The Canonicity of the Bible


The subject of Bible inspiration cannot be separated from its canon. The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon which signifies a “measuring rod.” Bible canon therefore signifies standards by which books were measured to determine whether or not they were inspired.

Canonical books refer to a catalogue of inspired books of the Bible. It must be noted that no church or council caused books to be inspired; rather, they simply recognized that which God had inspired at the exact moment the books were written.

The Old Testament began with the writings of Moses (c. 1513 BC) consisting of God’s laws to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Mosaic laws.

God commanded Moses, “Write down these words” and “After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end” he commanded the priests known as Levites, “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain a witness against you.” (Ex. 34:27; Deut. 31:24-26)

The Levites preserved the Pentateuch in the Ark of the Covenant. The writings of prophets after Moses – Joshua, Samuel, Nathan – were added based on the criteria of true prophethood God had laid down through Moses (Dt. 18:15-19; Jer. 26:8-15).

God raised up the institution of prophecy to continue revealing Himself to His people and these prophets also recorded their revelation (Jos. 24:26; Is. 8:1).

A scholar stated, “succeeding prophets were received upon due authentication, and their written works were received with the same respect, being received therefore as the Word of God. As far as the witness contained in the books themselves is concerned, this reception was immediate” (Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, 1969, p. 156).

The OT was traditionally divided into 3 sections – the Law, Prophets and the Writings or Hagiographa. Criteria used to recognize the canon were:

(a) if the books reflect divine authorship.

(b) if the human writer was a spokesman of God

(c) if he was a prophet or had a prophetic gift and if the book was historically accurate or a record of actual facts.

A scholar informs us that: “The 24 books of the Hebrew canon are equivalent to the 39 books of the Greek canon (since Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and the twelve minor prophets counted as one book each in the Hebrew list).” (The Lion Handbook to the Bible, ed. Pat Alexander, London, 1983, 71).

The OT was recognized as Scripture as Jesus and His apostles severally quoted from it in the NT (Mt. 22:29, Jn. 10:34; Acts 18:24; Rom. 1:2 etc).

The New Testament canon was also recognised very early. Just as the Spirit of God inspired the OT prophets, He also inspired the NT apostles.

Paul includes Luke’s writing “the Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18 cf. Dt. 25:4, Lk. 10:7). Peter also recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). The letters of the apostles were directed to be circulated and read in the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:17).

These writings were recognized on the basis of:

Apostolicity – the author being an apostle or having a connection with an apostle (for example, Mark wrote under Peter’s authority while Luke wrote under Paul’s).

Inspiration – the book reflecting the quality of inspiration.

Content – its consistency with the overall teaching of the apostles and acceptance among Christians.

Historical Evidence for the Canon

Bible critics of different stripes claim that the Gospel books were not written by the people whose names they bear but written centuries after their deaths, hence they have little historical value.

Most of them put this at 4th century A.D. But this lame argument folds on itself based on internal evidences, here I intend to present the historical aspect:

1. From the writings of Christians in the post-apostolic era, it can be seen that they appealed to the NT as the inspired Word of God and quoted the Gospels quite familiarly.

Tatian the Syrian (110-180) completed his work, the Diatessaron (a Greek term meaning “through [the] four”) about 170 AD based on only the four canonical Gospels.

Ancient manuscripts of the Diatessaron and commentaries on it have been discovered in Arabic, Armenian, Greek and Latin. This proves that the four Gospel books were already well-known and accepted as a collection by the middle of the 2nd century AD.

One of the key Bible manuscripts used in translations is the Codex Vaticanus (4th century). The Bodmer 14, 15 manuscripts dated to 175-225 AD is, according to scholars, textually very close to the Vaticanus.

Therefore, if the Bible was changed in the 4th century as some critics claim, then these changes would have reflected in these manuscripts.

There is simply no evidence – whether documented or otherwise – proving that the Gospel books were altered in the 4th century.

2. Many in the post-apostolic era were very familiar with the NT books.

A reference work says that “near the close of the first century, Clement bishop of Rome was acquainted with Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth.

After him, the letters of both Ignatius bishop of Antioch and Polycarp bishop of Smyrna attest the dissemination of Pauline letters by the second decade of the second century” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1988, 1:603).

In his Stromata, Clement says he will answer his opponents by “the Scriptures which we believe are valid from their omnipotent authority” that is “by the law and the prophets, and besides by the blessed Gospel” (The Ante Nicene Fathers, 1962, 2:409).

Among others, Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho used the expression “it is written” when quoting from the book of Matthew (ANF, 1:220).

Theophilus of Antioch (2nd cent.) also wrote:

“Concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.” As support, he quoted Matthew 5:28, 32, 44, 46 and Romans 13:7 (ANF 2: 114-115).

Irenaeus makes no fewer than 200 quotations from Paul’s letters. Hippolytus (170-235) also recognized 22 books of the NT. That is not to say these men didn’t recognise more letters as canonical, but these are the ones they mentioned in their correspondence.

3. The canonicity of the books of James, Jude, 2nd and 3rd John and 2nd Peter were initially disputed on the grounds that these books were quoted very little by early writers. This is probably because they were small books, making up only one-sixth of the NT so they were less likely to be referred to.

The book of Revelation was also rejected by some, but early church writers like Papias, Justin Martyr, Melito and Irenaeus quoted from it. The historical and geographical accuracy of the contents of the Gospel books were also considered.

“In general, these [non-canonical] gospels show far less knowledge of Palestinian topography and customs than do the canonical Gospels … Even the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, both of which may preserve scraps of independent tradition, are obviously inferior theologically and historically to the four accounts that eventually came to be regarded as the only Canonical Gospels” (Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, Oxford Press, 1997, pp. 167, 174).

4. The witness of the Muratorian Fragment – the oldest compilation of the NT canon (dated 170-200 AD) – is also important.

It seems the codex was produced in the 8th century in Italy due to the Latin text from which it was translated from its original Greek. It contains a list of the books of the NT books as well as their respective writers and warns against false books circulating in its time.

5. Can the witness of the early Christians for the Bible canon be trusted? Yes. Christians of the first 2 centuries had easy access to a large number and variety of Bible manuscripts far more than we possess today.

Martin Hengel observes that “of the second-century Christian writings known to us by title, around 85% have been lost. The real loss must be substantially higher” (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, Trinity Press, 2000, 55).

Men like Justin Martyr, Polycarp and Ireneaus would have regularly come in contact with manuscripts predating the ones we have today, and even the ones contemporary with the apostles or their disciples.

Irenaeus wrote that “there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles” during the lifetime of Clement of Rome (Against Heresies 3:3:3). He also makes reference to “ancient copies” of the book of Revelation and the testimony of those who “saw John face to face” (5:301).

Bruce Metzger, noted that some of the original copies of the NT writings were mentioned in some patristic works. He cites Tertullian who said that the church of Thessalonia still possessed the original copies of the letters Paul sent them (The Canon of the NT, n.4 on 4-5).

6. The early Christians relied on much evidence. As Jason Engwer documents, Justin Martyr refers to the importance of evidence including hostile corroboration (First Apology, 20).

Tatian speaks of the value of firsthand knowledge (Address to the Gospel, 31), Tertullian appeals to information in the registers of apostolic churches (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32) and Eusebius appeals to internal evidence of these records (Church History, 3:25).

These are the principles used today in determining the validity of a document. Hence, the development of the Bible canon cannot be separated from church history and God’s leading of His people to recognise the books He had inspired.

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