On the Canon of Scripture

On the Canon of Scripture

Following on the previous post, after I did the presentation on Inspiration, M taught on the Canon. We worked on that together, me serving as her Tertius, scribing her words. Since then, I’ve taken that and re-worked and expanded it a bit. Thus, this is a companion of the previous post and where it spoke in generalities of the writing and collecting of the Scriptures, this one expands and hopefully clarifies what was said there.


The word “canon” means reed or ruler. By extension it means the thing by which other things are measured, and that’s the sense in which we mean it in the church. The canon both defines the collection of books that sit at the heart of the Church’s experience of and conversations about God, and also contains the apostolic faith against which all else is measured. That is, this canon contains the Old Testament—the writings of the Hebrew Bible (and some documents written after that point by Jewish authors sometimes called “Apocrypha”) that the Church received through their Greek translation, and the New Testament—the written records of the lived faith of the Church as it was practiced in the first few decades after Jesus, directed by the teaching and proclamation of the apostles and disciples. It’s those folks—the inner circle of Jesus’ companions (the apostles) and those who heard and followed both his preaching and theirs (the disciples)—that orient us to the authentic practice of the faith revealed in, through, and by Jesus.

Writing of the Old Testament

Literacy & Writing

The first thing to remember is that we take literacy and writing for granted. We are used to everyone knowing how to read and write, and the constant presence of reading material whether its books or magazines or emails or websites. That’s not the way literacy worked in the ancient world. Very few people needed to read, let alone write. As mentioned in the discussion on Inspiration, the Old Testament was written gradually over a series of centuries and was edited into the books that we have today—and one of the best ways to understand this is to understand in what circles and in what jobs reading and writing were important.

Desert Bedouins who raise sheep and camels, and herd them through the wilderness from place to place don’t use guidebooks. They read the winds and the stars to help them get from oasis to oasis—not a set of written words. The patriarchs and their extended families were just these kinds of people. Literacy in the Ancient Near East went hand-in-hand with the monarchy and with agriculture. Our very earliest texts from the region are records of containers of grain, jars of oil, and slaves, things that had been paid as taxes or received as tribute by kings. Literacy, then, first tends to show up around royal courts as they developed in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. The second place we see it is in temple complexes where we find hymns and stories about the gods. So it’s these two places—royal courts and temples—where we first find the written word.

The other things is that when we go back that far, you also have to consider what they were writing on… If you were in Egypt, they did process the papyrus reeds into a form of paper, but it was fragile and outside of the dry climate of Egypt didn’t keep real well. Instead, the palace and temple records that we have from the Babylonians to the Hittites to the Canaanites are all preserved on clay tablets.

Now—can you imagine the Israelites wandering through the deserts on the way to the Promised Land with a string of donkeys entirely loaded with clay tablets? And yet, that’s what you would have to imagine with the model of Moses writing the first five books of the Old Testament!

So—how did this really work?

The Israelites wouldn’t have been going through the deserts with bags and bags of clay tablets—instead they would have taken stories, songs, and likely some epic poetry. As you’ll see when we read through the historical books of the Bible, some of them will make a few scattered references to some ancient histories. One of these, mentioned in the book of Numbers (Num 21:14), is called “the Book of the Wars of the Lord,” and the fragment we have of it is poetry. Immediately after mentioning it, two other poems appear (Num 21:17-18 and Num 21:27-30). These tantalizing glimpses of a poetic past suggest that it might have been an epic poem that was later written down (just like the Iliad and the Odyssey) and then used as a source when our books were collected. The lost “Book of Jashar” also contained histories and songs (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18) or was perhaps a history in poetic form.  The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob probably were all transmitted this way—stories handed down by the campfires through long generations.

The Monarchy

There wasn’t a monarchy in Israel until Saul, but when we talk of establishing Jerusalem and building palace and temple compounds, we’re really talking about David and Solomon. To have a nice round number that’s easy to remember, David becomes the second king of Israel somewhere right around the year 1000 BC, and then Solomon becomes king around 960 BC. Solomon, of course, was the great builder who was in contact with the other monarchies of the Ancient Near East, trading with them, bringing in craftsmen, and forming alliances through marriage. Solomon’s reputation for wisdom is no doubt connected with the scribes who would have been essential to keep track of the trade, commerce, and all the building activity that he did, so this is probably when we can confidently talk about the first Hebrew texts—which were probably tax records and building orders.

As long as there was a court, scribes would have been needed to keep records, write laws, and handle diplomatic matters. As we read through the books of Kings, we’ll occasionally see references  to “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29). Our text assumes that these books are still around—but they have been lost to the ages. That’s the kind of thing the scribes would have been doing, though: keeping the records of the kingdoms. But that’s not all they did; in the book of Proverbs, chapter 25 begins with this notice: “These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.” King Hezekiah ruled for about 30 years right around the year 700 BC, or some 250 years after Solomon. So, if nothing else, there is clear biblical evidence that there was a group of scribes at the court, interested in collecting wisdom sayings of this kind in 700 BC as well as keeping the chronicles and the tax records up to date!

When the kingdoms split after the reign of Solomon, two different courts kept records, the northern one in Samaria, the city that was the capital of Israel, and the southern one in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. As a result, when these groups of scribes began writing the ancient histories of their kingdoms and collecting the old oral traditions, two different sets of stories about the ancient patriarchs sprang up—those recording traditions in the north, and those set in the south.

The Temple

As well as building the royal compound, Solomon is also the guy who built the first Temple in Jerusalem. As a result, we can imagine that the earliest religious writings would have been specifically for use in the Temple and would have been hymns, instructions for conducting the sacrifices and other rituals, and instructions on how to reckon and keep the calendar.

The Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t the only place worship happened, though; there were important shrines at Shiloh, Gilgal, Beth El, and other high places that would have done and recorded things in their own way. They would have had their own stories and ways of worshiping. As worship began to be centralized in Jerusalem, though, these different ways would no doubt have been collected. Perhaps some of the ritual details hidden away in Leviticus and Numbers that don’t entirely agree with one another, reflect different collections of materials from different locations.

The Prophets

During this time there were a variety of prophets, some connected with the Temple in Jerusalem, some connected with some of these other shrines, and some who weren’t part of the formal religious system at all. Their proclamations and actions were written down by people who heard them speak and who became their followers. The earliest that we have is Amos, preaching in the North in the eighth century BC. Through the seventh and the sixth centuries prophets of various kinds responded to various current events, bringing words from God to comment on the social and political doings in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. 

We can get a picture of how prophetic words were preserved, circulated, and received by their audience through the story recounted in Jeremiah 36. God tells Jeremiah to write down everything he’s been told; Jeremiah calls Baruch, his scribe, and tells him everything which he dutifully writes down. Jeremiah—who’s been banned from the Temple at this point—has Baruch go and read it aloud there. Some government officials hear it, take the scroll, and tell both Baruch and Jeremiah to hide. They then take the scroll to the king who has it read to him. Clearly he wasn’t a fan, for the king hacks off sections as they’re being read and tosses them into the fire. Jeremiah and Baruch then must go back and recreate the scroll, writing down all of Jeremiah’s previous words  “and many similar words were added to them.” It’s this sometimes haphazard process of organization and collection that causes interesting anomalies like the dual appearance of Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon in both Jer 7:1-15 and Jer 26:1-6ff.

Again, an issue with the traditional “Mighty Man of God” model of inspiration and composition is worth mentioning here. Notice something that the prophets both do and don’t do… Some of them seem to be riffing off of psalms. Like, it’s hard to imagine Isaiah, chapter 5—his song about God’s vineyard—without Psalm 80 which uses that same image as a setup for it. But notice what they don’t do; none of the prophets quotes Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy—that’s because they haven’t been written yet! While they may engage with some traditions that may be incorporated into those books, the Law as we know it now, has not been fully collected together.

The other thing to remember is that the prophets that we have are probably only a few of all the prophets who existed. We hear the names of several who did not leave writings behind in the Books of Kings, but there were undoubtedly others whose words were either not recorded or not collected for posterity.

Religious Reforms—Hezekiah & Josiah

Shortly after the fall of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, to Assyrian armies, King Hezekiah took the throne of Judah and reigned for many years. One of the things he did was to institute a religious reform, centralizing worship in Jerusalem at the Temple instead of all of those other shrines and places of worship. This was probably an important point when some of these diverse records were gathered together.

Hezekiah’s grandson Josiah also launched a set of reforms based on a book that was found in the Temple when he ordered it to be cleaned out. The many things that Josiah did sound a lot like what we read in Deuteronomy, and many scholars believe that the core of Deuteronomy was that book which was either found or written at that time. It’s quite likely that the first steps towards writing several of the books of the Bible—like the editing of the historical books, may have happened in this period. Unfortunately, Josiah died an untimely death in battle, and before too long the Babylonians were at the door.

Sack of Jerusalem

In the year 596 BC, Babylonian armies captured Jerusalem, and took the top 10% of the population into Exile in Babylon. This included the political and religious leaders—basically anybody they thought could start another revolt against them—like the prophet Ezekiel who had been a priest in the Temple. However, Judah did revolt again, and in the year 586, the Babylonians responded to this second revolt by leveling Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. This is one of the most important events in the religious history of the people of Israel. They could easily have joined the large number of groups in the ancient world who arose and then passed away without a trace. Instead of passing away, the exiles in Babylon made the momentous decision to remember who they were, to collect the many various writings that they had brought with them, and to edit and organize them into a coherent set of books. It was at this time that the majority of the books of the Old Testament were put into the form in which we know them.

Ezra’s Books

We know this act of collection occurred at this point in history for certain because of what happens after The Return. The Persian king Cyrus unexpectedly conquered the Babylonians, and one of the things that he did was send home the many people the Babylonians had captured as hostages. Thus in the year 515 BC, the people from Jerusalem, by this time their children and grandchildren, were allowed to return home. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return and of the rebuilding of the Temple which was accompanied by a great public reading of the books of the Law. This is the first time that we hear of something like this—a large public reading of the religious books, probably because this is the first time that these books existed in a definitive and fixed form.

The End of Hebrew

With one exception, this is the point—the years right after the return from Exile—where the books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, end. And I’d say there are two major reasons for this.

First, the books that the Exiles collected, edited, and finished during the Exile and in the years after the return from Babylon clearly communicate to their descendants their vision of what the relationship between God and the people of Israel is. These were the foundational books for how the Second Temple would be run, and how the faith of the Children of Israel would be remembered and taught from that point on. These were not the only books or the only traditions—but these were the ones that they decided gave the shape of the relationship as they understood it and chose to pass it on.

Second, this is also the period where Hebrew stops become the normal spoken language of the people of Israel. While in Babylon, the Exiles began to use Aramaic which was the common and official language of the great empires of the Ancient Near East including Babylon and the Persian Empire that replaced it. When they returned, they didn’t go back to speaking Hebrew, but continued using the Aramaic that they had learned in Babylon. And that’s one of the signs that alerts us that they’re something odd about the last book written that would be included in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Daniel which is set in the days of the Exile is actually from a much later time, the 2nd century BC. One of the ways we know it is because the book starts in Hebrew and then slips into Aramaic between chapters 2 and 7.


 So, to sum up, the Hebrew Bible was, in fact, written by a great cloud of witnesses. From people who told stories around campfires to court scribes who copied histories, to followers writing down the preaching of prophets to editors in exile in Babylon, a whole community of people put together the books we have now, collecting over a thousand years of relationship between the children of Abraham and God. Some major historical events spurred its collecting, the most important being the Exile into Babylon.

The Septuagint

As we turn towards the New Testament, though, we have to pause for a moment, because the first Bible of the Christian Church was not the Hebrew Bible, but rather the Greek translation of it—and that’s important. In a process that probably began in the 3rd century BC and went until the first century BC, the large Jewish community in Egypt began translating the Bible into their own native language, Greek. There are some differences between the Hebrew text and the versions that got translated into Greek, but not a lot; what would be different is the order of the books and the fact that the Greek version would contain some extra books—including some that had originally been written in Greek rather than Hebrew. It’s these extra books, most written in the 2nd and 1st century BC, that make up the Apocrypha, the disputed books like Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letter of Baruch.

The order of the books in the Septuagint is where we get our order of the Old Testament books today. It’s worth noticing that this is a different order than what the modern Jewish community uses. Rabbinic Judaism, just like Christianity, came out of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile of the Jewish people from the province of Judea. When the rabbis sat down to hash out what books they would read in the synagogues, they collected the books into three categories: The Law, the Prophets and the Writings. As a result, their order is a little bit different from ours.

We can see signs of this way of ordering the books, in both the New Testament and, ironically, in some of the books that were in the Septuagint. The New Testament writings will often refer to “The Law and the Prophets” as a shorthand for the Hebrew Bible. The apocryphal book, Wisdom of Sirach has a prologue from its translator that begins like this: “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the Others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom” (Sir prol). Indeed, the Bible is referred to as the Tanak in Judaism because this word is an acronym for the three sections of their canon: the Torah (or the Law), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Kethuvim (the Other Writings). The main surprises for Christian readers is that the books of Chronicles and Daniel are placed in the Other Writings rather than among the Prophets.

Collecting and Selecting the New Testament

The Church Produced the Bible (not the other way around)

Turning to the New Testament, the very first point I have to make is that the Church existed before the New Testament did. The Bible did not produce the Church, the Church produced the Bible. This matters because at the heart of our faith is an organic community that has existed from the time of Jesus and the Apostles down to the present day. Because this community of believers exists, it has the right and the responsibility to determine what its own canon is.

That matters because the reason we even started talking about a canon was because of controversies about what the faith was and wasn’t.

First Focus on the Bible (2nd century): Canon, Creed, & Apostolic Succession

There were two major periods in the early centuries when the Church spent time thinking about what was and wasn’t in the canon of the New Testament, the 2nd and the 4th centuries. The problem in the second century was about what was the content of the apostolic faith. There were a lot of religions and religion-like philosophies in the first century AD. Some of them had no problem pulling in a figure like Jesus and fitting him into their system. The problem here is that they were using him in ways that he would never have intended or approved of! As a result, the church had to begin deciding who they were as a community—what things they did and didn’t believe and what the church had believed and taught from the very beginning.

The solution that they came to involved not just one but three things that worked together and would be known as the three marks of the Church: Canon, Creed, and Apostolic Succession. The Canon was the books that we agreed to read together in church as the Word of God. The Creed was a set of beliefs that would guide our reading and interpretation. Then, knowing that texts and rules can never fully settle human disputes about human problems, Apostolic Succession means that the clergy who guard and teach the faith are part of an unbroken line back to the apostles. On a simple level it means that I know who your teacher was; you had learned from a reputable source. On a mystical level, it means that you had received a share of the Spirit that the apostles received at Pentecost through the laying on of hands. These three things used together could ensure that what churches heard were properly part of what the church had always taught and believed.

The canon, then, was selected following a few basic criteria. First, the writing had to be from the apostolic age, preferably the work of an apostle. Second, many church communities had to agree that a particular writing was useful and taught the apostolic faith. The best way to think about it is that the New Testament was not written as Scripture. Instead, works that the Early Church were reading and using were collected and selected to be Scripture—because those were the ones that best represented what the apostles thought and taught. These were the books that best taught the Church how to recognize and follow Jesus. We have letters from bishops asking other bishops about certain books—is this one you guys have heard of? What do you think of it? This is the way canon formation really happened—identifying what communities found useful.

By the end of the second century, around the year 180, a bishop named Irenaeus of Lyon wrote a book that laid out the teachings of a number of strange and unusual groups that proclaimed that they were Christian,  explained where they got off track, and taught the three marks of the church. He reveals that by this point the core books of the New Testament had already been fixed: the four Gospels and Acts, the Letters of Paul, and several other letters like Peter and the Letters of John.     

Second Focus on the Bible (4th century): Deciding the Edge Cases

It wasn’t until the fourth century with the legalization of Christianity and imperial support that Christians from across the Roman world could gather and discuss what their various communities had been reading and saying. These were largely arguments over edge cases. Some like 2nd and 3rd John, Hebrews, and Revelation were widely accepted and regarded as Scripture. Others like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were not regarded as Scripture. It didn’t mean that these weren’t widely read—because they were—they just weren’t part of the group designated as Scripture. While various church leaders drew up various lists, the first one that we have that contains all of our books in their current order is from St. Athanasius’s festal Easter letter from the year 367. Many of the early ones are very close and are just missing a book or two, or have one or two extra.

Now—there is a conspiracy theory out there (promoted in no small part by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code) suggesting that the Emperor Constantine essentially invented Christianity, including his establishment of the New Testament Canon. Here’s the reality: Yes, Constantine supported Christianity; yes, he was very interested in Christian communities agreeing in order to be a unifying force in the Empire; no, Constantine made none of the decisions. The only thing we have regarding the New Testament, are requests made to Eusebius of Caesaria and Athanasius of Alexandria of volumes of the Scriptures. Eusebius tells us that Constantine ordered (and presumably paid for) 50 copies of the Scriptures which were duly delivered (Eusebius, VC 4.36-7). However, Eusebius probably would have left out James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and probably Revelation as he classes these as “disputed,” with Revelation even getting lumped into the “spurious” pile! (Eusebius, HE 3.25)  

Order of the New Testament

The order of the books of the New Testament that we have follows the chronology of the story being told in the texts, not the order of their writing. Thus, the New Testament opens with the four gospel accounts of Jesus, then goes to Acts, then the letters of Paul (the main character of the second half of Acts), Hebrews which feels like Paul but doesn’t say it’s by him, then the other apostolic letters, and then finally the Book of Revelation which ends the narrative by telling of the end of time.

There are a few surprises tucked in here when we look a little closer. First, it’s significant that the books of Luke and Acts are separated from one another because they were written by the same author and were intended to be read together. Second, one of the things that everything after Acts has in common is that there was apparently a tradition of circulating collections of letters to 7 churches. And we have three of these collections here. Paul’s letters are put in order not chronologically, but in order of length, and together we have letters to 7 churches: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossia, and Thessalonica. (And then also four letters to individuals). Then the Catholic or General Epistles consist of seven letters by James, Peter, John, and Jude. Finally, the Book of Revelation itself begins with letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

If these books were arranged in the order of writing, Paul’s letters would probably be first as he was writing in the 50’s, starting just 20 years after Jesus; the first three Gospels were likely written around the year 70, with both John and Revelation probably finished around the year 100.    

The Canon—Closed & Open

So, the reason we have a canon is to clarify the core books that our organic community of faith has identified as the ones that best communicate our relationship with God and that can bring us into connection with God. On one hand, these are the books that define us. These are the books that the church has chosen to wrestle with through the ages. On the other hand, we also don’t say that these are the only books in whose pages God can be found. The canon doesn’t define or restrict inspiration or revelation. Indeed, an important part of our faith is that God’s inspiration is still an important part of what it means to participate in the community of faith.

As the Early Church discussed its books, it began to make several categories. What ended up as the New Testament were the books that were apostolic in character and widely read throughout all the churches. But they also kept lists of other accepted books, whether or not they were by apostles. There were disputed books that they were on the fence about, and then rejected books—those that did not communicate the faith handed down by the apostles. When you hear sensational stories about lost gospels like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, these fall in the last category. They were lost because they weren’t copied, because the churches did not find them usefully, usually because they were very late creations that had no historical value and were usually gnostic in character. (Gnosticism was a heresy that taught that the material world was bad and was created by an evil god, a teaching condemned in the very first line of our creeds.)

Are there good books, inspired books and revelatory books not found in the New Testament? Of course! And that’s where we get into the writings of the Church Fathers. Teachers like Origen and Augustine and Athanasius wrote books and sermons and treatises that help us understand the Scriptures and the faith. While they’re not in the New Testament, they are part of the teaching that the Church holds as sacred tradition and are well worth reading if you haven’t encountered them.

However, at the end of the day, the canon contains those books that the Church has chosen and treasured from the earliest days. These are the books that most clearly reveal the faith of the Church. These are the only books read in worship that receive the response, “The Word of the Lord.” These are the books we have read together, argued over, disagreed about and incarnated for the past two thousand years—and that will form the Church for, perhaps, thousands to come.