“But in regard to the Canon itself, which they so superciliously intrude upon us, ancient writers are not agreed. Let the mediators, then, enjoy their own as they please, provided we are at liberty to repudiate those which all men of sense, at least when informed on the subject, will perceive to be not of divine original.”[1] This quote by John Calvin highlights a major difficulty when discussing the biblical cannon—namely authority. The question is not so much whether a canon has authority, by definition this is a reality, rather it a question of the credence of authority. What standards are used to measure the divine inspiration of accepted scripture? Who is responsible for judging the whether or not a given work met such a standard? Such questions took on even greater importance as different theological positions and heresies began to spring up and create division within the early church. The proponents of such ideas would naturally select those writings which demonstrated support for their position as authorative. Conversely, opponents would argue against such canons. While today, the question of the canonization of scripture is more or less established, the means by which this process developed is of great significance to any student of the Bible.

To this end any Christian wishing to increase in knowledge and mature in the faith must begin at a common starting point as a skeptic. They must ask those tough questions to which faith alone is not a sufficient answer. Faith was never intended to replace reason; nor reason faith. It is then imperative to seek the solutions to those questions which any reasonable person might ask. If God purposed to send a message to humanity, how would he do it in a manner that was relevant to all peoples in all eras? The Christian response to such an answer would be he did it through direct revelation to certain people who wrote down what they received under divine inspiration at different points in world history. These writings were then preserved and passed down.

The sentiment of such an answer is incomplete. There have been thousands of Christian writings in forms of apologetics, pastoral letters, and others. How is it to be known which of these writings are “God-breathed and useful one way or another?” (2 Tim. 3:16, MSG) Of course it would be advantageous if God had given us list of writings in which he confirms were inspired by him to which we could apply the words of the Apostle Paul: “Let God be true, but every man a liar.” (Rom, 3:4, KJV) So how does a person know whether or not the biblical canon is inspired by God? This question is one that must be answered individually, whether believer or skeptic; and then only by understanding how the present cannon came about.

Old Testament

While it is possible to analyze the canonization of the Old Testament and New Testament. Such a process fails to consider the heritage and connection that each has to each other. As Augustine so aptly put it: “This grace hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament according to the most perfectly ordered dispensation of the ages, forasmuch as God knew how to dispose all things.”[2] It is, therefore, only fitting that a moment be taken to discuss the canonization of the Old Testament.

Most Bibles recognize 39 canonized book of the Old Testament.[3] While the exact process of Jewish canonization is speculative at best, a glimmer of insight can be seen in the formation of its three part structure. The first part, the Torah (law) is held to be written by Moses. Perhaps the most significant step in the canonization of the Torah is found in the Ezra tradition. Sometime instruction given on its meaning.[4]  The law had developed into five books by the second century B.C.E. the Torah had been canonized. Around this time other Jewish writings had begun to be collected as authorative. These writings became known as the Prophets.

It seems as though for a period of time, the Jewish cannon survived in a two-part format consisting of the Law and the Prophets. However, by 130 B.C.E. it had developed into three parts. The third part being known simply as the Writings. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that three-part format was used by first century C.E. Jews, noting they had 22 books in their canon.[5] Consistent Jewish tradition has 24 books in the three-part format by the end of the second century C.E.

New Testament

Tracing the New Testament canonization is not so shrouded in speculative guesswork as the Old Testament. Still, there are some problems that one encounters upon taking up such an endeavor. First, it must never be presumed that New Testament canonization occurred in a progressive step-by-step process of a single collection of writings. “[O]ne should think of New Testaments, not of the New Testament.”[6] In other words, due to the differences in theological thought, each group of Christians had their own set of writings which they considered authorative.

Marcion was the first to begin to collect a canon. He was a wealthy ship-owner and son of the bishop of Sinope. Undoubtedly, his large financial contributions and his father’s position gave him a status of respectability within the Christian community in Rome. However, Marcion rejected the Old Testament Canon and any writings which he felt were too Jewish. His decidedly anti-Semitic slant caused him to not only reject whole works of the Apostle’s such as Mathew and John’s Gospel, but also led him to edit what he saw to be inserts by Judaizing editors of some of the Pauline epistles and Luke’s Gospel.

In July of 144CE the leaders of the churches in Rome held hearing to have Marcion give an explanation of his theologies. His basic tenets were that Old Testament and apostolistic writings did not reconcile with one another. He rejected Christ as the Jewish messiah, instead held him to be the messenger of the supreme God. He believed the Apostles had misunderstood Christ’s message. The council summarily and harshly rejected Marcion’s views. He was condemned as heretic, excommunicated and his most of his donations returned.

Throughout the first and second centuries their continued to be diverse recognition of the early Christian writing authority and even Old Testament canon. ” … [W]hale Christians who were concerned with defining a New Testament canon analogous to the Old Testament canon, they were in no position, at least in the first few centuries, to say exactly what was in it. The Old Testament canon during this time was more a process than an achievement.”[7] There was no consensus as to what was considered authoritative.

Even when one looks at the writing of early Christian Fathers there is no consistency with what they quoted from as authorative. In fact it appears almost as if all of the writings were considered authorative by one group or another. After analyzing the works of the Apostolistic Fathers, Metzger concluded, “the Bible consisted of the Old Testament and some Jewish apocryphal literature. Along with this written authority went traditions, chiefly oral, of sayings attributed to Jesus. On the other hand, authors who belonged to the `Hellenistic Wing’ of the Church refer more frequently to writings that later came to be included in the New Testament. At the same time, however, they very rarely regarded such documents as `Scripture’.”[8]

About 190CE Eusibus tells of a bishop of Antioch who was reading from the Gospel of Peter in his church. He does not seem to see any harm in reading what was thought to come from the church founder. However, after being told that the gospel did not conform with church doctrine he subsequently quits using it. In this case we find church doctrine dictating the authority of the scripture.[9]

Athanasius’ Easter Letter in 367 CE, is the first mention of a canonical New Testament as we see it today. It included 27 books. Although Metzger sees the influence of Jerome and Augustine has the deciding factor of total number included, their endorsement did little to get it accepted universally. In fact Augustine championed this list at the councils of Rome, 382, Hippo, 393, and Carthage, 397. All three of these councils confirmed the list, but none of these councils were recognized as universal authorities within the church. Even within the Roman Empire, these councils only achieved to get the canon accepted in local areas.

After the split between the Eastern and Western church, there was still no agreement as to the canonization of the New Testament. The Syrian National Church for centuries used the Diatesseron, the earliest known attempt to harmonize the four gospels into a single narrative. The Nestorian church excluded 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, James, Jude, and Revelations.[10]

The truth is there is no historical evidence for the canonization of the Bible. What we have is a collection of books, that one will either accept as inspired or they won’t. Reason will get you to the point of understanding why things were rejected or why they were accepted. Reason will not make you believe. Even today Catholics have a different cannon than the Protestants. The Eastern Orthodoxy has their own canon. There is no universally recognized canon within the Christian church. There is no Jesus approved list. There are no Apostolistic lists. It is open to the light in every believer.

Augustin, St. “A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter.” In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Calvin, John. “John Calvin on the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.” Translated by Henry Beveridge. In Tracts and Treatises in Defense in Defense of the Reformed Faith. Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958.

Eusebius. “History of the Church.”

Grant, R.M. The Formation of The New Testament. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Josephus, Flavious. “Against Apion.”

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Riddle, Donald W. “Factors in the Formations of the New Testament.” The Journal of Religion 19, no. 4 (1939): 330-45.

Toit, A. Du. “Canon.” In Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.

[1] John Calvin, “John Calvin on the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense in Defense of the Reformed Faith, ed., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 267.

[2] St. Augustin, “A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter,” ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes and Rev. Robert Ernest Wallace. Rev: Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

[3] Jewish canon has only 24 books. Although, the Christian OT canon is nearly identical, the Jewish canon groups certain books together which the Christian canon separates.

[4] 2 kgs.22:8-23:35. Some scholars think the law found in the temple was only a fragment of Deuteronomy and not the entire five books of the Torah.

[5] Flavious Josephus, Against Apion, 1.39-42.

[6] Emphasis mine, Donald W. Riddle, “Factors in the Formations of the New Testament,” The Journal of Religion 19, no. 4 (1939).

[7] R.M. Grant, The Formation of The New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 51.

[8] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).

[9] Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.12.3-6.

[10] Oxford Companion to the Bible, s.v. “Canon.”