This starts a series on systematic theology where we’ll explore certain topics once a month. The goal is to equip and prepare you to have a thoughtful Christianity by looking at exploring questions like “how did we get the Bible?”
What Is The Canon of Scripture?
It’s the list of every book that belongs in the Bible. You may be wondering how you can trust it. To trust that the Bible is God’s revelation to us, we have to be sure of it.
Where Did The Old Testament Books Come From?
It began with the 10 Commandments that God carved onto the tablets at Mt. Sinai. Then Moses recorded the other laws and history to place in the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:24-26). Joshua added his own recording of the Conquest of Canaan later (Joshua 24:26). In light of God saying don’t add or subtract from it, in Deuteronomy 4:2 he had to be convinced he had divine permission.
The prophets wrote the rest until around 435 B.C, who would not add anything to God’s words. Not even the rogue prophet Balaam would curse God’s people for money.
Who Kept Up With It?
Throughout the centuries, a succession of scholars preserved the scriptures since the 5th Century B.C.
- The Sopherim
- The Zugoth
- The writers of the Talmud
- The Masoretes
We have tens of thousands of fragments. The earliest dated one is the Silver Scroll from the 7th Century BC before the Jewish exile. Accounting for the Jewish reverence for the scripture, we can be sure what we have is legit. Here is just some of the rules they had to follow when copying scripture:
- Had to be a certain kind of skins to write on
- The columns had to be a certain size
- The religious ritual required before writing God’s name
- The kind of ink used
- The spacing of the words
- Writing anything from memory was prohibited
- The lines and letters were methodically counted
- If a mistake is found then destroy the scroll
Because of that, the largest copies we have from the 10th century AD when compared to the 3rd century BC Dead Sea Scrolls are 95% word for word accurate. The 5% variation is from slips of the pen and spelling. Not even my editor Nay is that strenuous…well she can be.
Jesus backs up the Old Testament in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.“
We say he is the Son of God, is God, and that the Bible is the Word of God. It stands to reason that he would know what belongs in it.
Where Did The New Testament Come From?
It was written by the apostles or someone connected to them. Overall, scripture is written in connection to God’s acts in redemptive history, from the calling of Abraham to the expectation of the coming Messiah (Malachi 3:1-4; 4:1-6).
The coming of God’s final revelation, Jesus, required more to be written. Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would help them remember so they can teach everything he had taught them (John 14:26; 16:13-14).
They recorded Jesus’ life and the Gospel to the lives of believers, recognizing it as scripture. Peter thought of Paul’s writings as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul quoted the Gospel of Luke in tandem with Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1st Timothy 5:17-18.
How Do We Know The Right Books Are In The NT?
There is a high standard as to what is allowed in. Contrary to Dan Brown’s novel, it wasn’t set at the Council of Nicea by Constantine. They affirmed what was already accepted. The Muratorian Fragment dates to 180 AD and lists 22 of the 27 books in the New Testament. Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, along with 3rd John were not on that list.
The books had to be verified as dictated or written by an apostle to be accepted. Books like Mark, Luke, Jude, and Hebrews had to be affirmed by the apostles. The same apostles who spent three years with Jesus, and later died for their faith.
Apostolic endorsement, scriptural consistency, and perception of the scriptures as God-breathed by an overwhelming number of believers decided if a book was worthy of being canon.
Will There Be More Added To Canon?
No. Hebrews 1:1-2 says Jesus is the final revelation of God. We also have to consider the nature of the book of Revelation. It’s not open-ended and can’t be justifiably added to (Revelation 22:18-19).
What About The Other Books That Weren’t Included?
Remember the reverence for scripture and the fear of tampering with it? There are no more strong candidates for addition into canon. All the other documents that had a chance contained explicit disclaimers like Ignatius’ letter to the Roman church in 110 AD. In it he wrote, “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were apostles, I am a convict; they were free, I am even until now a slave.”
Others contained doctrinal aberrations and gross inconsistencies. The Gospel of Thomas–written by an unknown author in the second century–has this paragraph at the end:
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.“
Need I say more?
There is also no strong objection to what is in the canon. Some were slower to be accepted since they weren’t as widespread, like 2nd Peter, 2nd John, and 3rd John.
Can We Trust The Canon?
Yes. I have briefly touched on the origin and preservation of scripture without delving into the historicity or archaeology of it for the sake of space. Throughout this series we’ll continue looking at the systematic theology concerning the Bible. I’ll leave you this to consider:
- There are over 5,600 original language manuscripts written within 90 years of the original New Testament and the oldest copy.
- Homer’s Iliad has over 2,200 manuscripts written within 500 years of the original.
- Plato’s Tetralogies has 49 manuscripts written within 1,300 years of the original.
- There are only 7 manuscripts of Aristotle’s works that were written within 1,400 years from the original.
If you can trust the work of a Greek philosopher, then you can trust the New Testament. If you wish to dive deeper, I included my sources at the bottom. This is just to get you started, I encourage you to explore even further.
Chapter 3: The Canon of Scripture
Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine
by Wayne A. Grudem
Bible Criticism, Old Testament Manuscripts, Jesus’ View of the Bible
The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide
by Norman L. Geisler