Do people ask you questions like, “Why do we have 66 books in the Bible? What makes those books special? Why are they included and not others?” This article on the biblical canon will help you answer those questions. It’s by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., adapted from their recent book Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition and its brand new workbook.
Question: What shapes the canon? [Canon = The collection of biblical books that Christians accept as uniquely authoritative]
The reasons the Jews came to accept the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Scriptures as arranged in modern enumeration are largely lost in antiquity.
The main reason given in the rabbinic discussions revolves around their inspiration. Yet this only throws the question back one stage—i.e., why were these books believed to be inspired or “God-breathed” (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?
Conservative scholars have often tried to link inspiration and canonicity to prophecy. God gave the Law to Moses, they argue, and he was also called a prophet and was largely responsible for the composition of the Pentateuch. Moses, they claim, anticipated a succession of divinely accredited prophets (Deut 18:17–19) who composed the books the Jews included among the Prophets. What is more, even many of the Writings come from prophetic authors (e.g., David [cf. Acts 2:30] and, for some of the Psalms, Asaph the seer). Yet this view fails to account for all of the biblical books and probably pushes the evidence for prophetic authorship (even of the books it does account for) further than is defensible. Why assume that God can inspire only prophets and not also sages and priests?
A second view links canonicity to the concept of covenant. The Law established God’s covenant; the historical narratives described Israel’s obedience and disobedience to the covenant; the prophets called people back to a proper relationship to the covenant; and the Wisdom Literature expanded the theme of obedience to it. This theory has fewer holes in it than the previous one, but it also remains rather broad in nature and without much ancient testimony to corroborate it. While plausible, it must remain a theory.
Christians will probably have to rest content with the traditional Protestant argument outlined above. To state it rather colloquially, “What was good enough for Jesus (as a representative Jew of his day) is good enough for us.”
More evidence survives that suggests criteria for the canonicity of the New Testament. Again, inspiration is more a corollary of canonicity than a criterion of it. Nevertheless, other criteria may helpfully be classified under three headings: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity.
- Apostolicity [Connection to the apostles]
All of the NT writings were believed to have apostolic connections. Though not necessarily written by one of the original twelve apostles (this would apply only to Matthew, John, and Peter), they came from the apostolic age (first c.) and could be closely associated with those who were considered apostles (including Paul), or closely associated with Jesus (such as the Epistles of his brothers, James and Jude). Thus, Mark was traditionally associated with Peter, Luke with Paul, and Hebrews, if not from Paul himself, then with one of his intimate companions. Although many of these traditional authorship claims are widely disputed today, a cogent case can still be made for each of them.
- Orthodoxy [Coherent with the original gospel message]
Second, Christians believed that the theology and ethics promoted by the NT books as a whole cohered in shared orthodoxy—beliefs not held by most of the gnostic challengers. To call all the NT writings orthodox does not preclude a wide measure of diversity among them, but it does imply that none of the texts actually contradicts another one. Although this claim is widely rejected today, it remains thoroughly defensible. The canon came after the preaching of the gospel and the instruction of the faithful and accepted only what cohered with that inaugural tradition.
- Catholicity [Widespread recognition of authority]
Third, books were preserved that had proved useful for a large number of churches from the earliest generations of Christianity. Closely related was the widespread recognition of a book’s authority. One can only speculate as to why the first letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians, before our 1 Corinthians (see 1 Cor 5:9), was not preserved. It obviously was apostolic and presumably orthodox, but quite plausibly was not as relevant for other groups of believers outside of Corinth. Christians often ask the tantalizing question, “What would happen if such a letter were discovered and proved highly relevant?” This question is in fact just a specific form of the broader question: “Is the Christian canon open or closed?” Now since we believe that no church tradition is on a par with Scripture, so that authoritative church pronouncements of the fourth and fifth centuries cannot ultimately determine the canon, we must say that the canon theoretically remains open—if some additional document could meet all the criteria for canonicity. However, practically, the canon is closed, since a work that had not been used for nearly twenty centuries could not meet the criterion of catholicity and would almost certainly not command the acclaim of more than a minority of Christians today.
A Crucial Distinction:
- The process of canonization did not grant biblical books their authority.
- Rather, books that were recognized as authoritative were admitted to the canon.
- Why do you think the early church embraced the OT as part of its Bible—especially since the emerging church rapidly consisted of more Gentiles than Jews?
- Marcion ( 85 – c. 160) defended a canon limited to the New Testament (NT) since he objected to the portrayal of God he found in the OT—an issue that many people still struggle with. How do you feel about this? Do the Testaments present different views of God? What is at stake in your answer?
- Do you think the NT canon is closed? [In other words, we shouldn’t add more books?] What is at stake if you answer the question “yes” or “no”?
— William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition and the Introduction to Biblical Interpretation Workbook.
How to Use This Book
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition is the classic hermeneutics textbook that gives you concise, logical, and practical guidelines for discovering the truth in God’s Word. The book and its related materials (video lectures and workbook) will solve a few problems for you:
- Drive discussion and get your people thinking about how to apply the Bible in valid and significant ways today.
- If individuals in your church are asking you good, deep questions about the Bible and its interpretation, consider having a copy of the text or video lectures in your office or church library. These materials will help them dig deeper.
- If you have curious students in an adult Bible study or Sunday school class, these materials could be an excellent curriculum for introducing them to the art and science of biblical interpretation.
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation