How was the Bible actually put together? How do we know that the Bible contains the books that it should have? These are important questions, and many books have been written to address them.
These questions concern the canon —the group or list of books that are considered to be inspired by God. The word canon is originally from a Semitic word, qaneh in Hebrew. It meant “reed” or “stalk,” which is how it is used in Job 40:21 Job 40:21He lies under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens.
American King James Version×and 1 Kings 14:15 1 Kings 14:15For the LORD shall smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water, and he shall root up Israel out of this good land, which he gave to their fathers, and shall scatter them beyond the river, because they have made their groves, provoking the LORD to anger.
American King James Version×. From this it conveys a secondary meaning of something with which to measure, a standard or benchmark.
The word then found its way into Greek, where it took the form kanon . And through Greek and into the Latin canna , it comes to us in the English form of canon —not to be confused, of course, with the large, heavy military gun known as a cannon (a word which also derives from the root meaning “reed” because it is a tube).
The dictionary states that other meanings of canon include regulations, principles, rules or standards of judgment. These bring us back to the ancient meaning of a measure, standard or benchmark—in this case the issue of which writings meet the standard or benchmark of being considered part of the inspired, hand-recorded Word of God.
The word Bible comes to us again through Latin from the Greek word biblia , meaning “books.” It contains the books (originally written on scrolls) that are acknowledged or understood to be the canonical—divinely inspired—books of God. One might say, accurately, that they are the standard by which every human being should live.
As the apostle Paul wrote to his fellow minister Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 2 Timothy 3:15-17 15 And that from a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.
American King James Version×: “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
“Holy Scriptures” in verse 15 means “sacred writings”—words that were divinely inspired by God. Verse 16 says literally in Greek that “all Scripture is God-breathed …” [NIV, emphasis added throughout]. And indeed we find the Bible to truly be the breath of God for human beings in whom He placed the breath of life.
The Bible is a manual intended by God to show human beings two things: It shows us how to live, and it is a guide to God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.
What makes a book inspired or canonical?
In the book The Origin of the Bible , edited by Philip Comfort, contributor R.T. Beckwith writes: “What qualifies a book for a place in the canon of the Old Testament or New Testament is not just that it is ancient, informative and helpful, and has long been read and valued by God’s people, but that it has God’s authority for what it says. God spoke through its human author to teach his people what to believe and how to behave.
“It is not just a record of revelation, but the permanent written form of revelation. This is what we mean when we say that the Bible is ‘inspired,’ and it makes the books of the Bible in this respect different from all other books” (1992, p. 52).
Three other comments in the same book, by Milton Fisher, show how the Church came to recognize the canon of the New Testament:
• “The church’s concept of canon, derived first of all from the reverence given the Old Testament Scriptures, rested in the conviction that the apostles were uniquely authorized to speak in the name of the One who possessed all authority—the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 76).
• “Apostolic speaking on behalf of Christ was recognized in the church, whether in personal utterance or in written form” (p. 77).
• “This is what is really meant by canonization—recognition of the divinely authenticated word” (p. 77).
The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible
The books of the Old and New Testament canon were written and canonized over some 1,600 years, beginning in the 15th century B.C. with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and ending near the end of the first century after Christ with the book of Revelation. No historian left a full account of the individual steps in this long process. However, we do have tidbits of information here and there along the road that give us some knowledge about what took place.
Over the thousand years during which it was written, the Old Testament underwent at least five periods of canonization. Ezra, a priest and scribe, apparently was the one responsible for the final collection and arrangement of the books of the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) around 450 B.C. With his canonization, the Old Testament was essentially complete. In A.D. 90 Jewish elders and authorities met at the Council of Jamnia, where the canon of the Hebrew Bible was confirmed as authoritative and complete, as it had evidently been considered to be long before this.
Some six decades earlier, Jesus Christ Himself affirmed His acceptance of the three divisions of the Old Testament (Law, Prophets and Writings) as canonical. Notice His statement in Luke 24:44 Luke 24:44And he said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
American King James Version×: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” (The last section here is also known as the Writings, called “Psalms” after its first and largest book.)
The three-part organization of the Old Testament was commonly known and understood in Jesus’ day. The Christian churches have long since accepted the Old Testament in this format as Scripture.
The New Testament
No one is absolutely certain about how the New Testament canon came together. We do know that in A.D. 397 the Synod of Carthage confirmed as canonical the 27 books of what is now our New Testament. But it really only recognized that these 27 books already had been in use and read in the churches for some three centuries.
There are two theories about how the canon of the New Testament came together. The one adhered to by most today says that it was a gradual process over nearly three centuries and that no one person was key in the process.
The second, lesser-known theory holds that the apostles Paul, Peter and John were the final canonizers of the New Testament, and that John, with help from other believers, was able to finish and distribute copies of the entire 27 books to the churches in Asia Minor and the Holy Land.
Neither theory has explicit proof, though both have some supporting evidence. The latter view, which the publishers of The Good News consider to be correct, appears to be supported in several New Testament passages. One is 2 Peter 3:16 2 Peter 3:16As also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.
American King James Version×, where the apostle Peter, writing to the early Church, commented that he considered the letters of Paul part of the “Scriptures.”
Peter was putting the writings of the apostle Paul on an equal footing with the Old Testament Scriptures. This would indicate that the apostles already considered some of the apostolic writings divinely inspired and deserving to be included in the canon of Holy Scripture.
Paul himself appears to have had a hand in the process of canonization of the New Testament, selecting which books and letters, particularly of his writings, were to be preserved for us.
In 2 Timothy 4:13 2 Timothy 4:13The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when you come, bring with you, and the books, but especially the parchments.
American King James Version×, the last of Paul’s prison letters that remains from before his execution, he tells Timothy to “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.”
This is a puzzling request, unless Paul was asking Timothy to bring books and letters from which he would select those that would be part of the canon. We know that some of his letters, such as the one to the church in Laodicea mentioned in Colossians 4:16 Colossians 4:16 And when this letter is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that you likewise read the letter from Laodicea.
American King James Version×, were not preserved—so obviously some selection process took place. Presumably those Paul chose were then passed off to other apostles, likely Peter and then John.
It seems most likely that the apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20 John 21:20Then Peter, turning about, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrays you?
American King James Version×) and who outlived all the other apostles, under God’s inspiration made the final selections of the writings that would be included as Scripture in what we know as the New Testament.
In Revelation 22:18-19 Revelation 22:18-19 18 For I testify to every man that hears the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add to these things, God shall add to him the plagues that are written in this book:
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
American King James Version×, in the final chapter of the final book of the Bible, John gives a warning that appears to indicate that the Bible was then complete, with nothing more to be added or taken away. “If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
In A.D. 397 the Synod of Carthage accepted the 27 books that comprise our New Testament as canonical. But they were not the canonizers of these books. They had long since been distributed and were accepted and read in churches throughout the empire for some 300 years. We can rest assured that the eternal God had a sure hand in ensuring His Word would survive for future generations and we have exactly the writings He chose to be preserved for us. GN