I. The Meaning of “Canon”
The word “canon” means straight staff, or measuring rod, and then a guide or a model or a test of truth or beauty.
And those who will walk by this rule (kanon), peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
The earliest use is the sense of a group of books that function as a rule or measuring rod of faith and life: Council of Laodicea in A.D. 363 (Schaff-Herzog, I, 385):
No psalms of private authorship can be read in the churches, nor uncanonical books, but only the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.
1. The OT Canon
- Jewish Understanding of Canon between the Testaments
Other Jewish books besides the ones we have in our Old Testament were written after the Old Testament times. These include:
The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
The Addition to the Book of Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiastitcus (or Sirach)
The Letter of Jeremiah
The Prayer of Azariah
Bel and The Dragon
The Prayer of Manasseh
The First Book of the Maccabees
The Second Book of the Maccabees
The Jews did not accord to the Apocrypha the authority of the canonical books.
The Rabbinical literature (Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b):
After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the bath quol.
1 Maccabees 4:45-46 (about 100 B.C.) on the cessation of prophecy:
So they tore down the altar and stored the stone in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.
He refers to great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.”
Josephus, Against Apion 1:41 (Josephus born A.D. 37/38)
From Artaxerxes [end of OT era] to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.
Note: He knew the writings of the Apocrypha but did not regard them as canonical.
a. The Make-Up of the Jewish Canon
The Hebrew canon has traditionally had 24 books which include all of our 39 and no more, and these are divided into three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Tanach: Torah, Nebiim, Chetuvim)
Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1/2), Kings (1/2), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Minor Prophets (= one book: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
Writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (= one book), Chronicles (1/2)
Thus the canon of the Jews began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles, not (as we have it today) with Malachi. Our order follows the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, but the earliest Christian witnesses as well as Josephus and Philo (who used the LXX but did not accord the Apocrypha authority) show that the Apocryphal books included in the LXX were not counted as canonical.
b. New Testament Pointers to the Existence and Extent of the Old Testament Canon
1). Paul assumed the legitimacy of the “Scriptures” that were being taught to Jewish children.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
There is no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day over what the extent of the Scriptures was. He seemed to assume that their Bible was his Bible, and he made remarkable claims about its authority (“The Scripture cannot be broken,” John 10:35).
2). The three-part Jewish division of the Old Testament was assumed by Jesus.
“Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
3). The Jewish order of the closed Jewish canon is assumed by Jesus.
“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute, that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.’”
But chronologically the last martyr in the Old Testament was Uriah the Son of Shemaiah, whose death is described in Jeremiah 26:20-23. He died during the reign of Jehoiakim who reigned from 609 to 598 B.C.
However in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Jewish OT canon, there was a Zechariah killed in the temple court.
Then the Spirit of God took possession of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. (2 Chronicles 24:20-21)
This strongly suggests that the canon Jesus was familiar with was the Jewish OT canon that includes the books we have today.
According to one count by Roger Nicole, the New Testament quotes various parts of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. (“New Testament Use of the Old Testament” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl Henry [London: Tyndale Press, 1959], pp. 137-141)
Jude 14-15 does quote 1 Enoch 60:8 and 1:9, and Paul quotes pagan authors in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12, but these citations are not said to be from Scripture or to be authoritative because of their sources.
C. Early Christian Witness to the Completed OT Canon
Melito, Bishop of Sardis, about A.D. 170:
When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms, two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom, Ecclesisastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra. (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14)
No Apocryphal books are mentioned, and the only missing book from our OT canon is Esther, which was controversial for some time and may have been suppressed for political reasons at the time because it spoke of a Jewish uprising.
2. The New Testament Canon
a. The New Testament assumed the existence of canonical Scriptures. The concept was not foreign to them or added later.
And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me.”
“And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
The point here is that for the church to begin to govern its life and doctrine by more than this authoritative canon of Scriptures (Old Testament), something similar in authority and limitation would be necessary, namely, a supplementary canon.
b. Jesus was recognized by the early church as having authority equal to and beyond the Old Testament Scriptures.
“He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”
“The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.”
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.”
The point here is that the teaching of Jesus would without doubt lead to an expansion of the canon of the early church (namely, the OT). The Old Testament would not be an addition to what Jesus taught and did. The challenge is opened then for the early church how to limit what is inevitably opened by the coming and teaching of Jesus.
Theologically, a closed canon of the New Testament is what we would expect in accord with what God has inspired and preserved for us in the Old Testament.
If we accept [Jesus’] testimony to the God-given authority of the Old Testament, it would seem intrinsically unlikely that the most stupendous event in human history – in the life, death and resurrection of its incarnate Lord . . . would have been left by the God who had revealed it in advance without any authoritative record or explanation for future generations. (Norman Anderson, God’s Word for God’s World [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981], p. 124)
Jesus himself pointed in this direction and prepared the early church to expect that he not only planned a canon of teaching concerning himself and his word, but that he would provide for it as well through authorized apostles and inspiration.
And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
“He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you.”
c. The early church saw the teaching that emerged from Jesus and the apostles as comprising a completed body of truth about the faith.
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Paul saw the apostolic teaching as the unrepeatable foundation of the church (= canon) and saw his own teaching as the expression of the Lord’s very words and commands.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.
You are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you.
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
d. Peter saw Paul’s writings as part of an enlarging canon of Scripture alongside the Old Testament Scriptures.
[Paul wrote to you] In all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
With this built in path toward a new canon that would give authorized record of the life and teaching of Jesus and the foundational teachings of his authoritative spokesmen, what remained for the early church to do was to discern which writings were the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to the apostles. The rise of heretical teachings and the use of distorted books (Marcion, about 140 A.D.) spurred the process of canonization.
How did the church do that?
The main criterion was apostolicity. Not just, “Was the book written by an apostle,” but also, “Was it written in the company of an apostle, presumably with his help and endorsement.”
Mark: Peter’s interpreter and assistant (Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis 60-140: “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered” in Eusebius, EH III, 39.15)
Luke: close associate and partner of Paul (known from Acts)
13 epistles of Paul: apostle
Hebrews: from the Pauline circle (Hebrews 13:22-24, “But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I shall see you. Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.”
James: Jesus’ brother called an apostle probably in Galatians 1:19 (“But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”)
1 & 2 Peter: apostle
1, 2, & 3 John: apostle
Jude: brother of James
Revelation: by John the apostle
The most controversial books that took the longest to confirm themselves for the whole church were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Jude. But in the end the church discerned their harmony with the others and there antiquity and essential apostolicity.
The core list apart from the controversial books was known at the latest in the latter second century (Irenaeus, about A.D. 180).
The first list known to us with all 27 books is in the Festal Letter of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in A.D. 367. This list was affirmed by the Synod of Hippo in 393.
Did the church create the canon?
Dr. Foakes-Jackson expresses my view:
The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament; the two grew up together. (A History of Church History, p. 21)
F. F. Bruce puts it like this:
What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last a Church Council – the Synod of Hippo in ad 393 – listed the 27 books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. (The Books and the Parchments, pp. 112-113.)