Establishing the Canon of Scripture

page of Genesis

Have you ever wondered how the Bible we have today came to be?   How did the Church decide what should be included in the Canon of Scripture?

First of all, what is a canon of Scripture – you’re probably thinking of the Grand Canyon and wondering what has that got to do with the Bible.  The word ‘Canon of Scripture’ literally means ‘the standard of the Bible’, or what is expected to be in the Bible.    So when we talk about the canon of Scripture we are talking about what is expected to be in the Bible.  How did we come to expect the 66 books that we see in all the Bibles today as the Bible?

Although we have the same books in the Old Testament as Jesus did 2000 years ago, they were in a different order than they are today.  Back then, the Old Testament was split into three distinct groups: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy completed the law.  The Prophets was split into two sub-categories; the first one including Joshua, Judges, Samuels and Kings; the second, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and ‘the 12’, which were the twelve minor prophets.  Again, the Writings were split into two groups; the first – Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth and Esther; the second – Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Chronicles. So when Jesus said in Luke 11:51, ‘from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah’, he was covering the entire testament, since Abel and Zachariah were the first and last martyrs in the Scriptures.

Before the time of Jesus, there were seven or eight other books floating around, which no one was sure if they should be part of the scriptures or not.  These books are called the Apocrypha.  In 70AD, when the Temple of Jerusalem was in ruins, the Teachers and Priests joined together to discuss religious problems.  During that council, it was officially decided by the Jews that the Apocrypha was not part of the Scriptures, although the Catholic Church even today has kept those eight books in their Bible.  Significantly, they also confirmed for Song of Songs, Ruth and Esther to remain in the Scriptures, as there had been some doubt as to whether they should be there. This is how the Old Testament came into being.

Even though there were many letters written by the apostles in the days of the early church there were several heretics disregarding both the validity of the Old Testament and the power of the Holy Spirit.  The church needed to decided upon a set of teaching.

The letters that were written were understood to be inspired by God and were the basis of the church teaching.  For a letter to be included in what would become the New Testament, it had to fulfill five requirements.  It had to be:

1)      Written by a disciple or someone very closely related to Jesus

2)      Widely spread throughout the Churches and part of the services

3)      Undeniably bringing people to Christ

4)      With a ‘Thus Saith the Lord’ authority

5)      Without a shadow of a doubt that it was from God

As I mentioned before, there were several heretics who tried to change the Bible.  Initially there was Marcion the Heretic, who, living after the first apostles had died, understood God to be one of hate in the Old Testament, but a loving God in the New Testament.  Consequently, he threw away all of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament, except for a tiny part of Luke and some of Paul!  Believing he was right, more and more people started to do likewise, until the Church fathers found out about it and put a stop to his ideas.

Montanus was another heretic, living in 172ad, who believed that a new time had come; that the Old Testament was invalid and the letters and Jesus was ‘just a nice story’.  Boldly he announced that his words overrided Jesus’, that the Holy Spirit was really with him, not Jesus, and that his writings were valid, all which contradicts the Bible.  We can see through the gospels that God annointed the Holy Spirit to be with him. In Proverbs 30:5-6, it says, “Every word of God is flawless… do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”

By this time, the Church realized the importance of a cemented list of teachings about Jesus and the New Covenant.  So they confirmed, in 367 AD, which teachings would be in the New Testament.

Throughout the years, many changes occurred to the Bible – countless different translations, rearranging the order, and even the occasional banning it from various countries!  I’ve shown you the basics of how the Bible came to be, and there’s much more that happens down the track – but the most important fact is that the Bible, over many centuries, has remained true to the Lord’s story and plan of ultimate, eternal redemption, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit through mere man.  We can be assured that, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  ”For the Word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitude of man.”

This was an apologetic speech I delivered yesterday at our homeschool co-op.  I hope you enjoyed it and learnt something about the infallible  Word of God!


4 thoughts on “Establishing the Canon of Scripture

  1. Jessica, I hope it’s alright if I correct a couple things for you.

    The Roman Catholics have seven books more than the Protestants, not eight. They also have 14 chapters in Daniel rather than 12.

    The “Orthodox” churches vary in the number of extra books they have. Sometimes, they have more than eight extra. So, your “seven or eight other books” isn’t a bad way of putting it. In fact, if you include books like the Martyrdom of Isaiah, the Book of Enoch, and some others that didn’t make it into anyone’s Bible, there’s over a dozen easily.

    The “Montinos” you mention is Montanus. He didn’t reject the Old Testament, but you are correct that he claimed to speak for the Holy Spirit, along with two prophetesses. He claimed that the Holy Spirit was updating the apostles preaching now that the church was more mature.

    Finally, on the canon, in A.D. 361 Athanasius gives the first list of books that exactly matches our 66-book Bible.

    That’s not an official decision, however, and it wasn’t the first list. The Muratorian Canon is from the 2nd century. It only has New Testament books listed (because we only have a portion of it), and it’s close to our NT. Origen and others give lists very close to ours today as well, but not exactly the same.

    I don’t think an “official” decision was made until the Council of Ephesus in 432.

    I hope you don’t mind these minor corrections. In the end, you’re exactly right: the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, and we trust in the Scriptures today because they’ve been bringing the power of Jesus Christ into people’s lives for 2000 years (more in the case of the OT, of course).

    Keep up the good work. The internet is making it easy to get messages out, good or bad, and we need informed followers of Christ who can speak the truth against the false histories being invented by people like Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code) and others.

    1. Thanks Mr Pavao for your extra information! If I didn’t include details you’ve mentioned it was probably because it was a speech and I was aware not to include all the ‘minor’ details, but rather give an overview of the Bible.

      Thanks for visiting and giving your input!

      Jessica Letchford

  2. Excellent job Jessica. It is good to see Letchfords serving the Lord. We’re all in the same boat going in the same direction. I know there will be many of us in heaven.

    Tom Letchford

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