The Canon of Scripture

Simply understood, the canon of scripture is the list of all books that belong in the Bible. The word is derived from the Greek κανών, kanṓn, referring to a “measuring rod,” or “standard.’ The question of what belongs in the Bible and what does not belong must not be underestimated; to add or subtract from God’s words is to prevent God’s people from obeying Him fully, as commands subtracted would not be known to the people and words added might require superfluous burdens which God has not commanded. Therefore, God sternly says (Deuteronomy 4:2):

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

Of course there has always the question of the Apocryphal books which the Roman Catholic Church includes in her canon. Yet, such a question as to the canon is also important because some of the pseudepigraphal works, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Enoch, the Book of Gad, and others, have gained new attention among some evangelical Christians. Is it possible that God kept a book from His church for 2,000 years? How ought such books be approached by Christians? Before we can address any particular extrabiblical text, we must first understand how the canon came about because there is much confusion regarding how the present 66 books came to be included in the Bible as the very words of God.

Old and New Testaments

The Old Testament

First, it must be noted that a book is not canon simply because it is recognized as such by a particular church. No human institution has the authority to incorporated texts into the canon, but only recognize texts as indeed being the words of God. Thus, “what is really meant by canonization—[is] recognition of the divinely authenticated word.”1 The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments which God Himself personally wrote on two tablets of stone, the Scripture recording (Exodus 31:18):

And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Such is emphasized again in the next chapter which says, “And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (Exodus 32:16). The Ten Commandments, therefore, form the beginning of the biblical canon and were deposited by Moses into the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5), constituting the terms of the covenant between God and his people.

Yet, the collection of supremely authoritative words from God began to grow in size throughout Israel’s history. Moses himself wrote additional words from God – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which also were deposited beside the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Then, after the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God, Joshua 24:26 saying, “Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God.” That is, Joshua added more words from God to the collection Moses had placed with the ark of the covenant, a very surprising move considering the command in Deuteronomy 4:2 quoted above. Joshua must have been extraordinarily convinced that he was not taking it upon himself to add to the written words of God, but God himself had authorized such additional writing.

The canon continued to grow throughout the history of ancient Israel, the words from God usually written down by those who fulfilled the office of prophet. First Samuel 10:25 records, “Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD,” and Jeremiah 30:2 records, “Thus speaketh the LORD God of Israel, saying, Write thee all the words that I have spoken unto thee in a book.” Additions to the canon ended in approximately 435 B.C.E., beginning the intertestamental period; this subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings such as the books of the Maccabees and various pseudepigraphal works. Yet, such writings were never considered worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.

Jewish literature outside the Old Testament makes plain the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased during the intertestamental period. The first book of the Maccabees (c. 100 B.C.E.) records of the defiled altar, “So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them” (1 Maccabees 4:45). The Jews knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done. The memory of an authoritative prophet in Israel belonged to the distant past – the last addition to the canon over three centuries prior – the author also speaking of a great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (1 Maccabees 9:27; cf. 14:41). The Jewish historian Josephus (born c. 37/38 C.E.) also states, “It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.”2 That is, Josephus knew of other Jewish writings, but they had been “not… esteemed of the like authority” with what we know today as the Old Testament. There were many other writings mentioned in Scripture (i.e., The Wars of the Lord, Jasher, Gad, etc.) and there were many other writings written after 435 B.C.E. – some historical, some pseudepigraphal – but none were considered the very “words of God” as in the case of the Scriptures. Rabbinic literature further reflects similar convictions in the repeated statement that the Spirit, in His function of inspiring prophecy, had departed from Israel. The Babylonian Talmud in several places puts it thusly, “When the last prophets died, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit took leave of Israel. But still they made use of the echo.”3

The Jewish community at Qumran that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls were also waiting for a prophet or a messiah whose words would have authority to supersede existing regulations (1QS 9.11). Therefore, the Qumran community did not consider the extrabiblical texts in their possession to be the very words of God, but rather, human books of either ethical teaching or Jewish history. The pseudepigraphal Second Baruch also states similarly, “But now the righteous have been gathered and the prophets have fallen asleep, and we also have gone forth from the land, and Zion has been taken from us, and we have nothing now save the Mighty One and His law” (85:3), as well as the apocryphal Prayer of Azariah, “Neither is there at this time prince, or prophet, or leader, or burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place to offer before thee and to find mercy” (1:15).

The New Testament never records any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon; there was apparently full agreement between Jesus, his disciples, the Jewish leaders, and the people that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This fact is further evident by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times,4 but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority.5 The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books was made in 170 C.E. by Melito, the pastor of the church at Sardis, who included every Old Testament book except Esther6 and none of the pseudepigraphal or apocryphal books:

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,7 two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his wisdom,8 Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.9

Wayne Grudem sums up the Old Testament canon well, saying, “The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent references to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agreed that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God’s very words.”10

The New Testament

While the Old Testament canon consists of the writings of prophets, those who received a message from the Lord to be proclaimed to the people, the New Testament consists of the writings of apostles; or ἀπόστολος, apostolos, in Greek, meaning “sent one.” Rather than merely receiving a message from the Lord to give to the people, in the New Testament, the apostles personally met the Lord, walked with Him in the flesh for three years, and were personally sent out by Him to tell the good news of His salvation through His death and resurrection. The Lord personally promised the apostles during His earthly ministry that the Holy Spirit would enable them to write Scripture; the Spirit would teach them “all things,” He would cause them to remember “all” that Jesus had said (John 14:26), and He would guide them into “all the truth” (John 16:13-14).

Therefore, canonization in the New Testament is connected with the apostles or the Lord Himself; Matthew, John, Paul, and Peter were all apostles who wrote books of the New Testament. As for the other texts, Mark traveled extensively with Peter who called Mark his “son” (1 Peter 5:13) and Luke was a major traveling companion of Paul’s who personally affirmed Luke’s writings as Scripture, quoting both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 together as each being Scripture in his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:17-18). That leaves James and Jude, both of whom were closely associated with the Lord Himself as His half-brothers and James was the first pastor of the Jerusalem Church who presided over the first church council in the book of Acts.

In the New Testament, the apostles claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets to write and speak words that are the very words of God. Peter makes this plain, saying to his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). Furthermore, to lie to the apostles (Acts 5:2) is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and lying to God (Acts 5:4).

Paul further makes the divine inspiration of his writings plain by telling the Corinthians, “If any one thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing is a commandment of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37), the word “what” a plural relative pronoun and more accurately translated “the things that I am writing to you.” Therefore, Paul claims that his directives to the church at Corinth are not merely his own opinions but a command of the Lord. Later, when defending his apostolic office, Paul says to the Corinthians he will give them “proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Corinthians 13:3). Yet, it is not just Paul who recognized the divine inspiration of what he wrote; Peter also showed a clear willingness to classify “all of his [Paul’s] epistles” with “the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16), Peter using the word γραφή, graphe, which occurs 51 times in the New Testament and every instance refers to the Old Testament.

But Didn’t Paul Say…?

When speaking of the divine inspiration of Scripture, First Corinthians 7:12, 25, is often brought up. In these verses, Paul says, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord…,” and “…I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment…” Is this a case in which the words ought to be colored gray? The first thing that needs to be said about these verses is that Paul is not saying that what follows is the uninspired opinion of a man, to be taken merely as a man’s judgment. He is not saying that at all; the exact opposite in fact, evident from the context of the passage. 1 Corinthians 7:10 says:

And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away the wife.

Paul is speaking of source, not of authority. The Lord Jesus Himself had personally addressed the issue in verse 10 during His earthly ministry (Matthew 5:32). Yet, there were those in the church at Corinth who had found themselves in situations that Jesus had not specifically addressed. Paul’s answer to them was that since Jesus had not addressed the particular issues in verses 12 and 25, then he as an apostle sent by Jesus would give his own teaching which would be just as good as Jesus’s teachings in the gospels, an amazing testament to the wholly inerrant, divine inspiration of the writings of the apostles.

  1. Milton Fisher, “The Canon of the New Testament,” in The Origin of the Bible (ed. Philip Wesley Comfort; Wheaton: Tyndale, 1992), 77.
  2. Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, “Against Apion,” in The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 776.
  3. Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, vol. 5a (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 29–30, 40, 54, 248.
  4. Roger Nicole, “New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F.H. Henry (London: Tyndale Press, 1959), 137-41.
  5. Jude 14-15 cites 1 Enoch 60:8 and 1:9, and Paul at least twice quotes pagan Greek authors (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12), but these citations are more for purposes of illustration than proof. Never are the works introduced with a phrase like, “it is written,” or “the Lord says,” phrases that imply the attribution of divine authority apart from the context in which they are used in the New Testament.
  6. Although the Jews had always considered Esther part of the canon, some parts of the early church doubted the canonicity of the book on the account that the name of God does not appear in the text. The doubts were eventually resolved, however, and Christian usage became uniform with the Jewish view.
  7. 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.
  8. This is not the apocryphal book called “Wisdom of Solomon,” but a fuller description of Proverbs. Eusebius also notes that Proverbs was commonly called Wisdom by ancient writers (Ecclesiastical History, 4.22.8).
  9. Ezra and Nehemiah were commonly regarded as one book by both Jews and early Christians.
  10. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 57.