Why is the Canon Canonical?

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet finished my research in this area, so my thoughts below may change with further study. Or it is possible that some of the info needs to double checked before I’m happy to publish it as ‘finished’

Historically, the books that are inspired by God are called ‘Canonical’ books, or books that are in ‘the Canon’. The questioner is therefore asking about the nature of the canon, in terms of is composition and content. The word ‘Canon’ originally came from the root word ‘reed’ or ‘cane’ (point 16 in Bibliography). The cane was used as an ancient form of measurement; therefore the ‘canon’ can also mean the ‘standard/measurement of faith’. In other words, the books that are in the Bible are recognised to be the standard for our faith and practice, which is instituted by God.

The phrase ‘inspired by God’ means that each book was written in accordance with God’s design, even though they were written by different men at different times in history. God is both transcendent and immanent, which means he is both totally different to his creation, but also intrinsic to it. Therefore, this being true, he is able to create a book (or collection of books) that record his acts in history as a testament and documentation for us, and he can do this through human will and design. However, the phrase ‘inspired by God’ goes beyond mere historicity, these books represent the standard of God’s truth. The Bible also describes itself as . . . alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). As such, God the Holy Spirit often communicates through the words of the Bible, as they are synonymous with his own words and truth.               

The answer to this question will be determined by your presuppositions in approaching the topic. If you do not believe that God exists, it is likely that you will think the books that are in the Bible came to be recognised as ‘inspired by God’ through a mixture of religious politics, preference, and subjective opinions/feelings. However, if you believe that God exists and that he is able to act in human history then the development of a collection of books that are divinely inspired is not only possible, but also probable (especially if this God loves us and wishes to communicate with us). If God is able to inspire the recording of his acts in history, he is also able to cause their recognition within the church (and equally cause the church to recognise those books that were not inspired).

The Bible records God’s acts in history

The Old Testament is a collection of literature produced within and about the history of Israel, and the events therein. Likewise, the New Testament is a collection of books produced about the life, events, and purpose of Jesus Christ and his fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. For Christians it is the connection between the historical events and the words of scripture that hold so much meaning. You cannot have one without the other. For example, the physical death of Jesus would not have the same meaning if it were just a story, as it is the power of what God has actually caused to have happened in human history that restores our relationship with God. This is what makes Christianity different to a philosophical system, namely, that it is not based on just theory, but also events. These events caused the production of much literature; some of which are contained in the Bible. It is important to recognise the connectedness between firstly, the events, and secondly, the literature which was written in response to those events; because not all of the literature that was produced was recognised as inspired by God.

Because of the historical nature of the Bible, and Christian theology, the likelihood follows that there were more books written about the events that took place than are in the Bible. If such extraordinary events were really happening, one would imagine a lot of people (who were able) would have recorded what they saw/experienced. And this is precisely what Luke records at the opening of his Gospel: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us (Luke 1:1)

Old Testament Apocrypha 

Therefore other Christian and Jewish authors wrote books both about Israel’s history, and about Christ’s life and works. However, not all are considered canonical, some because although great Christian or Jewish writings, they were not considered inspired by God, and some because they were not Christian but instead Gnostic writings. I will discuss this is more detail in the third part of this article.

A question that is often asked when approaching the topic of the Old Testament canon, is the place of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a collection of books that have been included in copies of the Old Testament from before the time of Christ, but although having been recognised as important, they were not considered inspired by God. These books are a mixture of different types of writings, some recording the history ofIsraellike the books of the Maccabees, and others containing proverbs and wise sayings such as books like Ecclesiasticus. There is evidence from both within the Bible and outside of it that these books known as the Apocrypha were not, and should not, be considered the inspired word of God.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament contains 39 books in our Bibles today. In past centuries some of these book were joined together, and therefore we find Josephus in the first century writing about the ‘two and twenty, and containing the record for all time’ (Bib. Point.6, p.35), which is referring to the same 39 books but with different divisions. This statement, among others (see bibliography), excludes the Apocrypha from the Canonical writings. As mentioned above the Apocrypha is a collection of books that the Jews did not recognise as part of the divinely inspired scriptures. Neither did the early church including Origen and Jerome, but they included them in the written copies of the Old Testament in Greek for edification. Likewise, there are many great Christian writers today, that Christians do read and consider extremely influential, but we would not consider them divinely inspired on a par with scripture. So it was with the Old Testament Apocrypha.

There was a progressive recognition of each book of the Old Testament right from inception; this can be deduced from certain passages of the Bible. Such as Daniel 9:2 written in sixth century B.C., which confirms that what Jeremiah wrote was ‘the word of the Lord’.

Moreover, he (Daniel) uses the article in the original Hebrew when he says, ‘I, Daniel, understood from the books (or the scriptures), according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.’ This is most instructive, because Daniel placed Jeremiah in a group of ‘the books’ that he regarded and received as ‘scripture’ almost contemporaneous with the time of its writing (i.e within some seventy five years of its composition) (Bib. Point.6, p.33)

Additionally, a book called Ecclesiasticus written sometime around 200-180 B.C. showed that the Old Testament has been organised into three sections: the Law, the Prophets and ‘the other books’ (later known as the Wisdom writings), which is a collection of writings that we have in the Old Testament today. Lastly, building on this point, Jesus mentions the three sections of the Old Testament canon, ’the law, the prophets and the psalms’, which teach about him (Luke 24:44). This further authenticates the 39 Old Testament books as inspired by God, in the same way that Josephus recognised the three sections of the Old Testament.

It is interesting that Jesus never mentions or quotes from the Apocrypha, as he often does from the Old Testament. This is further proof that the Apocrypha was not, and should not, be considered a part of the collection of ‘Scriptures’. Furthermore, in Matthew 23:35 Jesus makes mention of the death of Abel (the first person killed in the OT) and Zechariah (killed in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the OT according to the Hebrew order). He makes no mention of the many people killed in the Apocrypha, thus implicitly denying the authenticity of those books.

In short there is good evidence that the books we have in the Old Testament of our Bibles today, corresponds to the books that were recognised as inspired by God from before the time of Christ. As Walter Kaiser describes the process: there was a progressive recognition of certain books as being canonical right from there inception by readers and listeners who were contemporaneous with the writers and who were thereby in the best position to determine the claims of the writers. (6, p.31) 

New Testament Apocrypha and Gnostics Texts

A lot of the confusion that can surround this topic is largely due to unclear definitions. This can be a result of placing Christian and Gnostic texts under the same category of ‘Christian’ (this is precisely what Bart Ehrman has claimed, see point 4 in Further Reading). Equally, the difference between Christian non-canonical works and Gnostic works is very important.

New Testament

When considering the books that are not included in the New Testament Canon, one has to distinguish between New Testament Apocrypha and the Gnostic texts. New Testament Apocrypha is much like the Old Testament Apocrypha; they are Christian writings that were considered good to read in the church for general instruction, but were not inspired by God, and therefore not to be used to form doctrine. Gnostic texts, on the other hand, are quite different. They are texts written by a group of people who subscribed to a different religious system, and therefore were never considered for the canon (In fact often Christian leaders would speak out against such teachings, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian). The reason that these text have sometimes been misunderstood as part of the New Testament Apocrypha is due to the fact that Gnostic teachings were very much influenced by Jewish spiritual writings, and later Christian writings. Therefore Gnostics produced texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and On the Origin of the World. However, the differences between the New Testament Apocrypha and the Gnostic texts is only to clear with a basic comparison (which you can do with by following the links in the bibliography. Compare Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and On the Origin of the World, with NT Apoc 1 Clement and the Didache)

In fact, the early churches were extremely stringent in their requirements. Books were not accepted if they could not be historically verified.

Muratorian Canon (latter half of the second century): Contains all the books that we consider canonical today, But also the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepard of Hermas, though the Apocalypse of Peter was not considered fully canonical by some churches, and the Shepard of Hermas was universally rejected. They were included in the list of books, because they were to be used to encourage and teach the church, but were not to be read publicly.

Origen (185-254) mentions all the books we now have in the Bible, and in addition the ‘Epistle of Barnabas’, Shepard of Hermas, Didache and ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’. Of these books, the four already mentioned were under dispute (this can also been deduced from the Muratorian Canon mentioned above) as well as Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude.

Athanasius (367) sets out the books that we now have see in the Bible as alone canonical.

From available information, the gradual process which led to full and formal public recognition of a fixed canon of the twenty-seven books comprising the New Testament takes us down into the fourth century of our era. This does not necessarily mean that these scriptures were lacking recognition in their century before that time, but that a need for officially defining the canon was not pressing until then (9, p.67)

Bibliography/Further Reading

1. Bray, Gerald., Creeds, Councils & Christ, (Inter-Varsity, 1984)

2. Thiede, Carsten., The Dead Sea Scrolls and Jewish origins of Christianity, (Oxford, 2000)

3. McGrath, Alister (Ed)., The Christian Theology Reader, (Blackwell, 1996)

4. Ehrman, Bart., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament, (Oxford, 2003)

5. Shelley, Bruce., Church History in Plain Language, 2nd Edition, (World, 1995)

6. Kaiser, Walter Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable and Relevant?, (Inter-Varsity, 2001)

7.Logan, Alastair., Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy, (T. T. Clark, 1996)

8. Chadwick, Henry., The Early Church, (Penguin, 1967)

9. The Origin of the Bible, Bruce, F F., Packer,JI., Comfort, P., Henry, Carl F H., Editors, (Tyndale, 1992)

10.Dunbar, David., ‘The Biblical Canon’, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, (Inter-Varsity, 1986)

11.Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, (William Eerdmans, 1981 sixth edition)

12.On the Origin of the World, The Nag Hammadi Library. http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/origin.html

13.Gospel of Thomas.  http://www.goodnewsinc.net/othbooks/thomas.html

14.1 Clement. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-roberts.html

15.Didache. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

16.McDowell, Josh., Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Volume One, Scripture press, 1990.

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