Can’t Touch This – Part 9

Library--New Testament Studies

Library--New Testament Studies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How did the Right Books Make it in?

Obviously not all ancient books, not even ancient Jewish religious books, made it into the Bible. It had to somehow be decided what made it in and what didn’t. So how was the canon (the list of all the books that belong in the Bible) decided on? This has to be decided on in two sections. The first section is the Old Testament. The Old Testament began with the 10 Commandments. Even though they were recorded in the 2nd book of the Bible, they were the first written words of God. It ended around 435 BC with the prophetic book of Malachi.[1]

The quickest way to confirm what 39 books belong in the Old Testament is through the New Testament. Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament as divinely inspired scripture over 295 times (the Apocrypha is not quoted at all). They are also confirmed through a lack of argument. Jesus argued with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders over many things, but one thing they agreed on was the 39 books of the Old Testament.[2] If Jesus and the Pharisees, who were diametrically opposed on many theological issues, could agree on what belonged in the Old Testament, it’s safe to say that we can trust what belongs in the Old Testament.

The New Testament Canon took a slightly more formalized approach to decide on. First of all, according to Jesus, the apostles’ would miraculously remember Jesus’ life (Matthew and John wrote accounts directly),[3] and further teaching taught to them by the Holy Spirit would become scripture.[4] Paul, who did not know Jesus on earth, boldly claimed to write scripture[5] and one of Jesus’ best friends, Peter, confirmed it.[6] Paul also quoted Luke 10:7 as scripture right beside a quote from Deuteronomy.[7] So the New Testament declares itself to be God’s Word. So how did the early church decide which 27 books were part of the New Testament?

The list of the 27 authoritative New Testament books was decided early on in Church councils. The purpose of these councils was not to give divine authority to any human writings. Instead, the purpose was “to recognize the divinely authored characteristic of writings that already had such a quality.”[8] In other words, they were formally recognizing books that were already informally recognized to be scripture by the early church. The easiest ones to recognize were those that were written directly by an apostle. That means Matthew; John; Romans to Philemon (all of Paul’s letters); James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation were automatically included.[9]

Five books of the New Testament, however, were not written directly by an apostle: Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude. Mark, Luke, Acts, and Jude were easy to decide on. Mark worked closely with Peter. Many people believe the content of Mark’s gospel account was based on Peter’s sermons and one on one work with Mark. Luke, who wrote the books of Luke and Acts, traveled extensively with Paul. Jude worked very closely with James and was Jesus’ own brother. Even though these men were not Apostles, they worked closely with, and were approved by, Apostles.[10]

Hebrews was the trickiest book to get approval, since its author is anonymous. At first, many people believed it should be included because it was believed to have been written by Paul. However, that could never be confirmed. Much of what lead the early church fathers to include Hebrews as part of the canon was qualities within the book itself. Hebrews clearly portrays Jesus as the Savior, the Messiah, and the ultimate hope and fulfillment of the Old Testament – and in a way that is consistent with the rest of the New Testament. It was clear that God wrote Hebrews through an unknown human author.[11]

This self-attestation may seem circular, that a book is part of the New Testament because it has a clear New Testament quality to it. However, when you consider that Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me,”[12] it is understandable that He can work through His people to decide what are and are not His words. That’s exactly what happened; it is a testament to God’s sovereignty.

Over time the books of the New Testament were written and widely circulated, so the canon was not decided immediately. In 367 AD the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius listed the 27 books of the New Testament as the authorized New Testament canon. This represented the view of the church on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Thirty years later the Council of Carthage decided on the exact same list, confirming its acceptance with churches on the western end of the Mediterranean.[13]

There is a faith element in accepting the 66 books of the Bible as being God’s word, and it’s based on God’s character. “Just as God was at work in creation, in the calling of His people Israel, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in the early work and writings of the apostles, so God was at work in the preservation and assembling together of the books of scripture for the benefit of His people for the entire church age. Ultimately, then, we base our confidence in the correctness of our present canon on the faithfulness of God.”[14]


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1994), 55-56.

[2] Grudem, 56-57.

[8] Grudem, 68.

[9] Grudem, 62.

[10] Grudem, 62.

[11] Grudem, 62-63.

[13] Grudem, 63-64.

[14] Grudem, 66.

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