Last Sunday, we kicked off Rooted, Creekside’s course on the basics of the faith. John Weld and I always enjoy teaching the content of this course. But we really enjoy the discussion. People consistently ask great questions; so consistently that we struggle to provide adequate answers. Hence, we’re trying something new. Each week John and/or I will choose one particularly probing question from class, and we’ll answer it on the blog. We hope this enriches the Rooted experience for those attending, and assists other Creeksiders who may be asking these questions.
We’ll start things off with a doozey. This Sunday, someone asked:
“How do we know that the 66 books in our English are the right ones? Why did the church consider these books to be God’s inspired word? Why did they exclude others?”
Biblical scholars refer to this as a question of canonicity. Canon literally means “ruler.” Taken together, the books of Scripture comprise a canon; a rule, standard or norm for the Christian life. So which books belong within this canon? How can one recognize which books are inspired by God (and thus authoritative), and determine which aren’t? While Christians have not reached a consensus as to the attributes of canonicity, there is broad agreement on several criteria:
1. Internal Witness: Numerous authors explicitly claim to communicate for God, or act as if they are. The formula, “thus says the Lord” occurs over 400 times in the OT. By invoking this formula, a speaker signaled that he/she was communicating on God’s behalf. Other times, authors deliberately add to the inspired corpus (cf. Exodus 34:1; Deut 10:2; 27:3 Josh 24:26; Jeremiah 30:2; Revelation 21:5). Jesus says that his words are an extension of his own authority (Mark 8:38; John 12:48). Paul claims that his words are a command from the Lord (1 Cor 14:37-38). Obviously, an assertion is not an argument, and these assertions must be evaluated. However, this textual feature becomes more significant when combined with other criteria.
2. Inner-Biblical Corroboration: On occasion, the writers of Scripture reference each other’s work. This further solidifies a book’s canonical status. OT writers often refer to earlier writings as Scripture (see Josh 1:7; 8:31; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; Neh 13:1; Jeremiah 8:8; Dan 9:2, 11). NT writers quote the OT approximately 250 times. When doing so, they frequently employ the formula, “it is written,” by which to specify they're quoting divinely inspired literature. Paul refers to the Hebrew Scriptures of his day as divinely inspired (2 Tim 3:16), and states that the Jews were entrusted with the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). Jesus attests to the authority of the “Law and the Prophets” in Matthew 5:17-20. And in Luke 24:44-45, he refers to Scripture under three headings: “the Law of Moses…the Prophets and the Psalms….” (v. 44; see also v. 27). The Jews of Jesus’ day referred to most (if not all) of the 39 books of our OT under these twofold and threefold classifications. Thus, Jesus ostensibly believed that the OT books contained in our English Bibles were divinely inspired. Further confirmation of this point is found in Matthew 23:35, where Jesus refers to the martyrs of biblical history. He begins with Abel (who is mentioned in Genesis) and ends with Zechariah (who is mentioned in 2 Chronicles). The Tanakh (i.e. the Hebrew Bible used by 1st Century Jews) began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles. This is further corroboration that Christ understood the entirety of our OT as divinely inspired. The significance of such references is enormous. Our Lord's estimation of a book's status should be determinative for our canonical judgments. Moreover, NT authors occasionally attest to the canonicity of other NT documents. Peter claims that Paul’s writings are divinely inspired (2 Peter 3:16), and Paul cites Luke’s gospel as Scripture (cf. Luke 10:7).
3. Prophetic or Apostolic Authorship: A third attribute to consider is an author’s status. Many Old Testament authors were recognized prophets (see Deut 18:15-20; Mt 23:29ff). This attribute becomes more significant when we turn to the NT, and consider the issue of apostolicity. Formally speaking, an apostle was someone who witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ. All of the NT writings were believed to have apostolic connections (see Klein, Blomberg Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 115). Some of Christ’s 12 disciples pen books of the NT (Matthew, John, Peter). Two of Christ’s brothers (James and Jude) author epistles. Paul was considered an apostle because of his encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9). And other NT writers are closely connected to the apostolic circle (e.g. Mark uses Peter as a source; Luke uses Paul, as does – perhaps – the writer of Hebrews).
4. Breadth of Reception: A final attribute is the church’s reception of a given writing. On the basis of various ancient writings (e.g. rabbinic literature, Josephus, Philo), scholars have argued that the Jews possessed a clearly defined canon (i.e. our OT) prior to the mid second-century B.C. (ibid., 108). Many early Christians believed in the canonicity of these documents (though there were a few notable exceptions, like Marcion). However, various early Christians also believed in the canonicity of additional documents from the period of Second Temple Judaism (for more information, see below). By the 4th century, Christians had reached a consensus on the extent of the NT canon. In 367 A.D., the church father Athanasius references all 27 NT books as Scripture. A comparable list appears in one of Origen's letters some 100 years earlier. This should not, however, lead us to conclude that the NT canon was largely undetermined prior to the 4th century. Based on his extensive textual analysis of early NT manuscripts, David Trobisch has contended that a document containing all 27 NT books was published sometime in the mid-second century A.D. Other scholars have presented arguments supporting the notion that the church recognized a fairly well-defined canonical core early in its history.
A Final Note:
Believers in the three major streams of Christianity (i.e. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox) concur that the 66 books we possess today are canonical. However, our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends posit that additional books belong within the OT canon. This literature is often referred to as apocryphal (from the Greek word for “hidden”) or deutero-canonical (meaning a “second canon”). These books include such works as 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Protestant believers have traditionally rejected the canonical status of such books and defended the shorter OT canon (i.e. the 39 books evangelicals typically associate with the OT; Ibid., 104). They often contend that this shorter OT canon was the one used by 1st Century Jews, as well as the NT apostles. For a brief argument in favor of the shorter OT canon, see here.
This is a very brief sketch. I can only scratch the surface of a vast array of complex and interrelated issues. The takeaway is that there are good reasons to accept the 66 books of our English bibles as canonical. If you’d like to study the issue further, here are a few resources.
Clint Arnold, How We Got The Bible.
John Wenham, Christ and The Bible.
Michael Kruger's Website.
F.F. Bruce (no relation!), The Canon of Scripture.