Friday, October 31, 2014

The Bible that's Changing the World (Without a Leather Cover!)

We like Bibles. Especially well-made Bibles!

In fact, we love them.

We smell the leather, and analyze the paper. Here at the Bible Buying Guide, Bible editions score high marks with us by featuring real leather covers (goat, sheep, cow - just not bonded!) sewn bindings (stitching not glue!) and modern features such as high quality paper and line-matching.

We buy, collect, and trade. It's our hobby and passion.

And so it was a great reminder for me when I attended the local Gideon International chapter's recent Pastors' Appreciation dinner last week.  Together, we celebrated one of the Bibles that God is using to change the world: the small, 4.75" X 3" pocket New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. Let's go ahead and do a quick review, and then I'll tell you why God is using it all over the world.

-Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Formation of the NT Canon

Last week we laid some essential groundwork for our discussion on the canonicity of the Christian Scriptures. We detailed the process by which the Hebrew Scriptures became canonized, an authoritative rule for faith and life, as the Christian Old Testament. The canon of the Christian Scriptures was a needed distinction given the misappropriation of other possible texts that for some borders on authoritative. The same process of the reception of God’s word took place with the advent of Jesus Christ and the ensuing written accounts of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These accounts witnessed to the Gospel, but were they to be rendered as Scripture for the Christian?

The Need For New Scripture

By the end of Malachi the OT canon is closed. Nothing is to be added to it. But with the coming of Christ there is a warrant for further Scripture for the Christian faith. Why? The word of God, as He made it known through various forms, was recorded as the Hebrew Scriptures and subsequent Christian OT. The very word of God is contained therein. With the coming of Christ, God speaks once again, a new and further revelation that builds upon the OT Scripture.

The apostles, direct witnesses, and those close to them believed Jesus was God. Subsequently they knew that His life and implications for the lives of mankind needed not just to be shared orally with each other, but written down. Therefore it is necessary to record again the divine words of God Himself spoken through Jesus revealing the good news of our salvation and the call on our lives to serve Him as Lord. The words of Jesus for the Christians were “treasured and quoted, taking their place beside the Old Testament and being held as of equal or superior authority to it.”[1] We see the apostle Paul give example to this elevation of Christ’s words as Scripture, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). Paul refers to a quotation from the OT in Deuteronomy 25:4 and goes on to quote Jesus from Luke 10:7 as Scripture!

Paul shows us that Jesus’ words were considered on equal authority with the OT Scriptures and therefore warranted recording as God’s holy word. This revelation from Christ was in line with the revelation of God in the OT, but it was nonetheless new, “So when the promised Messiah came, a new and generous outpouring of divine revelation necessarily ensued.”[2] Where rabbis previously expounded upon the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians now preached upon a new divine word from God,

“…which now has been manifested through the appearance of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:10-11).

Thus we see with the coming of Christ a warrant, more than that, a need for recording His words and those of His immediate companions to reveal to us the very nature of God and subsequent gift of grace to mankind through the cross. It was worthy of being recorded because it was inspired by God to be received as Scripture, as canon. But how did 27 different documents, that we now call the New Testament canon, come to be considered as canon for the Christian Church? It happened over centuries as the Church recognized and received certain texts as the inspired word of God.

Criteria For Reception of New Testament Scripture

The process for distinguishing certain documents as Scripture for the NT was different than that used for the reception of the OT. The criteria for accepting the OT as canon for the Christian had to do largely in part with what constituted the Hebrew Scriptures to which Jesus referred to as “Scripture.” But there was not a litmus test to be applied to OT texts because the Hebrew Scriptures had already been inspired and recorded long before the formation of the Christian Church.

But now with the rise of new Scriptures for the Christian New Testament (though the authors did not see themselves writing Scripture in the sense that they viewed the OT as Scripture) there was a need for some method by which to approve the genuineness of God’s inspired documents recording the good news of the Gospel. Traditionally there are three such criteria that have been applied to texts considering their reception into the NT.

However it must be said that these criteria for the Church did not enable them to declare Scripture to be Scripture on their own authority, but instead received it under the inherent internal authority of the text itself that was undeniably inspired. John Calvin gives us a further glimpse into this reality of reception:

“When the church receives it, and gives the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted, but acknowledging it as the truth of God, she as in duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent…Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.”[3]

Instead then the role of the church was primarily one of reception, seeking out at every point the authenticity of the documents as the inspired word of God versus the fallible word of man. So too the role of the Apostles played a major part in the reception of documents as Scripture,  “the church saw itself empowered only to receive and recognize what God had provided in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions.”[4] This speaks directly to the first criteria that arose for the Church’s reception of NT documents as inspired, the apostolicity of the text.


One of the primary criteria used to recognized which texts were inspired canon is the identity of the author. The early church gave great value to the authors who had seen the incredible reality of the risen Jesus Christ with their own eyes, those who were “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16b). But more than simply being eyewitnesses, these Apostles “were the duly authenticated messengers of Christ, of whom He said, ‘He that heareth you, heareth me.’”[5] Therefore Christ’s Apostles, lit. “sent out ones,” were tasked to proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because they were the heralds and messengers of God’s grace to the world.

This eyewitness account and charge to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ gave incredible authority to the Apostles because of whom they represented, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18b, 19a, 20a). The basis then for this new revelation of God in Jesus relied upon Christ’s apostles and the power of the Spirit within them to record God’s inspired word. Therefore, “since Jesus himself left nothing in writing, the most authoritative writings available to the church were those which came from his apostles.”[6]

The first criteria for canonicity of the NT books was the apostolic nature of the author recording this new revelation. The early church in the process of receiving those texts which were to be NT canon acknowledged “those books, and those only which [could] be proved to have been written by the Apostles, or to have received their sanction.”[7] Or in other words “if the Christians believed that a book was written by an apostle, they received it, without further argument, as canon.”[8] Over time then the words of the Apostles, inspired by God, “came to written form in the books of the New Testament.”[9]

However, some texts received as canon were not written by Apostles. Instead the apostolic criteria included those who would have been “from the apostolic circle, to have somehow been certified by the apostles.”[10] For example we know that the authors of Mark, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude were not apostles, but instead had close ties to Apostles and shared so vitally with them in the mission of the Gospel that their words became an inspired witness, or in other words “The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship, but imposition by the apostles as ‘law.’”[11] The recognition of what the Apostles believed to be true bore incredible weight on the early church documents as they witnessed to the reality of Christ. Thus apostolicity was a foundational criteria for assessing which texts were to be considered as inspired canon for the New Testament.


The second criteria for recognizing a document as canon was that of catholicity, or universal reception. If a letter had been received and acknowledged by the church universal then there would be general consensus as to its authorship and authority as truthfully witnessing to the Gospel. This criteria would be as close as we would come to a committee gathering and voting unanimously for its approval. We don’t have a formative event like this for the NT documents, but we do have the important witness and consensus of churches all over the Mediterranean receiving certain books and rejecting others as they witnessed to the inspired content of the Gospel truth.

It’s one thing if a letter is received as an authoritative witness to a specific church and another thing entirely if it is universally received. Or in other words, “A work which enjoyed only local recognition was not likely to be acknowledged as part of the canon of the catholic church. On the other hand, a work which was acknowledged by the greater part of the catholic church would probably receive universal recognition sooner or later.”[12]

For example the apostle Peter speaks of certain letters that his audience to whom he writes should know,

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

We see already from Peter that Paul’s letters would be generally known and recognized to his audience, implying already within our Scriptures a general recognition of Paul’s writings as Scripture. Thus the catholicity, or universal acceptance, of a letter was a key criterion for reception into the NT canon.


The third criteria for recognizing the books of the NT canon had to do with conformity to the common rule of faith, also known as ‘orthodoxy.’ Fundamental to this criteria was the understanding that there was a common theology of the Gospel that must be considered consistent in its parts to be true. Texts in this category were weighed to see if they conformed to the common theology of the Gospel and texts already accepted, or to see if they conflicted with the common theology thereby proving its nature as an uninspired document. But even this criteria is vitally connected to the first of apostolicity, because by the document’s conformity to a common theology they meant conformity to the theology of the “apostolic faith—the faith set forth in the undoubted apostolic writings and maintained in the churches which had been founded by the apostles.”[13]

Paul refers to this idea of conformity and orthodoxy when he says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). So too would texts that did not conform to the Gospel as witnessed by the Apostles be considered outside the canon of the NT.

There were many texts that claimed to meet other criteria that failed in this category. For example one such document was named The Gospel of Peter. But contained within it was a teaching that did not conform to the message of the Apostles, it was unorthodox. So when a bishop named Serapion “discovered that its account of the Lord’s death was tinged with Docetism (it implies that he did not really suffer), then he decided that he ought to pay the church of Rhossus a pastoral visit to make sure that it had not been led astray by this heterodox teaching.”[14] Conformity was an important criteria for assessing a document’s authenticity with regards to being the true inspired word of God.

Even later in church history, after certain books had been accepted for centuries, some doubted their canonicity. In the 16th C. Martin Luther “questioned the canonicity of The Epistle of James because he thought it did not set forth a clear doctrine of justification by faith alone.”[15] Or in other words he questioned James because he did not believe it was orthodox. Therefore last of the generally accepted criteria for canonicity was the content of the documents conformity to the orthodox teaching of the apostles.

Criteria for receiving documents is one path to explore how the NT came to be canonized, but another path is the actual historical process by which the 27 books of the NT were received as Scripture using these three criteria. We must now turn our attention to the reception of the NT books in the history of the early church.

The Formation of the NT Canon

The early church in the 2nd C. A.D. generally accepted the criteria we have just looked at as a basis for canonicity.[16] But the process was not immediate of recognizing the NT canon, it was received over time as the church recognized it as the inspired word of God. A few witnesses in the history of the early church are important as we explore the canonization process of the NT.


All canonized books of the New Testament were written in the first century but it took time for them to be recognized and received. In the 2nd Century A.D. we get a glimpse of the beginning of the canonization process. The earliest list of accepted books, known as the Muratorian canon, included 24 books that were considered authoritative for the Roman church, though it included many books that did not end up in the NT canon. This gives us a glimpse only 100 years or so after the first century documents were written as to the initial process of their reception as canon.

By the end of the 2nd Century A.D. a core “collection of New Testament books—twenty-one of the twenty-seven—was generally recognized.”[17] The books most readily accepted were that of the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Those books which the church regarded as apostolic, catholic, and conformed to the apostolic teaching were beginning to be received as canon. It wasn’t long until all 27 books were recognized.


By the 240s A.D. we see an incredible recognition of all 27 books of the New Testament by Origen, one of the Greek Fathers. Origen is the first in church history to acknowledge all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. However in the process Origen draws up lines between the universally acknowledged, or undisputed books of the NT, twenty-one in number, and those that were in dispute, six in number, namely Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude.[18] Therefore from Origen we get an incredible insight into the continuing process of the church’s reception of the particular inspired books of the NT, that the church accepted some without reservation while having reservation about others. A century later arguably the greatest event occurs for the history of the NT canon.


The great bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, would write a yearly Easter letter to the churches for the encouragement of their faith. In his Easter letter of A.D. 367, Athanasius listed 27 books he considered to be the New Testament scriptures for the Christian church encouraging them of their canonicity.[19] He listed with no reservations, no distinction between undisputed and disputed, all 27 NT books that we have in our canon today. He is the first to do so. We have no witness of any clamor either, for “from that time on, Christians of all traditions—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—agreed on the NT canon.”[20]

What followed Athanasius’ decree were three synods held in Africa. At “Hippo Regius in AD 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419”[21] the 27 books were agreed upon as authoritative canon for the Christian New Testament. The canonization process was complete when the Latin Father Jerome enshrined the 27 books of the NT into his Latin Bible, the Vulgate, alongside the OT books. Thus by the end of the 4th C. A.D. with Jerome’s work we have the completion of the canon of the Christian church, Old and New Testament together.

The New Testament Today: Closed

But since the initial reception of the NT canon, many other apocryphal documents (not to be confused with the OT Apocrypha) have emerged such as the infancy narratives of Jesus, other Gospels—such as the one attributed to Thomas, as well as a whole host of gnostic texts. Should these be added to the canon of the NT?

If our NT canon was still open, which virtually no Protestant holds, then there might be warrant for searching the validity of these texts. But certain problems arise with our aforementioned criteria. If these texts were inspired why were they not generally recognized by the early church as the rule of faith and practice for their lives? More than that these texts all include theological discrepancies with the 27 books received as canon. Certain scholars are divided, but as to the apostolic nature of the authors of these texts there is no doubt that they were removed from the apostolic circle.

So we declare emphatically that the NT canon is closed, even if a text were to arise that met the criteria, because it has not been inspired and so orchestrated by God to be received into the NT canon. Furthermore we have the great declaration of the close of the canon from the Apostle John in Revelation 22:18-19,

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Thus with the close of the NT canon we have the close of the entire corpus of Christian Scripture. Both the OT and NT are the divine word of God received and declared to be canon, the authoritative word of God for every person.

[1] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 310.
[2] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al. (Wheaton: Crossway 2012), 81.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, Ford Lewis Battles trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.7.2.
[4] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 83-84.
[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 153.
[6] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988), 256.
[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 153.
[8] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 137.
[9] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 82-83.
[10] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 137.
[11] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration, ed. Ethelbert D. Warfield et al. (New York: Oxford University, 1932), p. 455.
[12] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 261.
[13] Ibid., 260.
[14]  Ibid., 260-261.
[15] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, footnote 4 on 137.
[16] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 318.
[17] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 84-85.
[18] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86; F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 192.
[19] See Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 316; Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86; F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 209.
[20] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 136.
[21] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86-87.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Owning a Piece of History: A Cambridge Bible

I am a history nut.

My family traces its German lineage back to 1265, and my Church comes from a branch of the Christian family tree that joyfully embraces our heritage, rooting back to the times of the Reformation (1500's) and beyond.

So yeah, I like old stuff.

This is one of the reasons that I met and fell in love with Bibles published by Cambridge. Besides being on the front lines of the world's highest quality Bibles today, Cambridge also has the distinction of being the world's oldest continuous Bible producer, having begun in the year 1591. It is a delight to my hands and heart to hold a Bible made by a press house that predates the King James Bible of 1611...

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Formation of the Old Testament Canon

The other day I was perusing books in a local library and came across one titled The Food Processor Bible. I stopped and thought to myself, “What might the author mean by associating “Bible” with a cookbook? We all know what the author meant; The author was telling the reader that this is a definitive text on using the food processor in cooking. Instead of letting the book become a classic on the topic, the author has decided to make it a classic by adding the word “Bible,” referencing it as an elevated text, an authoritative text for cooking with a food processor. But the Bible is more than an elevated text to be coopted by publishers to make a few more sales, it is canon. What do we mean by canon? I’ll give you a hint, we aren’t talking about those forged war machines that launch injurious balls through the air.

The Greek word ‘canon’ has a simple meaning: it means “a rule or measuring rod.”[1] But we would be mistaken to view it as a rule in the sense that parents might tell their children to “stop hitting each other,” or “say please.” It meant instead in it’s original context a particular rule for measurement, a standard if you will like a 12-inch ruler. For example when we use a ruler we can be assured that eight-inches on one ruler is the same as eight-inches on another. This idea of a standard of measurement is something similar to what we mean of the Bible when we refer to it as canon.

Throughout church history the Christian Scriptures have been received in this sense, as canon, a measurement of truth. But what do we mean by this? We mean two things by acknowledging the Bible’s canonicity:

First the Scripture is canon in the sense that it is the standard of the Church’s faith and doctrine. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it and the Westminster Confession later reiterated, Scripture is the standard “rule of faith and life.”[2] Fundamental to the Christian understanding of canon is the inherent authority contained within Scripture as the word of God—the standard for the life of the Christian.

Second the Scripture is canon as regards the precise written works that are to be considered as canon, as authoritative for the life of the Christian. Or in essence, those books which were truly inspired by God as authoritative, the 66 books of both the OT and NT. Canon is the list of books received as Holy Scripture, i.e. that which God has revealed for His glory and our good. And it is this point in particular that gave rise to the need for a Christian canon.

The Need For a Canon

In the early church, a need arose over which books or texts were to be considered as Scripture for the followers of Jesus Christ. An example from the 2nd Century AD reveals the need for a clearly defined canon. A man by the name of Marcion believed that “God the Father of Jesus [was] not the same as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament.”[3] This led Marcion to claim that the Hebrew Scriptures were not to be considered as Christian Scriptures since they depicted a separate God from that of Jesus’ Father. Marcion’s challenge “required a response, and thus the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings.”[4] Thus the need for a Christian canon grew out in many respects from claims trying to pin down what Christians should consider as Scripture.

The need for a canon was a Christian problem because they needed to define which texts were authoritative. Thus in the 4th C. AD we see the first real use of the word “canon” with regards Christian Scripture by the great Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius.[5] But before we journey to the process of how the Hebrew Bible came to be the Christian Old Testament, we must first build the foundation for why a written text was needed at all.

A Preserved Canon

Another way for us to think about canon is to think about how God revealed who He is and therefore who we are, particularly the process by which this revelation was recorded. If God spoke to humanity clearly, then the words He spoke and inspired were worthy of being preserved for all generations to hear and know the revelation of God Himself. There is no greater Author whose words are to be preserved than that of the Almighty God.

The Israelites knew this truth and recognized that “if revelation was to be preserved, it needed to be written down.”[6] In an age where the retention of the spoken word far exceeded our current ability to do so, they still valued God’s words enough to write them down. This process of writing down God’s revelation is part of the process of “canonization.”

We see in many places in the OT the Israelites desire to record the divine word of God, not as a human word, but as Holy Scripture, the rule of faith and practice for all of God’s people. In Exodus God commands Moses to write down His words: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua” (Exodus 17:14). Then at the end of the Pentateuch we have Moses’ obedience to God’s command recorded for us,

“When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are…assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-28)

We see clearly here that Moses had written the words of the law, the first of three divisions in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Not only did he record it, but we see an active role that it is to play in the life of God’s people, it is to ‘witness’ to them, inform them if you will for how God has designed them to live. It has functional authority because it is God’s word.

Further on in the history of Israel, we see King Josiah use the preserved word of God as functionally authoritative, as Holy Scripture for the lives of God’s people:

“And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord.” (2 Kings 23:2)

Still later the Prophet Isaiah picks up this same emphasis in God’s desire for His word, “And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that I may be for the time to come as a witness forever” (Isaiah 30:8). Or similarly the prophet Jeremiah writes, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2).

But we must ask “What primarily is the purpose of recording the written word of God?” Psalm 102 clearly spells it out for us: “Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18). So God’s revelation was clearly written down to be preserved that His people, a people like you and me who constitute one of the “generation[s] to come,” would know the prescribed purpose and subsequent conduct for their lives. It was written for our benefit. Therefore John Frame clearly states, “At every stage of Israel’s history, there was a canon, a definite body of divine writings, that spoke to the nation and its individuals with supreme authority.”[7] And if, against Marcion’s claims as we noted earlier, the Hebrew Bible was the same God of the Christians, then it deserved to be in the Christian canon.

The Canonization of the Old Testament

Those who penned the words of God saw the incredible importance of recording and preserving the authoritative divine word of God. The words were Holy because the Author of them was Holy. However what may have been considered as canon for some throughout history might not have been for others (Marcion et. al.). There is a process by which books of the Bible come to be understood as canon, as an authoritative rule for their lives. This process is called canonization, the process by which certain books were chosen as God’s word and others not.

The canonization of the OT is complex. It does not nearly have the same historical record to its reception as canon as the NT did perhaps because there was much less debate and division over which texts should be classified as Scripture. But for Christians today it is important to know something of how the 39 books of the OT came to be considered as canon.


One of the primary means of distinguishing the canon of the OT would be to have a clear divine word from God on whether or not the text is itself Scripture. We have this luxury. Jesus, the God-man, clearly attests to us that the OT is Scripture. There can be no higher authority than His endorsement of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks to the content of the Hebrew Scriptures,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

Clearly then we see that Jesus relegated the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah), the Prophets, and the Psalms as Scripture. By referencing the Psalms, Jesus most likely was not excluding other books contained within the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible. Instead He was referring to the first book of the last part of the Hebrew Bible which “could be referred to simply as ‘the Psalms.’”[8] Jesus also speaks of the breadth of the OT when He states that it existed “from the time of Abel (from Genesis, the first book of the OT) to the time of Zechariah (a contemporary of Malachi, the final book of the OT).”[9] So it is clear that Jesus had a particular work in mind when He spoke of it as Scripture. There was no dispute in His mind to the content of the OT canon.

We also have testimony of Jesus’ apostles referencing the Hebrew Bible as Scripture. For example Peter in Acts 1:16 preaching to the brothers said, “Brothers, the Scriptures had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” Or the Apostle Paul later in letter to the Roman Christians, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3).[10] Thus the Apostles referred to the same Hebrew Bible as Scripture.

Therefore if we knew what texts Jesus and the Apostles considered as OT canon we would have a decisive word. Jesus referred to the Hebrew Bible as Scripture, so we can clearly know which books He regarded as Scripture by knowing which were accepted at that time by the Jews and “this is a point about which there is no reasonable doubt. The Jewish canon of the Old Testament included all the books and no others, which Protestants now recognize as constituting the Old Testament Scriptures.”[11] Both “Christ and his Apostles referred to the sacred writings of the Jews—the volume which they regarded as divine—as being what it claimed to be, the Word of God.”[12]


So then, by Christ’s own witness and that of His Apostles, we have a clear declaration of what constitutes the canon of the OT by knowing what the Jews considered to be their Scriptures (the term OT wasn’t introduced until Origen in the 3rd c. AD). The Jews would have considered their Scripture as being divided in three parts,[13] as Jesus already has alluded to.

The Law: First the Hebrew Bible would have contained the Law—Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, comprising the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

The Prophets: The second portion of the Hebrew Bible would have been the Prophets—Nevi’im, divided with former (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and latter prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of the twelve prophets, also known as the minor prophets).

The Writings: The third portion would have been considered the Writings—Kethuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah as one book, and Chronicles).[14]

Given these three portions of the Hebrew Bible, we count 24 books. But when we separate Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two each, as well as separate Ezra and Nehemiah, and count each of the minor prophets as one, we get our 39 books of the Old Testament that Protestants claim as canon today.

It is worth noting at this point, that even some of Jesus’ greatest opponents still held the same Scriptures as He did. Opponents like the Pharisees for example held the same Hebrew Scriptures as canonical in the same way Jesus held them, “they never disagreed about what texts could be authoritatively cited. Evidently, then, we should identify the OT canon as consisting of those books acknowledged by the Jews in the time and place of Jesus’ earthly ministry.”[15] It is of great importance then to note that the Hebrew Bible of Judaism “is virtually identical to the Christian Old Testament [today] with a few organizational exceptions…books are in a different order…and sometimes they combine two books into one.”[16] This is of great weight to knowing what we consider to be the authoritative OT Scripture, the OT canon.


Another means of distinguishing the canon of the OT is to see what ancient writers and councils would have said regarding the OT. For the Christian these historical attestations would be supporting material, since Christ has already given the decisive understanding of what we should consider Scripture.

Josephus, the famous Jewish historian (AD 37-AD 100), attests to 22 books being in the Old Testament, which most likely refers to the same 24 books of the Hebrew Bible with “Ruth being counted as an appendix to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah.”[17] It is important to have the word of a historian, one without a theological agenda, to verify the texts of the OT seeing as they recorded facts to be preserved. Another man, Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-AD 50), was a prominent Jew at the time. He wrote much and from his writings we can be encouraged that the books he considered to be canonical are the books included in the Hebrew Bible.

However not all ancient witness includes the same books we would consider as the OT. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (2nd C. AD), wrote a list of OT books to a friend and included all those in the traditional Hebrew Bible except for Esther, one of two books not to mention God (the other being Song of Solomon). The great Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria (4th C. AD), also omitted Esther from the OT canon. We also have others who have added other books to the OT such as Origen who at one time added a book, the Letter of Jeremiah.

To bring the story of Esther’s inclusion to an end, we travel to AD 363, where a council was held in Laodicea. It is here that the council recognized Esther as being part of the OT canon. A Greek Father named Amphilochius, also includes Esther in the canon sometime in the 4th C. AD.


There are many other texts that have sometimes throughout church history been associated with the OT canon. We call these books the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha, which originally meant “hidden” as regards to their authority, are those texts which were written between the two testaments, they are intertestamental. They are sort of a “second category of Old Testament books.”[18] However a distinction was drawn between them and the Hebrew Bible. It was the Latin father Jerome that coined this term speaking primarily of those texts which “may not be used for the establishment of doctrine, but…retain great ethical value which makes them suitable for reading the course of Christian worship.”[19] Jerome enshrined these texts in his Latin translation of the OT from the Septuagint (the Greek OT).

Many have wrestled throughout Christian history regarding what kind of authority to render to these books. We see that during the reformation period Martin Luther kept the Apocrypha in his German Bible as an appendix. Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich Bible did not contain the Apocrypha and instead published them in a separate book altogether. For these reformers the move was partially in response to the Catholic Church’s insertion of these texts as canon. The Catholic church found within the Apocryphal books certain support for it’s otherwise unbiblical doctrines, things such as purgatory, indulgences, and works salvation. In 1546 the Council of Trent (a Catholic council), canonized the Apocrypha defining the OT as “those Old Testament works contained in the Greek and Latin Bibles.”[20] And we have already seen that both the Septuagint and Vulgate included the Apocrypha, unlike the Hebrew Bible.

The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks to the Apocrypha, whose “books are not divinely inspired and are not part of the canon of Scripture. They therefore have no authority in the church of God and are not to be valued or used as anything other than human writings.”[21] This is a clear protestant position on the Apocrypha, building on orthodox understanding of the Apocrypha through the centuries.

The history of the canonization of the OT is not quite as clear-cut as we make it here. But for sake of understanding some of the overall process of how the OT came to be canon it is helpful to give a brief summary of some of the particulars.

The Old Testament Today: Closed

For Protestants today the OT canon is complete. We have a clear list as to which texts are included as authoritative, as a rule for faith and practice for the Christian. Ultimately the formation of the canon did not come down to certain individuals and their well argued and written reasons, nor to councils and their discussion, but to the will of God as He orchestrated it’s reception. The texts were not chosen, but received primarily because they were already recognized as authoritative in the worshipping community.

As a recognized canon of God’s word to His people, we recognize the 39 books as a closed canon, the same closed canon the Jews recognize as their Scriptures today. Nothing is added to or taken from it. Already we see this principle in the conclusion to the Law, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). The same principle bears divine authority on the canon of the OT. Josephus’s account as a historian attests the same principle of a closed canon, “Although such long ages have now gone by, no one has dared to add anything to [the Hebrew Bible], to take away anything from them, or to change anything in them.”[22]

Therefore, when we pick up our Bible today, we can be assured of the orthodoxy of the books contained within the OT. They are those books which Jesus Himself claimed to be a divine word from God, claimed to be Scripture, canon for the life of the Christian. They deserve an authoritative place in our lives, the place of canon.

*     *     *

JT Holderman is Associate Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988), 17.
[2] Westminster Confession of Faith 1.2 and F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 18 fn. 5.
[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 61.
[4] Ibid., 62.
[5] New Bible Dictionary, ed. I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, D.J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 165.
[6] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway 2012), 77.
[7] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 135.
[8] Bernhard Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 7.
[9] Mark Driscoll, A Book You’ll Actually Read On The Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 30.
[10] All references to “Scripture” in the NT refer to the Jewish Scriptures, except for the mention in 2 Peter 3:16 which refers to “the other Scriptures,” most definitely in reference to NT documents that had been received and recognized as Scripture. For further detail see Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 309.
[11] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 153.
[12] Ibid., 152.
[13] The Hebrew Bible most likely was organized into these three sections by 165 BC when Judas Maccabaeus “collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are still in our possession” (2 Maccabees 2:14).
[14] For detail see F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 29.
[15] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 135.
[16] Mark Driscoll, A Book You’ll Actually Read On The Old Testament, 29.
[17] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 33.
[18] Ibid., 93.
[19] Ibid., 93.
[20] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 160.
[21] See the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.3.
[22] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 23.