Canon of the Bible


I. Introduction
II. Canon of the Old Testament
III. Old Testament Apocrypha
IV. Canon of the New Testament
V. The Pseudepigrapha
VI. New Testament Apocrypha
VII. Conclusion
VIII. Works Cited

Why do we have 66 books in the bible and not more or less? It is not uncommon to hear such statements as… “The Bible was corrupted by the Catholic Church who possessed it” (Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses). “Only Catholic Bibles are reliable, since the church possesses the oldest copies” (Catholics). Yet it is possible to have confidence in the Bible, that it… Contains the Scriptures as they were originally written.

The process by which the 66 books became a part of the bible is called the history of the canon. The word came from the Greek word kanon, which means “reed” or “measuring rod”. The word came to denote that which “passed the test” and eventually meant “standard”. So, the canon is made up of the books that have passed the test and have been accepted as Scripture. One thing to keep in mind is that the church did not create the canon or books included in what we call Scripture. But rather they were inspired by God when revealed to certain men by the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:20,21). God directed and controlled the free and willing choice of words. It was not just the words of men but we can also say that God wrote it. David testified, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke to me, and His word was in my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). I like what Louis Gaussen said about this in his book entitled “Theopneustia”.

“In this affair, then the Church is a servant and not the mistress; a depository and not the judge. She exercises the office of minister, not the magistrate…she delivers testimony, not a judicial sentence. She discerns the canon of the Scriptures, she does not make it; she has recognized their authenticity, she has not given it…the authority of the Scriptures is not founded then, on the authority of the Church: It is the Church that is founded on the authority of the Scriptures.”1

Canon of the Old Testament
“According to the Talmud, the Jews used the phrase ‘defile the hands’ from the first century AD forward to identify writings suitable for reading in the synagogue. When the Torah had been produced through Moses, for example, there was no need for someone to pronounce it canonical. As Moses had been the undisputed leader of the nation of Israel and the one through whom God revealed himself to the people, the materials he wrote down were immediately regarded as inspired, obligatory, and unalterable. As other materials came to be written within the community of Israel, acceptance grew out of their concurrence with the Mosaic writings and from the personal authentication the writers received through signs given by God during their ministries. The process by which the Old Testament canon took form was thus a gradual and extended one over a considerable period of time.”2

The reason they used the phrase “defiled the hands” of the users was because the books were so holy to them.

The Jews divided the Old Testament into a threefold division of Law, Prophets, and Writings. The Law was the Pentateuch or Torah, which were the first five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Prophets were divided up this way – Joshua, Judges, I and 2 Samuel (counted as one book), and 1 and 2 Kings counted as one book, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor prophets counted as a single book. The Writings included the eleven books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther,

Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (as one book) and 1 and 2 Chronicles (counted as one book).

Today we simply divide this same material into 39 books.

By the time of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament books, the New Testament would describe the Old Testament material as “Scripture” (Matthew 22:29; John 10:35; 19:36; Acts 18:24; Romans 1:2; 2 Peter 1:20), “Sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:15 NASB), or “Law and Prophets” (Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; 28:23). Jesus also described a threefold division of the Old Testament as the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). The earliest record to a three fold division of the Old Testament is in the prologue of the book Ecclesiasticus (around 130 BC).

Furthermore, Paul acknowledged the Hebrew canon. As written for our learning – (Romans 15:4), as written for our admonition – (1 Corinthians 10:11), as profitable for doctrine, etc.- (2 Timothy 3:14-17) The apostles frequently quoted from those books in the Hebrew canon – In their Gospels – (Matthew 1:22-23; 2:17-18; John 12:37-41), in their efforts to evangelize – (Acts 17:2-3), in their epistles – (Romans 3:9-10; 4:3; 1 Peter 2:6). It is evident that Jesus and His apostles accepted the authority (canon) of the Hebrew Scriptures, which include the 39 books in the Old Testament.

“Melito, Bishop of Sardis drew up the oldest list of the Old Testament canon that we can date (c.170 AD). Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History IV.26) preserves his comments. Melito said he had obtained the reliable list while traveling in Syria. Melito’s comments were in a letter to Anesimius, his friend; ‘their names are these…five books of Moses; Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. Jesus Naue, Judges, Ruth. Four books of Kingdoms, two of
Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs (also called Wisdom), Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job. Of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.’ F.F. Bruce comments that ‘It is likely that Melito included Lamentations with Jeremiah, and Nehemiah with Ezra (though it is curious to find Ezra counted among the prophets). In that case, his list contains all the books of the Hebrew canon (arranged according to the Septuagint order), with the exception of Esther. Esther may not have been included from the list he received from his informants in Syria.”3

When the church came into existence it accepted the Jewish canon in its entirety.

Old Testament Apocrypha

However, the bible of Roman Catholic Church contains additional material than the books just identified. Specifically, there are seven books (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees), additions to Esther (10:4-16:24), and additions to Daniel (Song of the Three Holy children inserted at 3:24-90; Susanna inserted as chapter 13 and the Bel and the Dragon inserted as chapter 14) These books were written after Malachi (400 B.C), prior to the coming of Jesus.
The Council of Trent accepted the Old Testament Apocrypha as canonical in 1546, with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. The teaching of 2 Esdras 7:105 in opposition to prayer for the dead may have led to its exclusion by the Roman Catholic Church. Reasons suggested for the Old Testament Apocrypha as Scripture include: 1. Some church fathers accepted these books (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria 2. The Syriac church accepted them in the fourth century 3. The Eastern Orthodox church accepts them 4. The Roman Catholic Church proclaimed them as canonical in 1546 5. The Apocrypha was included in Protestant Bibles, including the original Kings James Version of 1611 6. Some have been found among other Old Testament books with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Reasons why the Apocrypha should be rejected in the canon

1. Jesus and His apostles did not accept these books as part of the Scripture. There are no New Testament references to any of the Apocrypha as being authoritative. The New Testament writers quote not one part of the Apocrypha or refer to them as authoritative or canonical 2. Judaism never accepted these books as part of the Scriptures. Ancient Jewish leaders specifically rejected the Apocrypha (Josephus, Philo) While included in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament); they were never accepted as canonical. The New American Bible, the New Catholic translation, in a footnote to the Story of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon frankly admits: “They are excluded from the Jewish canon of Scripture…” 3. While a few early church leaders appear to take some material from them, most were opposed to the inclusion of the Apocrypha into the canon of Scripture (Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Origen) 4. The Apocrypha itself recognizes our Old Testament canon as a distinct twenty-four books, which corresponds to the Hebrew Bible as it is known today a. In 2 Esdras 14:44-48, 70 books are distinguished from 94, leaving 24, or the exact number of the Hebrew canon, which became our 39 Old Testament books. Not only does the Apocrypha not claim inspiration for itself, it actually disclaims it when 1 Maccabees 9:27 describes an existing cessation of prophecy 5. They include unbiblical teaching, such as praying for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:46) 6. They contain demonstrable errors; for example: Tobit was supposedly alive when Jeroboam led his revolt (931 BC) He was still living at the time of the Assyrian captivity (722 BC). Yet the Book of Tobit says he lived only 158 years – Tobit 1:3-5; 14:11 7. The first official adoption of the Apocrypha by the Roman Catholic Church came at the Council of Trent in 1546, over 1,500 years after the books were written 8. When the Apocrypha appeared in Protestant Bibles: It was normally placed in a separate section since it was not considered of equal authority. Luther included the Apocrypha in his German Bible, but he introduced them with the comment, “These are books that are not to be considered the same as Holy Scripture, and yet are useful and good to read.” 9. No Greek manuscript contains the exact collection of the books of the Apocrypha as accepted by the Council of Trent (1546). Furthermore, the addition of books that support “salvation by works” (Tobit 12:9) and “prayers for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:45,46), only twenty-nine years after Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, is highly suspicious. 10. While the Syrian church accepted the Apocrypha in the fourth century, the translation of the Bible into Syrian in the second century AD did not include it 11. The Qumran community had hundreds of books in its library beyond the Scriptures. While the library had some of the Apocrypha, it did not have commentaries on the Apocrypha like it did with Old Testament books. The Old Testament books had special script and parchment, unlike the Apocrypha. Qumran clearly considered the Apocrypha as different from Scripture.

“William H. Green concisely summarizes this evidence, as he writes, ‘The books of Tobit and Judith abound in geographical, chronological, and historical mistakes, so as not only to vitiate the truth of the narratives which they contain, but to make it doubtful whether they even rest upon a basis of fact.”4

Those who accept the authority of Jesus and His apostles will be content with those 39 books found in the Hebrew Old Testament.

Canon of the New Testament

As to the test of Canonicity employed from the first century through the fourth. The critical question would be – was the Holy Spirit its ultimate author? Was it from God?

Therefore, one of the main tests to determine the canonicity of a book was that of authorship. Very early in the church the words of the apostles were regarded as inspired.

Another factor that helped the early Christians decide the canon was the intrinsic value of a book. The book would have a message that was in harmony with other books in the Bible. It would also contain lessons that were vitally needed by the early church. This test eliminated most of the apocryphal materials during the early centuries.

The third test was universality. Was the book received widely among orthodox churches? This test served to eliminate Gospels and epistles written by heretical groups. The books of the bible were written for specific purposes to fulfill specific needs. Although the writers recognized that they were writing through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did not write these books simply to add another book to the bible. However, the early Christians realized the value of these books and kept them. They refused to let them die because there was a message for all Christians, not just to individuals to whom they were addressed. Colossians 4:16 reveals the early practice of sharing, and possibly copying and collecting letters of the apostles. Peter speaks, for example, of how Paul writes “in all his letters” with wisdom God provided him (2 Peter 3:16). What this reveals is a circulation of Paul’s letters and the tendency to quote from them as “Scripture”. When the apostles began to die there was a conscious effort to preserve every communication from them.

There were three main factors that led to the New Testament canon.

The first of these was the heretical canon drawn up by Marcion about AD 140. This man was a disciple in Rome before he became a leader of the sect known as the Marcionites, after his own name. Marcion believed that the New Testament should not reflect any Jewish thought but be completely free from such influence. In fact, he taught the God of the Old Testament was the imperfect creator of an imperfect world, and quite different from the good Father of Jesus Christ. Jews and Christians simply worship two different Gods, and the Father of Christ is not responsible for the evil in the world that he did not make. This false teacher accepted only 10 epistles of Paul and a mutilated Gospel of Luke. He rejected the other books such as Matthew, Mark and John, and Acts, etc. because he thought they contained “anti-christian” thought. He rejected the whole Old Testament. As an answer to his heretical canon, the early Christians made known publicly the canon they were using. Probably the Muratorian fragment (the earliest orthodox list, from about AD 170) was drawn up to serve this purpose.
F.F.Bruce has this helpful material on the Muratorian Fragment.
“…dated about the end of the second century, is that commonly called the Muratorian fragment, because it was first published in Italy in 1740 by the antiquarian Cardinal L. A. Muratori. It is unfortunately mutilated at the beginning, but evidently mentioned Matthew and Mark, because it refers to Luke as the third Gospel; then it mentions John, Acts, Paul’s nine letters to the churches and four to individuals (Philemon, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy), Jude, two Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter.”5

A second factor was persecution. Under the Roman emperors such as Diocletian (AD 303) it was a death penalty to be found in possession of a copy of Christian Scriptures. This brought up the question of which writings were worth dying for. Many uninspired copies were no doubt burned during this period of time.

The third factor was the rise of the codex or book form. In earlier days Scriptures were written on scrolls. When Christians began to use the codex form instead of rolling up scripture on a stick they sewed the leaves together to form a book. When the codex form developed the question arose as to which books should be sewed together.

Furthermore, F.F. Bruce has some other helpful material concerning the New Testament canon based upon early church writers.

“Origen (185-254) mentions the four Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Paulines, 1 Peter, I John and Revelation as acknowledged by all; he says that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, with the epistle of Barnabus, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the gospel according to the Hebrews, were disputed by some. Eusebius (c. 265-340) mentions as generally acknowledged all the books of our New Testament except James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, which were disputed by some, but recognized by the majority. Athanasius in 367 lays down the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as alone canonical; shortly afterward Jerome and Augustine followed his example in the West. The process farther east took a little longer; it was not until c. 508 that 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were included in a Syriac Bible in addition to the other twenty two books”6.

But what about other books supposedly written by or about the apostles? Why are they not accepted? It may therefore be of interest to note… THE PSEUDEPIGRAPHA A BRIEF DESCRIPTION… 1. Otherwise called “false writings” 2. There are over 280 of these writings 3. More than 50 are accounts of Christ 4. The more well known of these are: a. The Gospel of Thomas b. The Gospel of Peter c. The Gospel of Hebrews d. The Protevangelium of James 4. Their value is limited, but they do illustrate: a. Some of the ascetic and Gnostic attitudes opposed by the apostles b. The popular desire at that time for information beyond the Scriptures c. The tendency to glorify Christianity by fraudulent means. REASONS FOR REJECTION… 1. They were never considered canonical by respectable leaders 2. Mainly produced by heretical groups 3. Containing exaggerated and mythical religious folklore 4. Most known

only through citation or quotation by another author 5. Thus their historical connection to the apostles is suspect… THE NEW TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA A BRIEF DESCRIPTION… 1. Not to be confused with the Old Testament Apocrypha 2. These were books written after the time of Christ a. Which were accepted at first by some in the church b. Which appeared at times in collections and translations of Scripture c. They had acceptance in some areas for a temporary period of time d. They never enjoyed acceptance by the Church in general 3. The New Testament Apocrypha include: a. The Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (70-79 AD) b. The Epistle to the Corinthians (96 AD) c. The Ancient Homily, also known as the Second Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (120-140 AD) d. The Shepherd of Hermas (115-140 AD) e. The Didache, also known as the Teaching of the Twelve (100-120 AD) f. The Apocalypse of Peter (150 AD) g. The Acts of Paul and Thecla (170 AD) h. The Gospel According to the Hebrews (65-100 AD) i. The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (108 AD) j. The Seven Epistles of Ignatius (110 AD) 4. These are more valuable than the Pseudepigrapha a. They provide early documentation of the existence of New Testament books b. They fill in the gap between the teaching of the apostles and the writings of the early church of the third and fourth centuries c. They provide clues to the practices, policies and future teachings of the church. REASONS FOR REJECTION… 1. They never enjoyed more than a temporary and local recognition 2. Those that advocated their acceptance considered them at best to be “semi-canonical” 3. No major church council or New Testament collection included them as inspired books 4. The reason they had some acceptance was because they wrongly attached themselves to references in canonical books or alleged apostolic authorship (i.e. the Acts of Paul).

In summary, many have dedicated a major portion of their lives and ministry to the study of this subject, and many scholars have come to the conclusion that the 27 books of the New Testament should be the standard that we use to follow God’s guidance for us today. Since the Council of Hippo in AD 393 (North Africa), there has been no serious questioning of the twenty-seven accepted books of the New Testament by either Roman Catholics or Protestants.

Christians believe that God has spoken… First, through prophets in Old Testament times – cf. Hebrews 1:1 Then, through His Son Jesus Christ – cf. Hebrews 1:2 Now, through the apostles and inspired writers of the New Testament – cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37 — The record of God’s revelation is now contained in the Bible, both the 39 Old Testament and the 27 New Testament books. Of all the doctrines connected with the Christian faith, none is more important than the one that has to do with the basis of our religious knowledge. And the only true and reliable source lies in the book we call the Bible.

With all the things that critics say against the Bible yet the bible still stands.
A.Z. Conrad said:
Century follows century – there it stands
Empires rise and fall and are forgotten – there it stands
Dynasty succeeds dynasty – there it stands
Emperors decree its extermination – there it stands
Kings are crowned and uncrowned – there it stands

Agnostics smile cynically – there it stands
Profane, prayerless punsters caricature it – there it stands
Unbelief abandons it – there it stands
Higher critics deny its inspiration – there it stands
The flames are kindled about it – there it stands
The tooth of time gnaws at it – there it stands
Infidels predict its abandonment – there it stands
Modernism tries to explain it away – there it stands7


Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1943.

Geisler, Norman L. & Nix, William E. A General Introduction To the Bible.
Chicago: Moody Press, 1968.

McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict Vol. 1 San Bernardino:
Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972.

McGuiggan, Jim. If God Came An Approach to Christian Evidences. Lubbock:
Montex Publishing Company, 1980.

Shelly, Rubel. Prepare To Answer A Defense Of The Christian Faith.
Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.

1 Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction To The Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968) , 137

2 Rubel Shelly, Prepare To Answer A Defense Of The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1990) , 142

3 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972) , 36

4 Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction To The Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968) , 174

5 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents Are they Reliable? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1943) , 22,23

6 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents Are they Reliable? , 25,26

7 Jim McGuiggan, If God Came An Approach To Christian Sciences (Lubbock: Montex Publishing Company, 1980) , 197

Prepared by

James A. Crisp

August 21, 2003

Posted in Topical Papers.