Considering the formation of the Biblical Canon
by George Sidney Hurd
How can we be confident that all the 66 books contained in our Bibles are those, and only those, which were inspired of the Holy Spirit, and therefore God’s authoritative Word for us today?
Some who endeavor to undermine the Scripture’s authority have claimed that an elite group of bishops under the authority of the Emperor Constantine, arbitrarily decided which books were to be included in the Canon of Scripture at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
However, there are no early records indicating that the subject was even brought up at that council. This notion is based upon a late 9th century myth which claimed that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea placed a large number of different books on the divine table in the house of God and prayed that only the inspired books would remain on the table, and that all the spurious books would be under the table when they finished their prayer. And, as the myth goes, lo and behold, when they opened their eyes, only the inspired books remained on the table.
In the 17th century, Voltaire, the Deist and opponent of Christianity, cited this myth to ridicule the Bible. And later in 2003, when Dan Brown wrote his fiction novel, Da Vinci Code, he presented the myth as if the false claim were true and the Canon had indeed been determined in the Council of Nicaea. As a result, many today believe that the myth is true history.
The Biblical Canon was formed Organically and Spontaneously
The English word Canon comes from the Greek κανών, which means “rule” or “measuring stick,” and came to be used of those books which meet the standard of divinely inspired Scripture. A careful examination of the history and transmission of the sacred texts we presently have in our Bible reveals that no human council imposed them upon the Church, but rather, the people of God in general recognized their divine inspiration and authority from the very moment of their writing.
The 39 books we have contained in our Old Testament are the same as in the Hebrew Bible of Judaism, except they are arranged differently into 24 books. Most of them, except for some of the prophets, were received as part of the Canon from the very moment they were written. Even the prophets, who were often hated by the Jews for their message of judgment for their sins, were later included, seeing that their short-range prophecies passed the test of a true prophet, as set forth in Deuteronomy 18:21-22.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Scriptures were divided into three main groups, the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Jesus affirmed all three of these categories as authoritative Scripture (Luke 24:44-45). Also, the Apostles used the same Scriptures (1Cor 15:3; 2Tim 3:15-17), so, for the purpose at hand, there is no need to further dwell on the Canon of the Old Testament.
While Jesus Himself did not write Scripture, He told His disciples when He was alone with them in the upper room, that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that He had taught them; that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, and show them things which would take place in the future (Jn 14:25-26; 16:13). The Early Church understood this passage as primarily applying to the Apostles, and regarded their teaching as authoritative for the Church, continuing steadfastly in their doctrines (Acts 2:42). The writer of Hebrews even said that it was greater offense to neglect the message which “first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,” than it was for a Jew under the Old Covenant to disregard the Law, given by Moses (Heb 2:2-3). So, the Apostles are seen to have confirmed the teaching of Jesus.
Just as Moses and the Prophets were foundational to Judaism, so the teaching of the Apostles and the Prophets were foundational to the Church (Eph 2:19-20; 1 Cor 3:10-11). Paul referred to the words contained in his writings, as well as the writings of the other Apostles, as binding traditions and sound words which were to be held fast to, since they were the very words of God (1 Cor 14:37; 1Thess 2:13; 2Thess 2:15; 3:6,14; 2Tim 1:13).
Likewise, the Apostle Peter called upon the Church to be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” (2Peter 3:2). We also see that Peter referred to Paul’s writings as Scripture along with the writings of the Old Testament prophets. He said:
“…our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Here we see that, by the time the second epistle of Peter was written, which had to have been before his martyrdom in 68 AD, all of Paul’s epistles were not only widely circulated among the churches, but they were also regarded as forming part of the Holy Scriptures. Peter is not here establishing Paul’s writings as Scripture, but simply stating an already acknowledged fact among believers.
Towards the close of the first century, Jude exhorted believers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Here one can see that, by the end of the first century, the Church was already very Canon conscious, only receiving as Scripture the Old Testament and the teaching of the Apostles as written, either by them, or by their direct associates. In this exhortation, Jude says that we must contend for the faith “once and for all delivered” to the saints. This militates against an “open Canon” which would admit into the divine Canon writings subsequent to the Apostles.
Also, we see that Paul already considered at least the Gospel of Luke to be Scripture. Writing to Timothy, Paul said: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim 5:18). The only place in Scripture where it says, “The laborer is worthy of his wages,” is in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus said, “remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7).
So, we see that the New Testament came into being organically, just as did the Old Testament. Once the books were written, they were promptly circulated among the Churches as New Covenant Scripture (1Thess 5:27; Col 4:16-17).
As soon as John, the last of the Apostles, had written the book of Revelation at the close of Domitian’s reign in 95 – 96AD, the Canon of Scripture was closed. Taking into account that the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, are one organic whole, I believe that the divinely inspired final words in Revelation 22 served to seal the Canon once and for all. It closes with these words:
“For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev 22:18-19)
It is more than significant that none of the Apostolic Fathers (100 – 150AD), nor any of the Ante Nicene Fathers, spoke authoritatively, as do the authors of the New Testament. To the contrary, they continually cited the New Testament books as their authority. The Apostolic Fathers quote the New Testament fifty times more frequently than the Old Testament. Even those which were debated among some of them, such as Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John and the epistles of Peter, were frequently quoted by them.
Ignatius (35 – 107AD), known as the disciple of John, called the New Testament writings circulated among them in his day “the gospels and the apostles.” While he only specifically mentioned seven of the New Testament books, the broad category “the gospels and the apostles,” potentially encompasses the entire New Testament. Polycarp (69 – 155AD), also a disciple of John, mentions 15 of them. Clement (35-99AD) mentions at least eight. Irenaeus, the great Early Church historian (120-200AD), mentions 21 of the 27 books. Hippolytus (170 – 235AD) spoke of 22 books. If you combine all their writings, none of the 27 books went without being mentioned by them.
It wasn’t until late in the second century that the rise of certain Gnostic heresies made it necessary for the Church to begin forming formal canonical lists of books. Around the middle of the second century, a Gnostic heretic named Marcion of Sinope (85 – 160AD) began teaching that the Old Testament God was not the same god as the God of the New Testament. He taught that the God of the Old Testament was harsh and vindictive, whereas the God of the New Testament was always loving, kind and gracious (not unlike the revisionist beliefs expressed by many Progressives today). Since Marcion only accepted some of Paul’s writings, and those parts of the Gospels which presented God as having a permissive, nonjudgmental love towards everyone, he compiled his own Canon consisting only of his own edited version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s epistles, excluding Paul’s pastoral epistles and Hebrews.
The first known Canon was the Muratorian Canon, which was an unknown author’s compilation of all the books which he knew to have been accepted by the Church as canonical in his day. He lists all of the New Testament books except for Hebrews, James, 3 John and 1 and 2 Peter. He specifically mentions a couple of pseudo books which he excluded, saying that they were forged in Paul’s name to further the heresy of Marcion.
Origin (184-253AD) presented a Canon which included all the books currently in the New Testament, with the exception of James, 2nd and 3rd John and 2 Peter. He, as with most in his day, believed that the book of Hebrews was written by Paul, and included it in his Canon.
Around 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem presented a Canon which included the entire Old Testament, plus one book of the Apocrypha, and 26 books of the New Testament, leaving out Revelation. The Council of Laodicea in 363 AD presented the same list of 26 books as Cyril. Then in 367 AD, Athanasius of Alexandria presented a complete list of the 27 books which we presently have in our New Testament, and actually referred to them as “being canonized” (kanonizomena). This became the prototype for the subsequent councils of Hippo (393AD) and Carthage (397AD), which also included the same 27 books in the Canon.
These councils were necessitated by the great number of books that began to be circulated among the churches at that time. Some of them were useful but were not included in the final Canons, either because they were written after the time of the Apostles, or else because they did not bear the qualities consistent with divine inspiration. There were also many Gnostic pseudo-gospels being passed off as Scripture, as well as other heretical Gnostic writings. The 2nd century Church historian Eusebius gives a long list of spurious or heretical books which existed in his day. Although they were never received by the Church at large, many were being deceived by them, making it necessary for the Church to clearly define which books should be received as part of the Holy Scriptures.
The decisions of the councils were not arbitrary, but rather they used logical guidelines to determine which books were truly inspired of the Holy Spirit. Books were not recognized as inspired because they were declared canonical, but rather, they were declared canonical because they were inspired. The criteria for recognizing which books were inspired were: 1) The author had to either be an Apostle, or else be a close associate of an Apostle; 2) The book had to have been already recognized as inspired by the Church at large since the time of the Apostles and 3) The book had to be consistent with the rest of Scripture in its message and morals.
While the Roman Catholic Bible contains 73 books, including also the 7 referred to as the Apocrypha, meaning “hidden” or “secret” (also referred to by Catholics as “the Deuterocanon” or “second Canon”), and the Orthodox Churches include some of the pseudepigrapha books, sometimes including as many as 81 books in their Bible, these Apocryphal writings are normally not regarded so much as being authoritative as informative.
Today it is common to hear some argue that some of the Gnostic pseudo-gospels should have been included within the Canon. However, reading through them, I cannot fathom how anyone knowing their content would still consider them to be inspired of God and Canon worthy.
The Gospel of Thomas is the one most commonly said to have been wrongfully excluded from the Canon. However, apart from the fact that evidence indicates that it was written after the time of the Apostles, between 135 AD – 200 AD, it borders on the absurd. It is a list of sayings purported to be those spoken by Jesus. Some are actual sayings of Jesus as they were previously recorded in the 4 Gospels, but most of them which were not recorded in the Gospels are simply esoteric nonsense. Here are a few examples:
“Jesus said, ‘Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.’” 
“On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?” 
“Jesus said to them, ‘If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits.’” 
“Jesus said, ‘Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become my disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you.’” 
I will here include just one more example which presents Jesus and the disciples as though they had great contempt for women. I find it hard to imagine anyone today would want to have it included in our Bible. It reads:
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” 
Imagine being a Christian apologist, attempting to defend the veracity of the Scriptures, if such sayings were included in our Bibles!
In the Pseudo-Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is presented, not only as a disciple of Jesus, but as His favorite, receiving from Him esoteric teachings which the other disciples were not capable of comprehending. When Peter protests, asking why they should listen to a woman, Levi responds saying:
“If the Savior made her worthy, who are you then, for your part, to cast her aside? Surely the Savior knows her full well. That is why he has loved her more than us.”
In the Pseudo-Gospel of Peter, Jesus is presented as having to be sustained by two giant angels as He comes out of the tomb after His resurrection. Following behind them is a cross that talks. After Jesus and the cross had come out of the tomb, it says the following:
“And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, ‘Have you preached to them that sleep.’ And a response was heard from the cross, ‘Yes.’”
I think that we could all agree that such Gnostic esoteric and misogynist nonsense was justifiably excluded from the Canon, not only by the councils, but by the Early Church in general.
Much more could be said, but, in conclusion, I believe we can reasonably conclude that all the 66 books of the Bible which we presently have are those, and only those, which divine providence and oversight have preserved for us from the moment that they proceeded from the mouth of God and were put in writing.
 *Gospel of Thomas (marquette.edu) verse 7
 *Gospel of Thomas (marquette.edu) verse 11
 *Gospel of Thomas (marquette.edu) verse 14
 *Gospel of Thomas (marquette.edu) verse 19
 *Gospel of Thomas (marquette.edu) verse 114
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