The Canon of the Scriptures

Many religious books were written during the period of the Old and New Testaments. Which of these books rightfully belongs to the Bible, and which should be excluded from it? On what grounds are some writings to be accepted as Scripture and others to be rejected? The answers to these questions can be found in the study of what is known as the canon of the Scriptures.

The English word canon goes back to the Greek word kanon and then to the Hebrew qaneh. Its basic meaning is reed, our English word cane being derived from it. Since a reed was sometimes used as a measuring rod, the word kanon came to mean a standard or rule. It was also used to refer to a list or index, and when so applied to the Bible denotes the list of books which are received as Holy Scripture. Thus if one speaks of the canonical writings, he is speaking of those books which are regarded as having divine authority and which comprise our Bible.

There is a difference between the canonicity of a book and the authority of that book. A book's canonicity depends upon its authority. When Paul, for example, writes to the Corinthians, his letter is to be acknowledged as possessing divine authority (I Cor. 14:37) . This letter had authority from the moment he wrote it, yet it could not be referred to as canonical until it was received in a list of accepted writings formed sometime later. At a later time it was accepted as canonical because of its inherent authority. A book first has divine authority based on its inspiration, and then attains canonicity due to its general acceptance as a divine product. No church council by its decrees can make the books of the Bible authoritative. The books of the Bible possess their own authority and indeed had this authority long before there were any councils of the church. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church completely ignore this important point.


The Canon of the Old Testament

Good evidence exists in the New Testament which shows that by the time of Jesus the canon of the Old Covenant had been fixed. It cannot be questioned that Jesus and his apostles time after time quote from a body of writings as "Scripture." If some writings were "Scripture," others were not. Some writings were canonical and others were non-canonical.

The canonical writings, according to Jesus, are composed of the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). This threefold division is undoubtedly equivalent to the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures - the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (cf. Chapter 2). Jesus also gives some indication concerning the books included in the Old Testament canon. He once spoke of the time "from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary" (Luke 11:51), thus referring to the martyrs of the Old Testament. The first martyr of the Old Testament, of course, was Abel and the last martyr was Zachariah (cf. II Chron. 24:20-21). It is to be kept in mind that the Jewish order of the Old Testament differs from ours, and that Chronicles is placed at the end of the Hebrew Bible. Thus the Old Testament which Jesus knew was a collection of writings reaching from Genesis to Chronicles, with all of the other books in between, a collection which embraces the same books found in our Old Testament today. When toward the close of the first century Jewish leaders at Jamnia (located near the coast of Palestine) specified these books as being the authoritative Scriptures, they were but confirming what for sometime had been recognized as the canon of the Old Testament.

Additional evidence which applies here comes from Josephus, a well-known Jewish writer of the first century, and from early Christian writers such as Origen and Jerome. Josephus clearly speaks concerning the number of books received as "Scripture" by the Jews. "We have not 10,000 books among us, disagreeing with and contradicting one another, but only twenty-two books which contain the records of all time, and are justly believed to be divine. Five of these are by Moses, and contain his laws and traditions of the origin of mankind until his death.... From the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote down what happened in their times in thirteen books; and the remaining four books contain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life.''1 lt is the opinion of most scholars that Josephus in deriving his number of life books joined Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah; and like that the Jews enumerated their books differently, that the twelve minor prophets were considered as one book and that others, like I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah were likewise counted as one book each, the twenty two books mentioned by Josephus equal our present thirty-nine books.

In the third century A.D., Origen confirms the testimony of Josephus on the twenty-two books of the Old Testament. Giving both their Hebrew and Greek titles, he lists them as follows: (1-5) the Five Books of Moses, (6) Joshua, (7) Judges-Ruth, (8) I and II Samuel, (9) I and II Kings, (10) Chronicles, (11) Ezra-Nehemiah, (12) Psalms, (13) Proverbs, (14) Ecclesiastes, (15) Song of Solomon, (16) Isaiah, (17) Jeremiah-Lamentations, (18) Daniel, (19) Ezekiel, (20) Job, and (21) Esther. 2 Origen omits from his list the Book of the Twelve (the minor prophets), but this is clearly an accidental omission since it is necessary to make up his own number of twenty-two. A little later other Christian writers, including the scholarly Jerome, point to these same books as the canonical materials for the Old Testament.


The Canon of the New Testament

About the middle of the second century a Christian writer, Justin Martyr, stated that on Sundays in the Christian worship assemblies the "memoirs of the apostles" were read together with the "writings of the prophets." 3 It is evident, then, that not long after the close of the apostolic age the New Testament writings were being read generally among the churches. What brought this about? How was it possible that within a short time the writings of the apostles were being used for public reading as well as the writings of the Old Testament prophets?

When the church of Christ was first established it had no thought of a New Testament. Its Bible was the Old Testament and its new teachings were based on the authority of Christ as personally mediated through the apostles. Soon inspired men came to put in writing divine regulations directed both to churches and individuals. It was inevitable that these regulations would become normative, for Christians could not have less respect for them than for their Christ. Thus Paul's letters were carefully gathered into a single whole; next came a collection of the Four Gospels, and then all the others followed. Because these collections were made at different times and places, the contents of the various collections were not always the same. This helps to explain why not all of the New Testament books were at first received without hesitation; while in other instances uncertainty of a book's authorship, as in the case of Hebrews, presented temporary obstacles to universal acceptance. This was the exception, however, rather than the rule; and gradually each book on its own merit - not without, Christians believe, a guiding Providence - took its place in the accepted canon of New Testament Scripture.

If it is no later than the middle of the second century when the apostles' letters became widely read in public meetings, it is no later than the last half of that century when substantial lists of the New Testament books appear. An example of one of these lists from this time is known as the Muratorian Fragment. Its name is derived from L. A. Muratori, who first discovered the list and published it in the eighteenth century. Part of this early list of the New Testament books has been lost. The Gospel of Luke is the first mentioned by name, but it is referred to as the "third" Gospel, indicating that Matthew and Mark were at the head of the list; then follow John, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul and others. The only books not included in the list are Hebrews James, I and II Peter and I John, and were it not for a text seemingly derived from a mutilated copy the list undoubtedly would be more complete. On any other assumption it is difficult to account for the omissions, especially those of I Peter and I John. Notwithstanding these omissions this early list provides in broad outline the substance of our modern New Testament.

In the third century Origen names all of the New Testament books, but says that Hebrews, James, II and III John, and Jude were questioned by some. 4 Eusebius of the fourth century likewise names all of the New Testament books. 5 He says, however, that some books James, II Peter, II and III John, and Jude) were suspected, but that they were accepted by the maiority. In 367 A.D. Athanasius of Alexandria published a list of 27 New Testament books which were accepted in his time, and these are the same twenty-seven which are recognized today. The Bible had grown in relative proportion to its divine revelation - gradually - and its books likewise had gradually assumed the roles which their inherent authority demanded.


Related Observations

It is sometimes said that the line of demarcation between the New Testament books and other Christian writings was not always clear, that the early church scarcely made distinction between the two. But there is little evidence to support this charge There were indeed a number of good books which were circulat ing among Christians of that day, written by uninspired men. Especially important among these are the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The first was written toward the close of the apostolic age by some one other than the New Testament Barnabas; the second is an allegory which dates back to the first half of the second century and was written by a member of the church at Rome called Hermas. Yet these books were never above suspicion, nor were they ever received on a par with the genuine apostolic writings. In the case of the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, the above mentioned Muratorian Fragment states that it could be read in public worship but that it was not to be counted among the prophetic or apostolic writings.

The restriction concerning the Shepherd of Hermas serves to illustrate the significant principle that some books could be read for edification in public worship which were not at the time regarded as possessing divine authority. In this category fall such writings as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. These and a few others were sometimes included in the early manuscripts, but according to the Muratorian Fragment it is a mistake to think that every book which was read in the churches was necessarily accorded apostolic standing. Even today in public assemblies, as purposes of teaching and edification may demand, selections from secular works are sometimes read. It was no different in the days of the early church, nor is there sufficient reason to think that they were less discerning in distinguishing between inspired and non-inspired materials.



The word canon as used in this study refers to the list of books which are acknowledged as being divinely inspired and are included in the Bible. The formation of the canon was a gradual process, just as the books themselves came into being gradually. By the time of our Lord it is evident that the Old Testament canon was well-defined: a clear distinction is maintained between "Scripture" and non-Scripture. Evidence as to the exact books of Old Testament Scripture is furnished by the numerous quotations found in the New Testament of the Old Testament and from other early Christian and non-Christian sources. As to the New Testament books, not long after they were written they were being read regularly in the church assemblies. They were held in high esteem by early Christians - the words of Jesus and His apostles could not be less authoritative than the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In this way the New Testament canon gradually took shape; so that within a century or two the New Testament books as they are known today had been collected and constituted the supreme authority for the primitive church.

In conclusion, it is necessary to emphasize that no church through its councils made the canon of Scripture. No church - in particular the Roman Catholic Church its decrees gave to or pronounced upon the books of the Bible their infallibility. The Bible owes its authority to no individual or group. The church does not control the canon, but the canon controls the church. Although divine authority was attributed to the New Testament books by the later church, this authority was not derived from the church but was inherent in the books themselves. As a child identifies its mother, the later church identified the books which it regarded as having unique authority.




1 Josephus, Against Apion I. Ecclesiastical

2 Cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI. 25.

3 Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. 67.

4 Cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI. 25.

5 Eusebius Ecclesiastical History III. 25.


Source: How We Got The Bible, Neil R. Lightfoot (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Book House, 1970).