How do I know the Bible is true (part 3)?
This eight-part series answers common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 3: The books of the Bible were chosen arbitrarily by councils of men in highly political processes. As a result, they left out some very good books — perhaps some equally inspired writings.
These oft-repeated charges are unfounded. They deny the supernatural inspiration and preservation of Scripture and instead emphasize the efforts of men who, it is argued, wanted only to maintain control over the early church. In truth, the Holy Spirit authored all of Scripture through the pens of human agents and decided which books belong in the canon. Councils of Christian leaders met in the fourth century and made important decisions about the Bible based on evidence supporting the books’ inspiration and authority. Let’s look more closely at how the 66 books we hold in our hands today became known as the Bible.
To begin, let’s define two terms. First, the “canon” of Scripture. The word “canon” comes from the Greek kanon and means measure or rule. Simply put, “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible,” according to Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology (p. 54). Next, the word “Bible,” which derives from the Greek word biblion (book); the earliest use of la biblia in the sense of “Bible” is found in 2 Clement 2:14 around 150 A.D.
The Old Testament
The earliest collection of written words from God is the Ten Commandments, which establish the beginning of the biblical canon. The Lord Himself wrote on two stone tablets and gave them to Moses to deliver to the people (Ex. 31:18, 32:16). Moses wrote additional words to be placed by the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:24-26), and there is strong evidence that he wrote the first five books of the Bible (see Ex. 17:14, 24:4, 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut 31:22; Luke 24:27).
After Moses’ death, Joshua added to the collection of God’s written words (Josh. 24:26). Later, other Israelites, usually those who held the office of prophet, wrote as the Lord inspired them. The last books of Old Testament history – Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther – were completed in the fifth century B.C. In fact, after about 435 B.C. there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. “The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years,” writes Grudem (p. 56).
Looking at Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see a consistent pattern of belief that the divinely authoritative words of God had ceased after 435 B.C. Rabbinic literature expressed the conviction that after the latter prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – died, the Holy Spirit departed Israel. The Qumran community (the Jewish sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls) awaited a prophet whose words had the authority to supersede existing regulations. Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of the first century A.D., believed no more “words of God” were added to Scripture after 435 B.C. In Against Apion he wrote, “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” (1.41).
In the New Testament, there is no dispute between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders over the extent of the canon. Jesus and the New Testament authors quote portions of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative nearly 300 times, but not once do they cite any books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. The council of Jamnia late in the first century featured discussions about the Old Testament canon, but it’s difficult to determine whether a definitive list was produced. The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books that exists today is by Melito, bishop of Sardis, dating to 170 A.D. None of the books of the Apocrypha is listed.
What about the Apocrypha (the Greek word means “things that are hidden”), a collection of seven books and another seven or eight additions to existing books of Jewish history and tradition written from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.? The Jews never accepted these books as Scripture, but throughout the early history of the church there was much debate about whether they should be included in the canon. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible completed in 404 A.D., included the Apocrypha, although he argued they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful to believers. In fact, it was not until 1546 A.D., at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). Grudem comments, “It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone” (p. 59).
The argument against these books includes the following: 1) The Jews never accepted the books as Scripture and did not include them in their Bible; 2) any acceptance the books enjoyed was local and temporary; 3) no major church council included these books in Scripture; 4) many of the books contain errors; 5) some books include teachings that contradict Scripture; 6) neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers quoted from the Apocrypha even though they quoted from the Old Testament hundreds of times; 7) the Christian churches that accepted these books did so many centuries after the canon was closed.
The New Testament
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, compiled a list of the 27 books we now know as the New Testament in 367 A.D. He also was the first person in the church to use the word “canon.” The councils of Carthage (393 A.D.) and Hippo (397 A.D.) fixed the final list of New Testament books, but it’s important to note that the question of which books were truly “Scripture” was being addressed long before this. Even more important, Christians believe the Holy Spirit, who inspired (“breathed out”) the autographs of all Scripture, also managed its preservation and organization (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Four developments prompted the church to act to “close” the canon: 1) heretics began circulating false writings; 2) counterfeit books, falsely written under the name of apostles, began to appear; 3) Christianity spread to new lands, and missionaries needed to know which books should be translated into the native languages; and 4) the edict of Diocletian (A.D. 303) ordered the destruction of the Christians’ sacred writings and threatened death for those who refused; believers needed to know which books were worth dying for.
The early church used a number of criteria to discern which books belonged in the canon:
- Was there evidence or claims of inspiration?
- Was the book written by an apostle or an associate who preserved the apostle’s teaching – the only exceptions being granted to James and Jude, brothers of Jesus who became followers after His death and resurrection?
- Was the book written while the apostles were still alive?
- Was the book generally accepted and used by the church and in continuous use in worship services?
- Was the book in agreement with accepted and undisputed Scripture?
How do we know, then, that the 66 books in the Bible are the “closed canon” of God’s written word? First, we may be confident in the faithfulness of God, who loves us, revealed Himself to us, and wants us to have His words, which are our life (Deut. 32:47; Matt. 4:4). The punishments God warns will befall those who add to or take away from his word (Rev. 22:18-19) are evidence that the Lord places a high value on the correctness and completeness of His written revelation to mankind. Further, “The preservation and correct assembling of the canon of Scripture should ultimately be seen by believers …not as part of church history subsequent to God’s great central acts of redemption for his people, but as an integral part of the history of redemption itself” (Grudem, p. 65).
E.J. Young writes, “When the Word of God was written, it became Scripture, and as it had been spoken by God, it possessed his absolute authority. Therefore, it was the Word of God and was canonical. That which determines the canonicity of a book, therefore, is the fact that the book is inspired of God” (“The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. C.F. Henry, p. 156).
Finally, there are two factors at work in the process by which the canon was established. First is the activity of the Holy Spirit in inspiring, organizing, and preserving God’s Word, and confirming in our spirits that His Word is true. Second is the historical record of how carefully God’s Word was recorded, copied, preserved and shared. Yes, human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture and in the councils that argued for and against their inclusion in the canon. But ultimately, the God who hangs the stars in space and calls them by name (Isa. 40:26) has no problem guiding the means by which His very words are given to His most precious creation: mankind.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips