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The Biblical Canon


We realize that you all know about the biblical canon but we hope that some of the information placed here will be new to you. There is only one canon and it comprises of the 66 books of the English Bible, though one can make an argument for the Hebrew Canon in the Hebrew Bible’s original form.

#1. Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament By: M. James Sawyer , Th.M., Ph.D.

Evangelical understanding of the criteria by which the New Testament books were recognized as canonical follows the basic outline laid down by B. B. Warfield and his fellow Princetonians, Charles and A. A. Hodge over a century ago. These criteria focused exclusively upon the question of apostolicity. The unstated corollary of apostolicity was the conviction that divine providence had led the church to recognize all and only those books which were apostolic. An examination of Warfield as a principle architect, and of R. Laird Harris and Geisler and Nix as contemporary adherents will demonstrate this outlook.

Warfield echoed the sentiment of the early church in stressing the primacy of apostolicity in canon determination.5 He argued that apostolicity was a somewhat wider concept than strictly apostolic authorship, although in the early church these two issues were often confounded.6 "The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship," contended Warfield, "but imposition by the apostles as law."7 The practical effect of this subtle distinction is to allow for the inclusion of books such as Mark, Luke, James, Jude and Hebrews which were not actually penned by the apostles, but were, according to tradition, written under apostolic sanction. Warfield asserted that the canon of Scripture was complete when the last book of the New Testament was penned by the Apostle John circa A.D. 95. From the divine standpoint the canon of Scripture was complete. However, human acceptance of an individual book of that canon hinged upon "authenticating proof of its apostolicity."8 The key idea here is the concept of apostolic law. Scripture was authoritative because it was written by an apostle who imposed his writing upon the church in the same fashion as Torah was imposed upon Israel. As he stated,

We rest our acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative thus, not on the fact that they are the product of the revelation-age of the church, for so are many other books which we do not thus accept; but on the fact that God's authoritative agents in founding the church gave them as authoritative to the church which they founded. . . . It is clear that prophetic and apostolic origin is the very essence of the authority of the Scriptures.9

Harris's 1957 work, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, was among the first in recent years to address seriously the question of canon from an evangelical perspective. Harris follows Warfield closely in insisting upon apostolic authorship as the criterion for New Testament canonicity.15 He goes beyond Warfield by denying that the Reformation principle of the witness of the Spirit is a valid test of canonicity.16 Harris painstakingly demonstrates that the crucial question for the early church was, "Was the work written by an apostle?" To answer this question he deduces numerous quotations from the ancient fathers which attest the apostolic authorship of the New Testament books.

The common evangelical view of the development of the New Testament canon sees the canon as having arisen gradually and through usage rather than through conciliar pronouncement which vested the books of the New Testament with some kind of authority. Athanasius' festal letter (A.D. 367) is generally viewed as the document which fixed the canon in the East, and the decision of the Council of Carthage in the West is viewed as having fixed the Latin canon. Youngblood summarizes this position in his recent Christianity Today article,

The earliest known recognition of the 27 books of the New Testament as alone canonical, to which nothing is to be added and from which nothing is to be subtracted, is the list preserved by Athanasius (A.D. 367). The Synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Third Synod of Carthage (A.D. 397) duly acquiesced, again probably under the influence of the redoubtable Augustine.41

The closing of the two canons and their amalgamation into one are historical watersheds that it would be presumptuous to disturb

While the canon in the West proved to be relatively stable from the late fourth century, the canon in the oriental churches varied, sometimes widely. The Syriac church at the beginning of the fifth century employed only the Diatesseron (in place of the four gospels), Acts, and the Pauline epistles.58 During the fifth century the Peshitta was produced and became the standard Syriac version. In it the Diatesseron was replaced by the four gospels, 3 Corinthians was removed and three Catholic epistles, James, 1 Peter and 1 John were included. The Apocalypse and the other Catholic epistles were excluded, making a twenty-two book canon. The remaining books did not make their way into the Syriac canon until the late sixth century with the appearance of the Harclean Syriac Version.59 While the Syrian church recognized an abbreviated canon, the Ethiopic Church recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament plus The Shepherd of Hermas, 1 & 2 Clement and eight books of the Apostolic Constitutions

The individual's ultimate assurance that the Scripture he has received is indeed the Word of God must be grounded upon something more (but not less) than historical investigation. Scripture as the Word of God brings with it its own witness, the Holy Spirit, who alone can give certainty and assurance.

The canon of the New Testament was not closed historically by the early church. Rather, its extent was debated until the Reformation. Even then, it was closed in a sectarian fashion. Therefore the question must be asked, is it then heresy for a person to question or reject a book of the present canon ? There have been repeated reevaluations of the church's canon. This happened during the initial sifting period. It happened again during the Renaissance and Reformation period, and it is beginning to happen again now. In such instances the fringe books of the canon have been repeatedly questioned. If an individual believer should come to question or reject a book or books of the accepted canon, should that person be regarded as a heretic, or accepted as a brother whose opinions are not necessarily endorsed?

#2. The Christian Canon by Don Closson

The period immediately following the passing of the Apostles is known as the period of the Church Fathers. Many of these men walked with the Apostles and were taught directly by them. Polycarp and Papias, for instance, are considered to have been disciples of the Apostle John. Doctrinal authority during this period rested on two sources, the Old Testament (O.T.) and the notion of Apostolic succession, being able to trace a direct association to one of the Apostles and thus to Christ. Although the New Testament (N.T.) Canon was written, it was not yet seen as a separate body of books equivalent to the O.T. Six church leaders are commonly referred to: Barnabas, Hermas, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius (Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, 37).

Although these men lacked the technical sophistication of today's theologians, their correspondence confirmed the teachings of the Apostles and provides a doctrinal link to the N.T. Canon itself. Christianity was as yet a fairly small movement. These Church Fathers, often elders and bishops in the early Church, were consumed by the practical aspects of Christian life among the new converts. Therefore, when Jehovah's Witnesses argue that the early church did not have a technical theology of the Trinity, they are basically right. There had been neither time nor necessity to focus on the issue. On the other hand these men clearly believed that Jesus was God as was the Holy Spirit, but they had yet to clarify in writing the problems that might occur when attempting to explain this truth.

The early Church Fathers had no doubt about the authority of the O.T., often prefacing their quotes with "For thus saith God" and other notations. As a result they tended to be rather moralistic and even legalistic on some issues. Because the N.T. Canon was not yet settled, they respected and quoted from works that have generally passed out of the Christian tradition. The books of Hermas, Barnabas, Didache, and 1 and 2 Clement were all regarded highly (Hannah, Lecture Notes for the History of Doctrine, 2.2). As Berkhof writes concerning these early Church leaders, "For them Christianity was not in the first place a knowledge to be acquired, but the principle of a new obedience to God" (Berkhof, History of the Christian Church, 39).

Although these early Church Fathers may seem rather ill-prepared to hand down all the subtle implications of the Christian faith to the coming generations, they form a doctrinal link to the Apostles (and thus to our Lord Jesus Christ), as well as a witness to the growing commitment to the Canon of Scripture that would become the N.T. As Clement of Rome said in first century, "Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit" (Geisler, Decide For Yourself, 11). 

Although the term canon was not used in reference to the N.T. texts until the fourth century by Athanasius, there were earlier attempts to list the acceptable books. The Muratorian Canon listed all the books of the Bible except for 1 John, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, and James around A.D. 180 (Hannah, Notes, 2.5). Irenaeus, as bishop of Lyon, mentions all of the books except Jude, 2 Peter, James, Philemon, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. The Syriac Version of the Canon, from the third century, leaves out Revelation.

It should be noted that although these early Church leaders differed on which books should be included in the Canon, they were quite sure that the books were inspired by God. Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, argues that, "The Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God [Christ] and His Spirit" (Geisler, Decide For Yourself, 12). By the fourth century many books previously held in high regard began to disappear from use and the apocryphal writings were seen as less than inspired.

It was during the fourth century that concentrated attempts were made both in the East and the West to establish the authoritative collection of the Canon. In 365, Athanasius of Alexandria listed the complete twenty-seven books of the New Testament which he regarded as the "only source of salvation and of the authentic teaching of the religion of the Gospel" (Hannah, Notes, 2.6). While Athanasius stands out in the Eastern Church, Jerome is his counterpart in the West. Jerome wrote a letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola in 394 listing just 39 O.T. books and our current 27 N.T. ones. It was in 382 that Bishop Damascus had Jerome work on a Latin text to standardize the Scripture. The resulting Vulgate was used throughout the Christian world. The Synods of Carthage in 397 and 418 both confirmed our current twenty-seven books of the NT. 

The issue of canonical authority finally is addressed within the bigger battle between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation. In 1545 the Council of Trent was called as a response to the Protestant heresy by the Catholic Church. As usual, the Catholic position rested upon the authority of the Church hierarchy itself. It proposed that all the books found in Jerome's Vulgate were of equal canonical value (even though Jerome himself separated the Apocrypha from the rest) and that the Vulgate would become the official text of the Church. The council then established the Scriptures as equivalent to the authority of tradition.

The reformers were also forced to face the Canon issue. Instead of the authority of the Church, Luther and the reformers focused on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Luther was troubled by four books, Jude, James, Hebrews, and Revelation, and though he placed them in a secondary position relative to the rest, he did not exclude them. John Calvin also argued for the witness of the Spirit(Hannah, Notes, 3.7).

In other words, it is God Himself, via the Holy Spirit who assures the transmission of the text down through the ages, not the human efforts of the Catholic Church or any other group. Calvin rests the authority of the Scripture on the witness of the Spirit and the conscience of the godly.

As one reviews the unfolding story of how the Canon of Christian Scriptures has been formed and then interpreted, we can get a fairly accurate picture of the changes that have taken place in the thinking of Western civilization. Two thousand years ago men walked with Christ and experienced His deity first hand. God, through the Holy Spirit, led many of these men to compose an inspired account of their experiences which revealed to the following generations what God had done to save a fallen world. This text along with the notion of Apostolic succession was accepted as authoritative by the emerging Christian population, and would eventually come to dominate much of Western thought. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation rejected the role of tradition, mainly the Roman Catholic Church, when it had begun to supersede the authority of Scripture. Later, the Enlightenment began the process of removing the possibility of revelation by elevating man's reason and limiting our knowledge to what science could acquire. This was the birth of Modernism, attempting to answer all the questions of life without God.

The wars and horrors of the twentieth century have crushed many thinkers' trust in mankind's ability to implement a neutral, detached scientific mind to our problems and its ability to determine truth. As a result, many have rejected modernism and the scientific mind and have embraced a postmodernist position which denies anyone's ability to be a neutral collector of truth, which might be true for everyone, everywhere. This has left us with individual experience and personal truth. Which really means that truth no longer exists. What does this mean for the theologian who has accepted the conclusions of postmodern thinking? One theologian writes, "At the present, however, there is no general agreement even as to what theology is, much less how to get on with the task of systematics. . . . We are, for the most part, uncertain even as to what the options are" (Robert H. King, Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, 1-2). 

#3. On the Formation of the NT Canon by J. P. Holding

Having a specialty interest in literature, my personal view of the canon is arrived at in what some would consider an unusual manner. What I have read of the so-called "non-canonical" books indicates to me that there is an obvious literary difference between what they are and what the canonical books are. I can see a difference, in the way they are written, and I attribute that difference to the influence of the Holy Spirit. I do not suppose that most other people can see the literary differences as well, and in the same way as I do, and I would not try to convince them of the differences.

Moreover, as those who have read my essay on Inerrancy and Human Ignorance will realize, I do not consider belief in inerrancy to be essential to salvation. I do not even think that it is necessary to believe in a fixed canon (although I do). Thus, it should make little difference to the non-believer, in my mind, whether God had anything to do with the formation of the canon or not. The basic claims of Christianity are still there in our faces, canon or no canon.

The anecdote above, indeed, reveals the pointlessness of arguing about the canon. The natural human tendency towards syncretism, and the application of personally-preferred truths to the minimization of those found less comfortable, is inescapable, especially in our modern, post-modern environment. Whether God had a hand in the selection and forming of the canon, or whether it was just a random assortment thrown together by the winds of history, the result will be the same: There will always be those, believer and non-believer alike, who will take mental pen in hand and "cross out" the parts of the Bible (or any set of ideas, for that matter) that they find uncomfortable, or add on things that will personally give them a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. In a sense, we each form our own canon of acceptable ideas; we each have our own "apocrypha" of marginal thoughts, and our own collection of ideas which we discard into the void, dismissing them from our canon of thought entirely. Resistance to a fixed set of ideas, perceived as limiting our freedom to do as we please, is as old a tendency as humanity itself.

However, if we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, then it is also reasonable to assume God's hand in the matter of the compiliation of the canon. Although skeptical of many traditional positions on the canon, MacDonald rightly perceives that "(t)hose who would argue for the inerrancy of scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches of the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances have left us with our present Bible." [MacD.FormCB, 255] One cannot sensibly argue that God inspired certain books of the Bible and then allowed us to mix in books with it that were not inspired. It was either all inspired at its origination, or none of it at all, other than at a basic human level of inspiration - and though, thanks to transcription errors and the like, we have some chaff mixed in with the wheat at present, the ambiguity that is reality at the textual variant level does NOT affect our position on the canon level.

And what of those who happened to disagree with one or more choices of these councils, the "final arbiter," so to speak? Of course individual Christians are free to choose for themselves what books are infallible; but in doing so they should not demand that the church alter their own systems of belief to accommodate them.

Any group or organization needs a set of rules or guidelines in order to function. To that end, attempts to change or significantly alter the rules should be put under careful consideration, and, if they significantly alter the purposes of the group, and are not acceptable to the majority, should be rejected. As with any group, of course, there are those who will protest the change or lack thereof; and (in a free organization) they are thereupon left with two choices: either take your lumps and live with the status quo, or leave.

This should be kept in mind as we consider, later on, divergences in the early church, in particular those related to Gnosticism. For today, of course, we are free as always to choose what parts of the Bible we accept...Does the letter to the Ephesians offend thee? Pluck it out, and throw it away, and hope that it was not put there under divine guidance! Does the Shepherd of Hermas appeal to thee, or Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"? Get thee scissors and paste and add it in - and hope that the warning in Revelation about "adding on" to what has been written means something else other than adding to the Bible! Certainly no divine force stopped President Jefferson from clipping his own "Bible" from the original texts!

At any rate, as we have alluded to earlier, if we believe that God had any part in the individual books of the Bible, then it is a necessary corollary that He also took a hand in the formation of the canon; and one who does believe in such influence by God should not take any choice of "which books they regard as infallible" lightly - unless they would care to proclaim themselves to be more "in" with God than those fourth- and fifth-century church councils; in which case, one might as well proclaim that all of us should prefer their choices to those of the councils!

(Naturally, the councils should not be given absolute authority; however, given that they represent a voice of a community of the Holy Spirit, their decisions should be accorded very high weight, and require extraordinary evidence to overthrow. Council authority, as with scholarly consensus, has no authority by itself; but if I hold a contrary position I should develop at least two or three times the arguments and/or evidence I would need than if I had agreed with the council.)

With the New Testament canon, our information is not always as solid as we would like, but it is still fairly good, and amazingly, even liberal and conservative scholars agree on most points of the issue! The data indicates that while "problems" and disagreements did exist, there was remarkable agreement, as a whole, concerning the composition of the NT canon, and relatively quickly. To summarize in advance:

20 of the 27 NT books were accepted easily. Metzger [Metzg.NT, 254]tells us that:

    Although the fringes of the emerging canon remained unsettled for generations, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained among the very diverse and scattered congregations of believers not only throughout the Mediterranean world, but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.

And MacDonald [MacD.FormCB, 132]adds, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole:

    But this question, like most over which Christians disagree, is not the cutting edge of what Christianity is all about...there was division everywhere in the church on the books that might be called the 'fringe,' but there was very little disagreement over what was at the core of the matter...The division of opinion...was not over the core, but over the 'fringe.'

7 books had a more difficult time - a "fringe" Metzger and MacDonald write of:

  ...the determination of the canon rested upon a dialectical combination of historical and theological criteria. It is therefore not surprising that for several generations the precise status of a few books remained doubtful.(ibid.)

There were miscellaneous works that had their own unique histories. Single works such as the Shepherd of Hermas bounced in and out of favor rapidly, never achieving the level of acceptance over an extended period as the books eventually deemed canonical did. We will address this matter later in our report, when we consider some of these works.

#4. Klippenstein, R. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Maccabees, Ethiopian Books of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

MACCABEES, ETHIOPIAN BOOKS OF Also known as Meqabyan. A work, included in the Old Testament canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is divided into three books; sometimes the second and third book are counted as only one book, so that the Ethiopian books of Maccabees count as only 2 of the 81 books of the Ethiopian Orthodox biblical canon.

These books are different from the Septuagint books of Maccabees, which are included in the biblical canons of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Ethiopian books of Maccabees are not included in the biblical canon of any other Christian group.


The first and second Ethiopian books of Maccabees present themselves as describing pre-Christian martyrs who were killed by an idolatrous king of Media and Midian named Tsirutsaydan. The king’s name is a combination of the place names Tyre and Sidon. In the first book, he kills the five sons of a Benjaminite man named Meqabis. In the second book, he kills the sons of a king of Moab named Meqabis, who had previously turned from idolatry to the true God (Cowley, “Biblical Canon”). The third Ethiopian book of Maccabees deals with issues of salvation and punishment, giving examples from the lives of Old Testament figures (Cowley, “Biblical Canon”).

The figures that the Ethiopian books of Maccabees claim to describe are not known from other sources, and the contents of the books are not consistent with what is known from other sources about the time periods they purport to describe.

History of the Text

The Ethiopian books of Maccabees do not seem to be translated from a work in another language but rather to be an Ethiopian composition. Parts seem to be influenced by the Ethiopian version of the Book of Josippon and were therefore likely written after the Book of Josippon was translated into Ethiopic. The Ethiopian Maccabees were probably written, at the earliest, in the 15th century (Bausi, “Maccabees,” 622).

Since at least the 13th or 14th century, some Ethiopian canon lists translated from Arabic have mentioned three books of Maccabees; in the Arabic source, this would have referred to the Septuagint books of 1–3 Maccabees, which were unknown in Ethiopia (Bausi, “Alcune considerazioni,” 46–51). The Ethiopian books of Maccabees may have been composed to match such canon lists, so that the mention of the three books of Maccabees would have actual texts to which they referred (Beckwith, Old Testament Canon, 496; Harden, Introduction, 38).

#5. Barry, J. D., & Wolcott, R. K. with C. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Canon, Overview of the. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press

Variation in Biblical Canons

The biblical canons of different Christian groups include different books. The main differences are in the Old Testament canon: The Protestant Old Testament includes fewer books than the Old Testament canons of other Christian groups. The New Testament canon shows relatively little variation between Christian groups, although the broader canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes several books that are not included in the New Testament canon of any other Christian group. Additionally, early Christian Bibles (codices) and canon lists sometimes included books in their Old and New Testaments that were ultimately excluded from the canon by all Christian groups and are no longer included in the biblical canon of any Christian group.

For a chart comparing the books in the biblical canons of different Christian groups, as well as Jewish and Samaritan canons of Scripture, see this article: Canon of the Bible, Traditions of the.

For a description of books that were included in fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-century Bible codices—the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Claromontanus, respectively—but are not included in modern biblical canons, see this article: Canon, Books in Codices.

Old Testament

The Christian Old Testament consists of Jewish writings from before the time of Jesus that were also accepted by Christians as part of their canon of the Bible. The Protestant Old Testament canon includes the same books as the Jewish canon of Scripture (the Hebrew Bible), although it divides some books differently and orders them differently. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic canons of the Old Testament include additional books that formed part of the Septuagint version of the Jewish Scriptures before the Jewish canon was finalized; thus, many of these were also included in early Christian Bibles (such as the Codex Alexandrinus) but were not ultimately accepted into the Jewish canon of Scripture. The Ethiopian Orthodox Old Testament canon includes further books that are not included in any other Old Testament canon.

For more information on the relationship of the early Christians to the Hebrew Scriptures and how the early church established the Old Testament canon, see these articles: Canon, Old Testament; Old Testament.

For an overview of books included in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testament canons but not in the Protestant Old Testament canon, see this article: Apocrypha, Old Testament.

For information on the Septuagint, see these articles: Septuagint; Septuagint, Critical Issues.

New Testament

The New Testament consists of writings by Christians about Jesus, the early church, and the early church’s teachings. The New Testament canon of almost all present-day Christian groups includes 27 books ascribed to the apostles or people closely associated with them. Some of these books were universally accepted as part of the canon of the New Testament as far back as the earliest surviving canon lists, while others, such as Revelation, were disputed for centuries before ultimately being accepted. Only one present-day church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has a different New Testament canon. Two versions of the Ethiopian Orthodox New Testament canon exist; the “narrow canon” includes the same 27 books as other New Testament canons, while the “broader canon” includes several additional books. (However, the additional books of the broader canon are not necessarily viewed as having the same level of authority as the books of the narrow canon.)

For information about how the 27-book New Testament canon was established, the role heresies played in accelerating the process, and the relationship of the church fathers to the sacred texts, see this article: Canon, New Testament.

For more information on the books in the Ethiopian Orthodox broader canon of the New Testament, see these articles: Canon of the Bible, Traditions of the; New Testament; Sinodos; Didascalia, Ethiopian; Ethiopian Book of Clement; Book of the Covenant, Ethiopian.

Books outside the Canon

There are many noncanonical books that purport to be by or about biblical characters. Almost all of these were composed much later than the events they claim to describe.

The label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” applies to works that claim to be by or about Old Testament figures but are not in the Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic Old Testament canons. Almost all of these have never been part of any Christian Old Testament canon, although a few of them are included in the Old Testament canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a few of them sometimes appeared in early Christian biblical codices. These writings are primarily useful for understanding the ethos of Second Temple Judaism, and at times particular traditions or lines from these writings are referenced (or alluded to) in the New Testament.

For more information on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, see this article: Pseudepigrapha, Old Testament.

The label “New Testament Apocrypha” is a scholarly term for books that purport to be by or about New Testament figures but are not in the 27-book New Testament canon of most churches. Since the New Testament Apocrypha are not part of the canon of any major Christian group, they more closely parallel the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha than the Old Testament Apocrypha. The label New Testament Apocrypha is mostly applied to books that present themselves as being in one of the main genres of New Testament literature: gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses. Almost all of these books were never part of any Christian canon, although a few of them appear in some early biblical codices. Many of these books were explicitly rejected by the church fathers on the grounds that they were not written by the apostles, were factually incorrect, or, often, because they expressed heretical or extreme views that did not align with the historical teachings of the apostles.

For more information on the New Testament Apocrypha, see these articles: Apocrypha, New Testament; Apocryphal Gospels; Apocryphal Acts; Apocryphal Letters.

The early Christian texts known as the Apostolic Fathers differ from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament Apocrypha in that they are in accordance with Christian tradition and were respected by the church fathers. A few of these appear in some early Christian biblical codices and canon lists but were ultimately not included in the canon of the New Testament. However, in this case, the exclusion was not on grounds of heresy, but simply because they were not written by the apostles or from their era.

#6. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 05:04.

Canon—How books of the Hebrew Bible were chosen By Marc Brettler

The English word “canon” derives from a Greek word meaning measuring rod. Canon thus refers to the books that “measure up” to being included within a particular literary corpus. By definition it implies a process through which various books are judged, and suggests that certain books were excluded as noncanonical. As a result, books that are included within a canon have much greater prestige and authority than those that are excluded.

Most Jews and Christians have grown up with the notion of canonical scriptures, but the idea is really quite radical within the context of the ancient Near East. To the best of our knowledge, no other ancient Semitic civilization attempted to sort through its literature and relegate part of it to a higher status by deeming it canonical while demoting the status of other literary works by denying their admittance into the canon.

Why did the notion of canon develop specifically in Israel? Unfortunately, the process by which the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible were canonized is not clearly described either in biblical or rabbinic literature. All we can do is reconstruct the process based on hints and clues.

Clearly the canonization of the Hebrew Bible did not occur at a single moment under the auspices of some religious power group. This is obvious from the tripartite structure of the Hebrew Bible: (1) Torah (the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), (2) Nevi’im (literally, the Prophets, but actually the historical books of Joshua through Kings—called in Jewish tradition through Former Prophets—and the prophets Isaiah through Malachi, called in Jewish tradition the Latter Prophets) and (3) Kethubim (Writings; that is, sundry material). This order is probably reflected in Luke 24:44, which refers to “the law of Moses [Torah] and the prophets [Nevi’im] and the psalms” meaning Kethubim, here called after the first and largest book in the collection of writings.

Certain books in the Hebrew canon do not seem to fit the category to which they are assigned. The Kethubim include Daniel, which is really a prophetic book, and Chronicles, which parallels the historical books of Samuel and Kings in the Nevi’im section. Had the Bible been canonized at a single moment, Daniel would have been placed adjacent to a prophetic book such as Ezekiel and Chronicles would have been next to Kings, since this is where they belong thematically. (In most English Bibles, which follow the order in the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, that is where these books appear). Since Chronicles and Daniel are late books (probably from the fourth and, second century B.C.E.,* respectively), the best explanation for why they were not incorporated into Nevi’im is that the Nevi’im section of the canon was closed by the time they were composed. This inconsistent ordering suggests that Nevi’im was canonized before Kethubim. More generally, we deduce that the Torah was canonized first, then the Nevi’im and finally the Kethubim.

It is difficult to assign dates to each stage of this process. According to some scholars, the texts now incorporated in the Torah were completed before the Babylonian Exile of 587/586 B.C.E., while others claim that the latest Torah texts were composed during the Babylonian Exile or after the return to Zion in 538 B.C.E. It is likely that either the experience of being exiled, or of trying to live through the Exile, or of trying to reconstitute a community in the land of Israel after the return to Zion would have involved religious consolidation. This would have included asking which legal and historical traditions are authoritative or, central. Discovering the “correct” legal traditions was probably an especially pressing issue for the exilic community, since several prophets had predicted that destruction or exile would result from abrogation of the law (see, for example, Amos 2:4–5). Therefore, to end the catastrophe of Exile, or to rebuild a successful community in Israel, it was necessary to choose those texts that incorporated the laws that must be observed. These had to be chosen from a multiplicity of legal and historical traditions that different groups in ancient Israel claimed to be authoritative, divine revelation. Several were chosen and ultimately became canonized as Torah, “(the) teaching” that served as the legal yardstick for this community in crisis.

#7. Geisler, N. L., & MacKenzie, R. E. (1995). Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: agreements and differences (pp. 173–175). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

The Wrong Test for Canonicity. When all is said and done, the Roman Catholic Church uses the wrong test for canonicity. The true and false views of what determines canonicity can be contrasted as follows.45

Incorrect View of Canon

                                                      Correct View of Canon

Church Determines Canon

                                                       Church Discovers Canon

Church Is Mother of Canon

                                                       Church Is Child of Canon*

Church Is Magistrate of Canon

                                                       Church Is Minister of Canon

Church Regulates Canon

                                                       Church Recognizes Canon

Church Is Judge of Canon

                                                       Church Is Witness of Canon

Church Is Master of Canon

                                                       Church Is Servant of Canon

In spite of the fact that Catholic sources can be cited supporting what looks very much like the “correct view” above, Catholic apologists often equivocate on this issue. Peter Kreeft, for example, argues that the church must be infallible if the

Bible is, since the effect cannot be greater than the cause and the church caused the canon. But if the church is regulated by the canon, not ruler over it, then the church is not the cause of the canon. Other defenders of Catholicism make the same mistake, giving lip-service to the fact that the church only discovers the canon, yet constructing an argument that makes the church the determiner of the canon. They neglect the fact that it is God who caused (by inspiration) the canonical Scriptures, not the church.

This misunderstanding is sometimes evident in the equivocal use of the word “witness.” When we speak of the later church as being a “witness” to the canon, we do not mean in the sense of being an eyewitness to first-hand evidence. Only the people of God contemporary to the events were first-hand witnesses. Rather, the later church is a witness of the canon in the sense that it testifies to the historical evidence for the authenticity of the canonical books as coming from prophets and apostles. Yet when Roman Catholics speak of the role of the church in determining the canon they endow it with an evidential role it does not have. Several points will clarify the proper role of the Christian church in discovering which books belong in the canon.

First, only the people of God contemporary to the writing of the biblical books are actual eyewitnesses to the evidence. They alone were witnesses to the canon as it was developing. Only they are qualified to testify to the evidence of the propheticity of the biblical books, which is the determinative factor of canonicity.

Second, the later church is not an evidential witness for the canon. The later church does not create or constitute evidence for the canon. It is only a discoverer and observer of the evidence that remains for original confirmation of the propheticity of the canonical books. Assuming that the church itself is evidence is the mistake behind the view favoring the canonicity of the Apocrypha.

Third, neither the earlier nor later church is the judge of the canon. The church is not the final authority for the criteria of what will be admitted as evidence in the way that judges are. That is, it does not determine the rules of canonicity. Since the Bible is the Word of God, only God can determine the criteria for our discovery of what is his Word. Or, to put it another way, what is of God will have his “fingerprints” on it, and only God is the determiner of what his “fingerprints” are like. It is up to the people of God simply to discover these divine characteristics that God has determined.

Fourth, both the early and later church is more like a jury than a judge. The role of a jury is to listen to the evidence, not create it or try to be it. They weigh the evidence, not make it or constitute it. Then, they render a verdict in accord with the evidence. This, as we have shown, is precisely what the Christian church has done in rendering its verdict that the Apocrypha is not part of sacred Scripture. The first-century church looked at the first-hand evidence for propheticity (miracles, etc.), and the subsequent historic church has reviewed the evidence for the authenticity of these prophetic books that were directly confirmed by God when they were written.

There is, of course, a certain sense in which the church is a “judge” of the canon. It is called upon, as all juries are, to engage in an active use of the mind in sifting and weighing the evidence and in rendering a verdict. But this is not what Roman Catholics believe, in practice, if not in theory: that the Roman Catholic Church plays a magisterial role in determining the canon. After all, this is what is meant by the “teaching magisterium” of the church, which it exercised at Trent and reaffirmed at Vatican I and II. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is not merely ministerial, it is magisterial. It has a judicial role, not just an administrative one. It is not just a jury looking at evidence, but a judge determining what counts as evidence and what does not. And herein is the problem.

In exercising its magisterial role, the Roman Catholic Church chose the wrong course in rendering its decision about the Apocrypha. First, it chose to follow the wrong criterion: Christian usage rather than propheticity. Second, it used second-hand evidence of later writers rather than first-hand evidence for canonicity (divine confirmation of the author’s propheticity). Third, it did not use immediate confirmation by contemporaries of the events but later statements by people often separated from the events by generations or centuries. All of these mistakes arose out of a misconception of the very role of the church as judge rather than jury, as magistrate rather than minister, as sovereign over rather than servant of the canon. By contrast, the Protestant rejection of the Apocrypha was based on a proper understanding of the role of the contemporary eyewitnesses to the evidence of propheticity and the succeeding church as being possessor of historical evidence for the authenticity of these prophetic books.

#8. Barry, J. D., & Wolcott, R. K. with C. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Canon, Overview of the. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

CANON, OVERVIEW OF THE Canon. The Christian canon is the official list of texts determined to be both inspired by God and authoritative for the church. The canon lists vary slightly within various streams of Christianity. These sacred collections were formed in an organic, communal process called canonization (McDonald, Biblical Canon, 18; Bokedal, Formation, 47).

Process of Canonization

The historical, theological, liturgical, and textual dimensions of the process of canonization are studied only in retrospect (Bokedal, Formation, 5). A central question about canonicity is whether a canon or the notion of canonicity comes first; scholars often focus on this question when exploring the relationship of theology and hermeneutics to the formation of a collection of sacred texts (Evans and Tov, Exploring the Origins). Canonicity is firmly rooted in the recognition of the usage and authority of the texts.

For further information, see these articles: Canon, Old Testament; Canon, New Testament.

The Canon and Councils

Despite popular claims, canons were not determined unilaterally by a particular council or government.

Although Emperor Constantine did, in his effort to “promote and organize Christian worship in the growing number of churches in his capital city” of Constantinople, direct Eusebius to have 50 copies of the sacred Christian Scriptures made (ca. AD 332), this did not become the organizing principle of the canon, as is often proposed (Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 302). Instead, in an extant letter, Constantine noted that the entire process was at the command of Eusebius (Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 4.36.37; Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 302)—possibly the reason why Eusebius independently attempts, in his Ecclesiastical History, to determine the extent of the New Testament canon (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.25.1–7). While Constantine’s commissioned copies, along with early Christian Bibles in general, no doubt influenced the future canonization process, Eusebius’ attempt to outline the canon here is more focused on furthering Christianity, rather than being guided by existing parameters. Based on later disputes regarding the canon, this point is made even clearer: If Constantine were making the decision, then any further debate would have been void; yet debate continued in the church, with it largely concluding by the end of the fourth century AD. Additionally, the New Testament’s affirmation of Jesus—rather than Caesar—as the “Son of God” would have been considered antiempirical (Mark 1:1), yet ideas such as this one remain part of the Bible, again attesting to the church’s autonomy (compare Colossians 1:16–18).

Although Constantine’s influence at the Council of Nicea in AD 325 is often cited as a major force in finalizing the New Testament canon, the evidence does not support this. Constantine, as emperor, did convene the council, but he had no direct authority over the outcome of the council, and the records of the council’s decisions contain no mention of the New Testament canon. Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter is often cited as describing the New Testament canon established at the Council of Nicea, but it was actually written 42 years later, in AD 367. Thus, it is highly unlikely that it reflects any decision made at the Council of Nicea, especially since debate about the New Testament canon continued after Athanasius’ letter.

Later councils do offer lists of canonical books. However, the councils from which canonical lists often come were essentially moments when the established practices of Christian communities were recognized. While these councils included some debate, as well as advocacy for particular books, this debate and advocacy was not about books that would later be deemed heretical or necessarily representative of one voice over others; rather, these debates were about differences in tradition between regions. This is because there was no single authority over the church at the time; instead, the church was governed regionally by bishops.

Some bishops were more influential and/or traveled more widely than others; ultimately, these bishops advised communities and helped them keep within the rule of faith (the essentials of the Christian faith, as is seen in creeds like the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed). The relationship between these bishops and the churches they represented was similar to that of Paul and the Corinthians: Paul was an authoritative voice, as a man called by God and guided by the Spirit, but he still had to convince the Corinthians to follow his direction. Additionally, the viewpoints of leadership—like those of the early apostles—were developed within community.

For information on early Christian practices and creeds, see these articles: Christianity; Apostolic Constitutions and Canons; Creeds and Confessions; Apostles’ Creed; Nicene Creed.

When reflecting on the process of canonization—when trying to understand both Jewish and Christian councils—it must be remembered that the councils were not composed of a majority power; instead, they were often made up of those from persecuted communities trying to uphold the truth against those who wished to harm them or exploit the faith.

The Canon and the Heretical Writings

Books that were later deemed heretical were never widely authoritative, and thus were never part of any early Bible or the canonization process (outside of being directly noted as unaccepted). There was no conspiracy against these noncanonical and heretical works, but rather an acknowledgement of their factual inaccuracy and their teachings, which clearly disagree with historical Christianity as taught by Jesus and the apostles. Instead, the books under discussion and debate during the canonicity process were those that agreed with the tradition of the early church and of the apostles but were doubtful as to their relevance for wider church usage (mainly in worship settings) or their being from the era of the apostles and reflective of their thoughts.

For information on specific noncanonical writings and what the early church fathers said about these writings (when extant comments from the fathers exist), see these articles: Apocrypha, New Testament; Nag Hammadi Codices.

For information on noncanonical writings that were once in an early Christian Bible but no longer are, see this article: Canon, Books in Codices.

Nevertheless, heretical writings did play a role in the process of canonization. As more heretical leaders and movements appeared, the church fathers began to develop what can be described as a “canon consciousness.” They seemed to realize the need for a closed, authoritative group of writings. However, it took quite some time for this to be a focus of councils. At first, the church fathers seemed more concerned with showing the errors of heretical leaders and groups so that their church communities could clearly discern truth. Their way of doing so was through the tradition they inherited from the apostles, as seen in the idea of the “rule of faith,” the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and in many of what are now the New Testament writings (although they were not yet called such; compare Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon). This is perhaps why creeds and confessions were the main focus of many early councils, as were actual practices (such as what day the global church would celebrate Easter).

For further information on major heretical viewpoints that the early church fathers spoke against, see these articles: Docetism; Marcion; Gnosticism; Manichaeans. The early church fathers also spoke against extreme asceticism, known as encratism, which is seen in many of the noncanonical writings; for further information on encratism, see this article: Asceticism.

The largest concerns of early church fathers seem to have been the actual practices of churches; which texts they would use grew out of this concern. The church fathers looked for unity around truth and seem to have relied on the work of the Holy Spirit, discernment, and what would come to be known as the New Testament writings in that process. Thus, it could be said that the process of being the church created the canon.

For a historical overview of the process of canonization of the Christian Bible, see this article: Canon, Timeline of Formation of.

#9. Geisler, N. L. (1999). In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (pp. 81–84). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Principles of Canonicity. Granted that God gave authority and hence canonicity to the Bible, another question arises: How did believers become aware of what God had done? The accepted canonical books of the Bible themselves refer to other books that are no longer available, for example, the “Book of Jasher” (Josh. 10:13) and “the Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Num. 21:14). Then there are Apocryphal books and the so-called “lost books.” How did the Fathers know those were not inspired? Did not John (21:25) and Luke (1:1) speak of a profusion of religious literature? Were there not false epistles (2 Thess. 2:2)? What marks of inspiration guided the Fathers as they identified and collected the inspired books? Perhaps the very fact that some canonical books were doubted at times, on the basis of one principle or another, argues both for the value of the principle and the caution of the Fathers in their recognition of canonicity. It provides assurance that the people of God really included the books God wanted.

Five foundational questions lie at the very heart of the discovery process:

Was the book written by a prophet of God? The basic question was whether a book was prophetic. Propheticity determined canonicity. A prophet was one who declared what God had disclosed. Thus, only the prophetic writings were canonic. Anything not written by a prophet of God was not part of the Word of God. The characteristic words “And the word of the Lord came to the prophet,” or “The Lord said unto,” or “God spoke” so fill the Old Testament that they have become proverbial. If substantiated these claims of inspiration are so clear that it was hardly necessary to discuss whether some books were divine in origin. In most cases it was simply a matter of establishing the authorship of the book. If it was written by a recognized apostle or prophet, its place in the canon was secured.

Historical or stylistic (external or internal) evidence that supports the genuineness of a prophetic book also argues for its canonicity. This was exactly the argument Paul used to defend his harsh words to the Galatians (Gal. 1:1–24). He argued that his message was authoritative because he was an authorized messenger of God, “an apostle not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father” (Gal. 1:1). He also turned the tables on his opponents who preached “a different gospel; which is really not another; only . . . to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6–7). His opponents’ gospel could not be true because they were “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4).

It should be noted in this connection that occasionally the Bible contains true prophecies from individuals whose status as people of God is questionable, such as Balaam (Num. 24:17) and Caiaphas (John 11:49). However, granted that their prophecies were consciously given, these prophets were not writers of Bible books, but were merely quoted by the actual writer. Therefore, their utterances are in the same category as the Greek poets quoted by the apostle Paul (cf. Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12).

The arguments Paul used against the false teachers at Galatia were also used as grounds for rejecting a letter that was forged or written under false pretenses. One such letter is mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:2. A book cannot be canonical if it is not genuine. A book might use the device of literary impersonation without deception. One writer assumes the role of another for effect. Some scholars feel such is the case in Ecclesiastes, if Koheleth wrote autobiographically as though he were Solomon (see Leupold, 8f.). Such a view is not incompatible with the principle, provided it can be shown to be a literary device and not a moral deception. However, when an author pretends to be an apostle in order to gain acceptance of his ideas, as the writers of many New Testament Apocryphal books did, then it is moral deception.

Because of this “prophetic” principle, 2 Peter was disputed in the early church. Even Eusebius in the fourth century said, “But the so-called second Epistle we have not received as canonical, but nevertheless it has appeared useful to many, and has been studied with other Scriptures” (Eusebius 1:193). On the basis of differences in the style of writing, it was felt by some that the author of 2 Peter could not be the same as the author of 1 Peter. But 2 Peter claimed to have been written by “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). Thus, the epistle was either a forgery or there was great difficulty in explaining its different style. Those who were disturbed by such evidence doubted the genuineness of 2 Peter and it was placed among the antilegomena books for a time. It was finally admitted on the grounds that it was Peter’s genuine writing. The differences in style can be accounted for by the time lapse, different occasions, and the fact that Peter verbally dictated 1 Peter to an amanuensis (or secretary; see 1 Peter 5:13).

Inspiration was so certain in many prophetic writings that their inclusion was obvious. Some were rejected because they lacked authority, particularly the pseudepigrapha. These books provided no support for their claim. In many cases the writing is fanciful and magical. This same principle of authority was the reason the book of Esther was doubted, particularly since the name of God is conspicuously absent. Upon closer examination, Esther retained its place in the canon after the Fathers were convinced that authority was present, although less observable.

Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? A miracle is an act of God to confirm the word of God given through a prophet of God to the people of God. It is the sign to substantiate his sermon; the miracle to confirm his message. Not every prophetic revelation was confirmed by a specific miracle. There were other ways to determine the authenticity of an alleged prophet. If there were questions about one’s prophetic credentials it could be settled by divine confirmation, as indeed it was on numerous occasions throughout Scripture (Exodus 4; Numbers 16–17; 1 Kings 18; Mark 2; Acts 5; see MIRACLES IN THE BIBLE).

There were true and false prophets (Matt. 7:15), so it was necessary to have divine confirmation of the true ones. Moses was given miraculous powers to prove his call (Exod. 4:1–9). Elijah triumphed over the false prophets of Baal by a supernatural act (1 Kings 18). Jesus was attested to by miracles and signs God performed through him (Acts 2:22). As to the apostles’ message, “God was also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to his own will” (Heb. 2:4). Paul gave testimony of his apostleship to the Corinthians, declaring, “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12; see MIRACLES, APOLOGETIC VALUE OF).

Does the message tell the truth about God? Only immediate contemporaries had access to the supernatural confirmation of the prophet’s message. Other believers in distant places and subsequent times had to depend on other tests. One such test was the authenticity of a book. That is, does the book tell the truth about God and his world as known from previous revelations? God cannot contradict himself (2 Cor. 1:17–18), nor can he utter what is false (Heb. 6:18). No book with false claims can be the Word of God. Moses stated the principle about prophets generally that

  If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. [Deut. 13:1–3]

So any teaching about God contrary to what his people already knew to be true was to be rejected. Furthermore, any predictions made about the world which failed to come true indicated that a prophet’s words should be rejected. As Moses said to Israel,

  And you may say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. [Deut. 18:21–22]

A prophet who made such false claims might be stoned. The Lord said, “The prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die” (Deut. 18:20). That kind of punishment assured no repeat performance by that prophet, and it gave other prophets pause before they said, “Thus says the Lord.”

Truth in itself does not make a book canonical. This is more a test of inauthenticity of a book, rather than canonicity. It is a negative test that could eliminate books from the canon. The Bereans used this principle when they searched the Scriptures to see whether Paul’s teaching was true (Acts 17:11). If the preaching of the apostle did not accord with the teaching of the Old Testament canon, it could not be of God.

Much of the Apocrypha was rejected because it was not authentic. The Jewish Fathers and early Christian Fathers rejected, or considered second-rate, these books because they had historical inaccuracies and even moral incongruities. The Reformers rejected some because of what they considered to be heretical teaching, such as praying for the dead, which 2 Maccabees 12:45 supports. The apostle John strongly urged that all purported “truth” be tested by the known standard before it be received (1 John 4:1–6).

The test of authenticity was the reason James and Jude have been doubted. Some have thought Jude inauthentic because it may quote inauthentic pseudepigraphical books (Jude 9, 14; see Jerome, 4). Martin Luther questioned the canonicity of James because it lacks an obvious focus on the cross. Martin Luther thought the book appeared to teach salvation by works. Careful study has cleared James of these charges, and even Luther came to feel better about them. Historically and uniformly, Jude and James have been vindicated and their canonicity recognized after they have been harmonized with the rest of Scripture.

Did it come with the power of God? Another test for canonicity is a book’s power to edify and equip believers. This requires the power of God. The Fathers believed the Word of God to be “living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and consequently ought to have a transforming force (2 Tim. 3:17; 1 Peter 1:23). If the message of a book did not effect its stated goal, if it did not have the power to change a life, then God was apparently not behind its message. A message of God would certainly be backed by the might of God. The Fathers believed that the Word of God accomplishes its purpose (Isa. 55:11).

Paul applied this principle to the Old Testament when he wrote to Timothy, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15 KJV). If it is of God, it will work—it will come to pass. This simple test was given by Moses to try the truth of a prophet’s prediction (Deut. 18:20ff.). If what was foretold did not materialize, it was not from God.

On this basis, heretical literature and good noncanonical apostolic literature was rejected from the canon. Even those books whose teaching was spiritual, but whose message was at best only devotional, were deemed noncanonical. Such is the case for most literature written in the apostolic and subapostolic periods. There is a tremendous difference between the canonical books of the New Testament and other religious writings of the apostolic period. “There is not the same freshness and originality, depth and clearness. And this is no wonder, for it means the transition from truth given by infallible inspiration to truth produced by fallible pioneers” (Berkhof, 42). The noncanonical books lacked power; they were devoid of the dynamic aspects found in inspired Scripture. They did not come with the power of God.

Books whose edifying power was questioned included Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) and Ecclesiastes. Could a book that is erotically sensual or skeptical be from God? Obviously not; as long as these books were thought of in that manner, they could not be considered canonical. Eventually, the messages of these books were seen as spiritual, so the books themselves were accepted. The principle, nevertheless, was applied impartially. Some books passed the test; others failed. No book that lacked essential edificational or practical characteristics was considered canonical.

Was it accepted by the people of God? A prophet of God was confirmed by an act of God (miracle) and was recognized as a spokesman by the people who received the message. Thus, the seal of canonicity depended on whether the book was accepted by the people. This does not mean that everybody in the community to which the prophetic message was addressed accepted it as divinely authoritative. Prophets (1 Kings 17–19; 2 Chron. 36:11–16) and apostles (Galatians 1) were rejected by some. However, believers in the prophet’s community acknowledged the prophetic nature of the message, as did other contemporary believers familiar with the prophet. This acceptance had two stages: initial acceptance and subsequent recognition.

Initial acceptance of a book by the people to whom it was addressed was crucial. Paul said of the Thessalonians, “We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Whatever subsequent debate there may have been about a book’s place, the people in the best position to know its prophetic credentials were those who knew the writer. The definitive evidence is that which attests acceptance by contemporary believers.

There is ample evidence that books were immediately accepted into the canon. Moses’ books were immediately placed with the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:26). Joshua’s writing was added (Josh. 24:26). Following were books by Samuel and others (1 Sam. 10:25). Daniel had a copy of Moses and the Prophets, which included the book of his contemporary Jeremiah (Dan. 9:2, 10–11). Paul quoted the Gospel of Luke as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18). Peter had a collection of Paul’s “letter” (2 Peter 3:16). Indeed, the apostles exhorted that their letters be read and circulated among the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3).

Some have argued that Proverbs 25:1 shows an exception. It suggests that some of Solomon’s proverbs may not have been collected into the canon during his lifetime. Rather, “the men of Hezekiah . . . transcribed” more of Solomon’s proverbs. It is possible that these additional proverbs (chaps. 25–29) were not officially presented to the believing community during Solomon’s life, perhaps because of his later moral decline. However, since they were authentic Solomonic proverbs there was no reason not to later present and at that time immediately accept them as authoritative. In this case Proverbs 25–29 would not be an exception to the canonic rule of immediate acceptance.

It is also possible that these later chapters of Proverbs were presented and accepted as authoritative during Solomon’s lifetime. Support for this view can be derived from the fact that the Solomonic part of the book may have been compiled in three sections, which begin at 1:1, 10:1, and 25:1. Perhaps these were preserved on separate scrolls. The word also in Proverbs 25:1 can refer to the fact that Hezekiah’s men also copied this last section (scroll) along with the first two sections (scrolls). All three scrolls would have been immediately accepted as divinely authoritative and were only copied afresh by the scholars.

Since Scripture of every time period is referred to in later biblical writings, and each book is quoted by some early church Father or listed in some canon, there is ample evidence that there was continuing agreement within the covenant community concerning the canon. That certain books were written by prophets in biblical times and are in the canon now argues for their canonicity. Along with evidence for a continuity of belief, this argues strongly that the idea of canonicity existed from the beginning. The presence of a book in the canon down through the centuries is evidence that it was known by the contemporaries of the prophet who wrote it to be genuine and authoritative, despite the fact that succeeding generations lacked definitive knowledge of the author’s prophetic credentials.

Later debate about certain books should not cloud their initial acceptance by immediate contemporaries of the prophets. True canonicity was determined by God when he directed the prophet to write it, and it was immediately discovered by the people addressed.

Technically speaking, the discussion about certain books in later centuries was not a question of canonicity but of authenticity or genuineness. Because later readers had neither access to the writer nor direct evidence of supernatural confirmation, they had to rely on historical testimony. Once they were convinced by the evidence that books were written by accredited spokespeople for God, the books were accepted by the church universal. But the decisions of church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries did not determine the canon, nor did they first discover or recognize it. In no sense was the authority of the canonical books contingent upon the late church councils. All the councils did was to give later, broader, and final recognition to the facts that God had inspired the books, and the people of God had accepted them.

Several centuries went by before all the books in the canon were recognized. Communication and transportation were slow, so it took longer for the believers in the West to become fully aware of the evidence for books that had circulated first in the East, and vice versa. Prior to 313 the church faced frequent persecution that did not allow leisure for research, reflection, and recognition. As soon as that was possible, it was only a short time before there was general recognition of all canonical books by the regional councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). There was no great need for precision until a dispute arose. Marcion published his gnostic canon, with only Luke and ten of Paul’s Epistles, in the middle of the second century. Spurious gospels and epistles appeared throughout the second and third centuries. Since those books claimed divine authority, the universal church had to define the limits of God’s authentic, inspired canon that already was known.