What Belongs in the Bible and What Does Not Belong?
The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible. To add or to subtract from God's words would be to prevent God's people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded. Thus Moses warned the people of Israel, "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2).
The precise determination of the extent of the canon of Scripture is therefore of the utmost importance.
If we are to trust and obey God absolutely, we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God's own words to us. p. 54
A. The Old Testament Canon
The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments thus form the beginning of the biblical canon.
Moses then added Deuteronomy as well as the first four books of the Old Testament.
- Deuteronomy 31:24-26
When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, "Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you."
- Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."
And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel."
- Numbers 33:2
Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places.
- Deuteronomy 31:22
So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel.After the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God.
- Joshua 24:26
And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.Additional Old Testament writings include the following:
- 1 Samuel 10:25
Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home.
- 1 Chronicles 29:29
Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer.
- 2 Chronicles 20:34; 26:22; 32:32
Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Jehu the son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel.
Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote.
Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah and his good deeds, behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.
- Jeremiah 30:2
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: "Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you."Timeline indicating dates of late Old Testament Writings:
- 520 B.C. - Haggai
- 520-518 B.C. - Zechariah (with perhaps more material added after 480 B.C.)
- 458 B.C. - Ezra went to Jerusalem
- 464-435 B.C. - Esther was written during the reign of Artaxerxes
- 445-433 B.C. - Nehemiah was in Jerusalem
- 435 B.C. - Malachi
- 1 Maccabees 4:45-46
So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them. (circa 100 B.C.)This indicates they apparently knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done.
In support of this idea Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of the first century A.D., writes the following:
From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.Rabbinic literature reflects a similar conviction in its repeated statement that the Holy Spirit (in the Spirit's function of inspiring prophecy) departed from Israel.
And as further support, in the New Testament, we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent references to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agree that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God's very words. p. 57
In affirming the Apocrypha as within the canon, early Roman Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as "Scripture," while Protestants have held that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already caused to be written as his own words. p. 59
Why the Writings of the Apocrypha Should Not be Regarded as Part of Scripture:
1. They do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings.
2. They were not regarded as God's words by the Jewish people from whom they originated.
3. They were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors.
4. They contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.
We must conclude then that they are merely human words, not God-breathed words like the words of Scripture.
B. The New Testament Canon
The New Testament consists of the writings of the apostles, who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and to interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.
Jesus promised this empowering to his disciples in John 14:26:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.Also, a similar message is seen in John 16:13-14:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.In these verses the disciples are promised amazing gifts to enable them to write Scripture: the Holy Spirit would teach them "all things," would cause them to remember "all" that Jesus had said, and would guide them into "all the truth." p. 60
The apostles have authority to write words that are God's own words, equal in truth status and authority to the words of the Old Testament Scriptures. They do this to record, interpret, and apply to the lives of believers the great truths about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. p. 61
If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles (Matthew, John, Romans to Philemon, James, 1&2 Peter, 1-3 John and Revelation).
This leaves 5 books - Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews and Jude, which were not written by apostles. The details of the historical process by which these books came to be counted as part of Scripture by the early church are scarce, but Mark, Luke and Acts were commonly acknowledged very early, probably because of the close association of Mark with the apostle Peter, and of Luke (the author of Luke and Acts) with the apostle Paul. Similarly, Jude apparently was accepted by virtue of the author's connection with James (see Jude 1) and the fact that he was the brother of Jesus. p. 62
Additionally, for some of these books the church had, at least in some areas, the personal testimony of some living apostles to affirm the absolute divine authority of these books. For example, Paul would have affirmed the authenticity of Luke and Acts, and Peter would have affirmed the authenticity of Mark as containing the gospel which he himself preached. In other cases, and in some geographical areas, the church simply had to decide whether it heard the voice of God himself speaking in the words of these writings. In these cases, the words of these books would have been self-attesting; that is, the words would have borne witness to their own divine authorship as Christians read them. This seems to have been the case with Hebrews.
The authorship of Hebrews is still a topic of debate, though the most popular theory is that it was written by Paul. However, there is exceptionally little disagreement among believers that whoever its human author may have been, its ultimate author can only have been God himself.
For a book to belong in the canon, it is absolutely necessary that the book have divine authorship.
In A.D. 367 the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius contained an exact list of the 27 New Testament books we have today. This was the list of books accepted by the churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. Thirty years later, in A.D. 397, the Council of Carthage, representing the churches in the western part of the Mediterranean world, agreed with the eastern churches on the same list. These are the earliest final lists of our present-day canon. p. 63-64
Should we expect any more writings to be added to the canon? The opening sentence in Hebrews puts this question in the proper historical perspective, the perspective of the history of redemption:
- Hebrews 1:1-2
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.The indication here is that God's final words of the canon came to us through the birth, life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Because those events are completed, the canon is now closed.
- Revelation 22:18-19
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add him to the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.How can we be confident that the canon is exactly as it should be?
1. Ultimately, our confidence should be in the faithfulness of God. We have no reason to believe that God our Father, who controls all history, would allow all of his church for almost 2000 years to be deprived of something which he himself values so highly and which is so necessary for our spiritual lives. p. 65
2. Additionally, we can trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. It has been the testimony of Christians throughout the ages that as they read the books of the Bible, the words of Scripture speak to their hearts as no other books do. p. 66
Due to these reasons and the research summarized above, we can conclude that the canon of Scripture today is exactly what God wanted it to be, and it will stay that way until Christ returns.