The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books that are recognized as divinely inspired by the Christian church. They are divided into the Old Testament (39 books) and the New Testament (27 books). Collectively these books included law, history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, narratives, biographies, personal letters, and apocalyptic visions. They introduce us to some of the most amazing people who have ever lived: shepherds, farmers, patriarchs, kings, queens, prophets, priests, evangelists, disciples, teachers, and most of all—the most unique person who ever lived—Jesus of Nazareth.
God revealed His Word to ancient Israel over a thousand-year period (c. 1400-400 bc), and then scribes copied the biblical scrolls and manuscripts for more than a millennium after that. The process by which the Old Testament books came to be recognized as the Word of God, and the history of how these books were preserved and handed down through the generations enhances our confidence in the credibility of the Old Testament as inspired Scripture (2 Tim 3:16).
The canon of Scripture refers to the list of books recognized as divinely inspired and authoritative for faith and practice. Our word canon is derived from the Hebrew qaneh and the Greek kanon, meaning a “reed” or a “measuring stick.” The term came to mean the standard by which a written work was measured for inclusion in a certain body of literature. The books of the Bible are not inspired because humans gave them canonical status. Rather, the books were recognized as canonical by humans because they were inspired by God. As Wegner explains, the books of the Old Testament “did not receive their authority because they were placed in the canon; rather they were recognized by the nation of Israel as having divine authority and were therefore included in the canon.”
The order and arrangement of the Hebrew canon is different from that of our English Bibles. The Hebrew canon consists of three major sections, the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Kethuvim). Collectively they are referred to as the Tanak (an acronym built on the first letters of these three divisions—TNK).
|The Hebrew Canon|
|Former Prophets||Latter Prophets|
1 and 2 Samuel
1 and 2 Kings
Minor Prophets (Book of the 12)
Song of Songs
The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, first employed the fourfold division of the Old Testament into Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetical Books, and Prophetic Books that is used in the English Bible. The inclusion of historical books within the prophetic section of the Hebrew canon reflects their authorship by the prophets. Daniel appears in the Writings rather than the Prophets because Daniel was not called to the office of prophet even though he functioned as a prophet from time to time. Chronicles at the end of the canon provides a summary of the entire Old Testament story from Adam to Israel’s return from exile though it was written from a priestly perspective. The word Apocrypha means “hidden books” and was first used with reference to these works by Jerome c. ad 400. The exact meaning of this term when applied to these books is unclear but implies their biblical authority was doubtful. Thus, they are not included in Protestant versions of the Bible.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Commandments God gave him, the people of Israel immediately recognized their divine authority and promised to obey them as the words of the Lord (Exod 24:3-8). The writings of Moses were stored at the central sanctuary because of their special status as inspired Scripture (Exod 25:16, 21; Deut 10:1-2; 31:24-26). In Deut 18:15-22, the Lord promised to raise up a succession of prophets “like Moses” to speak His word for subsequent generations, and the pronouncements of these messengers of God would also be recognized as possessing divine authority.
Jewish tradition affirmed that prophecy ceased in Israel about 400 bc after the ministry of Malachi. First Maccabees 9:27 states, “So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that the prophets ceased to appear among them.” Baruch 85:3 makes a similar claim, and the Jewish Talmud states that the Holy Spirit departed from Israel after the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in the early postexilic period. While some questions remained regarding some of the “writings” that were already included in Scripture (e.g., Esther) even until the Council of Jamnia in ad 90, the evidence suggests that the Hebrew canon was essentially completed and fixed by 300 bc. All of the canonical books of the Old Testament, except for Esther, appear among the copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls (250 bc-ad 70).
Jesus and the apostles accepted the inspiration of the Old Testament Scriptures and often referred to or quoted them as authoritative. According to Jesus, the words written by the human authors of Scripture were the “command of God” and “God’s word” (Mark 7:8-13; cf. Matt 19:4-5). As God’s Word every part of the Old Testament would be accomplished and fulfilled (Matt 5:17-18; 26:54, 56; Luke 24:27, 44; John 7:38), and nothing it predicted could be voided or annulled (Luke 16:17; John 10:35). Jesus described the Old Testament canon as extending from Genesis to Chronicles when speaking of the murders of Abel and the prophet Zechariah in Matt 23:34-35 and Luke 11:49-51 (cf. Gen 4:8 and 2 Chr 24:20-22).
Though the earliest parts of the Old Testament were written about 1400 bc, the earliest existing Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament are the more than 200 biblical manuscripts found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from roughly 250 bc to ad 70. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament dated 800-1000 years after the time of Christ. The earliest complete copy of the Old Testament is Codex Leningrad, dating to near ad 1000.
Despite these significant chronological gaps between the original manuscripts and the earliest documents, one can have confidence that the original message of the Hebrew Bible was faithfully preserved throughout its long and complicated transmission process.
Scribal practices in the ancient Near East demonstrate the care and precision taken by members of that craft in copying important political and religious texts. Israelite scribes who had a special reverence for the Scriptures as the Word of God were careful when copying the biblical manuscripts.
As the earliest existing Hebrew manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls are an important witness to the textual integrity of the OT. Many of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran reflect a text that closely resembles the later Masoretic Text (MT), the textual tradition represented in the Hebrew Bible today. The close similarity of the Isaiah Scroll (1QIsab) found at Qumran to later Masoretic manuscripts of Isaiah reflects how carefully the scribes copied the text.
After the close of the OT canon (c. 300 bc) and the standardization of the Hebrew text (first century ad), meticulous and careful scribal practices ensured that the received text of the OT was handed down unchanged. A special group of scribes called the Masoretes (ad 500-1000) played a vital role in the transmission and preservation of the OT text. The Masoretes also meticulously counted the letters, words, and verses in the text. For example, the final Masorah at the end of Deuteronomy notes that there are 400,945 letters and 97,856 words in the Torah and that the middle word in the Torah is found in Leviticus 10:16.
The study of textual criticism is the science that enables scholars to determine and establish the wording of the original text. The number of textual variants due to handwritten mistakes that affect the meaning of the text are relatively few, and none of these variants change any major OT teaching or Christian doctrine. Rather than undermining a person’s confidence in the Scriptures, the textual criticism and transmission history of the Bible enables everyone to see how accurately the Bible today reflects what God originally communicated to His people in His Word. By contrast, no other documents from the ancient world were as accurately copied, preserved, and transmitted as the Old Testament Scriptures.
The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books that were written from about ad 45 to approximately ad 100. Some authors penned their books, while other authors dictated the contents of a letter or narrative to an assistant (i.e., a scribe). This assistant wrote down what was spoken, and the author checked the document for accuracy. Apparently, Paul handwrote some of his first letters (Gal 6:11), but his later letters, which were dictated, ended with his handwritten salutation to authenticate them (2 Thess 3:17; Col 4:18; also see 1 Pet 4:12). The books of the New Testament were written on leather scrolls and papyrus sheets. These books included the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Letters, the General Epistles, and the Revelation (or Apocalypse).
These books were circulated independently at first, not as a collection. Itinerant preachers such as the apostle Matthew may have stayed in the homes of rich believers who had libraries and servants to be their personal scribes. Matthew may have allowed a scribe to copy his Gospel. Hence, the Gospel of Matthew was circulated widely as he traveled from church to church. Paul instructed that some of his letters be circulated (Col 4:16). We do not know if the actual letter (called an “autograph”) was circulated to various churches or if copies were made by scribes to be circulated. Regardless, copies were eventually gathered into collections (apparently there were collections of Paul’s letters, see 2 Pet 3:16). They were copied into codices which are similar to modern-day books, with the pages sewn together on one side to form a binding. In this form the documents were easier to read. Leather and scrolls were harder to use because the entire book had to be unrolled to find a passage. Also, papyrus sheets cracked if rolled into a scroll; hence, the flat papyrus pages were sewn into a book. The codex collection was called in Latin Ta Bibla, the words we use to designate our Bible.
The New Testament books were written in Greek that was different from the classical Greek of the philosophers. Archaeological excavations have uncovered thousands of parchments of “common language Greek,” verifying that God chose the language of common people (Koine Greek) to communicate His revelation. God chose an expressive language to communicate the minute colors and interpretations of His doctrine. Still others feel God prepared Greeks with their intricate language, allowed them to conquer the world, used them to institute their tongue as the universal “trade language,” then inspired men of God to write the New Testament in common Greek for the common people who attended the newly formed churches. This made the Word of God immediately accessible to everyone.
The original manuscripts, called “autographs,” of the books of the Bible, were lost, mostly during the persecution of the early church. Roman emperors felt that if they could destroy the church’s literature, they could eliminate Christianity. Others were lost due to wear and tear. The fact that some early churches did not keep these autographs but made copies and used them demonstrates that they were more concerned with the message than the vehicle of the message. God in His wisdom allowed the autographs to vanish. Like the relics from the Holy Land, they would have been venerated and worshipped. Surely bibliolatry (worship of the Bible) would have replaced worship of God.
While some may have difficulty with the idea of not having an original manuscript, scholars who work with the nonbiblical documents of antiquities likewise do not have access to those originals. When considering the manuscript evidence, it should be remembered there are close to 5,000 Greek manuscripts and an additional 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. This does not include 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate and more than 1,000 copies of other early versions of the Bible. These figures take on even more significance when compared to statistics of other early writings.
Some writers have supposed that Christians didn’t discuss a canon for New Testament books until a few centuries after the life of Jesus. However, because of the presence of the heretic Marcion (died c. 160), this is unlikely. Marcion was a bishop in the church who had a negative view about the God presented in the Old Testament. He rejected the Old Testament and had a severely shortened New Testament canon, consisting of only the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. However, even these were edited to remove as much Jewish influence as possible. The church excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings and canon.
Another heretical movement, Gnosticism, developed in the second century. In general this group believed that salvation was found in attaining “special knowledge.” The Gnostics had their own set of writings defending their beliefs and practices. Included in their writings are false Gospels (for example, the Gospel of Thomas). The Gnostics and Marcion raised the question as to which books were genuine and authoritative for Christians. Metzger concludes: “All in all, the role played by Gnostics in the development of the canon was chiefly that of provoking a reaction among members of the Great Church so as to ascertain still more clearly which books and epistles conveyed the true teaching of the Gospels.”
The process in which the canon was formed is rather complicated. However, some offer the following three tests for a book to be considered part of the canon: (1) apostolicity; (2) rule of faith; and (3) consensus.
The test of apostolicity means that a book must be written by an apostle or one connected to an apostle. When applied to the New Testament, most books automatically meet this requirement (those written by Matthew, John, Paul, and Peter). Mark and Luke were both associates of Paul. James was a half brother of Jesus, and Jude is either an apostle or the half brother of Jesus. The only book that has much difficulty with this criterion is Hebrews. Many in the early church believed Paul wrote Hebrews, but many New Testament scholars today suggest it was written by Luke. If we don’t know who wrote it, how can we connect it to the canon? Hebrews 13:23a says, “Be aware that our brother Timothy has been released.” Whoever the author of Hebrews was, this reference places him within the Pauline circle.
The rule of faith refers to the conformity between the book and orthodoxy. Orthodoxy refers to “right doctrine.” Therefore, the document had to be consistent with Christian truth as the standard that was recognized throughout Christian churches (e.g., in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, etc.). If a document supported heretical teachings, then it was rejected.
Finally, consensus refers to the widespread and continuous use of a document by the churches. At first there was not complete agreement—not because a particular book was questioned, but not all books were universally known. However, the books that were included had widespread acceptance. Because the Holy Spirit breathed His life into a book by the process of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16), then the Holy Spirit that indwelt individual believers (1 Cor 6:19-20), and the Holy Spirit that indwelt churches (1 Cor 3:16), gave a unified consensus that a book was authoritative from God.
Applying these criteria to the books contained within the New Testament, and those that were left out, shows the consistency of the canon as it was handed down. Some “Gospels” have been found in recent years and have raised quite a stir, for example, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. Why aren’t these “Gospels” considered authoritative for Christians? First, these Gospels cannot be definitively linked to apostles, even though apostles are named in the titles. Second, some heretical teachings in each document contradict the teachings of Scripture. Third, neither of these documents was used either universally or continuously by the church. Therefore, they each fail at all three criteria.
The New Testament that Christians use today has a long, rich history. The original copies were written almost 2,000 years ago and were copied for over 1,000 years by hand. All the books in the New Testament can be connected to an apostle, have content consistent with sound doctrine, and were used widely throughout the church. The New Testament was translated into many languages early in church history. Wycliffe and Tyndale were early translators of the Bible into English, culminating in the King James Version and many contemporary versions that now exist for the edification of the body of Christ.
Altogether the Old and New Testament manuscripts, copies, and translations have stood the test of time. The Bible is God’s Book, written to reveal Him and His message of salvation. God has preserved His Word over the centuries to speak to our hearts today. As you read the Bible, let Him speak to you. His words will challenge your thinking, stretch your faith, inform your mind, bless your heart, and stir your soul.
For Further Reading
Beckwith, Roger. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church: And Its Background in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988.
Geisler, Norman, and W. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Merrill, Eugene H. “The Canonicity of the Old Testament.” In The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: B&H, 2011.
Rooker, Mark F. “The Transmission and Textual Criticism of the Bible.” In The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: B&H, 2011.
Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.