codices, and eventually books. The Bible was translated into Latin, Aramaic, and other languages. Eventually, the Bible was translated into English, the same language as this article, so that anyone who understands English can read God’s revelation, given over thousands of years. Modern English Bibles are translated from early manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. Thanks to the judicious copying work of ancient scribes and the providence of God, we can receive His revelation today through the Bible, even though they record events and words spoken thousands of years ago.
What is the canon of Scripture?
The word “canon” comes from the rule of law that was used to determine if a book measured up to a standard. It is important to note that the writings of Scripture were canonical at the moment they were written. Scripture was Scripture when the pen touched the parchment. This is very important because Christianity does not start by defining God, or Jesus Christ, or salvation. The basis of Christianity is found in the authority of Scripture. If we cannot identify what Scripture is, then we cannot properly distinguish any theological truth from error.
What measure or standard was used to determine which books should be classified as Scripture? A key verse to understanding the process and purpose, and perhaps the timing of the giving of Scripture, is Jude 3 which states that a Christian’s faith “was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Since our faith is defined by Scripture, Jude is essentially saying that Scripture was given once for the benefit of all Christians. isn’t it wonderful to know that there are no hidden or lost manuscripts yet to be found, there are no secret books only familiar to a select few, and there are no people alive who have special revelation requiring us to trek up a Himalayan mountain in order to be enlightened? We can be confident that God has not left us without a witness. The same supernatural power God used to produce His Word has also been used to preserve it.
Psalm 119:160 states that the entirety of God’s Word is truth. Starting with that premise, we can compare writings outside the accepted canon of Scripture to see if they meet the test. As an example, the Bible claims that Jesus Christ is God (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 1:22-23; John 1:1, 2, 14, 20:28; Acts 16:31, 34; Philippians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Yet many extra-biblical texts, claiming to be Scripture, argue that Jesus is not God. When clear contradictions exist, the established Bible is to be trusted, leaving the others outside the sphere of Scripture.
In the early centuries of the church, Christians were sometimes put to death for possessing copies of Scripture. Because of this persecution, the question soon came up, “What books are worth dying for?” Some books may have contained sayings of Jesus, but were they inspired as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16? Church councils played a role in publicly recognizing the canon of Scripture, but often an individual church or groups of churches recognized a book as inspired from its writing (e.g., Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). Throughout the early centuries of the church, few books were ever disputed and the list was basically settled by A.D. 303.
When it came to the Old Testament, three important facts were considered: 1) The New Testament quotes from or alludes to every Old Testament book but two. 2) Jesus effectively endorsed the Hebrew canon in Matthew 23:35 when He cited one of the first narratives and one of the last in the Scriptures of His day. 3) The Jews were meticulous in preserving the Old Testament Scriptures, and they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong. The Roman Catholic Apocrypha did not measure up and fell outside the definition of Scripture and has never been accepted by the Jews.
Most questions about which books belong in the Bible dealt with writings from the time of Christ and forward. The early church had some very specific criteria in order for books to be considered as part of the New Testament. These included: Was the book written by someone who was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ? Did the book pass the “truth test”? (i.e., did it concur with other, already agreed-upon Scripture?). The New Testament books they accepted back then have endured the test of time and Christian orthodoxy has embraced these, with little challenge, for centuries.
Confidence in the acceptance of specific books dates back to the first century recipients who offered firsthand testimony as to their authenticity. Furthermore, the end-time subject matter of the book of Revelation, and the prohibition of adding to the words of the book in Revelation 22:18, argue strongly that the canon was closed at the time of its writing (c. A.D. 95).
There is an important theological point that should not be missed. God has used His word for millennia for one primary purpose—to reveal Himself and communicate to mankind. Ultimately, the church councils did not decide if a book was Scripture; that was decided when the human author was chosen by God to write. In order to accomplish the end result, including the preservation of His Word through the centuries, God guided the early church councils in their recognition of the canon.
The acquisition of knowledge regarding such things as the true nature of God, the origin of the universe and life, the purpose and meaning of life, the wonders of salvation, and future events (including the destiny of mankind) are beyond the natural observational and scientific capacity of mankind. The already-delivered Word of God, valued and personally applied by Christians for centuries, is sufficient to explain to us everything we need to know of Christ (John 5:18; Acts 18:28; Galatians 3:22; 2 Timothy 3:15) and to teach us, correct us, and instruct us into all righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
How and when was the canon of the Bible put together?
The term “canon” is used to describe the books that are divinely inspired and therefore belong in the Bible. The difficulty in determining the biblical canon is that the Bible does not give us a list of the books that belong in the Bible. Determining the canon was a process conducted first by Jewish rabbis and scholars and later by early Christians. Ultimately, it was God who decided what books belonged in the biblical canon. A book of Scripture belonged in the canon from the moment God inspired its writing. It was simply a matter of God’s convincing His human followers which books should be included in the Bible.
Compared to the New Testament, there was much less controversy over the canon of the Old Testament. Hebrew believers recognized God’s messengers and accepted their writings as inspired of God. While there was undeniably some debate in regards to the Old Testament canon, by A.D. 250 there was nearly universal agreement on the canon of Hebrew Scripture. The only issue that remained was the Apocrypha, with some debate and discussion continuing today. The vast majority of Hebrew scholars considered the Apocrypha to be good historical and religious documents, but not on the same level as the Hebrew Scriptures.
For the New Testament, the process of the recognition and collection began in the first centuries of the Christian church. Very early on, some of the New Testament books were being recognized. Paul considered Luke’s writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Some of the books of the New Testament were being circulated among the churches (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). Clement of Rome mentioned at least eight New Testament books (A.D. 95). Ignatius of Antioch acknowledged about seven books (A.D. 115). Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle, acknowledged 15 books (A.D. 108). Later, Irenaeus mentioned 21 books (A.D. 185). Hippolytus recognized 22 books (A.D. 170-235). The New Testament books receiving the most controversy were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John.
The first “canon” was the Muratorian Canon, which was compiled in AD 170. The Muratorian Canon included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. In AD 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament (along with one book of the Apocrypha) and 26 books of the New Testament (everything but Revelation) were canonical and to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (AD 393) and the Council of Carthage (AD 397) also affirmed the same 27 books as authoritative.
The councils followed something similar to the following principles to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit: 1) Was the author an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle? 2) Is the book being accepted by the body of Christ at large? 3) Did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching? 4) Did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit? Again, it is crucial to remember that the church did not determine the canon. No early church council decided on the canon. It was God, and God alone, who determined which books belonged in the Bible. It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to His followers what He had already decided. The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in His sovereignty, and despite our ignorance and stubbornness, brought the early church to the recognition of the books He had inspired.
How do we decide which books belong in the Bible since the Bible does not say which books belong in the Bible?
If Scripture is to be our sole authority, on what authority do we know which books belong in the Bible – since the Bible does not state which books should be in the Bible? This is a very important question, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the chain of communication from God to humanity, is there a weak link? If so, then the whole chain fails, and the communication ultimately cannot be trusted.
Consider the various “links” comprising God’s communication to us: first came God’s desire to communicate. This was rooted in His love, for the most loving thing a good God can do is reveal Himself to His creation. Next came the actual transmission of God’s Word through human writers. This involved a process the Bible calls “inspiration,” in which God breathed the words that the human agents recorded (2 Timothy 3:16). After that came dissemination, as the Word was delivered to its audience through preaching or other means. Then came recognition, as God’s people distinguished Holy Scripture from other religious writings. And then, preservation, through which God’s Word has survived to the present day, despite many attempts to destroy it. And finally, illumination, as the Holy Spirit opens the believer’s understanding to receive the Word.
And that’s the “chain”–the demonstration of God’s love in the inspiration, dissemination, recognition, preservation, and illumination of His Word. We believe that God was involved in each step of the process, for why would God go to such lengths to inspire His Word and then not preserve it? Why would He speak to us and then fail to guide us in recognizing His speech?
This recognition of God’s Word is usually called “canonization.” We are careful to say that God determined the canon, and the church discovered the canon. The canon of Scripture was not created by the church; rather, the church discovered or recognized it. In other words, God’s Word was inspired and authoritative from its inception–it “stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89)–and the church simply recognized that fact and accepted it.
The criteria the church used for recognizing and collecting the Word of God are as follows:
1) Was the book written by a prophet of God?
2) Was the writer authenticated by miracles to confirm his message?
3) Does the book tell the truth about God, with no falsehood or contradiction?
4) Does the book evince a divine capacity to transform lives?
5) Was the book accepted as God’s Word by the people to whom it was first delivered?
Of these criteria, the one of most importance was the first one–was the book written by a prophet? Its corollary, “Did the book receive apostolic approval?”, was the chief test of canonicity in the early church. This criterion is a logical result of knowing what an “apostle” was. The apostles were gifted by God to be the founders and leaders of the church, so it is reasonable to accept that through them came the Word governing the church.
The apostles were promised the Spirit of truth who would bring to their remembrance what Christ had said (John 14:26) and guide them into “all truth” (John 16:13). After the ascension of Christ, the apostles received supernatural gifts to enable their work and confirm their message (Acts 2:4). God’s household is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20). Given the apostles’ special commission, it only makes sense that the church made apostolicity the number-one test of canonicity. Thus, the Gospel of Matthew was considered canonical (it was written by an apostle); and the Gospel of Mark, with its close association with the Apostle Peter, was also accepted.
When the New Testament was being written, the individual books and letters were immediately accepted as God’s Word and circulated for the benefits of others. The church of Thessalonica received Paul’s word as the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Paul’s epistles were circulating among the churches even during apostolic times (Colossians 4:16). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as inspired by God and equated them with “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul quoted the Gospel of Luke and called it “Scripture” (1 Timothy 5:18). This widespread acceptance stands in stark contrast to the few debated books, eventually rejected as non-canonical, that enjoyed a limited favor for a time.
Later, as heresy increased and some within the church began clamoring for the acceptance of spurious religious writings, the church wisely held a council to officially confirm their acceptance of the 27 New Testament books. The criteria they used allowed them to objectively distinguish what God had given them from that of human origin. They concluded that they would stay with the books that were universally accepted. In so doing, they determined to continue in “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).
The people of God acknowledged that certain texts were Holy Scripture, without creating or mandating them. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Both were copied and translated by faithful scribes, preserving the inspired text for us today. About two thousand years ago, Paul told Timothy that the “Holy Scriptures” were “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14–15). Those same Scriptures are available to you today. Pick up a good translation in your native language and start reading it! You will not regret it.