Canonicity

CANONICITY (kăn'ŏn-ĭc'itē). The word “canon” originally meant “measuring rule,” hence “standard.” In theology its chief application is to those books received as authoritative and making up our Bible. The Protestant canon includes thirty-nine books in the OT, twenty-seven in the NT. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Canons add seven books and some additional pieces in the OT (See Apocrypha). The Jews accept as authoritative the same thirty-nine books of the OT as do Protestants.

It is commonly said that the Protestant test of canonicity is inspiration. That is, Protestants accept into their canon those books they believe to be immediately inspired by God and therefore true, infallible, and inerrant, the very Word of God. Creeds of the Reformation age often listed the books accepted as inspired, but the Protestant churches have accepted these books not because of the decision of a church or council, but because the books themselves were recognized as true and inspired, having God for their author. The history of the acceptance of these books and the study of the principles on which this acceptance occurred is an important phase of Bible introduction.

I. The Old Testament Canon. The Jewish Talmud of about a.d. 400 names the books of the Jewish canon in approximately the order found in our Hebrew Bibles today. By combining the twelve Minor Prophets, counting the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles each as one book, etc., they arrive at the number of twenty-four books, divided into five of Law, eight of Prophets, and eleven books of Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles). The position of Chronicles at the end of the Canon is reflected in Luke.11.51, where Zechariah (cf. 2Chr.24.20-2Chr.24.22) is reckoned as the last martyr of pre-Christian times, as Abel was the first. In earlier days they combined Ruth with Judges, and Lamentations with Jeremiah and thus made twenty-two books equivalent to the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Origen, the Christian scholar of about a.d. 250, lists twenty-two OT books, but in the order of the Septuagint, not that of the Hebrew Bible (which is the order attested in the Talmud). Earlier, about 170, Melito of Sardis tells us that he went to Palestine to ascertain accurately the number of OT books. He lists the five books of the law first, then the others follow in an order based on the Septuagint and rather similar to that of our English Bible.

Before Melito, we have the vital witness of the Jewish historian Josephus. About a.d. 90 he wrote his work against Apion. In it he says that the Jews receive twenty-two books: five of the Law of Moses, thirteen of prophecy, and four of hymns to God and precepts for life. These books, he says, the pious Jew would rather die than alter or deny. He says these books were written by Moses and the succeeding prophets from that time to the days of Artaxerxes (around 400 b.c.) and that other later books, not written by prophets, were not so highly regarded. Josephus follows the order of books in the Septuagint and not that traditionally exhibited in the Hebrew Bible.

About a.d. 90 the Jews held the Council of Jamnia. We have only the later Talmudic reports concerning it, but apparently the canonicity of certain books was discussed—e.g., Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. This was not, of course, the time of original canonization of any book, as Josephus’s witness assures us. Doubters arise in any age. But that Proverbs was already considered canonical in the second century b.c. we can now prove by reference to the Zadokite Documents (xi.20).

Earlier evidence on the OT canon gives us no listing but considerable valuable information. Philo, the Egyptian Jew of the first century a.d., evidently accepted the twenty-two Hebrew books, for he quotes from many of them and from them only, as authoritative. The NT evidence is in accord with this. Most of the OT books are quoted, and the seven apocryphal books are not. The NT gives no positive evidence on the order of the books, but it reveals in general a twofold division of the OT such as is found in Melito, rather than the threefold division. A dozen times the OT is referred to as the “Law and the Prophets” or “Moses and the Prophets.” As is evident from NT usage, this twofold category included all twenty-two books. Only once does it adopt the threefold classification, “Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke.24.44; but cf. Luke.24.27).

Pre-Christian evidence has been greatly augmented by the discovery in a.d. 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community. Previously, only the apocryphal books and other Jewish writings were available. These sources occasionally quoted books of the OT, but not with great frequency. Of special importance was the prologue to Ecclesiasticus, dated in 132 b.c. Three times it refers to the “law, and the prophets, and the other books of our fathers.” One time it refers to these as already translated into Greek—the Septuagint. Because of the antiquity of this witness, the threefold canon was formerly held to be original. The twofold canon as referred to in the NT was not then explained. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, give four places where the OT is referred to in two categories, the Law and the Prophets, as is usual in the NT. That this twofold canon included all our present books seems obvious from the fact that the Qumran community quoted from most of the OT books, including those later classified in the third division of “writings,” and has left manuscripts of all the biblical books except Esther. Thus the twofold canon is as early as, or possibly earlier than, the threefold. In line with this evidence is the fact that the LXX translation, at least in later copies, accords with the twofold but not the threefold division.

From the above outline of evidence it is easily seen that the canonicity of the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and certain additions to Esther and Daniel, has no ancient authority and was not recognized by Christ, the apostles, or the Jewish people. The distinction between those books and the canonical OT writings was generally preserved by the Greek fathers; it was generally overlooked by the Latin fathers. Among the latter the outstanding exception was Jerome; his acquaintance with the Hebrew Bible enabled him to distinguish those books that belonged to the “Hebrew verity” from those of lesser authority. It was he who first called the latter the “apocryphal” books, meaning by that books that might be read in church “for example of life and instruction of manners,” but not for the establishment of doctrine. Jerome’s distinction was reaffirmed at the Reformation in the Anglican Articles of Religion (a.d. 1562) and has been generally recognized by Lutherans. Those churches, however, that followed the Reformed tradition of Geneva tended to give no canonical status to the Apocrypha. The Council of Trent, perhaps by reaction to the Reformers, affirmed the full canonicity of most of the Apocrypha in more uncompromising terms than had previously been used. This uncompromising position has been modified in recent practice: Catholic scholars tend to speak of the Apocrypha as the “deuterocanonical” books, which marks in effect a return to Jerome’s position.

It also appears that the critical development theory that the Law was canonized in 400 b.c., the Prophets in 200 and the Writings in a.d. 90 is opposed to the facts. Some of the books that the Council at Jamnia in 90 had questions about were already accepted in the Qumran texts (e.g., Proverbs, in the Zadokite Documents, xi.20) or were in 90 actually counted among the Prophets by Josephus. The view is that Daniel was not classed among the Prophets because it was not written until 165 b.c., after the canon of the Prophets had closed. The designation “the prophet Daniel” that appears in the NT (Matt.24.15) is now known to have been anticipated in the Qumran literature.


II. The New Testament Canon. Information on the early use of the NT books has been augmented in recent years both by the discovery of old portions of the NT and of early books that quote it.

Since the end of the fourth century a.d. there has been no question among most of the Christian churches as to which books belong in the NT. Nearly all branches of Christendom have accepted the current twenty-seven books as authoritative and canonical. They are so accepted because they are held to be true and immediately inspired by God.

Copies of the NT date from an early age. Already in the last century two remarkable old manuscripts had come to light—Sinaiticus and Vaticanus—from about 325. Since then, the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri has given portions from the previous century that cover parts of the Gospels and Acts, most of Paul’s letters, and about half of Revelation. In 1935 an even more remarkable fragment was published. Though small—parts of five verses of John.18.1-John.18.40—it is precious because it is the earliest. This Rylands papyrus is dated to the first half of the second century, or around 125.

Recently the sands of Egypt have yielded new treasures. The Bodmer papyrus of John, dating from about 200, is almost complete. Another Bodmer papyrus coming from the early third century contains the last part of Luke and the first part of John, while yet another comparable date includes 1 and 2 Peter and Jude along with a portion of the Psalms. Thus some actual NT manuscripts are now not too far removed from the days of the apostles themselves.

There was early a general agreement as to the books that the church at large accepted as canonical, but early evidence is not complete in detail for every book. Several books were accepted in some quarters but not in others. Contrary to statements sometimes made, no other books beside these twenty-seven were ever given significant or general acceptance. One must not, however, confuse the acceptance of the books with the establishment of the canon. In a sense, the canon was established at once as soon as there were inspired books, for the NT books claim authority and recognize the authority of one another. But while canonicity presupposes this recognition of authority, it implies also the collection of authoritative books, in such a way that it may be known by ordinary believers which books are authoritative and which are not by ascertaining which books are in the collection and which are not. Some churches had some of the books early but it took time for all of the books to be distributed and for the evidence of their genuineness to be given to all and accepted by all. Fortunately for us, the early Christians were not gullible; they had learned to try the spirits. This testing of the spirits became especially necessary in the second half of the second century because of the rise of the Montanists, with their claim to the renewed gift of prophecy; it was necessary to submit prophetic utterances to the judgment of holy Scripture, and this made it of practical importance to know what was holy Scripture and what was not. Furthermore, the Gnostic heresy rather soon began to multiply spurious writings and this made people cautious. It took time to convince everybody of every book. The history of the collection of the books traces this process.

A. The Period of 170-200. In brief survey we may take three early periods for analysis. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180) has not left us a specific list of NT books, but it is evident from his extant writings that, in addition to the self-evident canonicity of the four Gospels, he regarded as canonical Acts, Paul’s letters (including the Pastorals), 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. More or less contemporary with Irenaeus is the Muratorian Canon, a list of books acknowledged to be of apostolic authority. It includes the four Gospels and Acts, thirteen of Paul’s letters (with a warning against some forgeries), two letters of John (probably in addition to 1 John, which is separately quoted), Jude, and Revelation. It mentions an apocalypse of Peter, “although some among us will not have this latter read in the churches.” (This second-century apocalypse was popular because of its lurid description of the torments of the damned.) The Shepherd of Hermas is rejected from the canon because it is not apostolic and is too late to be included among the prophetic books. The omission of 1 Peter is surprising, especially if (as seems probable) the Muratorian list reflects the usage of the Roman church toward the end of the second century. The omission of Hebrews, on the other hand, is to be expected, because, while it was known in the Roman church from the first century on, it was not accepted there as canonical because it was known not to be the work of Paul.

B. The Period of 140-170. At the beginning of this period the most important figure is Marcion, who published an edition of Holy Scripture (an expurgated Greek New Testament) at Rome about 144. He rejected the OT as forming no part of Christian Scripture; his canon was a closed canon, comprising an edited text of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul (excluding the Pastorals). The use of Marcion’s canon challenged orthodox churchmen to state more precisely what they believed constituted the canon of Christian Scripture. From this period we now have new evidence in the “Gospel of Truth” discovered recently in Egypt. This book, written by the Gnostic Valentinus, was referred to by Irenaeus in 170, and dates from about 150. It weaves into its pantheistic composition all our NT books except 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Hebrews and Revelation are definitely included. One scholar has concluded that c. 140-150 a collection of writings known at Rome and accepted as authoritative was “virtually identical with our NT.” Justin Martyr, who spent his later years in Rome and whose literary activity spans three decades (135-165), mentions “the memoirs of the apostles”—which, he says, “are called gospels”—and says that they were read in church along with the compositions of the prophets. His disciple Tatian showed his appreciation of the distinctive authority of the four Gospels by arranging their contents into a continuous narrative in the Diatessaron.

C. The Period of 95-118. Omitting many details, we may turn to the three great witnesses of the earliest age. Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp all wrote between 95 and about 118. They show by quotation or clear allusion that they knew and used all our NT books except Luke, Colossians, Philemon, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Moreover, these authors held the apostles in such high repute that their writings would obviously be treasured and accepted. Clement rather clearly ascribes inspiration to Paul.

D. Later Problems. Although our books were accepted at an early date, the history of their use is discontinuous. The Gospels were never challenged after the collection and publication of the fourfold Gospel, until a later group of heretics questioned all of John’s writings, claiming that they were spurious. Note that here, as usual, denial of apostolicity involved denial of authority. The Book of Hebrews was continuously and from early days received and accepted as Pauline in Egypt. In Rome it was used by Clement, Justin, and Valentinus, although they did not accept it as the work of Paul. The witness of Irenaeus (c. 170) and Tertullian (c. 200) is hardly clear. Finally the views of Egypt and Palestine prevailed and Hebrews was fully accepted. The Roman church was persuaded to include it in the canon in the fourth century under pressure from Athanasius; they agreed to do so not because he convinced them of its Pauline authorship but because they did not wish to be out of step with the rest of Christendom. Second Peter had least external authority. It was certainly in circulation among the churches by the end of the second century. Its relation to Jude remains problematic. If 2Pet.3.3 is quoted in Jude.1.18, 2 Peter belongs to the first century; the majority verdict seems to be, however, that 2 Peter is dependent on Jude rather than vice versa.


Other indications combine to teach us that these twenty-seven books are rightly in our canon. The Holy Spirit has witnessed through the generations to the saving truth contained in them. These books have brought untold blessing where they have been received and obeyed. The church with one voice finds them to be the very word of God.

Bibliography: B. F. Westcott, The Canon of the New Testament, 1870; Frants Buhl, Canon and Text of the Old Testament, 1892; H. E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament, 2d ed., 1904; T. Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, 3 vols., 1909; A. Harnack, The Origin of the New Testament, 1925; A. Souter, The Text and Canon of the New Testament, 2d ed., 1954; R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, 1957; Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible, 1972.——RLH