The Writers of Scripture and the Formation of the Canon
The Bible that we have today is called the completed Canon of Scripture. The word Canon comes from the Greek word KANON, meaning rule, standard, or measuring rod. We will talk about how we came to have this Canon below.
The Old Testament writers were all prophets. There were three categories of prophets.
- The unique prophet, Moses. He wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, called the TORAH. He was unique because he had both the gift and office of prophet. Moses received all his information by dialogue directly from God.
- Those with the office of prophet, called the NEBI’IM. These men include Joshua, Samuel (Judges and Samuel), Nathan and Gad (parts of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets: Hosea, Habakkuk, Zechariah, Malachi, Amos, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Haggai.
- Those with the gift but not the office of prophecy (they did something else by profession), wrote the KETHUBIM, which means the writings. They include David, Solomon, Job, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Chronicles.
The Formation of the Old Testament was closed in the reign of Artixerxes Longimanus I (465 425 B.C.). Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artixerxes I; Nehemiah came in the twentieth year of his reign. These were the two last writers of the Old Testament. Malachi, being the last book of the OT, was a contemporary of these two and wrote his book about the same time, and was included in Ezra’s cannon.
The New Testament writers were primarily those with the gift of Apostleship or closely associated with an apostle (Mark with Peter; Luke with Paul). James and Jude the half-brothers of Jesus were also writers in the N.T.
It was primarily written in Koine Greek. Prior to Koine, there were three major branches of Greek language in classical times: Aeolic, Doric, and Ionic (Attic). With the conquest of Alexander the Great, it led to the formation of a common Greek language called Koine, which became the lingua franca, (a language for people with different first languages), from around B.C. 300 until 500 A.D.
Only Luke and Paul break out in Attic Greek at times, showing their higher classical education. Most of the New Testament is in Koine Greek so that the Word of God could be understood by the common man.
The Authors of the Bible.
The Old Testament:
- Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Psalm 90.
- Joshua wrote the book named after him.
- Samuel may have written Judges, Ruth, and 1 and possibly 2 Samuel which was one book originally.
- Jeremiah possibly 1 and 2 Kings, and the Book of Jeremiah and probably Lamentations.
- Ezra wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles (one book originally) and maybe 2 Samuel and the Book of Ezra.
- Nehemiah wrote the book of Nehemiah.
- Mordecai may have written Esther.
- Job may have written his own story (other possibilities include Elihu, Moses or Solomon).
- David wrote most of the Psalms, 73 in fact, (cf. 2 Sam 23:2).
- Sons of Korah wrote 12 Psalms including chapters 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87.
- Asaph wrote 12 Psalms including chapters 50, 73-83.
- Heman wrote Psalm 88.
- Ethan wrote Psalm 89.
- Moses wrote Psalm 90
- Hezekiah wrote Psalms 120-123, 128-130, 132, 134-137, (cf. Isa 38:20).
- Solomon wrote Psalms 72, 127.
- Solomon also wrote Proverbs 1-29.
- Agur wrote Proverbs 30.
- Lemuel wrote Proverbs 31.
- Solomon also wrote Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.
- The rest of the prophetical books, Major and Minor, are named after their author.
The New Testament:
- The Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew.
- Mark the companion of the Apostle Peter wrote the Gospel of Mark.
- Luke the companion of Paul wrote the Gospel of Luke.
- The Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John.
- Luke also wrote the book of Acts.
- Paul wrote the epistles of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and possibly Hebrews, (Apollos also may have written Hebrews).
- James, the half-brother of our Lord, wrote the epistle of James.
- The Apostle Peter wrote the epistle of Peter.
- The Apostle John wrote 1, 2 and 3 John,
- Jude, also a half-brother of our Lord, wrote the epistle of Jude
- The Apostle John wrote Revelation.
Remarkably, because every book was inspired by God the Holy Spirit, unity is achieved in spite of the many authors (some 40) and their various occupations, approximately 17.
Psa 68:11 (KJV), “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those who published it.”
- Moses was an Egyptian prince.
- Joshua was a soldier.
- Samuel was a priest.
- David was a king.
- Job was a rich farmer.
- Amos was a poor farmer.
- Ezra was a scribe.
- Isaiah was a prophet.
- Daniel was a prime minister.
- Nehemiah was a cupbearer.
- Matthew was a tax collector.
- Mark was an evangelist.
- Luke was a physician.
- John was a wealthy fisherman.
- Peter was a poor fisherman.
- Jude and James were probably carpenters.
- Paul was a tentmaker.
The Canon of the Bible
The Word “Canon.” As noted above, it is from the Greek word KANON, which refers to a measuring instrument. It therefore came to mean a rule of action, Gal 6:16; Phil 3:16. In the early church, the word canon was used to refer to the various creeds. Then in the middle of the fourth century AD, it came to be used for the Bible.
The Recognition of the Canon.
The Old Testament. By the year 300 B.C. (at the latest) all Old Testament books had been written, collected, revered, and recognized as official, canonical books. Many believe Ezra the prophet led the first recognition council.
The New Testament. During the Third Council of Carthage, held in A.D. 397, the 27 New Testament books were declared to be canonical. However, it absolutely must be understood that the Bible is not an authorized collection of books, but rather a collection of authorized books. In other words, the 27 New Testament books were not inspired because the Carthage Council proclaimed them to be, but rather the Council proclaimed them to be such because they were already inspired.
Norm Geisler, (A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 221), has suggested the following:
- “The church is the discoverer of and not the determiner of the canon.”
- “It is the child and not the mother of the canon.”
- “It is the minister and not the magistrate of the canon.”
- “It is the recognizer and not the regulator of the canon.”
- “It is the witness and not the judge of the canon.”
- “It is the servant and not the master of the canon.”
How was it determined which books would be in the Canon of Scripture?
There were several tests used to determine that. They included:
- Authorship: who wrote the book or the epistle?
- Local church acceptance: Had it been read by the various churches? What was their opinion?
- Church fathers’ recognition: Had the pupils of the disciples quoted from the book? As an example, a man named Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle. Therefore, one test of a book might be, what did Polycarp think of it?
- Book subject matter (content): What did the book teach? Did it contradict other recognized books?
- Personal edification; Did the book have the ability to inspire, convict, and edify local congregations and individual believers?
It was a combination of these five steps, and not just one alone, which helped determine whether a book was inspired or not. Contrary to what may have seemed vital, canonicity was not determined at all by either the age or the language of a given book. For example, there were many ancient books mentioned in the Old Testament (see Num. 21:14; Josh. 10:3) that were not in the Old Testament canon. Also, some of the apocryphal books (such as Tobit) were written in Hebrew but were not included in the Old Testament, while some books (like portions of Daniel) written in Aramaic were included in the canon.
Disputed Books of the Canon.
Some canonical books were at first doubted but later fully accepted. During the first few years of early church history there were some 11 biblical books that were temporarily objected to for various reasons. These included:
Old Testament Books.
- The Song of Solomon because it seemed to some to be a mere poem on human love.
- Ecclesiastes because some felt it taught atheism. (See 9:5.)
- Esther because it did not mention the word God in the entire book.
- Ezekiel because it seemed to contradict the Mosaic Law.
- Proverbs because it seemed to contradict itself. (See 26:4-5.)
New Testament Books.
- Hebrews because of the uncertainty about the book’s authorship.
- James because it seemed to contradict the teachings of Paul. (Compare James 2:20 with Eph 2:8-9.)
- 2 and 3 John because they seemed to be simply two personal letters.
- Jude because the author refers to an uncanonical Old Testament book, the book of Enoch.
- Revelation because of the uncertainty about the book’s authorship and because of its many mysterious symbols.
The Accuracy of the Canon.
The Bad News. As every Christian knows, none of the original penned 66 books of the Bible have been preserved. Our Bible today is a translation of a copy (or copies) of a copy, etc., of the original writings.
Often it is asked why God did not preserve the original books. Only the Holy Spirit knows the ultimate and complete answer to this. However, at least three possible reasons have been suggested.
- To prevent the text from being tampered with. If only one copy existed and controlled by one person or group, it would be very easy to manipulate the text.
- To guard against a misguided worship. The very nature of man demands he worship something, be it power, money, sex, a pagan idol, or the true God. Had God preserved any or all of the 66 original manuscripts, they undoubtedly would have become the objects of superstition and worship.
- There are at least two biblical examples where even well-intentioned individuals were guilty of worshipping the wrong thing. Israel’s sin in worshipping Moses’ brazen serpent, 2 Kings 18:4, and John the apostle’s sin in attempting to worship an angel. This occurred twice, Rev 19:10; 22:8-9.
- To stimulate intense Bible study. Only eternity itself will reveal the multiplied millions of hours invested by devout scholars examining the manuscript copies to determine the exact contents of the original scriptural text.
The Good News. Even though the original books are lost, there is overwhelming evidence that our translated Bibles today represent amazingly accurate copies of the first manuscripts themselves.
- The number of existing both Old and New Testament Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and fragments runs literally into the thousands and potentially millions.
- There are some 5,839 New Testament Greek manuscripts alone, many fragments. By the end of the third century AD, 41-60 manuscripts were found that covered the Old and New Testament. 43% of the NT was found in these manuscripts.
- There are also 15-20 thousand ancient N.T. manuscripts in other languages like Latin, Coptic, etc. Some are as late as the 2nd century AD.
- The oldest complete manuscript of the entire Bible is the Codex Synaiticus written in Greek from the early 4th Century AD. It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.
- The favorable comparison of all these manuscripts. Note the testimony of the scholars regarding the text of the New Testament.
1) Westcott and Hort estimated it is 98.33% pure.
2) Ezra Abbott raises it to 99.75% pure.
3) A. T. Robertson gives the number at 99.9% pure.
4) Dan Wallace gives estimates it is 99% pure.
- The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Prior to the discovery of the scrolls at Qumran, the oldest extant manuscripts were dated from approximately A.D. 900. Some manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included copies of Isaiah, Habakkuk, and others, were dated back to 125 B.C., providing manuscripts 1,000 years older than previously available. The major conclusion was that there was no significant difference between the Isaiah scroll at Qumran and the Masoretic Hebrew text dated one thousand years later. This confirmed the reliability of our present Hebrew text. (Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology, p. 173)
- The biblical quotations from the early church fathers. During the first, second, and third centuries, important church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Eusebius quoted from the New Testament. In the collective writings of the early church fathers there is over one million quotations of the scriptures.
- With the possible exception of 11 verses, every single New Testament passage is to be found in these quotations. Thus, had Satan succeeded in destroying every copy of the Greek manuscripts, the entire New Testament could have been almost totally reconstructed from the writings of the church fathers.
Edward Goodrick offers the following concerning the amazing accuracy of the Old Testament canon. “Do we have hard evidence that copies of the Old Testament autographs were called “Scripture” (graphe) in the New Testament? A search of the 50 appearances of graphe in the New Testament reveals that Jesus read from the Scripture (graphe) in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:21) and Paul from the Scripture (graphe) in the synagogue at Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). The Ethiopian eunuch riding in his chariot on his way home from Jerusalem was reading a portion of Scripture (graphe, Acts 8:32-33). These were not autographs; they were copies. And copies contain scribal errors. Yet the Bible calls them graphe, and every graphe is inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). Yes, copies of the autographs are inspired.” (Is My Bible the Inspired Word of God? p. 62)
Professor Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary, noted in a recent interview regarding the variants found in the text, “70% are spelling; others are word order, etc., minor errors. Of all the passages in the Bible there are about 1,000 variants that effect meaning of the text, yet of these there is no essential doctrine that is jeopardized by these variants.”
Its Care and Copy.
No book in history has been copied as many times with as much care as has been the Word of God. The Talmud lists the following rules for copying the Old Testament:
- The parchment had to be made from the skin of a clean animal, prepared by a Jew only, and had to be fastened by strings from clean animals.
- Each column must have no less than 48 or more than 60 lines.
- The ink must be of no other color than black, and had to be prepared according to a special recipe.
- No word or letter could be written from memory; the scribe must have an authentic copy before him, and he had to read and pronounce aloud each word before writing it.
- He had to reverently wipe his pen each time before writing the Word of God, and had to wash his whole body before writing the sacred name of Jehovah.
- One mistake on a sheet condemned the sheet; if three mistakes were found on any page, the entire manuscript was condemned.
- Every word and every letter was counted, and if a letter were omitted, an extra letter inserted, or if one letter touched another, the manuscript was condemned and destroyed at once.
The old rabbi gave the solemn warning to each young scribe: “Take heed how thou dost do thy work, for thy work is the work of heaven; lest thou drop or add a letter of a manuscript and so become a destroyer of the world!”
The scribe was also told that while he was writing if even a king would enter the room and speak with him, the scribe was to ignore him until he finished the page he was working on, lest he make a mistake. In fact, some texts were actually annotated—that is, each letter was individually counted. Thus in copying the Old Testament they would note the letter aleph (first letter in the Hebrew alphabet) occurred 42,377 times, and so on.
According to Westcott and Hort, the points in which we cannot be sure of the original words are microscopic in proportion to the bulk of the whole, some one-in-one-thousand. Thus only one letter out of 1,580 in the Old Testament is open to question, and none of these uncertainties would change in the slightest any doctrinal teaching.
Today there are almost 6,000 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. This perhaps does not seem like many, until one considers that: Fifteen hundred years after Herodotus wrote his history there was only one copy in the entire world. Twelve hundred years after Plato wrote his classic there was only one manuscript. Today there exist but a few manuscripts of Sophocles, Euripedes, Virgil, and Cicero.
Circulation: The Bible is written in over 1,950 languages. Bible societies are currently working with translators on 406 language projects in which one part of the Bible is being translated for the first time.
More than 80 percent of the world’s population now has access to at least some portions of the Bible in a language they can speak or understand. A summary of worldwide translations as of 1990 is as follows:
Australia/New Zealand/Pacific Islands 311
North America 69
Mexico/Central & South America 337
Constructed languages 3
Only one-half of one percent of all books published survive seven years—Eighty percent of all books are forgotten in one year. For example, let us imagine that during this year 200 new books are published in America. Statistics show that by next year only 40 of these 200 will remain. At the end of the seventh year, of the original 200, only one lonely book will survive.
During the Civil War, the ABS produced 7,000 Bibles a day for both sides—When Grant’s armies marched through Tennessee, horse-drawn Bible vans followed. In 1864, the Memphis Bible Society sent a shipment of cotton to New York in return for 50,000 Scripture portions.
What other ancient religious book can even remotely be compared to all this? Where could one go today to purchase a copy of Zen Vedas, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead? In fact, dozens of religions that once flourished have simply disappeared from the face of the earth without leaving the slightest trace. Other ancient religions may be viewed behind glass cases in the rare book section of dusty museums. But the smallest child can walk into almost any store in America and pick up a copy of the Word of God.
The Apocrypha and the Bible.
After the Old Testament canon had been recognized by the Jews as being officially closed, and prior to the New Testament period, there arose a section of literature called the Apocrypha. This word literally means “that which is hidden” and consists of 14 books.
The Contents of the Apocrypha include:
- 1 Esdras: This book covers much of the material found in Ezra, Nehemiah, and 2 Chronicles but it also includes a fanciful story concerning three Jewish servants in Persia. They were all asked a question by King Darius concerning what the greatest thing in the world was. One said wine, another replied women, while the third claimed truth. He won, and when offered a reward, suggested the King allow the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
- 2 Esdras: This contains certain visions given to Ezra dealing with God’s government of the world and the restoration of certain lost Scriptures.
- Tobit: Tobit is the story of a pious Jew (Tobit) who is accidentally blinded (by sparrow dung) and is later healed by an angel named Raphael, who applies a concoction of fish heart, liver, and gall to his eye.
- Judith: This is the story of a beautiful and devout Jewish princess who saves Jerusalem from being destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s invading armies. This she does by beguiling the enemy general through her beauty, then returning to Jerusalem with his head in her handbag!
- The remainder of Esther: There are additional inserts to this book to show the hand of God in the narrative by putting the word God in the text. The word God does not appear in the Old Testament book of Esther.
- The Wisdom of Solomon: This book has been called “The Gem of the Apocrypha,” and is one of the loftier books of the Apocrypha.
- Ecclesiasticus: Also called “the Wisdom of Jews, the Son of Sirach,” it resembles the book of Proverbs and gives rules for personal conduct in all details of civil, religious, and domestic life.
- 1 Maccabees: This historical account of the Maccabean period relates events of the Jews’ heroic struggle for liberty, in 175-135 B.C.
- 2 Maccabees: This work covers in part the same period as 1 Maccabees but is somewhat inferior content-wise.
- Baruch: Supposedly written by Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, it contains prayers and confessions of the Jews in exile, with promises of restoration.
- The Song of the Three Children: Inserted in the book of Daniel, right after the fiery furnace episode, Dan 3:23, it contains an eloquent prayer of Azariah, one of the three Hebrew men thrown in the fire.
- The story of Susanna: This story relates how the godly wife of a wealthy Jew in Babylon, falsely accused of adultery, was cleared by the wisdom of Daniel.
- Bel and the Dragon: This is also added to the book of Daniel. The book contains two stories:
1) The first concerns how Daniel proves to the king his great god Bel is a dead idol and that the Bel priests are religious crooks. Unger’s Bible Handbook describes this event in the following words: The other legend concerns a dragon worshiped in Babylon. Daniel, summoned to do it homage, feeds it a mixture of pitch, hair, and fat, which causes it to explode. The enraged populace compels the King to throw Daniel in the den of lions where he is fed on the sixth day by the prophet Habakkuk, who is angelically transported to Babylon by the hair of his head while carrying food and drink to the reapers in Judea. On the seventh day the King rescues Daniel and throws his would-be destroyers to the hungry lions. (p. 459)
2) The Prayer of Manasseh: This is the supposed confessional prayer of wicked King Manasseh of Judah after he was carried away prisoner to Babylon by the Assyrians.
Reasons for Rejecting the Apocrypha.
“Why don’t you Protestants have all the books of the Bible in your King James Version?” Often Christians and Bible lovers are confronted with this question by those who have accepted the Apocrypha into their translations of the Bible. Why indeed do we not include these 14 books? There are many sound scriptural reasons for not doing this.
- The Apocrypha was never included in the Old Testament canon by such recognized authorities as the Pharisees, Ezra the prophet, etc.
- It was never quoted by either Jews or any other New Testament writers.
- The great Jewish historian Josephus excluded it.
- The well-known Jewish philosopher Philo did not recognize it.
- The early church fathers excluded it.
- The Bible translator Jerome did not accept them as inspired, although he was forced by the pope to include them into the Latin Vulgate Bible.
- None of the 14 books claim divine inspirations; in fact, some actually disclaim it.
- Some books contain historical and geographical errors.
- Some books teach false doctrine, such as praying for the dead.
- No apocryphal book can be found in any catalogue list of canonical books composed during the first four centuries A.D. In fact, it was not until 1596 at the Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic church officially recognized these books, basically in an attempt to strengthen its position, which had been grievously weakened by the great reformer Martin Luther.