Bible Basics: Canonization and Choosing the Books of the Bible

If we believe that God exists as an almighty God, then revelation and divine inspiration are clearly possible. If we believe in such a God, it is also probable that He would, out of love and for His own purposes and designs, reveal Himself to men. Because of man’s obvious condition in sin and his obvious inability to meet his own spiritual needs, special revelation in a God-breathed book is not only possible, logical, and probable, but a necessity.

Therefore, a significant question arises: which books are divinely inspired and how were they chosen? Historically, it was important for the people of God to determine which books God had inspired and were recognized as authoritative. Inspiration indicates how the Bible received its authority, whereas canonization tells how the Bible received its acceptance. It is one thing for God to give the Scriptures their authority, and quite another for men to recognize that authority.

The English word “canon” (Greek kanon; Hebrew qaneh) means “reed or cane”—a measuring rod, which could be used as a standard or rule. It came to be used to describe those chosen books recognized as inspired by God and therefore authoritative. It refers to the list of books contained in Scripture—the list of books recognized as comprising God’s inspired Word.

Discovering Canonicity

The question that arises is, “who or what determined which books were canonical?” The answer is that a book is canonical because God inspired it. It’s not inspired because people made it canonical. Thus, canonicity is determined by God’s inspiration of the writings, and then this inspiration and the writing’s authority was recognized by humans.

To put it another way, God determines whether a book is inspired and thus canonical. Churches, councils, and people do not. God gave the books of the Bible their divine authority and God’s people recognized this authority.

In general, there were basically five guiding principles or questions used to determine whether or not a book is Scripture.

  1. Is it authoritative? Did it come from the hand of God as in a divine “thus saith the Lord” inspiration?
  2. Is it prophetic? Was it written by a man of God?
  3. Is it authentic? They originally had the attitude of “if in doubt, throw it out” 
  4. Is it dynamic? Did it come with the life-transforming power of God?
  5. Was it received, collected, read, applied, and accepted by the people of God?
The Old Testament Canon

The 39 books in our English Protestant Bibles correspond exactly to the books of the Hebrew Bible and its designation as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. As God’s revelation unfolded progressively throughout the Old Testament era, the Jews recognized it as inspired and authoritative and collected them. Later Old Testament books quote earlier Old Testament books as authoritative.

In addition, a prophetic chain links the books of the Old Testament together. For example, Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Then, Joshua, the author of Joshua and perhaps the very end of Deuteronomy (which records Moses’ death), took over for Moses in writing inspired Scripture. This goes on throughout the Old Testament. Each prophet, from Moses through Nehemiah, contributed to the growing collection, which was preserved by the official prophetic community stemming from Samuel.

Some of the criteria, which contributed to the recognition of certain Old Testament books as canonical are:

  • The well-established tradition that many of the books came from Moses or one of the other acknowledged prophets
  • Spiritual authority of the books themselves as they were used in public or private reading and in exposition
  • Recognition in the Temple as sacred
  • The opinions of religious leaders and common convictions of the people about the books were considered
  • For Christians, there was the additional consideration that Jesus Himself and His apostles, in the pages of the New Testament, often refer to the Jewish Scriptures in general, and to many of the individual books as having the authority of God. In the New Testament we find 160 different quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. These are found in 20 of the 39 Old Testament books

There is good evidence to indicate that by the time of Jesus, the canon of the Old Testament had been set. In Luke 24:44 the canonical writings, according to Jesus, are composed of the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This threefold division is equivalent to the three divisions of the Hebrew scriptures—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The New Testament Canon

The early church was also interested in collecting those books that were inspired. The works written by the apostles and prophets were considered valuable and worthy of preservation. The believers needed to know which books should be read in the churches as the Word of God and could be used to determine God’s will for doctrine and living.

As heresies, philosophies, and other religions developed, the need to preserve the foundations of the faith became the basic motivation toward the realization of the New Testament canon. This became more acute after the demise of the first generation of eyewitnesses.

The early church also needed to know exactly which books were canonical because certain heretics were coming up with their own canons. Around AD 140, the heretic Marcion, had his own “canon” that excluded most of the New Testament canonical writings we possess. Montanists and gnostic groups were also threats to the early church.

In addition, the persecution of Christians from AD 303–306 included the confiscation and destruction of New Testament books motivating the church to sort through and settle on which books were really Scripture and were worth suffering for.

Certain criteria were used by the early church in discovering the New Testament Canon. As with the Old Testament, canonicity of New Testament writings was based on divine inspiration. Only those works that had been inspired by God were to be part of the canon.

They had to have apostolic authority, meaning they were written by apostles or close associates of the apostles or Jesus. Not everything the apostles wrote was inspired.

Books also needed to belong to the apostolic era. Writings from a later date, whatever their merit, could not be included among the canonical books.

No works could be canonical that contradicted the apostolic faith—the faith set forth in the authoritative books. The church also did not accept any works that were known to be written by someone with a fake name.

The Old Testament books in our Bibles are the same ones accepted by the Hebrew people, God’s chosen people at the time it was written. We also know that the New Testament books that we have in our Bible have, from the fourth century onward, been accepted as a “fixed” canon in the eyes of most churches. It is also important to observe that the list of chosen books is not the product of any single person or church council, but many people down through time have been involved in working to establish it. Because of what we have seen, we can have confidence that the Bible we have is as God intended it to be: divinely inspired and authoritative, and we can study it to find God’s will for our lives in this day and age.