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Bible, Canon of the

Bible, Canon of the

The word "canon" derives from the Hebrew term qaneh and the Greek term kanon, both of which refer to a measuring rod. It designates the exclusive collection of documents in the Judeo-Christian tradition that have come to be regarded as Scripture. The Jewish canon was written in both Hebrew and Aramaic, while the Christian canon was written in Greek.

Theology and Criteria of Canonicity The historic Christian belief is that the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the books also controlled their selection and that this is something to be discerned by spiritual insight rather than by historical research. It is felt that statements in the writings themselves (such as 1 Cor 2:13 ; 14:37 ; Gal 1:8-9 ; 1 Thess 2:13 ) would cause local churches to preserve them and eventually collect them in a general canon.

A number of criteria were involved in the church's choice of the books it acknowledged as genuine and used in worship services. Irenaeus and other authors of the first three centuries, who wrote against heretical movements and their literature, reveal some of the criteria that the early church used in evaluating its literature.

  • The basic criterion of acceptance was apostolicity: Was a document written by an apostle? Books known to have been written by apostles were eagerly embraced and churches that knew the legacy of books written by men who were not apostles, such as Mark and Luke, accepted them as well. But other churches, which were not familiar with this legacy, were hesitant to receive such books, especially those that did not contain the name of an author, such as the Gospels, Acts, and Hebrews.
  • A second and related question, then, was asked. If a book was not written by an apostle, is its content apostolic? This was an early problem with Revelation, because its theological content was difficult to discern. Tertullian valued Hebrews highly, but thought it was written by Barnabas.
  • A third criterion was the claim to inspiration. Does the author claim inspiration? Some did not.
  • A fourth question was: Is it accepted by loyal churches? This was a very important consideration. What was the attitude of the church in the city to which it was originally written?
  • People of every generation have inherently asked about each book of the Bible: Does it have the "ring of genuineness"? The testimony of the Spirit was important. In the Old Testament canon there were questions about Esther for a period of time because it does not contain the name of God. Many questioned Revelation in those early years because it did not have this "ring of genuineness."

The Old Testament Canon Although Christians include both Old and New Testaments in their canon, Jews do not accept a "New" Testament and repudiate the identification of their canon as the "Old" Testament. The proper designation for the Jewish Bible is Tanak, an acronym constituted from the initial letters of the three divisions of that canonLaw (Torah), Prophets (Naviim), and Writings (Kethubim).

The terms "obsolete" and "aging" are used in Hebrews 8:13 with reference to the Jewish covenant. However, early church writers before the latter part of the second century do not use the terms "old" and "new" to designate two different covenants. They considered the second covenant to be a continuation of the first. It was new in the sense of fresh, not in the sense of different. Even in the third century, authors such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen used the expression "new covenant" to refer to the covenant rather than to the documents containing it.

There are also important differences in the content and order of the early canons. Extant Greek Old Testament manuscripts, whose text is quoted often in the New Testament, contain apocryphal books. But the Hebrew Old Testament canon recognized by Palestinian Jews (Tanak) did not include the fourteen books of the Apocrypha. Since the Hebrew Bible was preferred by the Reformers during the Protestant Reformation in their struggle against the Catholic Church, whose Bible contained the Apocrypha, translators of Protestant Bibles excluded the Apocrypha. Thus Protestant and evangelical Bibles duplicate the content of the Hebrew Bible (the current thirty-nine books).

However, the arrangement of books is that of the Latin Vulgate, from which the earliest English translations were made, including the first English translation by John Wycliffe. Even though the New Testament was written in Greek, Protestant and evangelical Bibles do not embrace either the content or the arrangement of the Greek Old Testament. Greek Old Testament manuscripts typically preserve the Alexandrian order, which arranged books according to their subject matter (narrative, history, poetry, and prophecy). Apocryphal books were appropriately interspersed into these categories. The arrangement of the books in the Hebrew Bible is different from both the Greek and the Latin.

According to the testimony of Talmudic and rabbinic sources, the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible were originally divided into only twenty-four. This included three categories embracing five books of Law (Torah), eight Prophets, and eleven Writings. The Law contained the first five books, the Penteteuch. The eight Prophets included Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 and 2), Kings (1 and 2), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets (12). The eleven books of the Writings contained the subdivisions of poetry (Psalms, Proverbs, Job), the five Megilloth or Rolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and the three books of history (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles 1-2).

The Hebrew canon was a thousand years in formation and nothing is known about this process. The Torah of Moses, the oldest portion, was probably written in the fifteenth century b.c., and Malachi, the latest portion, was produced in the fifth century b.c. Some date Daniel in the second century. The Torah or Pentateuch was immediately acknowledged as authoritative and never questioned thereafter. The Prophets and Writings were produced over a period of centuries and gradually won their place in the hearts of the people. Therefore, the Jewish people of Bible times never had the complete Old Testament as we know it.

The Old Testament refers to about fifteen books not contained in it, such as the Book of Jashar ( Jos 10:13 ) and the Book of the Annals of Solomon ( 1 Kings 11:41 ). Although some books of the Old Testament were discussed in Judea at the Pharisaic Council of Jamnia in a.d. 90, the canon itself was not a topic of consideration and this group had no decision-making power. Historically, Jewish scholars have considered the canon closed since the time of Malachi, and have not included the Apocrypha, which was written in subsequent times.

The New Testament Canon The formation of the New Testament canon, like the Old, was a process rather than an event. Analysis of the process is more historical than biblical, since the church of the New Testament, like the Israel of the Old Testament, never had the complete canon during the time spanned by its canonical literature. However, an occasional indication of the attitude of first-century Christians about their literature is found in the New Testament. Second Peter 3:16 refers to Paul's letters as being misapplied, presumably using the word "scripture" in its usual biblical sense as the Scripture.

Paul refers to a previous letter he wrote to Corinth ( 1 Cor 5:9 ) and to a letter to the Laodiceans ( Col 4:16 ), neither of which the early church preserved in its canon. The followers of inspired men of God would have regarded everything written by them as authoritative, but not all of their writings were equally useful to the church throughout the ancient world, and so not all of them found universal acceptance. This is what is meant by the term "canon"that which was finally accepted on an empirewide basis.

Throughout the Roman Empire there existed local canons that often represented no wider usage than that of a particular city and its immediate surroundings. Two of our earliest and best manuscripts of the Greek Testament contain books not accepted by the church as a whole. Codex Sinaiticus (ca. a.d. 350) contained the books Hermas and Barnabas, and Codex Alexandrinus (ca. a.d. 450) contained 1 and 2 Clement. These probably represented only the environs of Alexandria. The Muratorian Canon, probably representative of the church in Rome in the second century, includes books not in our canon, and differentiates those that can be read in public to the whole church from those which are to be read only in private devotion.

Evidence of a collection of Paul's letters is found as early as 2 Peter 3:16, and Paul instructed the churches in Colossae and Laodicea to exchange his letters to them for public reading. This indicates that some letters were intended to be circulated among the churches from the day they were received. The seven churches of Asia were clearly all expected to receive a copy of the Revelation of John for reading in their assemblies.

Thus, the process of collecting and preserving documents would have been underway from the very beginning. Every church receiving such literature would have asked questions concerning authenticity. Such is the process of canonization. Local canons, which often contained some books not utilized by other local churches, were eventually replaced by those lists that represented the general usage of churches throughout the empire.

Of necessity, the process was gradual. It was initially motivated by the desire of various churches to have as many authentic documents of apostolic men as possible, and later motivated by the interaction of church leaders struggling with the question of which books could be appealed to in their debates about the nature of Christ and the church. These discussions began as early as the second century and escalated in the christological controversies of the fourth century, when we have our first full lists of canonical New Testament books.

There are no extant lists from the third century, and only the Muratorian Canon remains from the second, although its form is only a discussion of various books and not a canon in the proper sense of the term. The earliest known collection of Paul's letters is in the Chester Beatty Papyri, which gives us clear evidence of a collection of Paul's letters at the end of the second century.

The earliest extant use of the term "canon" is from the fourth century in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea (6.25; cf. related words in 3.3.1; 3.25.1-6; 3.31.6). Correspondingly, the first record of discussions about the canon and the differentiation of various categories within it is from this century.

Eusebius distinguishes four groups of books: (1) accepted (most of our twenty-seven), (2) disputed (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John), (3) rejected (various apocryphal New Testament books), and (4) heretical (primarily pseudepigraphical books). He has Revelation in both the accepted and rejected categories, saying opinion on it at the time was divided.

The first exclusive list of our twenty-seven books is in the festal letter #96 of Athanasius (a.d. 367). However, the order is different with the General Epistles following Acts and Hebrews following 2 Thessalonians. The first exclusive list of our twenty-seven books in their current familiar order is in the writings of Amphilocius of Iconium in a.d. 380.

There is no "proper" order of New Testament books; several different arrangements exist in early manuscripts. More than 284 different sequences of biblical books (Old and New Testament) have been found in Latin manuscripts alone, and more than twenty different arrangements of Paul's letters have been found in ancient authors and manuscripts.

Division of individual books of the canon into smaller sections is first indicated in the fourth century, in Codex Vaticanus, which uses paragraph divisions, somewhat comparable to the Hebrew Bible. Our familiar chapter and verse divisions were introduced into the Bible quite late in the history of the canon. Stephen Langton introduced the chapters into the Latin Bible prior to his death in 1228, and Stephanus added the verses in the New Testament in 1551 and his publication of a Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament. Verses are attested in the Hebrew Bible as far back as the Mishnah (Megillah 4:4). The first English Bible to include verse divisions was the Geneva Bible of 1560. Thus, our English translations reflect the divisions as well as the order of the Latin Vulgate.

John McRay

See also Apocrypha; Bible, Authority of the; Bible, Inspiration of the

Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture; idem, The Books and the Parchments; H. von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible; B. S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon; E. J. Goodspeed, The Formation of the New Testament; R. M. Grant, The Formation of the New Testament; B. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament; H. E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament; J. Sanders, Torah and Canon; B. F. Westcott, The Canon of the New Testament.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Bible, Canon of the'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.