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The Canon of Scripture

This study is adapted from the book by Don Stewart entitled What Everyone Needs To Know About The Bible, which is part of The Basic Bible Study Series published by Dart Press, Orange, California.  Used by permission of the author.

What is the Canon of Scripture?

One of the terms used in describing the books that belong in Scripture is the word “canon.” This comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning “reed or measurement.” A canonical book is one that measures up to the standard of Holy Scripture. Thus, the canon of Scripture refers to the 66 books that are considered the authoritative Word of God.

Old Testament Canon

The idea of a finished Old Testament canon was spoken by both biblical and nonbiblical sources. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish writer-historian of the first century, had this to say:

We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men (William Whiston, trans., Flavius Josephus against Apion, Vol. 1, in Josephus, Complete Works, Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1960, p. 8).

Biblical scholar Gleason Archer comments on the impact of the statement made by Josephus:

Note three important features of this statement: (1) Josephus includes the same three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures as does the MT [Masoretic text] (although restricting the third group to ‘hymns’ and hokhmah), and he limits the number of canonical books in these three divisions to twenty-two. (2) No more canonical writings have been composed since the reign of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes (464-424 B.C.), that is, since the time of Malachi. (3) No additional material was ever included in the canonical twenty-two books during the centuries between (i.e., from 425 B.C. to A.D. 90). Rationalist higher critics emphatically deny the last two points, but they have to do with the witness of such an early author as Josephus and explain how the knowledge of the allegedly post-Malachi date of sizable portions, such as Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and many of the psalms, had been kept from this learned Jew in the first century A.D. It is true that Josephus also alludes to apocryphal material (as from 1 Esdras and 1 Maccabees); but in view of the statement quoted above, it is plain that he was using it merely a historical source, not as divinely inspired books (Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised Edition, Chicago: Moody Press, 1974, p. 71).

Josephus also declared:

And how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them-, but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willing to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in numbers, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws, and the records that contain them (Josephus, Ibid., p. 609).

New Testament

The biblical evidence also testifies to a completed Old Testament. From the Gospels we see that Jesus spoke of Scripture as being complete. He said to the religious rulers:

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life.
(John 5:39)

These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.
(Luke 24:44)

The law, the writings, and the prophets were the threefold division of Old Testament Scripture. Jesus testified to their authenticity.

New Testament Canon

Although the New Testament does not speak of a completed canon of Scripture, it does testify to writings already considered to be the Word of God. Peter recognized the writings of the Apostle Paul as Scripture. He cited Paul’s letters, which some were twisting “as they do the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15,16).

When Paul wrote to Timothy he quoted a passage from Luke as Scripture.

For the Scripture says,

‘You shall not muzzle an ox while It treads the grain,’ and, ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages’
(1 Timothy 5:18)

The first verse quoted is from Deuteronomy, but the second is a quotation of one of our Lord’s statements recorded by Luke: “The laborer is worthy of his wages”
(Luke 10:7)


The formation of the New Testament canon began in the early part of the second century A.D. The earliest list was drawn up in Rome, in A.D. 140, by the heretic Marcion. Although his list was not authoritative, it did demonstrate that the idea of a New Testament canon was accepted at that time.

The concept we have today of a completed Bible was formulated early in the history of the church. By the end of the second century all but seven books (Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation) were recognized as apostolic, and by the end of the fourth century all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West. After the Damasine Council of Rome in A.D. 332 and the third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 the question of the Canon was closed in the West. By the year 500 the whole Greek-speaking church had also accepted all the books in our present New Testament.

Who Decided Which Books Should Be Placed in the Bible?

Many people wonder who decided which books should be placed in the Bible.

The simple answer is that God decided which books should be in the canon. He was the final determiner. J. 1. 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 (J. 1. Packer, God Speaks To Man, p. 81).

Canonizing and Collecting

A distinction needs to be made between canonizing and collecting. No man or council can pronounce a work canonical or scriptural, yet man was responsible for collecting and preserving such works. F. F. Bruce writes:

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 these communities (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960, p. 27).

Hence the books we have as Scripture were inspired by God and recognized such by man.

What Criteria Were Used in Determining Which Books Belong in the Bible?

The books admitted to the canon of Scripture were inspired by God. There were, however, many false books that claimed inspiration. How did the people judge between the true and the false? The Bible does not give any set of criteria that were used to determine which books were to be considered Scripture. We are not told how the determination was made. Though we do not know the exact criteria which were used, they may include the following:

Prophetic Authorship

For a book to be considered canonical, it must have been written by a prophet or apostle or by one who had a special relationship to such (Mark to Peter, Luke to Paul).

Only those who had witnessed the events or had recorded eyewitness testimony could have their writings considered as Holy Scripture.

Witness of the Spirit

The appeal to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit was also made to aid the people in understanding which books belonged in the canon and which did not. Clark Pinnock writes:

The Spirit did not reveal a list of inspired books, but left their recognition to a historical process in which He was active, God’s people learned to distinguish wheat from chaff, and gold from gravel, as He worked in their hearts (Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973, p. 104).


The final test is the acceptance of the people of God. Jesus told His disciples:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things Which I said to you (John 14:26).

We have the promise of Jesus that His disciples would given total recall by the Holy Spirit of the things He said and did. These same disciples either wrote the New Testament books or had input into which works were accepted as Scripture. Any book that claimed canonical status, yet diverted from the truth of the life of Christ, would have been rejected by Jesus’ own disciples who were, eyewitnesses to the New Testament events. Thus the acceptance of God’s people is an important criterion for book to be considered canonical.

How Do We Know the Correct Books Are in the Bible?

The Bible, as we have it today, consists of sixty-six books. The fact that these books belong as Holy Scripture is confirmed by the testimony of Jesus Christ.

First, with regard to the Old Testament we have the testimony of Jesus to the existing books. He confirmed the accepted three-fold division of our canonical books.

These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.
(Luke 24:44)

The Promise of Jesus

As far as the New Testament is concerned, we have the promise of Jesus.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.
(John 14:26)

Though we do not have His guarantee after the fact, we have this promise that a New Testament would be given. Thus, we have Jesus “pre-authenticating” the New Testament.

Nature of God

Another reason we can be assured the correct books in the Bible is the nature of God. It has been estimated there are a quintillion stars in the universe and the Bible says God calls them by their names. If God is able to do this, He certainly is able to preserve intact His Word for the benefit of mankind.

Consistent and Credible

Since we have the testimony of Jesus that God preserved the Old Testament for His people, we can also be assured that God took the same care in preserving the New Testament books. When the evidence is examined, we find it consistent and credible.

Do Jews and Christians Use the Same Old Testament?

The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books according to the Protestant reckoning but only twenty-four according to the Jewish reckoning. The books are the same; the difference is in the way they are divided.

Protestant Bible

The division of the Protestants’ Bible is as follows: seventeen historical books: Genesis-Esther: five poetical books Job-Song of Solomon: seventeen prophetical books: Isaiah-Malachi.

Hebrew Division

The Hebrew Bible numbers these as twenty-four: The Torah or law contains five books, Genesis-Deuteronomy; The Prophets contain eight books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets are grouped into one book; The Writings orKethubim contain eleven books, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

The Hebrew Bible combined 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. The twelve minor prophets were combined into one book. Josephus numbered the books as twenty-two by attaching Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah.

Thus, the books are identical. The only difference is in the way they are divided.

What Effect Did the Council of Nicea Have on Determining What Books Belonged in the Bible?

There have been accusations that the council of Nicea had a tremendous effect on both choosing what books should be in the Bible and changing some of the doctrines that the church held before that time. The council of Nicea met in A.D. 323 to discuss how Jesus Christ was related to God. There were some in the church, led by Arius of Alexandria, who denied that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity. In order to answer these issues, the church had to make a pronouncement about which books authoritative doctrine could be based on. The council of Nicea did not meet to discuss which books belonged in the New Testament canon. It only recognized the books that the church had from the beginning considered to be the Word of God. Already Composed The books that were recognized as Scripture had already been composed at the time. All the books contained in the New Testament were composed before the end of the first century. Some fifty existing papyrus manuscripts written before A.D. 325 contain parts of every book of the New Testament except 1 Timothy. There is no truth to the argument, so often brought up, that some of these books were not in existence until the council of Nicea. The argument, therefore, that certain doctrines were invented at this time has no basis in fact.

Tomorrow we will look at more questions surrounding the canon of Scripture.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!