Login to download lecture and curriculum
Canonization is the process by which the church determined what books belonged in the Bible (and here we are focusing on the New Testament). Despite the frequent assertion to the opposite, the canon was not determined by a few individuals in a haphazard way. It appears that the three tests were authorship, harmony of doctrine and tone, and usage in the church as a whole. Is the canon still open; if we found more books, would we include them? And did the church get it right?
B. Why the canon developed
1. Eyewitnesses and the apostles were starting to die
2. Rise of persecution
3. Rise of heresy and false writings
D. Three criteria for authenticity
2. Harmony of doctrine and tone
3. Continual usage in the church as a whole
4. New Testament Apocrypha
E. Is the canon closed?
F. Why I think the Church got it right
1. No legitimate questions
Let’s start briefly with the whole issue of the transmission of the writings. How did we get them? The word autograph is the technical word used for the original document that was written. When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church, the actual physical document that he wrote was called the autograph. All the writing materials they had back then were perishable. They were made out of plant, papyrus, or animal skin. All of these things perish over time. We don’t have any of the original autographs. That of course is redundant, since autographs are the originals. We don’t have any of the autographs, but what we have are copies. And if you think back to what it would have been like to live back in the first century, you can see why so many copies were made. Other churches certainly would have wanted copies; they would have heard about this great later Paul wrote to the Romans. You are living in Colossae and you want to get a copy of it. The letter to the Colossians says, “get the one I wrote to Laodicea and swap them.” So there are all kinds of needs for people to make copies of the letters of the Bible to get them dispersed.
There were two different methods of copying at the time. There were scribes who did it one to one; you would have a copy of Matthew and then on a fresh piece of parchment you would be making a copy. They also had schools were I would be speaking and you all would be writing. And you can imagine that one of the things that happened out of that is that mistakes entered into the copies. For example, in Romans 5:1 Paul says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, echomen peace with God.” Now did I say echomen (with an omicron) or echomen (with an omega)? Those are two different forms in Greek. One means “we have peace with God” and the other is “we should have peace with God.” The difference is between a long and short “o.” So as copies were made, some of these kinds of mistakes crept into the copies. We will talk more about that in detail later, but I wanted to set the stage.
Copies are being made, and they are being sent all over the world. We enter into a stage of what’s called canonization. Here’s the problem that developed in the early church. Actually there are three of them. They gave rise to the whole issue of canonization, or why we have the books of the Bible that we do.
Why the Canon Developed
One of the problems is that the eyewitnesses and the apostles were starting to die. At the early stages of the church they were the ones that exerted the authority. If there were questions of what Jesus said or did, or about what should we do in this situation, there were eye witness, there were apostles, there were people like James, Jesus’s brother, that lent authority and could make these kinds of decisions. These people started to die, and that raised questions of authority.
Second of all, there was the rise of persecution. Christians started to be persecuted for their faith. And you could imagine that if you were being persecuted for your faith, you would really want to make sure you were being persecuted for something you really believed. I mean it would be hard to be persecuted for something you didn’t believe, right?” So again the issue of authority would rise.
Third, there was the rise of heresy and specifically false writings. Remember when Paul writes to the Galatian church, he says, if you think you get a letter from me that says something different from what I preached, I didn’t write it, and whoever did is accursed. So, what was happening was that people were starting to teach false doctrine. They were starting to write letters presumably claiming to be written by Paul and perhaps other people. You have all three of these issues that were raising the whole question of authority. How do we know what books are really from God? Which ones we can trust?
There is a certain collection of writings called the New Testament Apocrypha. Apocrypha is just a fancy word that means hidden. If you look at the collections of the New Testament Apocrypha, you get titles like the martyrdom of Matthew, the gospel of Nicodemus, and most famously, the gospel of Thomas. These are stories that were being written around biblical characters claiming to address specific issues that perhaps you know about from the Bible. But you have all this rise of false literature. Some of this false literature is not that bad! There are books like the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, or the Didache. These are all different names of some of these books that we generally call the New Testament Apocrypha. Some of them are pretty good; some of them are really bad.
To summarize, here is the situation that created the need for a canon. The authorities were dying; there was the rise of persecution; and there was the rise of false writings. It was into that situation that the whole issue of canonization comes in.
Canonicity, is the study of why we have books we do in our Bible. So if you were to get a New Testament introduction book and look in the table of contents, that is where the author is talking about why we have the books of the Bible that we have. The other word that is important to know is canon. And the canon is simply the collection of books that we believe are from God—the collection of books that should be in the Bible.
There are several groupings of these books that we can’t talk about now; one is called the Old Testament Apocrypha, which is included in the catholic Bible, but not the protestant Bible, but it’s Old Testament and we can’t address that issue. We are looking specifically at those documents that are classified as the New Testament Apocrypha: the books in this case that were not included in the Bible. You have all these problems, you have what we call the biblical writings, and all these other writings.
Three Criteria for Canonicity
How did the church go about deciding on these books and not on other books? There seem to be three basic criteria upon which people made their decision.
First is apostolic authorship—who wrote it? My guess is that was the first thing they looked at. Who wrote the book? Sometimes you may meet someone that says, “How can you trust the canon? It wasn’t really set up until the end of the 300s, so there are a lot of questions.” The fact of the matter is that most of the books in the New Testament were accepted instantly. Paul’s books were accepted instantly; Matthews’s gospel because he is an apostle was accepted instantly. There were some problems with a few of the books, but the majority of them were accepted very quickly because they were written by apostles. Luke wrote Luke and Acts, which is about one third or one forth of the New Testament. He was not an apostle yet, but I don’t believe that Luke or Acts had any problem getting in to the canon. With Hebrews we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, we aren’t really sure on that. 2 and 3 John weren’t distributed much around the ancient world because they were written to specific churches, so they had a little trouble getting in to the canon. For the most part, when the community knew the authorship, and the authorship was authoritative, especially the apostles, those books were accepted instantly. So, don’t let anyone tell you, “it took the church 400 years for the church to decide what books belong to the New Testament.” That’s simply not the case.
Harmony of doctrine and tone
The second criterion is harmony of doctrine and tone. In other words, the church would read these books and they would say, do they agree with the books that we have already accepted as canonical? Do they agree with the books we have already accepted as authoritative? They looked at issues of doctrine. They looked at Ben Sirach (that’s an Old Testament Apocryphal book), and Ben Sirach says that sin had its beginning with woman. Paul says authoritatively that sin had its beginning with Adam, not with Eve, so you’ve got a problem. Both those books can’t be in the canon, because you can’t harmonize the difference. They looked at issues of harmony and doctrine and also of tone. How does it feel? It’s interesting if you talk to people who say that there should be other books in the Bible. The first question you ask is which one? Tell me from your reading of that book, what makes you think it should be in the Bible. Again, 99% of the time they haven’t read them. The most famous of these books is the gospel of Thomas; it gets dredged up all the time. Let me give you a few excerpts from the gospel of Thomas and you tell me if it even remotely sounds like the Bible.
“Now after some days Jesus was playing (this was when he was a child) in the upper story of a house, and one of the children who were playing with him fell down from the house and died. And when the other children saw it they fled and Jesus remained alone. And the parents of him that was dead came and accused him (meaning Jesus) of having thrown him down. Jesus replied, “I didn’t throw him down.” But they continued to rival him. Then Jesus leaped down from the roof and stood by the body of the child. (I guess he jumped a story or so down). And cried out with a loud voice, “Zenon,” for that was his name, “Arise and tell me, did I throw you down?” And he arose, meaning Zenon, at once and said “No Lord, you did not throw me down, but raised me up,” and when they saw it they were amazed and the parents of the child glorified God for the miracle that had happened and worshiped Jesus.”
Does that sound even remotely Scriptural? That’s just weird. There is another one here where he went to get water and he broke the pitcher and so he just used his cloak and his cloak became water proof and he just carried the water back to Mary. Here is the best one: “Jesus’s father was a carpenter and made at that time plows and yokes. And he received an order from a rich man to make a bed for him. But when one beam (one part of the bed) was shorter than its corresponding one and they did not know what to do, the child Jesus said to his father Joseph, “Put down the two pieces of wood and make them even from the middle to one end.” And Joseph did as the child had told him and Jesus stood at the other end and took hold of the shorter piece of wood and stretching it made it equal to the other. And his father Joseph saw it and was amazed and he embraced the child and kissed him saying, “Happy am I that God has given me this child.”
Now I have a hard believing that Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, came to earth to make logs longer. Anyway, it’s just full of this stuff, silly stuff. Harmony of doctrine and tone was one of the criteria. You can see why. Thomas was left out for other reasons as well. We can date it to 180 AD within a couple years. We know for sure that’s when it was written so there is no way that Thomas wrote it.
Continual usage in the church as a whole
The third criterion and this is an important one, is continual usage in the church as a whole. Sometimes the claim will be made that a bunch of stodgy theologians in some school somewhere made arbitrary decisions about what books belonged in the Bible. That’s just simply not true. The church leaders did get together—they got together in large groups called councils—and when the church leaders got together, their primary question was, “has the church in your town accepted Matthew as truly being inspired by the Holy Spirit?” And the answer was yes. “The church as a whole has seen it, do you use it?” “Yes, we use it.” Now this is a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea. The decisions were not made by individuals, the decision was made by the collective whole of the church and it was the church as the whole that recognized that this book was authoritative and this book wasn’t. When the council of the early church leaders met, they simply formalized what the church as a whole had decided.
Again, it’s the church as a whole; it wasn’t that the church in Antioch likes it and the church in Rome doesn’t, we have a problem. Why doesn’t the church is Rome think its authoritative, when the church at Antioch does? You can see why books like 2 and 3 John had trouble getting into the canon. They eventually got in because they knew that John wrote them, but they weren’t being used by the church in the whole, because they were written to two specific churches and they are very short letters. In a very general sense, those are the three criteria the church appeared to use in saying these books belonged in the Bible or not.
New Testament Apocrypha
Let me give you a final description of what we call the New Testament Apocrypha—books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Nicodemus. First, these claim to be Christian. These are not Jewish books; they claim to be Christian books and rarely are. Second, they all came from the second century or later. That’s important, because if somebody says, “The gospel of Nicodemus was written by Nicodemus.” No, it wasn’t. It came from at least the second century. Third, these books were never accepted by the church as a whole. Never. There may have been one church somewhere that wanted the Didache to be in the canon, but the bulk of the churches didn’t and so it was left out. These are three helpful things to remember as you get into discussions, because people will say, “But these are Christian books; they are true!” With most of them, that is not the case. “They are by the apostles!” No, they were from the second century. “It was just an arbitrary decision by an individual to leave it out.” No, the church never accepted Shepherd of Hermas or the Gospel of Thomas and these other books.
Is the Canon Closed?
Let me address just a couple of question that are generally are raised on the issue of canonicity. First, is the canon closed? What if, for example, what we call 1 and 2 Corinthians is really 2 and 4 Corinthians? We know there was a letter before 1 Corinthians, and we know there was a letter written between 1 and 2 Corinthians. So let’s say 1 or 3 Corinthians has somehow appeared—that we dug up an ancient Christian library and they had all for letters. Would we accept that as canonical?
There are several answers to that question. First of all, the biblical text I don’t think makes an explicit claim that the canon is closed. It would be really nice if the last verse of Revelation said, “Oh, by the way this is the last book written in the New Testament and nothing can be written after it, so says God.” It would be nice if it said that; it doesn’t. Now there is a verse in Revelation 22 that says that if you add to or take away from the description, then these plagues are going be visited upon you. That is a pretty strong statement, a curse for changing the text, but it doesn’t apply to the canon as a whole and there is a chance that even the gospel of John was written later than Revelation. It’s hard to date, but it’s possible.
There is however, Jude 3 (there is only one chapter in Jude so you don’t say Jude 1:3 you say Jude 3). Jude says “I’m writing so that you will contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude is Jesus’s brother, and I don’t know the dates for Jude—somewhere in the 50s-60s I would guess—certainly by the end of the first century. What Jude is saying is that the faith, the collection of doctrines that define who we are as Christians, have been delivered in their finality. The faith has been delivered. Its an identifiable set of doctrines, once for all, and what Jude 3 tells us is that no other book can be brought into the Bible that disagrees with the existing books of the Bible. So Jude 3 is a pretty strong verse that the basic set of biblical doctrine is set. That’s one of the criteria that you could use. I mean if we found 1 and 3 Corinthians, it would be interesting, but certainly if they disagreed with the two books of Corinthians that we have, they would be tossed because they would disagree with the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Some people would answer the question, “No, the canon is not closed.” And I think theologically this is where I end up. I would be highly suspicious that if after 2000 years, another book or letter appeared. It seems highly unlikely to me, but theologically I can’t find a way to close the canon as much as I would like to.
I think that if you said “No, the canon is not closed,” if you look at new books you are going to have to as, “Do they fit the criteria?” “Who wrote them?” “Do they agree in harmony, in doctrine and tone, were they used by the church?” These kinds of question would still come up. But again let me emphasize that about every 15 or 20 years there is another set of books that come out and people say the same thing. It happened when I was in seminary. It happened again recently. “The church has been hiding books from us! Now thanks to me and my great research ability we are going to make them available to you for $39.95.” It’s just the New Testament Apocrypha; they keep dredging up the same stuff over and over again and its been 15 years so everybody forgets. If you are going to say that the canon theologically is still open, you have to be extremely suspicious.
The other side of the argument is pretty strong though, and that argument is that yes, the canon is closed. And I think there are several arguments that one could argue. First, all of the books that we currently have stem from first or second hand contact with Jesus. I guess if a book appeared that claimed to have first hand contact with Jesus, then this argument wouldn’t apply. But if you get a book written in 150 by someone that is two or three generations beyond the disciples, I think people could fairly argue, “No, this simply isn’t acceptable, it’s too far away from the fact.”
Second (this connects with other things you may or may not believe), some people will argue that Jesus and the apostles possessed a certain authority and that authority was not passed on. Some of this may have to do with your view of spiritual gifts, specifically the gift of apostleship. The argument can be made that Jesus and the original apostles possessed an authority and that authority is not replicated through the centuries, so if the book does not come from them it can not be viewed as authoritative and therefore the canon is closed. You have verses like Ephesians 2:20 that say the church is built on the apostles and the prophets. So if you are going to start injecting books from some other place you are going have problems. So there are arguments there.
I suppose there is a third argument that the church really did close the canon. At the end of the 300’s, the end of the fourth century, the church said, “The canon is closed, period.” I suppose you could argue that the church was led by the Spirit, so if you think the canon is still open, you aren’t just disagreeing with me or another individually you are disagreeing with the whole movement of the ancient church in closing the canon. It’s a possible argument.
So is the canon closed? For all purposes probably, but I just think theologically I’m not ready to say absolutely. But I really wouldn’t believe it if someone gave me a book written by Paul that I hadn’t seen before. The idea of canon is a really important question. In some ways you get it with the issues for example of the spiritual gift of prophecy. If somebody claims to be a prophet and stands up claims, “Thus saith the lord,” what they are claiming is that what they are saying is on equal authority with the written word, and there are all kinds of problems with that. Certainly regardless of your view on spiritual gifts, I think everyone would agree if a prophet claimed to prophesy, and his prophecy contradicted Scripture, they couldn’t be a prophet, and they should be stoned by the way. (That’s normally one of my smart aleck comments when someone says, “I have a prophecy,” I say, “Are you ready to be killed if you’re wrong?” Because that’s the penalty for false prophets. What prophet say always comes true, so if you are wrong I have to kill you, I have to stone you, are you ready?” And people generally don’t continue prophesying around me.
Why I Think the Church got it Right
The second question related to canonization is, did the church get it right? Did the church really get it right in closing the canon? The doctrine of inspiration is almost irrelevant if we don’t have the right books! We can talk all we want about inspiration, but if we have non-inspired books in the canon or inspired books outside the canon, then we have some problems. Yes, I think the church got it right and let me give you two reasons.
(1) I have never had any reason to question their decision. I have never seen any book in the New Testament Apocrypha that even remotely comes close to the criteria. Almost all of them are written way after the time of the apostles. Even those ones like the Shepherd of Hermas and Clement and the Didache, which are pretty good books, are second generation books. They don’t claim the authority, rather, they are quoting the New Testament as an authority. You can tell there is something different about them. I have never seen a book that even remotely suggested itself to me that it should be in the canon. So I have no reason to think the church got it wrong.
(2) It’s simply an issue of faith. I don’t understand why God would go through the work of inspiring all these books if he wouldn’t at the same time protect them, making sure the inspired ones got into the Bible and the non-inspired ones were kept out. That wouldn’t make any sense to me, so I believe it.
I had a very difficult conversation once when I was in college with a kid who was my age. His name was Tony. Tony was the head of everything—he was head of the Baptist student union the head of Young Life and he was one of the leaders in Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru). Every where you look there was Tony—except in class. We had quite a bit of contact together and then he dropped out of sight. After about 3 or 4 weeks in the middle of the semester, I got a little concerned. I finally I figured out where he lived and I went and found him at home and I said, “What on earth is going on? You just dropped out! You dropped out of ministry and you dropped out school.” He goes, “Well I’m just having some real doubts about Christianity.” And I went, “Why?” And he said, “I’ve been taking a world religion class.” It turns out this teacher’s sole purpose was to convince students at Western Kentucky University that Christianity was the most inferior of the world religions. One of the major points of attack that he used was canonicity, saying, “You can’t believe the Bible! They brought in books that weren’t supposed to be there and they didn’t get other books that we are supposed to have. You just can’t trust it.”
This was one of the teacher’s attacks on Christianity, and Tony started asking me questions. I had never studied canonization. I was a sophomore and I didn’t have anything to say. I never saw him after that. I went home and I found dad and I started asking him the questions, and dad did what he usually did when I had questions, he gave me a book to read. And I read it and it made me so mad that I was never going to get tricked again because the answers to Tony were so simple. Now I understand that most likely there were deeper issues in Tony’s life and canonization was a trigger point. The teacher used canonization to attack Tony’s faith, and I have heard of that happening many times, so this is a good topic to that’s worth making sure you understand.
If you are enjoying this lecture, would you consider making a donation so others can learn from it as well?
BiblicalTraining is a non-profit and relies on its users for support.