Pastor's Blog


More thoughts on the Canonization of Scripture

(More information that could be included in the sermon on 1.26.20 titled Why These Books and Not Others?)

By Sam Wright


From a historical point of view, the Torah was accepted as scripture by all Jews by 400 B.C.  The Prophets were accepted as scripture by many Jews by about 200 B.C.  The third group, the Writings were accepted as part of the Bible in the first centuries after Jesus.

How many books were there in Jesus’ Bible?  We are not sure.  He seems to have been on the more open end of the Pharisees.  He is quoted by Luke as mentioning the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. The Psalms is one of eleven books in the Writings of the current Jewish Bible.

When the Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 A.D., the Sadducees ceased to exist, and the Essenes were annihilated in the war.  The Pharisees were left. They debated for decades, eventually settling on the twenty-four books of today’s Hebrew Bible, which contain the same books in a different order as the Old Testament of Protestants.  

By the way, there is still disagreement among Christians as to which books should be included in the Old Testament.  How many books are there in the Old Testament?  Ask a Protestant and we’ll say 39 (which are the same as the 24 in the Jewish Bible).  Ask Roman Catholics and they will say, “46.”  Depending on which Orthodox church the number will be higher.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church even accepts Enoch and Jubilees that the Essenes considered Scripture.

As far as the New Testament canon of Scripture is concerned, it was also a messy process.  By about 200 years after Jesus, the letters of Paul and the Gospels were considered authoritative.  But lots of other gospels and other writings started showing up.  For example, the Gospel of Thomas was written probably in the middle of the second century.  But Thomas did not write it.  It was written by a gnostic Christian who had some strange ideas like Mary Magdalene having to become male before she would have a chance to go to heaven. 

In the second and third centuries after Jesus, it became popular to write books in the name of apostles.  These are called pseudepigrapha.  Sort of just the opposite as what we have in the original gospels which were written anonymously then later ascribed to leaders in the church.  The church had to weed through these pseudepigrapha.  It was a long and tedious process with lots of debates. 

The gospels in the New Testament are older than any other writings we have about Jesus.  They are the most reliable.  Like Luke, the other gospel authors, even though anonymous, took seriously the task of capturing who Jesus was and what he taught. Matthew and Luke relied heavily on Mark. But in a sense, each of the four evangelists was an artist, who painted his own portrait of Jesus based on what he had learned from others.

How did the church eventually decide?  First, as Adam Hamilton writes it was usefulness.[1]  It was books that the church used, that they found helpful.  Someone would go visit another town and go to a church.  They’d hear the Old Testament readings, then someone would read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  The visitor would get excited because he’d never heard it and he thought it had good practical advice that would help him and his congregation.  He’d get some money together and pay for someone to make a copy of that letter and take it back home to have read in his church. 

The same thing happened later with the four gospels.  This was how the earliest books circulated.  People found them useful when they heard them so they had them copied, which was expensive, and then they naturally circulated among the congregations. 

Then when someone would show up with a freshly written gospel of Peter. The leader might read it aloud, and the people might say, “but it does not agree with what we have heard in the older gospels.”  So they tended to reject it.  But if the texts were useful and consistent with the earliest sources, they kept being copied and circulating among the churches. 

Books associated with the early leaders of the church tended to be accepted, but as I mentioned this drove people to write in earlier apostle’s names.  However, this is why the four gospels came to be associated with Mark, who was with Peter and Paul.  Luke who traveled with Paul and the two apostles Matthew and John were associated with the other gospels. 

Eventually, books that were accepted as Scripture far and wide in the church tended to remain in the group of Scripture.  Some early books that many wanted to be in the New Testament that did not make it were 1 Clement, Barnabas, The Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas.[2]  Mainly because they were accepted in parts of the church but not others.

So the first time we have a list that matches our 27 books was from an Easter Letter from the Bishop of Egypt, Athanasius in A.D. 367 A.D.  But he also recommended reading the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas.  Our New Testament as we currently have it was not officially recognized by the church until the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D., about 367 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 [1]Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible.  HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[2]Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible