The English word ‘canon’ is derived from a Greek word meaning standard or measuring rod. The canon of scripture is the sixty-six books which are inspired by the Holy Spirit and present the truth of God. The canon is a short way of saying ‘all the books which belong in the Bible’.
But how did the sixty-six books come to be recognized as God’s word? Why these sixty-six? Why not sixty-five or sixty-seven? Why not 600?
The concept of a canon starts with Moses, who wrote the first five books of the Bible, and placed them beside the ark of the covenant. They were a permanent witness of God’s standards, Deut. 31. 24-26. Thus, the first canon consisted of five books.
Joshua added to Moses, Josh. 24. 26, growing the canon to six. Over time, more writings were added1
Whenever a prophet, poet or historian wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his writings were included in the Hebrew canon. This continued until the writing of the 39th book, Malachi, around 400BC.
Subsequently, many notable literary works were produced, but they were not divinely inspired like the thirty-nine. We call these extra books the Apocrypha. In Roman Catholic Bibles, they are included between the two Testaments, but we do not include them in our Bible.
Although we do not know all the details of how authentic writings were identified, and spurious writings were disregarded, we believe the Holy Spirit overruled in the process. By the time of Christ, all the Jews agreed on the Hebrew canon. The Lord Jesus had many arguments with Jewish religious leaders, but one thing they never disputed was the canon. The Jews recognized these writings, and these writings only, as the word of God.
Even while the New Testament was being written, other people were compiling the sayings of Jesus and writing ‘Christian’ epistles. Paul signed his correspondence with his own hand, knowing that fake letters were circulating, Col. 4. 18, 2 Thess. 2. 2.
In the three centuries after the resurrection, there were many such writings. How did the early Christians know which should be included in the Bible?
While the apostles and their associates were still alive, Christians began copying and collecting their works, aware that these communications were divinely inspired. From the moment they were received, Christians understood that such writings were the word of God.
The Holy Spirit guided the church in recognizing those books which were from Him and being discerning about those which were not. Jesus had promised the disciples that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, John 16. 13. As more and more copies of true scripture were made, and as non-inspired works were also being circulated, the early Christians diligently checked their sources to confirm that a communication really was from a Spirit-inspired author. Those which were not were never accepted by the church as a whole.
Over time, more and more Christians had the same collection of books, which were recognized as genuine. In AD 367, Athanasius compiled a list of the twenty-seven books we have today. Athanasius did not choose which books he liked, and which he didn’t. He simply listed those books which the church already identified as genuine. These books had been accepted as scripture for 300 years. The formation of the canon is not so much the idea that the Church had to decide which books were inspired and which were not. Rather, it was simply the bringing together into one place all the books which the church had always known to be inspired.
Today, when we read the Bible, we find it speaks to us with the authority of God. If you read the Old Testament apocrypha, or some of the writings which the early Christians rejected (sometimes called the New Testament apocrypha, or Gnostic writings) you will find that though they may be interesting, God will not speak to you through them. For nearly 2,000 years, God has been speaking to Christians through just sixty-six books. Perhaps this is the most powerful testimony of all to the fact that these sixty-six books, and these alone, are the inspired word of God.
As an example of a Gnostic writing which was rejected, consider The Gospel of Thomas verse 114, 'Simon Peter says to them: Let Mary depart from among us, for women are not worthy of life. Jesus says: Behold, I myself shall inspire her so that I make her male, in order that she also shall become a living spirit like you males. For every female who becomes male, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven'.
God has preserved and protected His word down through the centuries. We should ‘have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths’, 1 Tim. 4. 7, ESV, but ‘hold fast the pattern of sound words’ which we have received, 2 Tim. 1. 13.