How do we know that the 39 books of the Old Testament that we have actually constitute the complete written revelation of God during that era? How do we know that the 27 books of the New Testament complete that which was begun in the Old Testament?
First of all, the 39 books of the Old Testament are confirmed as genuine by both Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus not only quoted or alluded to many Old Testament texts, but he used the traditional Jewish groupings to speak of the Old Testament scriptures, referring to them as the Law of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets (former and later), and the Psalms (also called “the writings”). In addition, the New Testament Writers either quoted from or alluded to passages from every book of the Hebrew Old Testament except for the Song of Solomon. Also, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the sermon that inaugurated the Christian church, was largely an exposition of Old Testament Passages. Paul the Apostle is also regularly found “reasoning with the Jews from scripture” when he is on his missionary journeys. Peter also boldly points out in his first epistle that it is Jesus that all of the Old Testament prophets were searching for. Jesus himself speaks of the Old Testament as being writings about himself. While it is true that the New Testament writers also are found to allude to extra-Biblical writings, that fact in itself is not enough to bestow Canonicity upon the whole of the outside cited text, it simply means that the cited text is accurate insomuch as the citation has used it.
Secondly, we have the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint or the LXX. This text was begun about 300 years before the birth of Christ and was a popular text in the first-century. While the LXX is nothing more than a translation, the books that it translates are the texts which we now refer to as the Hebrew Old Testament. Yes, many do cite that the Greek translation of the Apocrypha is often included with the Greek LXX, but it is clear that the Apocrypha and the Septuagint comprise two separate texts.
Thirdly, the Jews venerated the scriptures as they were the very words of God. They were dedicated to preserving it and making sure that it was not defiled by error or false teaching. The Masorites labored tirelessly to make sure that the text we have in our hands is the whole of what God revealed to his people in the ancient times. Their testimony is that the Old Testament that we have today is the Old Testament that Jesus used and was used for years before he walked the earth in the flesh.
The Jewish historians Philo and Josephus, who were contemporaries of the New Testament writers, refer to the books of the Bible that we refer to as the “Old Testament” as the Jewish Canon. Early Latin and Syriac (the Peshito) translations present to us the consistent witness that the 39 books of the Old Testament are God’s revealed word to his people. The Targums and Talmudic writings as well, which are the writings of Jewish tradition and an ancient commentary on the Bible, also submit that the Old Testament books we have in our hands today are the Canon of the Hebrew faith. Ancient Hebrew scrolls found in Archaeological sites like Qumran contain texts which once again confirm the content of the Old Testament as containing the complete Jewish canon of scripture.
The formation of the New Testament canon developed in the same way as did the Old Testament canon. As mentioned above, the New Testament writers understood that the letters they were writing were scripture and thus inspired by the Holy Spirit to be God’s witness or standard for his church for generations to come. As the Apostles began to die off, the church became more and more deliberate in their work to define for all, those letters and books which were God-breathed. As time went on, the church also had to fight heretical teachings and to communicate to the congregations what documents were heretical, thus councils were held, not unlike how the early rabbinical councils were held, to clarify for the church which books were canonical and which books were not.
There have been many who have accused the church of manufacturing their canon based along the lines of church traditions, but this claim cannot be substantiated and is quite contrary to what took place. While the final form of the canon that we know today as the New Testament did not take place until the Council of Hippo in A.D. 393, the role of the council was simply to clarify and affirm what the churches had been affirming as far back as the first century A.D. The oldest formal listing of Canonical books is the Muritorian Canon, which dates back to the mid-second century (named after the scholar who discovered it), contains a listing of canonical books that is almost identical to our modern listing, with only slight variations. There were other second-century theologians, like Irenaeus, who also produced canonical lists, which are remarkably similar to what we find in our New Testament today.
In addition to these formal listings, we can also look to the writings of the early church fathers to see the citations that they make to the Apostolic writings. For example, while the Muritorian Canon does not include the book of Hebrews in its formal listing, Clement of Rome, a contemporary of Paul and the other Apostles, cites it in his writings. Hebrews is also cited by others like Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians and it is found in the Didache, a late first century or early second century guide for instructing new communicants. Thus, it is clear from the earliest extant documents that even the books not included in the Muritorian Canon were being used by the churches as scripture.
When the church fathers were organizing these canonical listings, there were three criteria that were used. First, they sought to insure that the documents of canon were either directly written by an Apostle or were guided by an Apostle. In this case, Matthew, John, and Peter were all apostles originally called by Jesus to follow him and were sent out with power at Pentecost. Paul was called as an apostle separately from the others to be the Apostle to the Gentile nations. Mark, though not an Apostle, traveled with Paul and served under Peter’s guidance in Jerusalem. It is held that Mark’s gospel account is largely drawn from Peter’s teaching and preaching in Jerusalem. Luke, who also was not an Apostle, served with Paul on his mission trips and certainly wrote under his guidance. James and Jude, while not believers during the life of the Lord, came to faith after the death and resurrection of their half-brother, Jesus. They served in Jerusalem and would have been under the guidance of the Apostles there. There is also evidence that this James would lead the church in Jerusalem at least for a time. The book of Hebrews is the greatest mystery of all. It is structured more like a sermon than a letter, so it does not contain the customary greeting which would instruct us as to who the writer was. It does contain themes that are similar to many of Paul’s writings which has led some to believe it is of Pauline origin, but the language is very different. Some have suggested that it may have been the Apostle John or one of his students, others have suggested Barnabas or Apollos. The reality is that we do not know. What we do know is that from the earliest era of church history, it has been understood as having come from or having at least been influenced by one of the Apostles.
The second criterion that the early church fathers used was whether or not a book contained theology that was consistent with the rest of the scriptures (both Old and New Testaments). They understood that while God was doing “something new” he was also building on the foundation that had already been laid in ancient Israel. They understood also that the canonical writings were breathed out from God and thus ultimately had one author, that is God himself. If there is one author and that author is God, there cannot be any contradiction within the whole of the text.
The third criterion was that the book was being used by the churches to the edification of the church. In other words, the church fathers understood that the scriptures were given by God for instruction and the building up of faith as well as for the conversion of lost souls. They understood, then, that documents which bred nothing but contention within the church did not come from the lips of God. Certainly there are some of the Biblical documents that are difficult to hear, particularly if they contain rebukes that happen to apply to you, but the rebukes as well as the promises of blessing are given so that the body of Christ might be built up in its most holy faith to the glory of God on high.
In terms of confirming that the canon we have today is the authentic New Testament canon, we can look at many of the same kinds of things as we did when we discussed the Old Testament canon. There is an internal unity to the New Testament books that cannot be manufactured by human writers. New Testament writers quote and allude to each others’ texts. Extra-Biblical writers quote from the New Testament writers extensively, quoting or alluding to almost the entirety of the New Testament. In addition, when looking at the Bible as a whole, certain observations can be made about scripture that set it apart from other writings, either ancient or modern:
- The scriptures do not glorify man in any way, but glorify God. Ancient texts tend to glorify men and to create a mythology around them that makes them larger than life. This is not the case with scripture. God alone is glorified.
- The scriptures go out of their way to portray all of the Biblical characters in all of their sin and weakness. God is clearly the hero of the Biblical narrative, not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, etc…
- The Bible gives names, dates, and place names that have been found and confirmed to be accurate.
- Never has a book so impacted the course of history as has the Bible. No book of ancient religion or philosophy has brought about the rise and the fall of men and nations and no book has inspired men to such good deeds as a result of what it contains.
- Never has a book other than the Bible inspired men and women to die rather than to give it up. Never has a book other than the Bible inspired men and women to go to the furthest corners of the earth, risking life and limb, to present it and its contents to those who live in remote or government restricted areas.
- No other book has the power to give peace to a person’s spirit when they lie at death’s door. The sheer power of the book to shape a person’s life is testimony of its divine nature and origin.
As was written by A.A. Hodge on this subject:
In this respect you may compare the Koran of Mohammed with the Christian Bible. In the great debate between the missionary Henry Martyn and the Persian moulvies, the latter showed a great superiority of logical and rhetorical power. They proved that the Koran was written by a great genius; that it was an epoch-making book, giving law to a language pre-eminent for elegance, inexhaustible fullness, and precision, revolutionizing kingdoms, forming empires, and molding civilization. Nevertheless, it was a single work, within the grasp of one great man. But Henry Martyn proved that the Bible is one single book, one single, intricate, organic whole, produced by more than forty different writers of every variety of culture and condition through sixteen centuries of time—that is, through about fifty successive generations of mankind. As a great cathedral, erected by many hands through many years, is born of one conceiving mind, and has had but one author, so only God can be the one author of the whole Bible, for only he has been contemporaneous with all stages of its genesis; he has been able to control and co-ordinate all the agents concerned in its production, so as to conceive and realize the incomparable result.
The word Canon comes from the Greek word “kanw/n” (kanon) which in turn is derived from the Hebrew word hn<q’ (qaneh). The Hebrew word literally refers to a “reed” or a “rod.” In common usage, it referred to a straight rod of uniform length that could be used for measurements. In figurative use, it was common to use the term to refer to an ideal or a standard. Thus, the idea of a Canon of scripture was to designate the writings which had been inspired by God for use as the standard for religion and life for God’s people. By the time the New Testament writers were writing, the concept of Canon was clearly understood in the church and the writers understood themselves to be agents of God in the completion of the Canon.
It is worth noting that Marcion also published an early second century canon, but it was highly doctored to reflect his heretical views. Thus, it should not be seen as a genuine canon, but as a heretical document of a false teacher.
The Muritorian Canon contained the following list of books in this order: Matthew & Mark (the first section of the document is missing, but what follows implies the presence of Matthew and Mark in the missing section), Luke, John, the Acts of the Apostles, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Titus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, The Wisdom of Solomon (Apocryphal), Revelation, and the Apocalypse of Peter (but listed as doubtful). The Shepherd of Hermas is listed as useful for the believer but not scripture and is prohibited as a subject of preaching. Also, the Letters of Paul to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrians is listed as forged in Paul’s name to further the heresy of Marcion. Finally, the writings of Arsinous, Valentius, Miltiades, and Basilides are condemned. To include these documents, the canon instructs, would be to “mix gall with honey.”