How we got our Bible

How we got our Old Testament

Part I

According to popular usage, the expression "canon of scripture" refers to that collection of sacred writing which the church acknowledges as being inspired by God.  The canon, in other words, is the list of books which comprise the Bible.  It consists of the Old Testament canon, which had become established during the centuries prior to Christ, and the New Testament canon, which became established during the centuries following Christ.

Non-canonical books are religious books of the Biblical era which are not acknowledged as being the inspired Word of God and which have therefore not been collected in the Bible.  They may be useful, and may even be referred to by the writers of the Bible (Numbers 21:14; Joshua 10:13; Jude 9,14), but they have no special Divine authority.

Early Israelite writings

From the beginning of their national history, Israelites kept written accounts of their law and of the important events of their history (Exodus 24:4; Numbers 33:2; 1 Kings 11:41).  Some of these writings were regarded from the beginning as sacred and were kept in Israel's sanctuary (Deuteronomy 31:24-26; 2 Kings 22:8).  Others were used as sources of information for the writing of books which later became canonical (2 Chronicles 9:29, 12:15).

In addition to these written records, various collections of Proverbs and Psalms were made (Proverbs 25:1; Psalms 72:20).  Prophets often wrote down their messages (Isaiah 30:8, Jeremiah 36:2) and people who recognized these messages as God's Word quoted them as authoritative (Jeremiah 26:17-18, Daniel 9:2).

A growing collection

A clearly recognized body of sacred writings was developing in Israel, but the information of an official canon was not something men planned.  They did not decided to make an Old Testament canon.  From the time of Moses people had recognized certain writings as being the voice of God speaking to them, and as time went on the collection of authoritative books grew.  No one gave the books authority.  The books had authority within themselves, and men could do no more than acknowledge this.

The Old Testament Canon

No one knows when the collection of Old Testament writings reached the full number of what later became the canon.  However, there are good reasons for thinking that Ezra and Nehemiah helped towards the final formation of the canon.

Ezra and Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. and 445 B.C. respectively (Ezra 7:1-10, Nehemiah 2:1-8) and played a major part in the reconstruction of Israel's religion following the Babylonian captivity.  Their followers probably completed what Ezra and Nehemiah had begun, and it seems clear that the Jewish canon (the Protestant Old Testament canon of 39 books) was firmly established by the time of Christ (Luke. 24:27; John 5:39).  Towards the end of the lst century A.D. a Jewish Council confirmed that these books, and no others, were recognized as canonical.

Apocryphal writings

During the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. many new Jewish writings appeared.  Some of them were very colourful and therefore very popular, particularly in an age when great changes were taking place in the Jewish world.  But they were never accepted into their Jewish canon.

These non-canonical writings are in two groups.  One is known as the Apocrypha (literally, "hidden", but meaning rather "disapproved"), the other as the Pseudepigrapha (meaning "written under a false name").  In popular usage, "Apocrypha" often refers to the two groups together.  Early Christians may also have read these books, but they did not regard them as inspired scripture.

Dr Keith Graham [This is based on an article written by Don Fleming in the Emmaus Bible College Dialogue Paper while I was Principal and Editor of "Dialogue"]

How we got our New Testament

Part II

Early Christian writings

The Bible of the early Christians was the Old Testament canon of 39 books (Acts 8:32, 17:2,11, 2 Timothy 3:15, 16).  But since the apostles had God-given authority, their teachings and writings carried the same authority as the Old Testament (I Corinthians 14:37, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:14, II Pet. 3:2).

Jesus had promised that the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would recall, interpret and apply His teaching (John 14:25, 26, 16:13-15), and their writings were part of the fulfillment of that promise.  As they circulated the writings grew into a new collection, in addition to, yet equal to, the Old Testament collection (2 Peter 3:15, 16).  But all this took time.

It seems that the standard by which these early writings were judged to be authoritative was whether they were written by the apostles or those who had the apostles' approval.  The Gospels, the writings of Paul, Acts, First Peter and First John were accepted everywhere as authoritative from the time they began to circulate.

A growing collection

During the latter part of the 1st century and the early part of the 2nd century, a number of other Christian writings appeared.  Some of these were useful, but they did not win widespread acceptance among the churches.  In time it became acknowledged everywhere that these writings were not inspired scripture, and they were excluded from the developing New Testament canon.

On the other hand, there were some regions where a few of the writings which we today have in the New Testament took some time to be accepted.  It was one thing for a church or group of churches to accept an apostolic letter as authoritative for them;  it was quite another for churches elsewhere to accept that writing as relevant and binding for all churches.  Doubtless many letters, though having apostolic authority, were not preserved (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:9).

Also problems peculiar to churches in a certain region meant that those churches may have been slower to accept writings which seemed to them irrelevant or doubtful.  And any letter which was very short, or about which there were doubts concerning its authorship, naturally took longer to become widely known.

The New Testament Canon

By the middle of the 2nd century, churches in some places had a collection of books approximately equal to the Protestant New Testament, but doubts about a small minority of books still existed in some areas.  It was partly through the activity of false teachers that church leaders became more concerned to satisfy themselves as to which books were canonical and which were not.  Church councils met to discuss the value of different books, and by the end of the 4th century there was general agreement that the New Testament canon consists of the 27 books which we today recognize.

However, Church councils gave no authority to the canon.  The authority lay within the books themselves as being the living Word of God (John 7:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).  The councils simply acknowledged that authority.  They did not create the canon, but merely gave their recognition to the fact that certain books were already recognized by Christians and churches throughout the world as being God's inspired and authoritative Word.

The message on "Bible-In Take" highlighted necessity of having a regular "in take" of the Bible through reading, memorizing and meditating on it.  

Dr Keith Graham [This is based on an article written by Don Fleming in the Emmaus Bible College Dialogue Paper while I was Principal]

Name *
Name