BIBLE CANON: Why are some books in the Bible and not others?

Christians: Why are some books in the Bible and not others?

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The canon of Scripture is the collection of books that the church has recognized as having divine authority in matters of faith and doctrine. The term comes from the Greek word kanon and the Hebrew word qaneh, both of which mean “a rule,” or “measuring rod.” The canon is an authority to which other truth claims are compared and by which they are measured. To speak of canonical writings is to speak of those books that are regarded as having divine authority. They are the books of our Bible.

The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament graciously preserved by God in the Bible are the inspired Word of God. The church recognized that these books constitute the complete canon inspired by God and received them as uniquely authoritative because they are God speaking to his people. F. F. Bruce says:

One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.1

Time after time Jesus and his apostles quoted from this distinctive body of authoritative writings. They designated them as “the Scripture,”2 “the Scriptures,”3 “the holy Scriptures,”4 “the sacred writings,”5 and so forth. They often introduced their quotations with “It is written”; that is, it stands firmly written.

We call these authoritative writings the Old Testament. Jewish people call them the Tanakh, an acronym formed from the first letters of Torah (Law), Naviim (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings). We see this idea when Jesus explained to his disciples “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”6 It is important to note that the Tanakh includes the same material as the Protestant Old Testament, though they arrange the books differently.7

Beginning two hundred and fifty years before Christ, Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek, calling it the Septuagint. For some unknown reason, they changed the content of several books, added many books, and rearranged the order of the books.

Early Christians followed Jesus and used the same books as found in the Hebrew Bible today. But as the center of Christianity moved away from Jerusalem and Christians read and worshiped more in Greek than Hebrew, there was more openness to the books of the Septuagint. There was a long and complicated debate about the validity and status of these books. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the books of the Septuagint into its Latin version, called the Vulgate. They referred to them as deuterocanonical, meaning they were canonized later. As the Reformers attempted to rid the church of many traditional teachings and get back to the Bible, they also rejected the deuterocanonical books, calling them the Apocrypha. They kept the ordering of the Vulgate but returned to the authoritative books of Jesus, the Hebrew-speaking Jews, and early Christianity.

The early church immediately recognized most of the books of the New Testament as canonical. The four Gospels, written to preserve and spread the story of Jesus to the whole church, were received gladly and universally, as were the writings of Paul, including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (also known as the Pastoral Letters). Acts, 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation were also universally recognized. However, Hebrews remained in dispute for several centuries, especially in the West, because of the anonymity of its author. The status of James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude fluctuated according to church, age, and individual judgment and are occasionally omitted from canonical lists. Some works of the apostolic fathers, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the first and second epistles of Clement are sporadically cited as potentially Scripture but are not usually included in formal canonical lists.

In the fourth century the church moved to settle the issues of the New Testament canon. In the East it was done in the Thirty-Ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius in AD 367. In the West the canon was fixed at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.

Was the New Testament canon disputed? Not really. Virtually all the books were immediately accepted. Did the church canonize the books? Not at all. Rather, they recognized and confirmed their canonical status. J.I. Packer writes:

The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.8

How did the church know which books ought to be recognized as canonical? What were the criteria for canonicity? They used three primary criteria:

  1. Conformity to “the rule of faith.” Did the book conform to orthodoxy, Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches?
  2. Apostolicity. Was the writer of the book an apostle or did the writer of the book have immediate contact with the apostles? All but a few New Testament writers were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded.9 Though not eyewitnesses, Luke received his information from Paul10 and numerous eyewitnesses,11 while Mark received his information from Peter, who was an eyewitness.12 James and Jude were closely associated with the apostles in Jerusalem and were probably Jesus’ brothers, which would have also made them eyewitnesses.
  3. Catholicity. Did the book have widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere?

In considering the great agreement surrounding the canon of Scripture, scholars have said:

The fact that substantially the whole church came to recognize the same twenty-seven books as canonical is remarkable when it is remembered that the result was not contrived. All that the several churches through-out the Empire could do was to witness to their own experience with the documents and share whatever knowledge they might have about their origin and character. When consideration is given to the diversity in cultural backgrounds and in orientation to the essentials of the Christian faith within the churches, their common agreement about which books belonged to the New Testament serves to suggest that this final decision did not originate solely at the human level.13

When is the last time that you sat down to read the Bible for an extended period of time? 

1F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 22.
2John 7:38; Acts 8:32; Rom. 4:3.
3Matt. 21:42; John 5:39; Acts 17:11.
4Rom. 1:2.
52 Tim. 3:15.
6Luke 24:44.
7Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 301.
8J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 109.
9John 19:35; 20:30–31; Acts 1:1–3, 9; 10:39–42; 1 Cor. 15:6–8; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1–3.
102 Tim. 4:11.
11Luke 1:1–4.
121 Pet. 5:13.
13Glenn W. Barker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels, The New Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 29.