I will never forget my first day as a young child at a new school. Recess time came, and with it that dreaded moment where two team captains stand to eyeball the rest of the kids. It’s awkward to stand there and be sized up while waiting to hear your name chosen. I was an athletic kid who played numerous sports, but I feared that I would not get picked since I hadn’t made a name for myself at the new school yet and there were more kids hoping to play than were needed. Yes, in a horrifying elementary school moment, some kids were going to get picked and others were not.
Some people seem to wonder if the Bible wasn’t put together like a soccer team at recess. Did someone just pick some books and not others and call it the Bible? Or, was there a more formal and thoughtful process that ended up determining the best selling and most translated book in the history of the world?
What is the canon of Scripture?
The canon of Scripture is the collection of books that the Christian church has recognized as having divine authority in matters of faith and doctrine. The term comes from the Greek word “kanon” and the Hebrew word “qaneh”, both of which mean “a rule,” or “measuring rod.” The canon is an authority to which other truth claims are compared and by which they are measured. To speak of canonical writings is to speak of those books that are regarded as having divine authority. They are the books of our Bible.
The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament graciously preserved by God in the Bible are the inspired Word of God. The Christian church recognized that these books constitute the complete canon inspired by God and received them as uniquely authoritative because they are God speaking to his people. F. F. Bruce says:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.
Time after time, Jesus and his apostles quoted from this distinctive body of authoritative writings. They designated them as “the Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” “the holy Scriptures,” “the sacred writings,” and so forth. They often introduced their quotations with “It is written”—that is—it stands firmly written.
We call these authoritative writings the Old Testament. Jewish people call them the Tanakh, an acronym formed from the first letters of Torah (Law), Naviim (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings). We see this idea when Jesus explained to his disciples “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” It is important to note that the Tanakh includes the same material as the Protestant Old Testament, though they arrange the books differently.
Beginning two hundred and fifty years before Christ, Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek, calling it the Septuagint. For some unknown reason, they changed the content of several books, added many books, and rearranged the order of the books.
Early Christians followed Jesus and used the same books as found in the Hebrew Bible today. But as the center of Christianity moved away from Jerusalem and Christians read and worshiped more in Greek than Hebrew, there was more openness to the books of the Septuagint. There was a long and complicated debate about the validity and status of these books. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the books of the Septuagint into its Latin version, called the Vulgate. They referred to them as deuterocanonical, meaning they were canonized later. As the Reformers attempted to rid the church of many traditional teachings and get back to the Bible, they also rejected the deuterocanonical books, calling them the Apocrypha. They kept the ordering of the Vulgate but returned to the authoritative books of Jesus, the Hebrew-speaking Jews, and early Christianity.
The early church immediately recognized most of the books of the New Testament as canonical. The four Gospels, written to preserve and spread the story of Jesus to the whole church, were received gladly and universally, as were the writings of Paul, including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (also known as the Pastoral Letters). Acts, 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation were also universally recognized. However, Hebrews remained in dispute for several centuries, especially in the West, because of the anonymity of its author. The status of James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude fluctuated according to church, age, and individual judgment and are occasionally omitted from canonical lists. Some works of the apostolic fathers, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the first and second epistles of Clement are sporadically cited as potentially Scripture but are not usually included in formal canonical lists.
In the fourth century, the church moved to settle the issues of the New Testament canon. In the East it was done in the Thirty-Ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius in AD 367. In the West the canon was fixed at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.
Was the New Testament canon disputed? Not really. Virtually all the books were immediately accepted. Did the church canonize the books? Not at all. Rather, they recognized and confirmed their canonical status. J.I. Packer writes:
The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.
How were books chosen for the Bible?
How did the church know which books ought to be recognized as canonical? What were the criteria for canonicity? They used three primary criteria:
- Conformity to “the rule of faith”: Did the book conform to orthodox Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches?
- Apostolicity: Was the writer of the book an apostle or did the writer of the book have immediate contact with the apostles? All but a few New Testament writers were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded. Though they were not eyewitnesses, Luke received his information from Paul and numerous eyewitnesses, and Mark received his information from Peter, who was an eyewitness. James and Jude were closely associated with the apostles in Jerusalem and were probably Jesus’ brothers, which would have also made them eyewitnesses.
- Catholicity: Did the book have widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere?
In considering the great agreement surrounding the canon of Scripture, scholars have said:
The fact that substantially the whole church came to recognize the same twenty-seven books as canonical is remarkable when it is remembered that the result was not contrived. All that the several churches through-out the Empire could do was to witness to their own experience with the documents and share whatever knowledge they might have about their origin and character. When consideration is given to the diversity in cultural backgrounds and in orientation to the essentials of the Christian faith within the churches, their common agreement about which books belonged to the New Testament serves to suggest that this final decision did not originate solely at the human level.
Why were some books not accepted as Scripture?
In recent years, the so-called “lost books of the Bible” have enjoyed revived interest. For example, Dan Brown built much of the storyline of his best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, on the premise that the church selected the four canonical Gospels from eighty similar books. The others, it is said, were stamped out by “a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” In fact, however, even by the most generous count there are fewer than thirty “gospels.”
Only the canonical Gospels date from the first century. The earliest of the others was written more than one hundred years after Jesus lived. Most of them are dated at least two hundred years after Jesus. Contrary to false accusation, not one of these “lost gospels” were hidden by the church. Furthermore, no “lost” gospels have been discovered. All of the discovered books were referred to in the church fathers’ writings because the Fathers knew of their existence but simply did not consider them sacred Scripture. Some older or more complete copies of them have been discovered, most significantly in the Egyptian Nag Hammadi site. Peter rightly called these kinds of claims about lost gospels and suppressed teachings about Jesus “cleverly devised myths” with no basis in fact or reality.
There is no reason to be concerned about any lost gospels containing truth that we need about God. Anyone curious about their truthfulness should simply read them. The Gospel of Philip supposedly says that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. In fact, it says, “And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene, [ . . . ] her more than the disciples [ . . . ] kiss her on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [ . . . ]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’” (The ellipses in brackets indicate where the papyrus is broken and lost.) To say the least, this is extremely slender evidence for Jesus’ marriage that some purport, even if this very late, clearly Gnostic gospel was accepted as authentic, which it is not.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the earlier and most widely affirmed of the Gnostic gospels. It is not a gospel in the sense of a narrative that tells the story of Jesus. Rather, it consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which clearly parallel sayings in the canonical Gospels.
But that is where the similarity ends. It was written at least a century after the four biblical Gospels, long after the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ were dead. It clearly reflects Gnostic theology built on a belief system that despised earthly and material realities and exalted the “higher” spiritual plane. The “god” of Thomas is a second-rate angelic being who rebelliously created this physical world. Humans are presented as spiritual beings ensnared in a wretched physical body. The only attention given to the humanity of Jesus was when trying to excuse it. The canonical Gospels, however, provide a very different picture of Jesus: a man who is fully human, in body and spirit, and who had disciples and friends, both male and female.
To make the differences between the real Gospels in the Bible and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas clear, just read its final adage:
Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (114)
Regarding the wrongly termed “lost gospels,” New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has said:
In no meaningful sense did these writers, church leaders, or councils “suppress” Gnostic or apocryphal material, since there is no evidence of any canon that ever included them, nor that anyone put them forward for canonization, nor that they were known widely enough to have been serious candidates for inclusion had someone put them forward. Indeed, they would have failed all three of the major criteria used by the early church in selecting which books they were, at times very literally, willing to die for—the criteria of apostolicity (that a book was written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle), coherence (not contradicting previously accepted Scripture), and catholicity (widespread acceptance as particularly relevant and normative within all major segments of the early Christian community).
To be fair, there are a handful of other ancient books that have some good content. Books such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were appreciated by the early church and are akin to some popular Christian books today that can provide some insight but do not rise to the level of Scripture or fall to the level of heresy. But only a few individual churches and teachers wanted them included in the canon. In simplest terms, they were not accepted because they were not God’s Word for his whole church.
From the very earliest days, the church knew which books were God’s inspired word for them. They read them, studied them, obeyed them, lived them, and passed them on. We should do the same—without adding anything to the Scriptures. Proverbs 30:5–6 commands just this, saying, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
Yes, the Bible we have is the Bible that God wrote.
1F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 22.
2John 7:38; Acts 8:32; Rom. 4:3.
3Matt. 21:42; John 5:39; Acts 17:11.
52 Tim. 3:15.
7Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 301.
8J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 109.
9John 19:35; 20:30–31; Acts 1:1–3, 9; 10:39–42; 1 Cor. 15:6–8; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1–3.
102 Tim. 4:11.
121 Pet. 5:13.
13Glenn W. Barker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels, The New Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 29.
14Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 251.
162 Pet. 1:16.
17Craig L. Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters” (Deerfield, IL: Christ on Campus Initiative, 2008), http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Blomberg.pdf, 25–26.
Much of this blog is adapted from the book Doctrine written by Mark Driscoll and Dr. Gerry Breshears