Did God or Man Chose the Contents of the Bible?
In our last two blog posts in this series we talked about 1) aspects of the Bible that make it unique among world literature, and 2) the physical materials used by ancient scribes to produce copies of Scripture. Now let’s dive into a question that many people ask: Who got to decide which scriptures were included in the Bible?
It’s a great question for you to ask, as it shows that you’re truly interested in having a solid understanding of church history.
The Bible: Reliable?
To answer this question, we have to look at the biblical canon. The word canon comes from the root word reed, which was used as a measuring rod and came to mean “standard.” As applied to Scripture, canon means “an officially accepted list of books.” But what has made each book “acceptable” — and others not?
As I mentioned in last week’s post, some mistakenly think the Roman emperor Constantine simply made the decision of what to include when he commissioned 50 copies of the Bible for churches in his capitol city, Constantinople. But Constantine played no role in the Bible’s formation, despite what Dan Brown asserts as historical “fact” in his novel, The DaVinci Code. The 39 books of the Old Testament form the Bible of Judaism; the Christian Bible adds the additional 27 books of the New Testament. This complete list of books was found “acceptable” because the church deemed them to be divinely inspired books. They possess, simply, the stamp of God’s authority.
The canon wasn’t a quick decision by one man, then, but the product of centuries of reflection by the Church. From the writings of biblical and church history we can discern at least five principles that guided the recognition and collection of true, divinely inspired books. Let’s review them.
The Canon’s Guiding Principles
Scholars present the five principles like this:
Was the book written by a prophet of God?
If it was written by a spokesman of God, then it was the Word of God.
Was the book confirmed by acts of God?
Often, miracles separated true prophets from false ones. Examples of true prophets: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Miracles, by definition, are acts of God to confirm the Word of God given through a prophet of God to the people of God. They were (and are!) signs that substantiated God’s message.
Did its message tell the truth about God?
Church fathers maintained this policy: “If in doubt, throw it out.” This policy enhanced the validity of their discernment of the canonical books.
Does it come with the power of God?
The early church leaders believed the Word of God was alive and active (as it remains today!), and thus would be a transforming force for edification and evangelism. In other words, if the message of a book did not have the power to change a person, then God was apparently not behind its message.
Was it accepted by the people of God?
When a book was received, collected, read, and used by the people of God, it was regarded as canonical.
Old Testament Canon
The Old Testament canon is the treaty document that God made with Israel. The covenant is the single most important theological structure in the Old Testament.
The Talmud, an ancient collection of rabbinical laws, law decisions, and comments on the law of Moses preserves the oral tradition of the Jewish people. One compilation was made in Jerusalem between 350 and 425 AD. An expanded compilation of the Talmud was made in Babylonia about 500 AD. Each compilation is known by the name of its place of compilation. The Talmud helped to establish the Jewish canon by rejecting later writings, including the Christian Gospels, which they judged to be heretical works. Evidence clearly supports the theory that the Hebrew canon was established well before the late first century AD, though more likely as early as the fourth century BC.
A major reason for this conclusion comes from the Jews themselves, who from the 4th century BC onward were convinced that “the voice of God had ceased to speak directly.” In other words, the prophetic voice had been stilled. No word from God means no new Word of God. We know that Jesus often referred to the Old Testament; there is no evidence that He found fault with the canonicity of any Old Testament book.
Of interest: the Catholic Bible includes 14 books considered not canonical, which are collectively known as the Apocrypha. Apocrypha are works of unknown authorship or doubtful origin. These books were included in the Septuagint (the primary translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) and the Latin Vulgate (Jerome’s 4th century Bible translation that became the Catholic Church’s official version in 1546).
When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534, he moved the books to the end of the Old Testament, saying that though they were not equal to the Sacred Scriptures, they were still “useful and good for reading.” Many Protestant Bibles later omitted the books entirely. Jesus and the New Testament writers never quoted from the Apocrypha. But many Christians find them of interest, as they contain historical information. They are not “heretical” or “false” to the basic tenets of Christianity.
New Testament Canon
Early Christianity and the New Testament emerged with the larger context of Judaism. Christians of the early church regarded the Old Testament story as incomplete and in need of a proper conclusion.
Because of Jesus, early Christians believed God was ushering in a new covenant. As they believed the apostles possessed the authority of Christ, the early believers received their writings as the very words of Christ himself. The apostles spoke with authority, but they always based their claims solely and directly upon their commission by the Lord.
The initial reason for collecting and preserving these inspired books was that they were prophetic. As well, because of the rise of heretical movements — each with its own selected scriptures — the church needed to know which books should be revered, read in church services, and applied to life. Early Christians needed assurance of which books served as their source of authority.
Says scholar J.K. Elliot, “It is likely that the codex (book form of the Scriptures) in which the Christian scriptures circulated helped to promote the establishment of the definitive, fixed canon of the 27 books we know as the New Testament. When each book circulated as a separate entity, obviously there was no limit to the number of texts that could be received. When certain, approved, texts were gathered into small collections this had the effect of ostracizing and isolating texts which were not deemed suitable for inclusion.”
By the end of the fourth century the canon was definitively settled and accepted — but not as part of the Council of Nicea, as some wrongly believe. The Council of Carthage established the orthodox New Testament canon in 397 AD; it was upheld at the Council of Trent in 1545. By the way, Protestants and Catholics are in agreement with their use of the same New Testament.
The Bible: Truth or “Truth”?
Historical documents continue to be unearthed — and clearly not all of them agree with canonical Scripture.
This should not lead Christians to doubt or defensiveness (especially if the media or secular “experts” are touting said find as truth). Rather, we should continue to test new finds against the guiding principles listed above. Hmmmm … imagine if future archeologists uncovered one of our contemporary books — say, for example, a novel of fluff that, on its book jacket, asserted it contained only “true, historical facts” — and took it as gospel. How silly they’d be to simply accept its contents! Lol.
Apocryphal New Testament books, such as the Gospels of Thomas and Judas, have not been added to the canon in part because they promote a gnostic (“inward knowing) form of theology, which is clearly incompatible with the perspective of the Gospel writers and Paul and Peter.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!