Who decided that the 66 books we know as the Bible were the books that should be included and no others? Just who chose the canon?
The term “canon” is used to refer to the “closed collection of documents that constitute authoritative Scripture.” The ancient word “canon” means a “reed or measuring stick.” The biblical canon or Bible includes the writings that are recognized and accepted as the revealed Word of God and is the standard of measure for the Christian’s life and faith.
But how did the biblical canon come to be recognized as that? We learn from the Bible itself that it is the very words of God, given to us through the hands of human authors through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We’ve also come to know and trust this truth through our experience with it. The Word of God is living and active. It touches our hearts and lives in a way that no other book and no words of mere man ever could. Because of this, it’s important to realize that humans did not decide which books to accept. They merely sought to recognize the ones God set forth. (For info on the reliability of the Bible read “Is the Bible Reliable?)
The Jews considered three factors when recognizing which books God wanted included in the Old Testament canon.
- Written by a prophet of God – it had to be clear that the human author of the book was chosen by God to be His mouthpiece. Did his prophecy come true? Did his words come with power?
- Written for all generations – the book had to impact all people for all time. Its message had to be relevant far beyond its original audience.
- Written in agreement with previous revelation – God’s Word will not contradict itself. His truth remains the same so new revelation will be in accordance with what He has already revealed.
The Hebrew people used these guidelines to determine which books belonged in the canon and which did not. There is strong historical and biblical evidence that the Old Testament canon was firmly established by the time of Christ and maybe even by the mid-second century B.C.
Although the books were grouped and divided differently over the centuries causing the exact number of books to change, the books accepted as canonical by the Jews did not change. During a Jewish council in Jamnia around 90 AD this previously accepted canon was officially confirmed. And this is the same Old Testament canon that Protestants use today. (See the end of this article for a note on the Apocryphal.)
End of Part One. Tune in tomorrow for Part Two about the New Testament Canon.
Note: The Apocryphal (“hidden”) books recognized by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians were all written during the intertestamental period. Jews never accepted them as inspired at the same level as the earlier books. In fact, Jewish testimony in Rabbinic literature of the second through fifth centuries AD clearly show that the Jews believed that prophecy ceased after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were prophets during this time frame. That means no book dated later than 450 to 400 BC would be considered as part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most Hebrew scholars consider the Apocryphal books to be good historical documents but not to be equated with divinely inspired writing. This and other historical evidence support the Protestant argument that the collection of 39 books they accept today (although divided and arranged differently) is what was accepted by the Jews of Jesus’ time.
For further reading:
“How did we get our Bible?” (Focus on the Family)
Sources for this article:
An Introduction to the New Testament, D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1992)
Encountering the Old Testament, Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 1999)
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Word Publishing: Dallas, 1993)