Thursday, February 26, 2015

P15 Why the Bible has 66 books - the question of the canon

Proverbs 30:6 "Do not add to His words or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar."

Revelation 22:18 "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book."

In this series we have entitled: "Why the Bible", the attempt has been made to introduce the reader to virtually every major subject and question raised about the Bible. In this series we have explored why the Bible is authoritative and trustworthy, as well as why the Bible is inspired and inerrant. In this series we have considered why the Bible is the basis for preaching and most recently, why the Bible alone is worthy of the title: "Word of God". 

Today's post considers a subject that is vital in any discussion about the Bible - namely the issue of canonicity. When we talk about the "canon of scripture", we're not talking about armaments used in physical warfare (however one could say the Biblical books are God's "canon" so-to-speak in fighting the Christian's spiritual warfare, see 2 Corinthians 10:3-4). Strictly speaking, the term "canon" comes from a word meaning "standard", "measuring rod" or "measuring stick". To say that the Bible is composed of "canonical writings" simply means that the 66 books, and no other set, constitute the "standard" or "measuring rod" of God's truth. The 66 books that are in our English Bibles (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament) are considered as a collection the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God. 

People who tried to "add" to God's Word or replace it
Throughout the history of the church there have been groups inside the church, as well as outside, who attempted to "add" to these 66. One group, called the "Gnostics", lived and taught in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (100-200 years after Jesus and the Apostles). We won't go into all the details surrounding what the Gnostics taught, but suffice it to say, they combined elements of pagan thought, Jewish mysticism, a smattering of Greek philosophy and vestiages of Christianity in their worldview. Awareness of the Gnostics' attempts to attack early Christianity and the scriptures is an important piece to the fascinating story behind the canon of scripture. To spread their heresies, the Gnostics devised the clever strategy of attaching names of apostles or prophets to their writings and thus passing them off as genuine writings. More will be said about the Gnostics in a little bit. 

The question about canonicity aids in understanding whether or not there were so-called "lost books" of the Bible
Were there extra books or "lost books" that didn't "make the cut" so-to-speak? Before we go any further to address that question, the first matter of importance is to understand the true history behind how the Old and New Testament books came to be regarded as God's Divine collection of books and thus, the Bible.  By understanding the story behind how the books of the Bible ended up being the Bible books, the reader will be better informed in discerning what is often said about the Bible's history.

So why does the Bible only have 66 books? A quick history about the canon of scripture

1. The truth about the development of the New Testament Canon
So did the early church wait nearly 300 years to pick its own books for the New Testament to the exclusion of the Gnostic gospels? When we read history and the Bible, we discover that canonicity was not something that the church decided to make up to suit its own political interests. Norman Geisler, an evangelical scholar writes in his book (co-edited with William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible):

Inspiration determines canonicity. If a book was authoritative, it was so because God breathed it and made it so. How a book receives authority, then, is determined by God. How men recognize that authority is another matter altogether (see discussion in chap.13 ). As J. I. Packer notes, “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.” [1]

Since the New Testament books were immediately recognized by God’s people within or shortly after the apostolic age, then from a historical standpoint, the early church was already using many of the Books of the Bible even before the apostles died out. 

2. The earliest records that bear witness to the development of the New Testament Canon
Church historian Everett Harrison cites the letters of Paul, Peter and John as the first immediate evidence of the early church’s recognition of the inspired texts of those apostles.[2]
With all of these New Testament texts dated between 50-90 A.D by even the most hardened critics, we can safely acknowledge that recognition of what constituted inspired text was a first act of the apostolic church.

In fact the churches established by the apostles constituted the criteria by which the church recognized the number of books and the type of books as authoritative witnesses of the words of God. Harrison notes three tests used by the early church in determining which books were canonical:[3]

a). Was it of apostolic origin or authority?
b). Was it received by the earliest churches and in use?
c). Was it consistent with the teaching of the already established norm of the Old Testament?”

3. Questions surrounding the exact numbers of the books
With the early church already acknowledging each of the New Testament books as individually inspired, the next step would involve recognizing the gospels and epistles in their respective groupings as canonical, with the end result being the entirety of our 27 book N.T. Many within the world of liberal, critical scholarship claim that the N.T Canon was invented or put together in 325 A.D at the Council of Nicaea under the watchful eye of Emperor Constantine. Yet testimony from the early church fathers and early lists of New Testament books state otherwise.

a). Papias was a student of Polycarp, who in turn had been a student of the apostle John. Eusebias, the first church historian, notes that Papias acknowledged the authority of the four gospels as early as 135 A.D, only 40 years after the apostolic age.

b). As already mentioned, Polycarp, Papias mentor, had been himself a student of the apostle John. Polycarp in his book entitled “First Apology” asserts the authority of the four gospels and Pauline epistles while sharply distinguishing them from the then popular but apocryphal books of “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “Apocalypse of Peter”.[5]  Polycarp is dated 115 A.D, some 25 years after the close of the apostolic age.

c). Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote his work “Against Heresies” to record and critique the growing Gnostic threat that was attempting to undermine the orthodox, Bible believing church of his day. Irenaeus not only mentions almost all of the 27 books of the New Testament, but effectively denounces all of the Gnostic gospels. Iranaeus wrote his work in 180 A.D, some 85 years after the apostolic age.

d). The Muratorian Fragment, the earliest list we have of the New Testament books outside the apostolic era, can be dated to 170 A.D. In it we have almost a complete record of all the New Testament books except two. This canonical list represents a good portion of the early church’s opinion of what constituted the New Testament.

4. The length of time it took for the early church to acknowledge the New Testament Canon?
Overall we could quote well over a dozen more church fathers that lived and wrote prior to 200 A.D. The point is that even though the Gnostic gospels had begun to be written by 150 A.D, yet we have ample testimony that some 30 to 40 years previous to their existence, the 27 book New Testament that we have today was in one way or another already established. P.R Ackroyd, a New Testament scholar writes:[6]
“While there was some considerable dispute over some of the N.T books, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the 2nd century (150 A.D).”

Thus despite the claims of radical critics of the Bible like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman (two authors who have written material attempting to discredit the Bible and its history), the New Testament canon as we know it was well on its way by 150 A.D. By the time we arrive in the fourth century, various church fathers (like Athanasius of Alexandria) and certain church councils (Hippo in 393 A.D and Carthage in 397 A.D) did nothing more than affirm what was already generally acknowledged by all Christians everywhere – namely the canonicity of the 27 New Testament Books.

5. Constructing a Timeline for history’s account of the story of the N.T canon
With the major evidence for the development of the N.T Canon considered, it is now time to see how all of this evidence lays out in a time line. This timeline gives a three part account of how our New Testament came to be recognized as the canon.

 Part 1: Apostles, Post-Apostolic/Pre-Nicaean Church Fathers 
 1 & 2 Peter 3:14-16 & 1 Timothy 5:18 mention the early Christian's recognition of the agood portion of the New Testament books well within the days of the Apostles or about three-quarters of the way through the 1st century. The Muratorian Canon (170 A.D) mentions every New Testament book but three, indicating that the early church within a century after the passing of the Apostle John. By 200 A.D. the Latin church father Tertullian states his refusal to use any other gospels other than the four. This indicates his awareness of the Gnostic Gospels and the early Christians' immediate rejection of them.

50 -----100 A.D-------------------------150 A.D----------------200 A.D------------>>

Epistle of Barnabas (120 A.D), Papias (120 A.D), Irenaeus (180 A.D) quote or refer to almost all the 27 New Testament books.                

Part 2: Nicean and Post-Nicean Church Fathers (Nicaea refers to Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D)

<<-----300A.D-------------------------------------------------400 A.D

Athanasius “Festal Letter” Council of Carthage listing all 27 books 367 A.D recognizes canon

Part Three: Ancient New Testament Translations that testify of the recognition of the 27 N.T Books as being Canonical
Ancient translations Athanasius “Festal Letter” Council of Carthage of Greek originals listing all 27 books 367 A.D recognizes canon N.T writings (Itala, for whole church 397 Syriac, Coptic) verify unanimity of 27 books from 200-300 A.D

200 A.D-----------300 A.D-----------350 A.D------------------------400 A.D

Church is being persecuted. Council of Hippo agrees on 27 books 393 A.D, reaffirming what church generally had believed since shortly after the days of the Apostles.

The above chart gives a realistic picture to the development of the canon. The problem among radical critics of the Bible today is their purposeful disregard of the testimony of history. No greater New Testament scholar than Kurt Aland has commented on this error of judgment among modern New Testament scholarship:
“These insights gained from the history of the canon are fundamental and of vital significance for the history of the text – New Testament textual criticism has traditionally neglected the findings of early church history, but only to its own detriment, because the transmission of the N.T text is certainly an integral part of that history”.[7]
Closing thoughts
Today's post aimed to introduce the issues surrounding the canonicity of the Bible and how the books we have in our Bible's today were immediately recognized for what they were - the Word(s) of God. It must be remembered that the church did not create the Bible, but the scriptures the church. To God be the glory!

[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. 1996, c1989. A General Introduction to the Bible. Includes a short-title checklist of English translations of the Bible
[2] Harrison, Everett. Introduction to the New Testament.
He cites 1 Thess 5:27, Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 4:13; and passages throughout the Book of Revelation as evidence for there being at least a beginning point of a formation of the Canon.
[3] Ibid. 104-106
[4] Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church.
[5] McDowell, Josh. Evidence that demands a verdict. Volume One. Page 37.
[6] Ackroyd, P.R and C.F Evans. The Cambridge History of the Bible
[7] Aland, Nestle and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament.

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