The Formation of the Bible Canon

1. Why was a Canon of the Bible necessary?

So long as the living voice of prophets and apostles was to be heard, there was no pressing need of a canon of Scripture. Under the inspiration of God they knew what was inspired, and what was not. But as soon as these men were dead–and with them inspiration ceased–it became necessary that their writings be gathered together to know what were their messages to the churches, and to preserve those writings from corruption.

Another reason why a canon was necessary was to preclude the possibility of additions to the number of inspired works. Already numerous writings were extant purporting to be inspired. Hence the question arose, Which of these are really inspired? What is the extent of inspired literature?

Still another and potent reason for the formation of the canon lay in the fact that the Emperor Diocletian issued in A.D. 302 an edict that all the sacred books should be destroyed by fire. hence the question arose as to which books rightly deserved the name of inspired and sacred.

2. How was the Canon of the Bible formed?

a. The formation of the Old Testament Canon.

The formation of the Old Testament canon was gradual, and was composed of the writings which spread over many centuries.

Moses commanded that the books of the law be placed in the ark. This–with the addition of the book of Joshua–was done, and the sacred books were kept there during the wilderness journey, and also were in the ark during its permanent residence in Jerusalem. (Deuteronomy 31:9,26, cf. 2 Kings 22:8; Joshua 24:26; 1 Samuel 10:25.)

Then were gathered and placed in the temple the historical and prophetical books from Joshua to David’s time. On the construction of the temple Solomon deposited in it the earlier books (2 Kings 22:8, Isaiah 34:16), and enriched the collection with inspired writings from his own pen, and also some prophetic writings. So we find Daniel (9:2, R.V.) referring to “the books,” Isaiah to “the book of the Lord” (29:18, 34:16).

After Solomon’s day a succession of prophets arose, Jonah, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, and Habakkuk. These all flourished before the destruction of the temple, and enlarged the collection of existing sacred books by valuable additions.

After the Babylonian capture, when the temple was rebuilt and worship re-established, then doubtless were added the writings of Haggai and Zechariah.

About fifty years after the temple was rebuilt Ezra made a collection of the sacred writings (Neh. 8:2,3,14). To this collection were added the writings of Nehemiah, Malachi, and Ezra. It is a fact of history that Nehemiah gathered the “Acts of the Kings and the Prophets, and those of David,” when founding a library for the second temple, 432 B.C. (See 2 Maccabees 2:13).

The canon of the Old Testament in the form we now have it, was the work of Ezra and the Great Synagogue. This fact is borne witness to in the most ancient Jewish writings. The Great Synagogue was composed of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. There is no doubt but that such a collection of books existed in the time of our Lord and the apostles (Luke 24:27,44).

b. The New Testament Canon

The New Testament canon was gradually added to that of the Old Testament. But it was some considerable time after our Lord’s ascension before any of the books contained in it were actually written.

The first and most important work of the apostles was to deliver a personal testimony to the chief facts of the Gospel history (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:21,22). Their teaching was at first oral, and it was no part of their intention to create a permanent literature. A cycle of selected representative facts sufficed to form the groundwork of their oral Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-10).

But in the course of time many endeavored to commit to writing this oral Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). So long as the apostles were still living, the necessity for written records of the words and actions of our Lord was not so pressing. But when the time came for their removal from this world, it became extremely important the authoritative records should be put forth. Thus the Gospels came into existence, two by apostles themselves, and two by friends and close companions of the apostles.

But already had arisen another kind of composition. Founders of churches, often unable to visit them personally, desired to communicate with their converts for purposes of counsel, reproof, and instruction. Thus arose the Epistles, which were put forth from time to time to meet special needs and emergencies.

The persecution of Diocletian (302 A.D.) brought to the front the question of the sacred literature of the church. The persecutors demanded that the Scriptures should be given up. This the Christians refused to do. Hence the question became urgent–What books are apostolic? The answer lies in our New Testament. There were at that time many false and spurious gospels and epistles. Careful, prayerful, and deliberate examination, however, proved which were genuine and which were false. The genuine were received by the church as the inspired writings of the apostles and others whose names the books bear. Thus arose the New Testament canon.

3. The books called “Homologoumena” and “Antilegomena.”

In the study of canonics a word or two must be said regarding these terms, and what is meant by them.

At the time of the formation of the New Testament canon twenty out of the twenty-seven books were readily and universally accepted as genuine, and therefore called “Homologoumena” (i.e. acknowledged). These twenty books were the four Gospels, the Acts, the epistles of Paul (except that to the Hebrews), and the first epistles of John and Peter. The other seven books–Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, Revelation–were disputed for a time by particular churches, and were therefore styled “Antilegomena” (or disputed).

The question at issue with regard to the books called “Antilegomena,” was not so much that of the canonicity of the writings, as whether they were really written by the men who were called their authors. Hebrews bore no name of its author, and differed in style from the acknowledged Pauline epistles; 2 Peter differed in style from 1 Peter; James and Jude styled themselves “servants,” and not “apostles”; the write of 2 and 3 John called himself an “elder” or “presbyter,” and not an “apostle”; Jude recorded apocryphal stories. For these reasons these books were not at once allowed their place in the canon. After a deliberate examination, however, they were at last received as genuine, the very delay proving the close scrutiny which their claims had undergone. At the beginning of the fourth century they were received by most of the churches, and at the end of that century they were received by all.

4. The Apocryphal Books.

These books derive their name from a Greek word, apokruphos, which means “hidden.” They are so called because they are,–(1) hidden; (2) of unknown authority; (3) spurious. They were not recognized as inspired books by the Jews, who regarded them, however as having high authority, and held them in high esteem as being a valuable history of their nation. Although they were carefully distinguished from the canonical Scriptures, their use was not only allowed, but many of them are quoted in Talmudical writings. They were given a place by themselves in the sacred volume, but with the distinct statement that they were not to be regarded as of equal authority with the books of the canon, their position being between the Old and New Testaments. We find them in some Bibles to-day–especially in Roman Catholic Bibles, since they are regarded by the roman church as inspired books.

The Apocrypha contains fourteen books, namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the rest of Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Song of the Three Children, the Story of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasses, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. It is true that by some of the fathers of the Christian church a few of these books have been quoted as canonical, but they were not looked on in this light; nor were their titles included in any list of canonical writings during the first four centuries after the birth of our Lord. It was not, indeed, until the Council of Trent, in 1545, that they were definitely declared to be an integral portion of Holy Scripture as acknowledged by the Roman church. “Philo,” says Angus, “never quotes them as he does the sacred Scriptures; and Josephus expressly excludes them. The Jewish church never received them as part of the canon, and they are never quoted either by our Lord or by His apostles; a fact the more striking as St. Paul twice quotes heathen poets. It is remarkable, too, that the last inspired prophet closes his predictions by recommending to his countrymen the books of Moses, and intimates that no other messenger is to be expected by them till the coming of the second Elijah (Mal. 4:4-6) * * * Internal evidence, moreover, is against their inspiration. Divine authority is claimed by none of the writers, and by some it is virtually disowned (2 Mac. 2:23; 15:38). The books contain statements at variance with history (Baruch 1:2, compared with Jer. 43:6,7), self-contradictory, and opposed to the doctrines and precepts of Scripture.”

For what, then, can the Apocryphal books be esteemed useful? In the Church of England some parts of them are read “for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” By no Protestant church are these writings held to be the rule of faith, and contrasted with the canonical books, they are utterly without authority. From a historical point of view they are of value in showing the condition of the Jewish people, and relating certain events that intervene between the closing of the Old Testament and the opening of the Christian era.

These facts sufficiently indicate the course of the argument by which the canonicity of the sacred Scriptures is proved. Let it be proven that these books were written by the men whose names they bear, and that these men wrote under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, and the canonicity of the Bible is a settled fact. We have, therefore, a right to believe that we have in our Bible a rule of faith and life–yea, the supreme and ultimate rule–by which we may govern our lives in order that they may be in accordance with the revealed will of God.

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