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Biblical canon

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11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum.

A biblical canon is a collection of books that is accepted as authoritative Scripture within a Christian or Hebrew group. While the canon (from the Greek word kanon, meaning a measuring rule or standard) that is used by a particular group can vary considerably, this article is primarily concerned with the Protestant Canon, the Canon espoused by CreationWiki. The typical Protestant Canon contains 66 books (though two of the books, Esther and Revelation, are sometimes given a quasi-Canonical status) written by at least 43 different authors over a period of 1500 years (from Moses to John the Apostle).[1]

A book is considered Canonical (authoritative), and therefore Biblical (in the Protestant sense), if it is derived from a Prophet (a Spokesman of God). Prophets were chosen as the means of revelation NOT by God but by the Israelites. That is, the Israelites, having come to the mountain of God and having witnessed His awesome, terrifying power, asked Moses for Prophets:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked the LORD your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of the LORD our God anymore or see this great fire anymore lest we die." (Deu. 18:15-16, NET; cr Acts 3:22-23 & 7:37; & Heb. 12:18-29)

Embedded in the discussion found in Deuteronomy 18 (and in Deuteronomy 13) is a description and set of criteria by which the Israelites would be able to determine true Prophets from false Prophets. It was also implied in Deuteronomy, by the use of the singular Prophet, that someone would eventually come who would fulfill the original purpose of the Prophets. That is, the Prophets were requested in order to act as a bridge between a broken, faulted humanity and the perfect, holy God. Therefore, when one came who made peace between God and Mankind (cr Rom. 5:1), there would no longer be a need for Prophets. Christians believe that this Final Prophet is Jesus Christ (Luke 24:19 (Acts 2:22); John 1:21 & 7:40), the Incarnate God who died as a propitiation in place of the retribution due us (John 3:36; Rom. 3:21-26&5:6-9; I Cor. 1:18; Heb. 2:17; I Peter 2:24; I John 2:2 & 4:10) and for our restoration (Rom. 5:11; II Cor. 5:16-21; I Pet. 5:10), and hence the Canon ends with the record of Christ. The portion of the Canon which points toward Christ is called the Old Testament and the portion which reveals Christ is called the New Testament.

The English word testament is one possible translation of the Greek word diathākā, which refers to a legal document that declares one’s desires (as in a last will and testament) or which formalizes the terms of a relationship between two parties (as in a contract or covenant). The term diathākā is therefore an apropos description of these two sets of books in that they each have declarations of God’s will and terms of relationship between God and Mankind. In the Old Testament, it is revealed that there is need of a mediator between God and Mankind (Exo. 20:18-19; cr Job 9:32-35) and thus implies God’s desire to reconcile Mankind back to Himself. Further, the Old Covenant delineates the standards of righteousness required of Mankind to come into the presence of the God who is pure, and thus it establishes the terms whereby Mankind and God may be reconciled (Lev. 18:5). The New Testament, however, fulfills the Old in that the New reveals the one who provided reconciliation—Jesus Christ—and who fulfilled the Old Covenant by living a sinless life, a substitute for our insufficiency (II Cor. 5:18-21; cr Ecc. 7:20).

It is important to note that the Canon is NOT necessarily the direct product of the Prophets. Instead, the ancient standard of admissible testimony included both direct and indirect testimony (cr Lev. 5:1). However, the ancient standard did not allow the testimony to be extended too far. Typically, works compiled and consolidated from primary sources were admissible as were works based on eye- (the person saw it themselves, as with II Peter (1:16)) or ear- (the person heard from someone else who saw it, as with the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4)) testimony. However, further removal from the sources was not accepted (as evidenced by Eusebius' admission that Papias was not an authoritative author despite being an early author[2] and the Muratorian Canon's admission that the Shepherd of Hermas was too far removed from the Apostles, the Legal Representatives of Christ (Luke 6:13; John 15:27; Acts 1:15-26)[3]). As a result of this direct/indirect allowance, Canonical Scripture includes both works made by the Prophets themselves and works made by those who were suitably close to the Prophets.

The Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament is derived from the national Prophets of Israel who preceded the Incarnate Son (Heb. 1:1-4) and typically contains 39 books written from approximately 1400 BC to 400 BC. The original Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew with some portions being written in Aramaic.[4] Given the common origin, it is not surprising that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) is similar to the typical Protestant Old Testament, but it differs in book arrangement, some specific variants/readings, and (sometimes) the quasi-Canonical status of Esther.

Even though the Old Testament comes from the Israeli Prophets, it would be an error to think of it as being their direct products. Instead, the works recorded by (or dictated by) the Prophets were compiled and consolidated in the fifth century BC--during the time of the three last (OT) Prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) and the three great men (Zerubbabel, Ezra, & Nehemiah)--to become the forms we know today.[5] That is, there were once many individual records that constituted the works of the Prophets, but dealing with all of these individual records was rather unwieldly, hence the early Hebrews produced one set of records from all of the earlier sources. This is where the so-called "lost books" of the Old Testament come from.

The "Lost Books" of the Old Testament

When one looks through the Old Testament, one will find references to various works which are no longer extant:

  • The Book of the Covenant (Exo. 24:7)
  • The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num. 21:14)
  • The Book of Jashar (Jos. 10:13)
  • The Book of the Acts of Solomon (I Kin. 11:41)
  • The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I Kin. 14:19)
  • The Book of the Annals of King David (I Chr. 27:24)
  • The Book of Samuel (I Chr. 29:29)
  • The Book of Nathan (I Chr. 29:29)
  • The Book of Gad (I Chr. 29:29)
  • The Prophecy of Ahijah (II Chr. 9:29)
  • The Visions of Iddo (II Chr. 12:15)
  • The Book of Shemaiah (II Chr. 12:15)
  • The Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah (II Chr. 16:11)
  • The Book of Jehu (II Chr. 20:34)
  • The Chronicles of the Seers (II Chr. 33:19)
  • The Book of the Genealogy (Neh. 7:5)

These so-called "lost books" of the Old Testament are, of course, not really lost books of Scripture. Instead, they are some of the source documents that were used to create the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament was compiled and consolidated from earlier sources, it may rightly be compared to a history textbook since textbooks are also made through a process of compilation and consolidation. Further, the fact that portions of the Old Testament are comparable to a history textbook does not make it innately unreliable or incomplete:

[H]istory textbooks (modern or otherwise) are often made by historians who have first brought together the various sources available to them (compilation) who then make a relatively succinct record of their own which incorporates information from the aforementioned sources (consolidation). Subsequently, even though these textbooks are not primary sources themselves, the fact that they are meticulously made from primary sources makes them viable sources of knowledge for the public. After all, we are not going to start making high school students learn all of their history through the use of photocopies of original documents--such would take much more time (and a lot more photocopied paper) than is realistically feasible (we would also have to teach the students all of the languages in which the original documents were composed). Instead, the textbook is a realistic and accepted way of transmitting essential historical information. The OT Canon is basically no different in that it too, in those places in which the Prophets do not speak in the first person, is a record compiled from primary sources (like the Book of the Wars of the Lord and the Book of Shemaiah) which have been consolidated into a form that is much more manageable than dealing with every possible source document.
Since the OT Canon is functionally comparable to a history textbook, referring to its sources (like the Book of the Acts of Solomon) as “lost books of the Bible” is as woefully inaccurate as referring to the works mentioned in the bibliography of a textbook as “lost chapters” of the textbook. In other words, the OT Canon cannot be said to have “lost books” any more than a textbook can be said to have “lost chapters”; just as a textbook’s bibliography does NOT make the textbook incomplete, the OT Canon’s references to books outside itself do NOT make the OT Canon incomplete. (Johnson (2015), SWORD[16]1, p. 24)

The Principle of Multifocality

Nonetheless, the fact that the Old Testament has gone through different iterations, in addition to the general fallibility of Mankind, does mean that there is a very real possibility of error. The ancient Israelites circumvented this possible miscommunication by employing the principle of multifocality. Now, multifocality is the state or quality of having multiple points of origination, meaning that the ancient Israelites overcame any difficulties present in any one source by comparing it to another source (or other sources). Subsequently, the Old Testament is not only derived from the Prophets but is from multiple Prophets and often has multiple presentations of particularly significant doctrines.

Indeed, this principle of preserving and using multiple points of origination is found throughout Christian Scripture: There is a reason that it was recorded that both Moses and Joshua were privy to what God had revealed in the tabernacle (Exo. 33:11), a reason that something could not be legally established except on the testimony of multiple witnesses (Deu. 19:15), a reason that the book of Deuteronomy is a second presentation of the Law (the name Deuteronomy literally means second law), a reason that it was recorded that both Joshua and Caleb survived into the post-Moses period (Num. 14:30 cr Josh. 14:6), a reason that there was often more than one Prophet operating during a given period (e.g., Isaiah and Hosea were both Prophets who operated during the reign of King Hezekiah--Isa. 1:1 cr Hos. 1:1), a reason that both the Reigns (I&II Samuel & I&II Kings) and the Supplements (I&II Chronicles) are included in the Old Testament, a reason that there are four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) in the New Testament, a reason that both the Pauline epistles and other epistles are in the New Testament, and a reason that the New Testament quotes multiple versions of the Old Testament (e.g., Jesus quotes the proto-Masoretic Text in Luke 9:27b but quotes the Septuagint in Luke 20:42b-43). Consequently, it is safe to say that multifocality is certainly indicative of the people of God.

Modern Protestants try to maintain this principle of multifocality in that modern Protestant versions of Scripture are often based on examinations of multiple textual traditions. Further, modern Protestants also sometimes examine various church traditions as an aid to understanding how various beliefs developed (and thus inform their own beliefs thereby).

Types of Scripture (& The Apocrypha)

Now, the principle of multifocality did not just apply to the sources of scripture--it also applied to the uses of scripture. That is, the early Hebrews and Christians understood that it was good to use scriptures (writings) in multiple ways. In particular, ancient Christians delineated (sometimes implicitly) four categories of scripture: Orthodox scripture, ecclesiastical scripture, Canonical Scripture, and apocryphal scripture.[6] Of these, the two categories that are most significant to the issue of canonization are ecclesiastical scripture and Canonical Scripture. Distinctions between these two categories (and the others) can be found in the writings of the early church fathers:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness: the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, [these] latter being [merely] read [(i.e., ecclesiastical)]; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approval, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple [(humble)]. (Athanasius, “39th Festal Letter,” 2-7, 367 AD)
But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not Canonical but ecclesiastical: that is to say, Wisdom, called the Wisdom of Solomon, and another Wisdom, called the Wisdom of the Son of Syrach, which [being] last-mentioned the Latins called by the general title Ecclesiasticus, designating not the author of the book, but the character of the writing. To the same class belong the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees. In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Shepherd of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways, or the Judgment of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine. [(This statement of Rufinus regarding the ecclesiastical writings is very close to that found in the Geneva Bible of 1560 concerning The Apocrypha.)] The other writings they have named apocrypha [(unreliable/untrue)]--these they would not have read in the churches. (Rufinus, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 36-38, ~400 AD)

As illustrated in the above excerpts, Canonical Scripture was understood by the ancients (and is understood by most Protestants) to be those writings which are authoritative in the Faith, those which can be used to establish doctrine. Likewise, ecclesiastical scripture, that which was to be read by those newly joining the Faith, was understood (and is understood by most Protestants) to only be useful for basic instruction in Godly ethics, history, church polity, etc; since it is not from the Prophets, ecclesiastical scripture cannot be used for the establishment of doctrine. The distinctions between these two categories were well-known and maintained into the early fifth century (AD) (and even afterward),[7] but many of the Traditional Christian groups (e.g., Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, etc) have since blurred the distinctions between these categories as it relates to the Old Testament.

Put another way, the difference between most Protestants and the Traditional Christians isn't whether these books (like Tobit, Sirach, I Maccabees, etc) are Christian scripture but is instead whether or not they are Canonical (Authoritative) Scripture. The irony is that the Traditional groups agree that the New Testament ecclesiasticals (like the Teaching of the Apostles, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, etc) are not authoritative and even feel free to leave them out of their bibles, yet they nevertheless criticize modern Protestant Bibles for having omitted the ecclesiasticals that are associated with the Old Testament.

That being said, it is important to note that the New Testament does reference the Old Testament ecclesiasticals (The Apocrypha). In fact, the New Testament alludes to or parallels 479 passages found in the Old Testament ecclesiasticals.[8] However, that large number of references to the ecclesiasticals needs to be balanced by the fact that the New Testament alludes to or parallels 745 non-Canonical passages in total (to include references to pagan poets).[9] That is, just because the New Testament references a work does not make that work a part of Canonical Scripture.

Two Derivations of the Protestant Old Testament

Protestants generally determine which books should be in the Old Testament Canon through one of two means: (1) Some (being most) Protestants accept that the Jewish canon is the essentially-correct basis of the Old Testament Canon while (2) other Protestants affirm that the historical record (especially that of the early church fathers) gives one a better understanding of the authentic Christian Canon. Despite that the approaches are very different, they result in substantially identical lists of books.

As to the first method, that of adopting the Jewish canon as the Protestant Old Testament, the idea is that the Jews would know which books they had possessed from the beginning and which ones they did not. This premise that the people who originally possessed the books should be used as the standard as to which books are correct has been adopted several times by Christians throughout history, the most famous of which being Jerome's rejection of the ecclesiasticals as being apocryphal on the basis that they were not found in the Jewish canon of his day.[10] Further, Paul, one of the early Christian missionaries who knew some of the Apostles, had said that "the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2, ESV), which many modern Protestants have taken to imply that the Jews remained a reliable source of knowledge of God's Word even after the establishment of Christianity.

Though de facto adoption of the Jewish canon is common among modern Protestants and has been common since the Reformation (the Reformers essentially parroted Jerome's reason for rejecting the ecclesiasticals as authoritative),[11] there are some flaws with the underlying logic. First, "Jewish canon" Protestants implicitly accept that God's people, the church, can fall away from the truth such that their eventually-accepted canon is incorrect, but they deny that the Jews, who ardently deny Christ as God and Savior (II Pet. 1:1), could have also fallen away from the truth regarding the Canon. Put another way, "Jewish canon" Protestants are willing to believe the Christ-denying Masoretes who developed their standard text in the 6th to 10th centuries (AD)[12] over those who first received the proclamation of the Gospel. Second, "Jewish canon" Protestants have a tendency to see the Jews as the people of God, in the sense of somehow holding a special authority, despite that Christ Himself had called the counterfeit Jews (those who rejected the promised Messiah) a "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9 & 3:9) and despite that Paul made it clear that "God has consigned all to disobedience" (Rom. 11:32, ESV), meaning that all are liable to error regarding His Word.

In reaction to the simple adoption of the Jewish canon, some Protestants have advocated a historical analysis of the issue using those Christian sources which list the books of the Canon. The lists investigated are usually limited to those preceding the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) since that council resulted in the first major schism within early Christianity (meaning that Orthodox Christianity was undivided until that point). When these early lists are analyzed and compared, the resulting levels of support for the books associated with the Old Testament are as follows:[13]

Wrork Associated with the Old Testament All Lists’ % of Uncontested Support Just Authors’ % of Uncontested Support
Genesis 100 100
Exodus 100 100
Leviticus 100 100
Numbers 100 100
Deuteronomy 100 100
Joshua 100 100
Judges 100 100
Ruth 100 100
I,II Samuel 100 100
I,II Kings 100 100
I,II Chronicles 100 100
Esdras (Ezra/Neh.) 100 100
Job 100 100
Psalms 100 100
Proverbs 100 100
Ecclesiastes 100 100
Song of Songs 100 100
Isaiah 100 100
Jeremiah 100 100
Lamentations 100 100
Ezekiel 100 100
Daniel 100 100
12 Minor Prophets 97.1 96
Esther 68.6 56
Wisdom of Solomon 17.1 8
151st Psalm 0 0
III Maccabees 5.7 0
IV Maccabees 5.7 0
Tobit 14.3 -4
Judith 20 -4
Sirach 11.4 -4
I Maccabees 11.4 -8
II Maccabees 11.4 -8

As can be seen, the standard Protestant Old Testament Canon is found to have a majority of uncontested support in the early listings (though Esther just barely has a majority--68.6% or 56%). What's more, some books were more often called non-Canonical by specific authors than they were Canonical, including Tobit, Judith, Sirach, and I&II Maccabees.

Now, a simple historical investigation does not provide one with a specific means of addressing works outside those that were specifically listed in the germane sources. For example, the Prayer of Manasseh does not usually show up in the lists. Consequently, Protestants advocating a historical approach also advocate a criteria-based approach. That is, the early church fathers not only listed books of the Canon but they also gave reasons for why they accepted the books that they did. The basic definition of the Canon that was accepted in early Christianity was that The Canon is composed of the written record deriving from the Prophets and the Lord’s Apostles.[14] This basic definition is interpreted in Protestantism such that a work is only Canonical if it meets the following criteria:[15]

(1) Authority: It is from the Prophets and the Apostles. (II Peter 3:1-2 cr Eph. 2:19-20; Deu. 13:1-5 & 18:9-22 cr Luke 6:13, John 15:26-27, & Acts 1:21-26)
(2) Agreement: It is in keeping with previously established Canonical Scripture. (Isa. 8:20; Mal. 4:4; Luke 24:44; John 10:35)
(3) Authenticity: It is historically authentic. (Pro. 14:15 cr Pro. 30:5-6)

Using these criteria, Protestants could reject the Prayer of Manasseh since it does not even claim proper authority (Manasseh wasn't a Prophet). Likewise, many incidental works, like Baruch and the Additions to Daniel, could also be rejected on the basis of these criteria.

Nonetheless, it must be reiterated that use of one method over the other does not substantially change the Protestant Canon (except, perhaps, in the case of Esther). Consequently, though Protestants sometimes sharply disagree as to how to conceptualize/derive the Old Testament Canon, they generally agree as to its basic contents. This substantial agreement means that the different Protestant groups (at least those who attend to Canonical Scripture) usually have essentially identical core doctrines.

The Canonicity of Esther

quoted from SWORD [17], pp. 71-3, with permission

Esther, Tobit, & Judith—-These books seem to be somewhat linked in that, if an early list excluded or expressed doubts about Esther, then it always excluded Tobit and Judith. More specifically, there seems to have been a tradition originating in Palestine as early as the second century (as per Melito) which viewed these three books as simply the accounts of Hebrew heroes and heroines rather than as authoritative Scripture. This view of Esther, Tobit, and Judith as being just heroic accounts seems to have held sway among certain Christians even into the mid-fourth century (with Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Amphilocius of Iconium). At the same time, Christians as early as the third century (as per Origen) knew that the Jews had come to include Esther in their Canon but that the Jews didn’t include Tobit or Judith. This view that Esther was independent of Tobit and Judith was likewise present in some portions of Christianity until at least the early fifth century (with Cyril of Jerusalem, the Council of Laodicea, Epiphanius, Jerome, and Rufinus). Further, at some earlier point (no later than the early third century), the text of the Greek version of Esther had been altered to include the Additions to Esther. The Additions to Esther are distinctly more religious than the main text, which is essentially historical. This added religiosity probably made Esther seem more appropriate for inclusion in the Canon of Scripture. Consequently, given (a) that Esther was eventually accepted by the Hebrews, (b) that Esther had previously been associated with Judith & Tobit, and (c) that Esther had become more distinctly religious, the natural result was that all three books would become canonical among some groups, but not until the mid-fourth century (as per Hilary of Poitiers). In total, some 15 out of 20 OT, pre-sixth-century lists present Esther in a somewhat positive light, but only 7 of them present Judith and/or Tobit in a somewhat positive light. Therefore, if Protestants are going to accept any of these three books as Canonical Scripture, they would certainly be in better company if they only accepted Esther. Nonetheless, it is also probable that these Extra Books are just the accounts of heroic Hebrews which never claim Prophetic origin.

The New Testament Canon

The New Testament is ultimately derived from the Incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who fulfilled the purpose of the national Prophets of Israel (Deu. 18:15-22; Heb. 1:1-4). The Protestant New Testament typically contains 27 books (26 if Revelation is omitted) written from approximately 30 AD to 117 AD.[16] The original New Testament was written mainly in Greek with some portions possibly being written in Aramaic/Hebrew.[17]

The New Testament Comes From the 12 Apostles

Jesus of Nazareth—the Final Prophet, the one who fulfilled the purpose of the Prophets—selected 12 men to publish the Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus’ sinless life (I Peter 3:18-20), sacrificial death (Eph. 5:2), and conquering resurrection (I Cor. 15:12-58; I Peter 1:3-5) which provide us with the only means by which we are saved (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) from our sinful (Rom. 3:23), wrathful (John 3:35), and dead state of existence (Eph. 2:1). These specially-chosen men were called Apostles (Luke 6:13)—meaning Legal Representatives in this context—because they had been with Jesus from the beginning of His ministry (John 15:27) and thus could, as eyewitnesses with legal veracity (II Peter 1:16), represent Him before the world.

It is important to note that these men held an office with limited endurance, meaning that Legal Representatives of Jesus of Nazareth would not be found in later ages. This limited endurance is due to the fact that this Apostleship could not be transferred to anyone except those who met a particular, temporally-confining requirement. In particular, a replacement Apostle had to have been with Jesus’ Disciples (meaning followers) from the baptism of John the Baptist until Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:21-22). As the people who met this requirement died millennia ago, there are no longer Apostles like the Twelve Apostles. They alone had the legal right, as eye-witnesses and pupils of Jesus of Nazareth, to authoritatively publish His Gospel. Consequently, no writings coming after the time of the Apostles may be entered into the Canon since such are too far removed from Jesus, the Final Prophet.

Eye- and Ear-Witnesses of Jesus Christ Authored the Books of the New Testament

The Twelve Apostles initially published the Gospel orally, making Disciples and teaching them to observe the commands of Christ (Matt. 28:19-20),[18] but, as the time of their slumber (a Christian euphemism for death; cr Acts 7:60) drew near, people recognized the need for producing and preserving a written record which would testify in their stead. That is, it had become apparent that some people were distorting the Gospel message and thus more authoritative records, based on legally-viable testimony, were authored or sought:

He [(Luke)] states that since many others had more rashly undertaken to compose a narrative of the events of which he had acquired perfect knowledge, he himself, feeling the necessity of freeing us from their uncertain opinions, delivered in his own Gospel an accurate account of those events in regard to which he had learned the full truth, being aided by his intimacy with Paul and by his acquaintance with the rest of the apostles. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 3.24.15, 263-339 AD)

Some of these records were authored by people who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry, like Matthew, John (and Andrew, et al.),[19] Peter, James, and Jude—they are called eye-witnesses because they had seen the Incarnation (God in the flesh) for themselves.[20] Others, like Paul, Mark, and Luke, had not been with Jesus but had instead learned of Him from those who had indeed been with Him—they are called ear-witnesses because they had heard directly from those who had seen the Incarnation.[21] Nonetheless, all of these people produced their works during the time of the Apostles and under their implicit authority:

We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has Apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned (by the Lord Himself) this office of publishing the Gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with Apostles and after Apostles; because the preaching of Disciples [(followers)] might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was [He who] made the Apostles their masters. (Tertullian, Tertullian Against Marcion, IV.II, 160-220 AD)

The New Testament Works Originated in Different Places at Different Times (& The "Lost" Pauline Epistles)

The original New Testament documents were sent, at different times, to different places in the Roman Empire and then began to circulate from those various initial locations.[22] Since the books did not start out together (and since Christianity was originally an illegal religion in the Roman Empire, meaning that it was difficult for Christians to interact across great distances), it wasn't until the third century (AD) that all of the New Testament books were collected into the Canon that is recognized by Protestants today.[23] This complex initial distribution, in addition to prolonging the process of determining the books of the New Testament Canon, is responsible for the apparent loss of some of Paul's writings.

In particular, when one reads the Pauline epistles (letters) it seems that Paul references previous letters that are no longer extant: a prior letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 5:9-10), another to the Corinthians (II Cor. 2:4 & 7:8-9), a prior letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 3:1-3), and one to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). However, Paul's letters were distributed as circulars (being passed along to several congregations rather than to just one--Col. 4:16), hence many congregations knew of several of his writings despite that he had not specifically written to them yet. Consequently, though Paul sometimes references prior letters, it does not mean that he was referencing prior letters to that specific congregation. Instead, there is no reason to believe that these references do not coincide with the extant letters of Paul. More specifically,

The first supposedly lost letter to the Corinthians was actually I Thessalonians (I Cor. 5:9-10 cr I Thess. 4:3-8), the supposedly lost Severe Letter of II Corinthians 2:4 & 7:8-9 was probably appended as II Corinthians 10:1-13:10, the supposedly lost letter to the Ephesians is either Ephesians itself (the statement could be self-referent) or Galatians (Eph. 3:1-3 cr Eph. 1:9 & Gal. 1:11-2:10), and the supposedly lost letter to the Laodiceans is probably either Ephesians (via Hippolytus) or Galatians (via geographical likelihood). (Johnson (2015),SWORD[18], p. 35 footnote)

Two Derivations of the Protestant New Testament

Just as was the case with the Protestant Old Testament, Protestants determine which books should be in the New Testament through one of two means: (1) Some Protestants default to the Roman Catholic New Testament and (2) others use a historical-criteria method. Nonetheless, the two methods result in essentially identical lists of books (with the possible exception of the book of Revelation).

As was the case with the "Jewish canon" position that is held relative to the Old Testament, the "Catholic canon" position has some fundamental problems: First, the Protestant who accepts the Catholic canon of the New Testament is accepting something from a group which they believe has fallen into substantial error regarding key doctrines (like Justification). This is inconsistent in that if one accepts that Roman Catholicism could be in error regarding doctrine, then it stands to reason that they could be in error regarding the Canon. Second, the same Protestants who would default to the "Catholic canon" in the New Testament would not do so with regard to the Old Testament. Again, this is inconsistent in that an institution/group cannot be fallible and infallible at the same time.

In reaction to this de facto acceptance of the Catholic New Testament canon, some Protestants advocate a historical-criteria method (see Two Derivations of the Protestant Old Testament). Such a method involves an analysis of the early Christian lists of the books in the Canon (usually preceding the Ephesus Council, 431 AD) and it involves the application of the criteria of Authority, Agreement, and Authenticity (see Two Derivations of the Protestant Old Testament). As to an analysis of the early Christian lists of the books of the New Testament, the following data results:[24]

Wrork Associated with the New Testament All Lists’ % of Uncontested Support Just Authors’ % of Uncontested Support
Gospels (Matt., Mark, Luke, & John) 100 100
Acts 100 100
Romans 100 100
I Corinthians 100 100
II Corinthians 100 100
Galatians 100 100
Ephesians 100 100
Philippians 100 100
Colossians 100 100
I Thessalonians 100 100
II Thessalonians 100 100
I Timothy 100 100
II Timothy 100 100
Titus 100 100
I John 100 100
Philemon 97.1 96
II John 94.3 96
James 91.4 96
Jude 88.6 92
Hebrews 82.9 92
III John 91.4 92
I Peter 94.3 92
II Peter 88.6 88
Revelation 51.4 64
I Clement 5.7 0
II Clement 5.7 0
Laodiceans -5.7 -8
Alexandrians -5.7 -8
Psalms of Marcion -5.7 -8
Acts of Paul 0 -8
Gospel According to the Hebrews -5.7 -8
Gospel of Peter -5.7 -8
Acts of Andrew and John -5.7 -8
[something]...of James -5.7 -8
...of Peter and John -5.7 -8
...of Andrew -5.7 -8
Apocalypse of Peter -2.9 -12
Epistle of Barnabas -5.7 -16
Teach./Can./Con. of the Apostles -5.7 -16
Gospel of Matthias -11.4 -16
Gospel of Thomas -17.1 -24
Shepherd of Hermas -20 -36

As can be seen, the standard Protestant New Testament Canon is found to have a majority of uncontested support in the early listings (though Revelation just barely has a majority--51.4% or 64%). What's more, most of the books associated with the New Testament that are not found in the Canon were more often called non-Canonical than Canonical (with the exception of I&II Clement). Nonetheless, the historical analysis does not address some works and it does not address some specific issues. This being the case, advocates of the historical method also use the aforementioned criteria (Authority, Agreement, & Authenticity) to evaluate works that do not show up in the historical lists or to challenge the results of the historical inquiry.

Three General Classes of NT-Associated Works

When one looks at the historical records, one finds that the various works associated with the New Testament can generally placed into one of three basic categories: those eventually rejected, those eventually accepted despite dispute, and those generally accepted from the beginning.[25] This categories will be discussed in greater detail so as to provide an more specific overview as to why the Protestant New Testament contains the books that it does.


unless otherwise indicated, information is from SWORD[19], p. 97-101, with permission


Those Eventually Rejected
The books that were rejected were either those that were deemed heretical (like those coming from the Gnostics) or those that were of an extrapolative nature (i.e., explanatory or conjectural). Now the heretical books, though they often claim to have been derived from Apostles, were all, without exception, written in the second century or later, meaning that they could not possibly be authentic.[26] Further, the heretical works often fail the criterion of Agreement in that many of them altogether fail to mention the OT works (whereas the NT Canon quotes a new OT passage about once per chapter), drastically reinterpret them (e.g., The Secret Book of John, Pigeradamas and Seth, 8.28-9.24), contradict them (e.g., On the Origin of the World, Prologue: In the Beginning) , or present them as being unnecessary to the validation of Jesus’ ministry:
[Jesus’] disciples said to Him, “Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel[27], and they all spoke of you.”
He said to them, “You have disregarded the living one who is in your presence and have [instead] spoken of the dead.” (The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 52)
As to the extrapolative books (including the “Ethiopic Eight”[--four books of the Sinodos, Clement, two books of the Covenant, & Didascalia]), their obvious secondary nature (being either explanations of preexisting items or conjectures about heretofore unanswered questions) unquestionably marks them as inauthentic. Further, some of them contain bad information (like I Clement), which would not be expected of an authoritatively inspired work, and some of them reinterpret the OT (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas), which violates the standard of Agreement. The net result of these categorical failures regarding the standards of Authority, Agreement, & Authenticity is that it is NOT reasonable to doubt that the eventually rejected works were rightly rejected.
Those Eventually Accepted Despite Dispute
The disputed books that were eventually accepted can be separated into three semi-permeable categories: those disputed due to awareness, those disputed due to use by heretics, and those disputed due to the founder effect. As far as awareness is concerned, some of the NT books simply didn’t circulate as quickly as the others did[28], hence some regions did not become aware of them until later. Therefore, in light of the false books that had also begun to circulate, it is understandable that the acceptance of those late-arriving books took some time. Notable books that seem to have been late arrivals in some areas include Hebrews, James, Jude, and II Peter. Despite the fact that these were unknown in some areas, they were well-known and thoroughly accepted in other areas from the earliest of times: Hebrews, James, and II Peter are brought together in I Clement (~96 AD) and Jude is cited in the Muratorian Fragment (~170 AD).
With regard to those books that were disputed due to heresy, the chief culprit seems to have been Montanism. Montanism caused many of the books to be doubted, including Hebrews (again) and, in some places, seemingly the entire Johannine corpus. Nevertheless, these books are, again, among the earliest-attested NT books (all being attested before the end of the second century). Further, the Johannine corpus seems to have been well-known practically everywhere in the Roman Empire; regardless of whether or not it was always accepted, the Johannine corpus was never completely omitted in any of the early lists of the Roman Empire (except in the singular case of the partial omission by the Syrian Christians).
Last of all, the books that were disputed due to the founder effect are just that: Certain groups tended to be more interested in maintaining a tradition than gathering facts, hence they arrived at unique NT canons. However, as those unique canons are only found in later-established groups, there is no sensible reason to take them into account, defend them, or bow to them.
Overall, the disputed books were disputed for good reason—heresy was a big deal in Christianity, hence books were not just accepted willy-nilly. Nonetheless, as Biblical-Historical Christians, we have no sensible reason to doubt these books—we know the reasons why they were doubted, and none of the reasons are valid:
(a) Just because a book was not universally known (i.e., not catholic) doesn’t make it inauthentic. As long as it has a sufficiently early provenance and accompanying testimony of Authority, we can rest assured that there is a sufficient probability that the book is indeed what it claims to be. (However, it should be noted that skeptics are generally going to be skeptical regardless of how something is presented to them. For them, critical possibility tends to outweigh historical probability.)
(b) Just because a book is used by heretics doesn’t make the book itself heretical. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use a version of the Greek NT that is very similar to the Greek NT used by many modern Protestant translations, but such heretical use isn’t going to keep Protestants from using the Greek NT as a basis for their translations. Why?, because truth is truth regardless of whose hands are on it—what matters is whether or not you are faithful to it.
(c) Finally, just because some groups decided to do their own thing, and that after Christianity was already established elsewhere, doesn’t mean that we have to accept their peculiarities: A local tradition, regardless of its strength, does not negate the truthfulness of external evidence.
Those Generally Accepted from the Beginning
This last group requires little attention in that their situation is very clear:
Authority: The early Christians time and time again affirmed that these books were written by eye- or ear-witnesses of Christ with the implicit approval of at least one of the 12 Apostles.
Agreement: These books very obviously seek to establish themselves upon the testimony of the OT Canon in that they quote or reference the OT more than once per chapter [(on average)].
Authenticity: These books are attested at a very early point, well-known in a plethora of diverse regions, and even have certain internal hallmarks of authenticity (see Peter William’s lectures on the NT works).
To sum up, Biblical-Historical Christians accept the NT Canon that we do because there isn’t sufficient evidence to deny that the standards of Authority, Agreement, and Authenticity apply to the 27 books (28 books if one counts the Severe Letter[29]) which we have in our current Canon. Yes, some books were disputed, some erroneously added, and some were even occasionally rejected, but all of these things occurred within historically knowable contexts which offer perfectly reasonable explanations both as to why these things happened and as to why such occurrences did not negate the legitimacy of the books now considered Canonical. Therefore, even though it is technically possible that our current NT Canon could be incorrect, Biblical-Historical Christians have confidence in these 27 books because the internal evidence and the historical record demonstrates that such confidence is reasonable.


References

  1. Johnson, John (2015), SWORD [1], pp. 103-136
  2. Eusebius (4th Cen.), Hist. Eccl., 3.39.
  3. Muratori, V.C. Antiq. Ital. Med. aev., vol. iii. col. 854
  4. History of the Bible by All About The Journey.
  5. Johnson, John (2015), SWORD [2], pp. 22-26
  6. Johnson (2015), SWORD[3]1, pp. 1-6
  7. Johnson (2015), SWORD[4]1, p. CL26
  8. Barbara & Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, & Bruce Metzger (Eds.). 2013. Novum Testamentum Graece. "Loci Citati Vel Allegati."
  9. ibid
  10. Jerome, Prefaces to the Books of the Vulgate, Preface to the Books of Samuel and Kings, ~391 AD
  11. 1537 Matthew's Bible, Prologue to the Apocrypha
  12. Johnson (2015), SWORD[5], p. 52
  13. Johnson (2015), SWORD[6], p. CL26
  14. Justin Martyr, First Apology, LXVII, 2nd Cen.; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, XVI, 3rd Cen.; John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, Homily IX, 4th Cen.; Augustin of Hippo, The City of God, Book XI, III, 5th Cen.
  15. Johnson (2015), SWORD[7], p. 14
  16. Johnson (2015),SWORD[8], pp. 119-26
  17. History of the Bible by All About The Journey; Johnson (2015),SWORD[9], p. 178
  18. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1, 2nd Cen.
  19. John wrote his Gospel with the aid of other early Disciples, including Andrew (Muratorian Fragment, V.C. Antiq. Ital. Med. Aev., Vol. iii., Col. 854, ca. 170 AD). This explains why the epilogue of the Gospel of John contains an authorial we-statement (John 21:24) and why the styles of various portions thereof seem somewhat inconsistent: Multiple authors contributed to the work and thus the work reflects many of the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the different authors.
  20. Matthew, John, and Peter were members of the Twelve Apostles (Matt. 10:1-4) and James and Jude were Jesus’ earthly brothers (Matt. 13:55; Jude and Judas are synonymous names).
  21. In particular, Paul knew Peter (Gal. 1:11-2:10; Peter was also known as Cephas—John 1:42), Mark knew Peter as well (Clement of Alexandria, 150-215 AD, quoted in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 2.15), & Luke seems to have at least known James (Acts 21:17-18) and probably also knew other eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4).
  22. Johnson (2015),SWORD[10], pp. 35-6
  23. Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 7.1; Johnson (2015),SWORD[11], pp. 36-7
  24. Johnson (2015),SWORD[12], p. CL26
  25. Johnson (2015),SWORD[13], p. 97
  26. see the work of James M. Robinson
  27. cr II/IV Esdras 14:44-45, which says that there were 24 public OT books restored by Ezra
  28. see Chapter Three of SWORD[14]
  29. cr footnote on p. 35 of SWORD[15]

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