May 07, 2024

Canon of Scripture

Barry Cooper
Canon of Scripture

How did the early church recognize the books of the New Testament as Scripture? In this episode, Barry Cooper examines four signs of a book’s divine authority.


Who decided what was included in our modern Bibles?

Those sixty-six documents—thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament—are known as the canon of Scripture.

By the time of Jesus, there was strong agreement among God’s people about which Old Testament documents should be recognized as God’s Word—and it’s a list that matches the Old Testament we have in our Bibles.

How do we know that the Old Testament in our Bibles is the same as the one Jesus refers to? Well, God commanded that His words be publicly preserved in the tabernacle—and later, in the temple—so that there would be no doubt about what God’s words actually were. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the documents preserved in the temple—which make up the contents of the Protestant Old Testament—were indeed the books that were recognized by the Jewish people as God’s Word, with divine authority. For these and many other reasons, we can be confident that our Old Testament lines up with the Scripture Jesus recognized as authoritative.

Some traditions (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, for example) include additional books in their Old Testament. But Jesus and the other Jews never accepted them as divinely inspired and part of the canon. They themselves put those “apocryphal” books in a different category from the recognized Hebrew Scriptures.

Now, who decided which books were included in the New Testament? Sometimes people imagine that the contents of the New Testament were decided by a rabble of power-hungry factions with murky motives, each of which had a vested interest in certain books being included or omitted.

But in reality, our Bibles are comprised of books that the early church acknowledged as already bearing God’s fingerprints. The early church didn’t willfully declare certain books to be from God; they just recognized what was already apparent.

What signs identified to the early church that a book belonged in the New Testament? A book had to be

  • written by, or closely connected to, an Apostle;
  • already in common usage by the early church;
  • theologically orthodox—not contradicting any other part of Scripture; and
  • discerned as bearing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The church has recognized as authoritative the twenty-seven books you and I have in our New Testament because these books bear the signs of Apostolic authorship, common reception in the church, and theological orthodoxy, and because in them the church has heard the voice of God.

By the way, these marks of authenticity explain why Christians don’t recognize the authority of the so-called “alternative” gospels, which were written later, from the second to the fourth century AD. All the documents in the New Testament canon can be dated prior to AD 100 and bear the marks of inspiration.

It’s also the reason why there will never be any new books added to the Bible. Even if someone were to discover a previously unknown letter by the Apostle Paul in their attic, it would not bear the “already in common usage by the early church” mark.

Generally speaking, the books appear in chronological order in the Old Testament, tracing the history of God’s people in the way you’d expect. But there are a few exceptions, because sometimes the documents are grouped topically.

It’s a similar story with the New Testament, where the documents are largely grouped in historical order. We start with the Gospels, four parallel histories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Then one of the Gospel writers, Luke, provides a sequel (Acts) that records the “acts” of Jesus through the Apostles, as the early church gets started.

Then come the letters of the Apostle Paul, who wrote around half of the documents in the New Testament. The letters are included by decreasing order of size and audience: first the letters he wrote to communities, then the ones he wrote to individuals.

After that, there are the other New Testament letters. It’s possible these letters, including one by Jude, appear in order of the authors’ prominence in the early church.

And finally, there’s Revelation. It doesn’t fit neatly into the “letter” category. It’s part letter, part prophecy and part apocalyptic literature. But it makes sense to place it last in the Bible, because it looks forward to events yet to come, namely, the return of Christ, the final judgment, and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth.

And that’s the canon of Scripture.