Musings on the Biblical Canon

It’s amazing how many Christians have never considered the issue of the canon. In the case of most who have, much is still left to be desired. I’d like to consider several common arguments that some make in order to arrive at a 66 book canon.

1. The Bible itself identifies the 66 book canon. Of course, this isn’t the case since there is no list of Old Testament canonical books identified in the 39 book Old Testament. There are also several books from the 39 book Old Testament not mentioned or quoted in the 27 book New Testament, such as Judges, Esther, Ezra, Song of Songs, among others.  It also begs the question because in order to identify books that do mention or quote another book in the canon one must still determine which books are canonical in order to be consulted in the first place. Otherwise, why not consult the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Assumption of Moses to determine the canon? It is also problematic because several books in the 66 book canon quote non-canonical books, like when Jude quotes from 1 Enoch. Even the reference to “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” that Jesus gives in Luke 24:44 doesn’t settle the matter because one must ask which books belong to the prophets, which Psalms belong to the Psalms (what about Psalm 151, which many Christians consider canonical)?

2. The Jews determined the canon. It is true it was the Jews to whom the “oracles of God” were delivered (Romans 3:2) but this still doesn’t solve the issue of the canon because, at best, it would solve the issue of the Old Testament, but what about the New Testament? Furthermore, it doesn’t solve the issue of the Old Testament, because there were different groups of Jews during the days of Jesus who affirmed different canons (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes all had different canons). Moreover, the Jews did not settle the matter of their canon even after the advent of Christianity. In fact, George Reid notes:

“It is an incontestable fact that the sacredness of certain parts of the Palestinian Bible (Esther,Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles) was disputed by some rabbis as late as the second century of the Christian Era (Mishna, Yadaim, III, 5; Babylonian Talmud, Megilla, fol. 7).” (Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 9 Jun. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm&gt;.)

3. My spirit testifies to the 66 book canon? Does it really? Is there something in one’s spirit that testifies to the book of 3rd John or 1 Chronicles? How does 3rd John feel or read differently than 1 Clement? How does the Book of Wisdom differ from the Book of Proverbs, in this regard? There are also many whose soul would be set on fire by reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Should this book also be considered canonical? Also, what about those Christians who have come the conclusion that the spirit of God in them testifies to different canons? Didn’t Luther testify to a different canon than John Calvin? Didn’t the Christians at the Council of Hippo testify to a different canon than many Christians today? What about the many Christians in the early church who were martyred for the faith, but were skeptical about the Book of Revelation or the Book of Hebrews? Were they bereft of the spirit of God? What about the Christians who accept 1 Clement as canonical? Are they deceived by another spirit?

4. The early church affirmed the 66 book canon. This isn’t the case, historically speaking. The issue of the canon was open in the early church, but the majority of early Christians affirmed extra-canonical books beyond the 39 book Old Testament and some affirmed more than the 27 book New Testament, while many affirmed fewer books than the 27 book New Testament. The canon of the early church became more uniform during the 4th-5th centuries and their canon differs from the 66 book canon, often including the “deuterocanonical” books (Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and also portions of Esther and Daniel). Apologist Jimmy Akin notes the settling of the canon in the early church, as follows:

“The canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was finally settled at the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419, reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to “confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.” All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals.”

It is especially noteworthy that the immediate disciples of the Apostles affirmed more than the 39 book Old Testament, often quoting from the deterocanonical books as the word of God.

Protestant historian J N D Kelly writes:

“It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism. It always included though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books. For the great majority, however, the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense.” (Kelly, J. N.  Early Christian Doctrines, pp 53-55.)

In conclusion, there are several common arguments that are advanced to determine the 66 book canon but they don’t appear to prove the case when examined closely. Feel free to share your thoughts on why you affirm or reject the 66 book canon in the comment box below.

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