By: Pastor Vincent Nicotra

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What is the Canon?

     The term “canon” is derived from the Hebrew and Greek words for a reed or a cane which had notches carved in it. It was used in ancient times as a measuring rod much like a yard stick is used today. This expression came to be applied to the Holy Scriptures to define the rule or a standard by which they were to be measured. A book of the Bible is said to be “canonical” if it contains and reveals the divine will of God. As such, it takes its place among the other books of the bible which are considered authoritative in matters of faith, and doctrine.  The question of which books belong in the Bible is no small matter. If the Bible is God’s revelation and instruction for the church, then we must be certain that the books which it contains are the right ones. It is important to note that the church did not create the canon but simply compiled and defined the collection of books which were already recognized by the church as having divine origin and authority. We believe that the Old Testament canon consists of thirty-nine books, while the New Testament consists of twenty-seven; sixty-six books in all.

     The Scriptures were written by approximately forty different authors over a period of approximately 1,500 years (1,400 B.C. – A.D. 100), yet despite this tremendous time-span, as well as the diversity in authorship (kings, fisherman, fig-pickers, shepherds, etc.), there is amazing harmony throughout.
The Canon of the Old Testament

     While there is no question as to the consistency of the canon, at issue today is whether or not the Apocryphal books belong in the Old Testament portion of the Canon. The Roman Catholic Church favors the inclusion of these books into the canon of Scripture however traditional Protestants do not regard them as part of the canon. The books of the Apocrypha were written after the Old Testament was completed and before the New Testament was begun. The debate of Apocryphal inclusion into the canon of Scripture in essence hinges upon what the Jewish community recognized as canonical. There is strong evidence that the Apocryphal writings were not included in the Palestinian canon of the Jews.1 Despite this evidence the Roman Catholic Church added these books to their canon in AD 1546, in an apparent response to the activities of the Reformers. While some Jews may have considered the Apocryphal books profitable to read in the synagogues, or may have used them as illustrative literature, they were never considered to be part of the Old Testament canon (see Jude 9).

     While there is no difference in content between the Old Testament which Protestants use and that of the Jews, there are differences in regards to the arrangement of the books. The Jewish Old Testament consists of a three-fold division: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, while the Old Testament divisions of the Protestant Bible are Law, History, Poetry and Prophecy. There is ample evidence to conclude that the Old Testament which Jesus used was a closed body of literature, consisting of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, which is the same content found in the Protestant Bible (Matthew 7:12, 7:10, 11:13, Luke 24:44). It is also worthy to mention that Jesus never had any conflict with the religious leaders of His day over which books were included in the Old Testament.

The New Testament

    There is little disagreement among conservative scholars as to which books belong in the New Testament canon. It was completed when the last authoritative book was given to the church by the apostle John, who wrote the Apocalypse in approximately A.D. 98. The Apostles recognized that what they were writing was actually Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:16) and was equally as authoritative as the Old Testament. This meant that while their Old Testament canon was defined, their New Testament was continuing to be formed as they wrote. As the early church struggled with false teachers and heretics they were forced to deal with the issue of canonicity in order to refute error regarding the exact content of the New Testament. There is ample historical evidence which shows that the collection of books which we currently possess is substantially the same as that of the middle of the second century AD. Since the time the church canonized the New Testament there have been no serious contenders for inclusion into the canon.

What Criteria was used to Determine Canonicity?

     The canonicity of the New Testament was determined by the early church fathers using the following guidelines:    

  1. The book must have had apostolic authorship or endorsement
  1. The book must have been received as “God-breathed” and authoritative by the early church.
  1. The book must have been in harmony with the books about which there was no doub

     In A.D. 397, using the above criteria the church Council of Carthage accepted as conclusive a list of twenty seven books which were contained in the writings of the early church father Athanasius.2 This list contained the same books of the New Testament which we have today.

A Final Thought

     Because the canon of both the Old and New Testaments has been closed, we believe that God has spoken fully and finally to His people in the Scriptures which we now possess. Because of this, we also believe that there is no new revelation being given to the church (Revelation 22:18-19). The Holy Spirit’s superintendence in the formation of the Scriptures, combined with the historical data available to us, and the faithfulness of God throughout all generations should provide us with the utmost confidence that what we hold in our hands is truly the Word of God in its entirety. There are no missing books of the Bible, nor does it contain any books which do not belong.

This article is copyright 2006  by Vincent Nicotra. This article may be quoted, in part or in whole, without permission.

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1 Sproul, R. C., Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton, Illinois, 1992, page 21.

2 Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1994, pages 63-64.

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