The Canon of Scripture

What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong? EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS

The previous chapter concluded that it is especially the written words of God in the Bible to which we are to give our attention. Before we can do this, however, we must know which writings belong in the Bible and which do not. This is the question of the canon of Scripture, which may be defined as follows: The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.

We must not underestimate the importance of this question. The words of Scripture are the words by which we nourish our spiritual lives. Thus we can reaffirm the comment of Moses to the people of Israel in reference to the words of God's law: "For it is no trifle for you, but it is your life and thereby you shall live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess" (Deut. 32:47).

To add to or subtract from God's words would be to prevent God's people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded. Thus Moses warned the people of Israel, "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2).

The precise determination of the extent of the canon of Scripture is therefore of the utmost importance. If we are to trust and obey God absolutely we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God's own words to us. If there are any sections of Scripture about which we have doubts whether they are God's words or not, we will not consider them to have absolute divine authority and we will not trust them as much as we would trust God himself.

A. The Old Testament Canon

Where did the idea of a canon begin—the idea that the people of Israel should preserve a collection of written words from God? Scripture itself bears witness to the historical development of the canon. The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments thus form the beginning of the biblical canon. God himself wrote on two tablets of stone the words which he commanded his people: "And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God' (Ex. 31:18). Again we read, "And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God graven upon the tables" (Ex. 32:16; cf. Deut. 4:13; 10:4). The tablets were deposited in the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:5) and constituted the terms of the covenant between God and his people.1

This collection of absolutely authoritative words from God grew in size throughout the time of Israel's history. Moses himself wrote additional words to be deposited beside the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:24-26). The immediate reference is apparently to the book of Deuteronomy, but other references to writing by Moses indicate that the first four books of the Old Testament were written by him as well (see Ex. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:22). After the death of Moses, Joshua also added to the collection of written words of God: "Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God" (Josh. 24:26). This is especially surprising in light of the command not to add to or take away from the words which God gave the people through Moses: "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it..." (Deut. 4:2; cf. 12:32). In order to have disobeyed such a specific command, Joshua must have been convinced that he was not taking it upon himself to add to the written words of God, but that God himself had authorized such additional writing.

Later, others in Israel, usually those who fulfilled the office of prophet, wrote additional words from God:

Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. (1 Sam. 10:25)

The acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer. (1 Chron. 29:29)

Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Jehu the son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel. (2 Chron. 20:34; cf. 1 Kings 16:7 where Jehu the son of Hanani is called a prophet)

Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote. (2 Chron. 26:22)

Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and his good deeds, behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel. (2 Chron. 32:32)

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you.2 (Jer. 30:2)

1 1. See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), esp. pp. 48-53 and 113-30.

2 2. For other passages that illustrate the growth in the collection of written words from God see 2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 13:22; Isa. 30:8; Jer. 29:1; 36:1-32; 45:1; 51:60; Ezek. 43:11; Dan. 7:1; Hab. 2:2. Additions to it were usually through the agency of a prophet.

The content of the Old Testament canon continued to grow until the time of the end of the writing process. If we date Haggai to 520 b.c., Zechariah to 520-518 b.c. (with perhaps more material added after 480 b.c.), and Malachi around 435 b.c., we have an idea of the approximate dates of the last Old Testament prophets. Roughly coinciding with this period are the last books of Old Testament history—Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Ezra went to Jerusalem in 458 b.c., and Nehemiah was in Jerusalem from 445-433 b.c.3 Esther was written sometime after the death of Xerxes I (= Ahasuerus) in 465 b.c., and a date during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-423 b.c.) is probable. Thus, after approximately 435 b.c. there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God's words from earlier years.

When we turn to Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see that the belief that divinely authoritative words from God had ceased is clearly attested in several different strands of extrabiblical Jewish literature. In 1 Maccabees (about 100 b.c.) the author writes of the defiled altar, "So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them" (1 Macc. 4:45-46). They apparently knew of no one who could speak with the authority of God as the Old Testament prophets had done. The memory of an authoritative prophet among the people was one that belonged to the distant past, for the author could speak of a great distress "such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them" (1 Macc. 9:27; cf. 14:41).

Josephus (born c. a.d. 37/38) explained, "From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets" (Against Apion 1.41). This statement by the greatest Jewish historian of the first century a.d. shows that he knew of the writings now considered part of the "Apocrypha," but that he (and many of his contemporaries) considered these other writings "not...worthy of equal credit" with what we now know as the Old Testament Scriptures. There had been, in Josephus's viewpoint, no more "words of God" added to Scripture after about 435 b.c.

Rabbinic literature reflects a similar conviction in its repeated statement that the Holy Spirit (in the Spirit's function of inspiring prophecy) departed from Israel. "After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the n3, Vip (H1426 + H7754, Babylonian Talmud Yomah 9b, repeated in Sota 48b, Sanhedrin 11a, and Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs, 8.9.3).4

The Qumran community (the Jewish sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls) also awaited a prophet whose words would have authority to supersede any existing regulations (see 1 QS 9.11), and other similar statements are found elsewhere in ancient Jewish literature (see 2 Baruch 85:3 and Prayer 15). Thus, writings subsequent to about 435 b.c. were not accepted by the Jewish people generally as having equal authority with the rest of Scripture.

3 3. See "Chronology of the Old Testament," in IBD 1:277.

4 3. That "the Holy Spirit" is primarily a reference to divinely authoritative prophecy is clear both from the fact that the rQ ^ip (H1326 + H7753, a voice from heaven) is seen as a substitute for it, and from the very frequent use of "the Holy Spirit" to refer to prophecy elsewhere in Rabbinic literature.

In the New Testament, we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This fact is confirmed by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times,5 but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority.6 The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent reference to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agreed that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God's very words.

What then shall be said about the Apocrypha, the collection of books included in the canon by the Roman Catholic Church but excluded from the canon by Protestantism?7 These books were never accepted by the Jews as Scripture, but throughout the early history of the church there was a divided opinion on whether they should be part of Scripture or not. In fact, the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in some parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.8

5 5. See Roger Nicole, "New Testament Use of the Old Testament," in Revelation and the Bible ed. Carl F.H. Henry (London: Tyndale Press, 1959), pp. 137-41.

6 6. Jude 14-15 does cite 1 Enoch 60:8 and 1:9, and Paul at least twice quotes pagan Greek authors (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12), but these citations are more for purposes of illustration than proof. Never are the works introduced with a phrase like, "God says," or "Scripture says," or "it is written," phrases that imply the attribution of divine authority to the words cited. (It should be noted that neither 1 Enoch nor the authors cited by Paul are part of the Apocrypha.) No book of the Apocrypha is even mentioned in the New Testament.

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