Canonicity and the “Missing” Books of the Bible
The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series
[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible. We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).
How many books actually belong in the New Testament? That question arises in the minds of some people when they see the advertisements in the bookstores regarding “The Lost Books of the Bible” or the supermarket tabloid stories about the “new” gospel discovered. The charge that such books were supposedly excluded from the Bible because the Catholic Church didn’t agree with their teaching lends a hint of conspiracy guaranteed to sell books.
Such stories may actually raise some doubt in the minds of those who do not understand why our New Testaments have twenty-seven books. Many religious people are quite willing to accept the New Testament in its present form without knowing why those particular books are included and others excluded. But it is fair to ask: Can we have confidence that the New Testament contains all of the books that God intended? Are there books in our New Testament that don’t belong?
It would be more convenient if a leather-bound New Testament with the words of Jesus in red letters dropped from heaven (the version Paul used!) so that we would know exactly which books belong, but it just didn’t happen that way. Although understanding the process of determining the canon requires some effort, the end result will be a greater confidence that we possess the complete Word of God.
What About the Other Books?
If there were only twenty-seven religious books written in the decades after the ascension of Jesus, there would be no need to “determine” which books belong in the New Testament. However, the authors of the New Testament documents were not the only ones who wrote letters to provide religious instruction. Paul wrote two epistles to the Corinthians that have been preserved for our learning, but Clement of Rome also wrote an epistle to the Corinthians in the first century (c. 96). Ancient Homily (also know as the Second Epistle of Clement) is dated c. 120-140. Some date the Epistle of Barnabas even earlier (c. 70-79).
There were many other documents written in the decades and centuries to follow, some of which were evidently highly respected by the disciples in their time. Examples include the seven letters of Ignatius (c. 112), the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 115-140), Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (c. 108), Apocalypse of Peter (c. 150), and the Didache (also known as the Teaching of the Twelve [c. 120-150]).
One of the earliest codices, P72 (part of the Bodmer Papyri collection) contains several non-canonical books in addition to some New Testament books. Clement’s first epistle and Ancient Homily (2 Clement?) are found in Codex Alexandrinus, a manuscript containing the New Testament. Codex Sinaiticus includes the Epistle of Barnabas and a portion of the Shepherd. The table of contents of Codex Bezae lists The Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 170), the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter. Codex Hierosolymitanus (also known as the Bryennios manuscript or Jerusalem Codex [H]) was written by a scribe named Leo in 1056 and contains the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 & 2 Clement, the long form of the Ignatian letters and the most complete extant copy of the Didache.
I mention these writings (not an all-inclusive list) and the inclusion of some in early important manuscripts to suggest that one of the major challenges for the early church was to distinguish between inspired and uninspired literature. In addition to the documents already mentioned (known as apocrypha), there were many other writings from the early centuries, described as pseudepigrapha (literally, “false writings”), that were generally not considered to be inspired.
The twenty-seven books of the New Testament are known as the canon (the same word is also applied to the books of the Old Testament). The Greek word kanon (?a???) was used in ancient times to denote “a rod, ruler, staff, or measuring rod,” but over time came to designate a “standard” in general. The word appears in a few New Testament passages (NKJV - 2 Corinthians 10:13, 15 – “sphere”; Galatians 6:16 – “rule”; Philippians 3:16 – “rule”). Our English word canon, derived from this Greek word, is commonly used to describe authoritative writings, i.e., those documents inspired of God.
“We Need to Know!”
The proliferation of religious correspondence made it necessary for early Christians to “sift” through these writings in search of those that were actually authoritative. They obviously would have wanted to identify which books had been written by inspiration because of their interest in divine truth. They needed to know which books were authoritative for the purpose of guiding them in the practical demands of daily living. The other side of that coin is that early Christians also needed to be able to identify false teaching and, as the New Testament documents testify, false teachers soon began to infiltrate the church with their pernicious errors (Acts 20:28-31; 2 Peter 2; Jude).
The miraculous spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy assisted the early Christians in taking the gospel to the far corners of the Roman empire, but those gifts were intended to be temporary, as the apostle Paul pointed out to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). As the gifts “died out,” the need to carry the teachings of God in written form increased and it would be necessary to know which books were authoritative, i.e., part of the “standard” known as the canon. Evangelism under these conditions would have required the translation of the Holy Scriptures into other languages. From manuscript evidence we know that the New Testament documents were translated into other languages (e.g., Syriac and Latin) very early in the history of the Lord’s church.
In addition to these stimuli, the onset of imperial persecution provided another strong impetus for recognizing the New Testament canon. For example, in the Great Persecution of A.D. 303 by the emperor Diocletian, one of the four major imperial edicts was that all copies of the Scriptures were to be burned. Cairns comments, “The Diocletian persecution forced upon the church the problem of the canon of the New Testament. If the possession of letters might mean death, the Christians wanted to be sure that the books that they would not give up on pain of death were really canonical books.” For which books am I willing to die?
In summary, the practical demands of worship and daily living, the need to pursue doctrinal purity, the prerequisites of evangelism, and persecution made the identification of canonical books a critical task.
Inspiration Determines Canonicity
The key to canonicity is inspiration. As Paul wrote to his younger protégé Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). All Scripture – all authoritative writing – is given by inspiration of God. Peter wrote that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21; ESV). Edward Young comments, “Canonical books, in other words, are those books which are regarded as divinely inspired. The criterion of a book’s canonicity, therefore, is its inspiration. If a book has been inspired of God, it is canonical, whether accepted by men as such or not. It is God and not man who determines whether a book is to belong to the Canon.”
It is thus important to realize that God determined the canon via the process of inspiration. Man does not actually determine the canon; he only recognizes what God has already done. Canonization is essentially the process by which early Christians recognized the books that were inspired of God. Some early religious literature was easily excluded from the canon because the authors made no claim to inspiration.
If inspiration is the governing principle for canonicity, then the Lord’s promises to His apostles are of critical importance. Jesus had promised His apostles the guidance of the Holy Spirit on several occasions. For example, when He sent out the twelve on a limited commission, He told them not to worry about what they would say when brought before governors and kings for His sake because it would be given to them “in that hour” by the Spirit what they should speak (Matthew 10:18-20). On the eve of His death, the Lord promised His apostles that the Holy Spirit, who would come to them after His departure, would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them (John 14:26). In the same conversation, He promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).
Paul, the apostle “born out of due season,” later wrote that the Holy Spirit revealed the “things of God” to those who then spoke this truth in words taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-13). Paul defended his apostleship to the Galatians and Corinthians and asserted his authority as one granted the privilege of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:1, 6-20; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 11:5; 12:11-12). To the Corinthians, he wrote, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
Books clearly authored by apostles were thus readily accepted as canonical. As evidenced by Peter’s comment (2 Peter 3:15-16), the epistles of Paul, for instance, were already considered “scripture” in his (Peter’s) day. Some early religious writers recognized the value of apostolic authorship for credibility and thus false claims to apostolic authorship characterized many of the pseudepigraphal works. The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter and Gospel of Judas are all examples of such non-canonical works. Even during the lifetime of Paul, it appears that his name was being co-opted in spurious letters (see 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
However, the apostles were not the only ones guided by the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the Holy Spirit was revealing the mystery of Christ to apostles and prophets (3:5). An individual “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21) would have been considered a prophet. The recognition of such individuals would have been more difficult than recognizing an apostle, although the term apostle was sometimes used in a more general sense to include others besides the original twelve disciples selected by Jesus.
It appears to me that the apostle Paul identified one such prophet. In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul cited two passages with reference to the financial support of elders who “labor in the word and doctrine” and identified those passages as “scripture” (5:18). The first passage quoted was Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second appears to have been from Luke 10:7. Although there are other passages in the Old Testament that convey the sense of the quotation “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (e.g., Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15; see also Matthew 10:10), none match it as well as Luke 10:7. If Paul was indeed quoting from the gospel of Luke, then he also commented on the canonicity of that book by referring to it as scripture!
Any book that contained factual or doctrinal errors was not accepted as canonical. A book authored with the guidance of Deity should contain no errors – historical, geographical or otherwise. Due to the inherent consistency of truth, it should also agree with other revelations of divine truth. The Bereans used this principle of doctrinal consistency when they tested the teaching of Paul against known divine instruction (Acts 17:11).
The Process of Canonization
As already suggested, it certainly would have been convenient if a list of canonical books had simply dropped from the heavens, but the recognition of the New Testament canon was indeed a process. Since the authoring of the New Testament documents spanned decades and involved different geographical areas, not all of the books of the canon were immediately available as a collected group. They had to be recognized for their inspired character by those familiar with them.
Early Christians, however, recognized that the epistles written under the direction of the Holy Spirit were supposed to be circulated among people in addition to their original recipients. This would first be obvious from the universal aspect of the great commission given by Jesus to His disciples (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). The written word was one of the means of preserving and propagating the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that was to be preached to every creature.
That inspired epistles were meant to be circulated also becomes obvious from the comments of the authors of the New Testament documents themselves. For instance, Paul wrote to the Colossians that the epistle he had written to them was to be read by the Laodicean congregation and the epistle to the Laodiceans was to be read by the Colossians (4:16). As Paul concluded his first epistle to the Thessalonians, he instructed that his letter was to be read “to all the holy brethren” (5:27). His second epistle to the Corinthians was addressed “to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia” (1:1). Depending upon one’s understanding of First Corinthians 1:2, Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth may have been addressed to saints in general as well as to the local congregation (compare the NKJ, NASB and ESV). Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was addressed “to the churches of Galatia,” a group of readers that would have included a number of individual congregations spread out over a large geographical area. Similarly, First Peter was written to Christians living in five Roman provinces (1:1). Such epistles may have been copied by one congregation before being passed along to another.
In his second epistle, the apostle Peter mentioned to his readers what Paul had written to them, that “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation,” a theme common to “all his epistles” (3:15-16). Most importantly, Peter’s use of the expression “the rest of the Scriptures” in connection to Paul’s epistles was an implicit comment on the authority of Paul’s writings. The phrase “the rest of the Scriptures” was probably a reference to the Old Testament canon. It is reasonable to believe that, with such an estimation of Paul’s letters, his writings were already being collected as a group, much as the Jews had done with the Old Testament canon.
The writings of the church fathers are not as valuable in the process of textual criticism as the actual manuscripts of biblical texts. The opinions of the church fathers about various early religious documents, however, is invaluable inasmuch as they lived much closer in time to the authors of those documents. The specific testimony of the church fathers will be examined in greater detail in another chapter, but Geisler and Nix summarize the significance of their citations of the New Testament documents:
“As a result, the first hundred years of the existence of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament reveal that virtually every one of them was quoted as authoritative and recognized as canonical by men who were themselves the younger contemporaries of the Apostolic Age.”
There were a handful of the New Testament books whose canonicity was seriously questioned at some time or in some geographical portion of the Roman empire. Second and Third John, Hebrews, James, Jude and Second Peter were books whose universal acceptance required more time. The canonicity of Hebrews was questioned in the western portion of the Roman empire because of the anonymous nature of its authorship. Doubts about Second Peter focused on whether the apostle Peter was really its author with some arguing that the style of the book is different from that of First Peter. The inspired nature of James was questioned because of supposed dissonance with Paul’s teaching of justification by faith in Romans. Jude was questioned because of the author’s citation of apocryphal works. The length of some of these books also contributed to the difficulty of their acceptance since shorter books would typically be less likely to be cited by the church fathers.
There is some irony in the matter of the canonicity of Revelation. Generally accepted very early by the apostolic fathers, it was later questioned because of its unfortunate association with the doctrine of chiliasm (millennialism).
It is important to note again that, although some questions regarding the canonicity of these books arose later, they were cited as authoritative by the earliest church fathers.
The Canon – Gift of the Roman Catholic Church?
The Roman Catholic Church claims to have “given” the biblical canon to the religious world. For instance, one dictionary of the Catholic faith states, “The Canon of Holy Scripture is the list, made by the Church, of the inspired books which make up the Old and New Testament.” The word church in this quotation is used to designate the Roman Catholic Church. There is a sense, of course, in which the early church (in a distributive sense) did pass judgment on the canon. However, there are at least two problems with the assertion of the Roman Catholic Church.
First, the New Testament canon had already been recognized prior to the existence of the Roman Catholic Church with its distinctive characteristics. Although the Roman Catholic Church claims to be able to trace a line of popes back to the apostle Peter, the truth is that there was no recognized “universal bishop” until at least the middle of the fifth century with Leo I. Some of the church fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria) had put together lists of books they considered to be canonical long before the fifth century. The Muratorian Canon is dated at about A.D. 170 and includes 23 books of the present-day canon and may have included more books (the manuscript is a fragment).
Second, the various church councils (e.g., the synods of Hippo in A.D. 393 and Carthage in A.D. 397) that made declarations concerning the identity of the canon were “late” to the party! Cairns explains:
“People often err by thinking that the canon was set by church councils. Such was not the case, for the various church councils that pronounced upon the subject of the canon of the New Testament were merely stating publicly…what had been widely accepted by the consciousness of the church for some time.”
It would probably be impossible to comment with precision about the date that all 27 books were generally accepted by early Christians, but Mattox summarizes:
By 175 at least twenty of the New Testament books were generally accepted as inspired. The others were used but not with the same authority. By the time of Origen (250) the twenty-seven books we have were accepted, and to them he added Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. These two, however, did not stand on the test. Eusebius (326) held to the twenty-seven books, and from Athanasius on there was little controversy. Later, church councils also passed on the books which should be counted as inspired, but these were mere expressions of what the sincere Christians had held to years before.
In summary, there doesn’t seem to be any historical evidence that the canon was determined by any universal (church) organization or any sub-group of the Lord’s church.
The Power of God
Although evidence has been cited to trace the diligence and carefulness of early Christians in the recognition of the canon, the superintendence of God should not be discounted. If the Scriptures present an accurate picture of the power and faithfulness of God, then His intention to preserve His word should influence our opinion of the completeness of the canon.
The Mormons and the Muslims make a similar claim about the New Testament. Both groups affirm that the sacred book peculiar to their faith has been preserved without error, while at the same time claiming that contradictions with the Bible are caused by the corruption of the Scriptures. In other words, the same God who supposedly preserved The Book of Mormon and the Quran in flawless condition was unable, however, to do the same with the New Testament! Such claims impugn the omnipotence of the God of heaven.
Is our God sufficiently powerful to cause His word to be recognized and preserved? If God could not, through His providence utilizing the agency of men, cause the correct books to be recognized as canonical, was Peter accurate when he described the gospel as “the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23)? I believe that we can have confidence in the canon of the New Testament.
By Allen Dvorak
From Expository Files 20.3; March 2013