“Pastor, in your message this past week, you mentioned the word canon pertaining to the Scriptures. I have heard the term but really don’t know what it means…in fact, I really don’t know how the Bible came about. Can you bring some clarity? Thanks.” –Joe Church Member
Dear Joe—Great question! Isn’t it interesting how we sometimes forget to clarify our terms and often assume we all know what we are talking about—especially with Bible terms. Your question about Canon is perfect for this issue of The Source (our church E-news Letter).
We know our current Bible consists of 66 books—39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament. By the time of Jesus the Old Testament (the Torah) was pretty much intact and accepted as a whole. The addition of the New Testament to the Christian Bible is a little more complicated and took the next few centuries to solidify. Here is what happened.
First, the word canon means measuring stick or standard of straightness. In the first few centuries after Jesus there were many writings circulating and many cults and heretical groups beginning to organize themselves and promote their teaching (i.e. Gnostics and Marcion). Some intermingled with Christianity, others were an affront to the faith. Several of these rival groups were collecting their own “canon” of sort and some were using a shorter version of Christian writings than our current New Testament. Thus, there was a need for the church to discern the canon for the Christian Church to preserve the teaching of the church and protect itself from false teaching (and teachers).
How then where early church leaders to select which Bible books were in and which were out? Not an easy task for the church. The early church was not surprised that there were many variations and writings circulating through the churches. Every church location had a unique context and needs which impacted the writings (and writers) they emphasized. Secondly, the church did not rush into canon development. In the second century they began collecting Christian writings and narrowing them as they discovered which books met the following criteria (the tests for canonicity):
- Consistency with the “message” of Jesus sticking with the tenor and style (not fables and outlandish stories).
- Apostolicity—Was it written by the Apostles? If an Apostle wrote it, it was almost certainly “in.”
- Catholicity—is the letter found throughout the Christian church in its various places. In other words, an isolated letter in one church was weighted different than a letter read by many churches in multiple locations.
In 367 AD, the final collection of New Testament books were agreed upon and make up (with the Old Testament) the Bible we have now. It is interesting that the New Testament books were written in the mid-late first century, but the process for discovering the canon took about 200 years. Communication was slower and the church allowed the discovery process to unfold rather than rush and react to the culture around it. I use the term discover as that very much was the goal. Using the above criteria, writings were carefully considered in light of the whole of Scripture and the testimony and teachings of the original Apostles (whom Jesus commissioned to build the church). All this to say is that we have confidence in the Bible we read.
There you have it…the canon. Hopefully this brief summary will not only answer your own questions, but enable you to share your insights with others who may ask you about the Bible.
(This blog was written by Northern Seminary student Eric Camfield for Church History 301.)