Canon means “standardized.” In terms of the Bible, the Canon is the accepted list of books included in the Bible. Many have argued that a group of men got together at some point in history to determine which books should and should not be included in the Bible. To the contrary, God determined which books would be included in his Word and man simply confirmed what was already accepted as the canon of Scripture.
Due to differences between the Old and New Testaments and the authority by which they were canonized, I am splitting this section into two parts:
- 9A – Deals with the Canonization of the Old Testament
- 9B – Deals with the Canonization of the New Testament
The Process of Recording the Old Testament
One of the graces God has extended to mankind is to have his revealed Word recorded and passed down through the generations. From the very beginning, God was clear that his Word should be written down.
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.” [Exodus 17:14 ESV]
Indeed, God himself started the process of writing his Word when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments:
The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. [Exodus 32:16 ESV]
He was also clear that his Word should be preserved. Following his recording of the God’s revelation Moses made sure that it would be protected:
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. [Deuteronomy 31:24-26 ESV]
In the wisdom literature of the Bible and the prophets God was very clear about why his word must be written:
Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD: [Psalms 102:18 ESV]
And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. [Isaiah 30:8 ESV]
God commanded that his word must be written in order to be preserved for future generations.
Explanation of the Hebrew Canon
Although it was set up slightly differently than the Old Testament we use today, the Hebrew version of the Old Testament contained the same books as we have today hundreds of years prior to the birth of Jesus. The Old Testament Hebrew Canon consisted of three distinct parts.
Part 1 – The law consisted of the first five books of our Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) and contains the chronological account from creation through the death of Moses.
Part 2 – The Prophets contain narrative books which account for the time from entry into the promised land to the Babylonian exile. These include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In our current Bibles, the books of Samuel and Kings have both been divided into two parts. The Prophets section also includes oracle books including the prophetic literature in descending order of size. These include Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and The Book of the Twelve. The Book of the Twelve is generally known as the minor prophets based on the size of the books compared to the other prophetic literature.
Part 3 – The Writings sections (known as the Hagiographa) contain the lyrical and wisdom books in descending order of size. These include Psalms (with the book of Ruth as a prefix), Job, Proverbs, Sons of Solomon and Lamentation. Finally, the Writings section includes narrative books from the period of exile to the return. These include Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. In our current Bibles, Chronicles is split into two parts and Ezra-Nehemiah is included as two separate books.
By 130 B.C., all three sections of the Bible were mentioned in the Greek prologue to Sirach – a book in the Apocrypha in some Bibles. The Apocrypha is a collection of non-canonical books included in some versions of the Bible. The Apocrypha is not considered to be inspired by God and is not considered Scripture.
The Test of Canonization
Now that we have some understanding of why the Bible was written down and how the Hebrew Old Testament was compiled, let’s have a look at how it came to be that the books we currently called the Old Testament became part of the canon of Scripture.
The books written by Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and Joshua (Joshua) were immediately accepted as being from God. The remainder of the books were tested to see if they met the qualifications of scripture. Those were:
- Was the book authored by a recognized prophet of God or a leader in Israel?
- Was there internal evidence of inspiration? In other words, was the authenticity of the book confirmed by God?
- Did the book contain anything with obvious doctrinal or factual errors which would eliminate it from being part of the Canon?
The entire Old Testament was accepted by the Jewish people in its current state by no later than 167 B.C.
Evidence for the Canonization of the Old Testament
Many people, even those who accept the authority of Jesus Christ, question the authenticity of the Old Testament. Notably, Jesus and the other New Testament writers quote the Old Testament approximately 300 times. Additionally, while the New Testament records a number of disagreements between the Pharisees and Jesus, Jesus never argued with the Pharisees over which books should or should not be included in the Old Testament. Despite claims about men choosing which books to include and exclude from the Bible, there is very little doubt that the books of the Old Testament and New Testament together represent the complete revealed Word of God. Next week we will look at the process of canonization related to the New Testament text.