How Protestants Establish the Canon of Scripture

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How Protestants Establish the Canon of Scripture

Postby Paul » Wed Feb 10, 2010 8:42 pm

How do Protestants determine the canon of Scripture? In other words, how do we know what books belong in the Bible? In this post, I will attempt to present the essence of the criteria used, to serve as an introduction for the average Christian on basic principles. (However, from a scholarly viewpoint, there are many factors to be considered in the overall analysis of the issue, with a multitude of details potentially significant. Many authoritative works have been written since the Reformation with comprehensive evaluations on what ancient documents should be included in the canon. Most recently, two popularly referenced resources are The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce, and A General Introduction to the Bible, Part Two, by Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix.)

When the Hebrew people escaped from Egypt, at the base of Mount Sinai the Lord promised to rise up prophets in the manner of Moses to act as his spokesman. Their writings were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, located in the Holy of Holies section of the Tabernacle, to indicate their sacred status. The prophets were verified by their ability to perform signs and wonders and to foretell the future, while having a message consistent with prior Scripture. [See — Deuteronomy 13:1-3; 18:15-22; 31:9, (cf. Joshua 24:26; I Samuel 10:25; II Chronicles 34:14; 35:3). To satisfy the test of predicting the future, the prophet’s gift had to be confirmed in his life time, but once his status was accepted, his writings were regarded as the inspired Word of God, and the more distant events he referenced also were held as truth. In the New Testament, an apostle is the equivalent of a prophet, but with a mission reaching beyond the Jewish community.]

The primary question for determining the canon for succeeding generations is — how can the author of the document be verified as an anointed prophet or apostle, at least for performing miracles and predicting the future. This can be established by — 1. internal evidence of a book; 2. the testimony of other Scripture; 3. the testimony of the Jewish or early Christian community.

Note the Old and New Testaments often use the words thus saith the Lord, or it is written, (Exodus 24:12; II Samuel 23:1-3; II kings 20:1,5; Jeremiah 1:19; 5:14; 7:27; Mark 1:2; Acts 1:20; Romans:17; I Corinthians 1:19), and the Bible represents itself as the Word of God. However, the prophets or apostles may have used secretaries; for example, Baruch for Jeremiah, 36:4, or Tertius for the apostle Paul, Romans 16:22.

Paul affirmed his writings as the Word of God, (I Corinthians 2:12, 13; 14:37; Galatians 1:11-12,) and Peter placed Paul's writings on the level of Scripture, (II Peter 3:15, 16.) Jesus upheld the authority and inerrancy of Scripture in his teachings, (Matthew 5:18; Mark 7:13; Luke 16:31; 24:27; John 10:35) and authenticated in advance the writing of the New Testament, (John 14:26). The testimony of the early Christian community on an apostle’s ability to perform signs and wonders and predict the future is established by reviewing their writings to determine what books were relied on as inspired, comparing which were used by each of the church fathers. (An example of this process is set out in a table of writings in After Jesus: The Triumph of Christianity by the Reader’s Digest at page 160). The testimony of the Jews on which prophets were verified is accepted by Protestants as those upheld by tradition by Jews who were in control of the temple.

Jesus upheld a body of writings as the Word of God, corresponding to Jewish tradition on what is the Hebrew bible (or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). The Talmud indicates the Jewish canon was established under Ezra in the fifth century B.C., at the rebuilding of the temple, according to a three-fold division, which the Jews refer to as Tenakh, an acronym of the Hebrew words designating each section, Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings). The three sections consist of 24 books in the following arrangement — Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (the minor prophets). Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiates, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles.

Jesus refers to the Hebrew canon as having a three fold division, the Law, Prophets, Psalms, Luke 24:44. He also refers to the beginning and end of the Hebrew canon, Matthew 23:35, according to the traditional Jewish arrangement of the books, noting how the Jews killed the prophets from the blood of Abel, Genesis 4:8, to the blood of Zacharias, II Chronciles 24:20-22. In this way Jesus is saying, from the beginning of the bible to the end, as the traditional Jewish arrangement concludes with Chronicles. The last prophet killed chronologically is Urijah, Jeremiah 26:20-23. To this day the Hebrew bible is published in this format of three divisions and 24 books, by the JPS (Jewish Publication Society), which also reflects how the manuscripts were preserved in the Middle Ages by the Massorets, scholars from Tiberias (Jerusalem) and Iraq (Babylon), who set out the text for Jews worldwide. The Jewish historian Josephus notes in Against Apion, 90 A.D., that the succession of prophecy extended from Moses to Malachi, having ceased in the time of Artaxerxes, fifth century B.C. He also reports a closed canon, designating a three-fold, 22 book arrangement, combining Judges and Ruth as one book, as well as Ezra and Esther.

The Apocrypha, (meaning hidden things, a group of books from about 200 B.C. to 100 A.D., sanctioned as canon by the Roman Catholic Church), does not uphold itself as the Word of God. In fact, at I Maccabees 9:27, written around 120-100 B.C., the prior cessation of the prophets is noted. The Apocrypha was never recognized as canon by Jews in control of the temple. There is no evidence of authorship by a prophet either internally, through confirmation by other Scripture, or by the witness of the Jewish community at the time of authorship.

Greek speaking Christians used a translation of the Old Testament made circa 250 B.C., the Septuagint, the Greek word for 70, represented by the symbol LXX, for a large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, and this work contains the Apocrypha. The Letter of Aristeas, dated to around 130-100 B.C., notes that 72 translators came from Jerusalem and worked in isolation for 72 days, creating 72 identical texts. A curse was pronounced on anyone who would dare add to or take away from this text. Thus, from the earliest times, Greek speaking Jews regarded the LXX as having the same status as the original Hebrew, but without using scriptural criteria for its authority. Many Christians in the early centuries of the church also accepted the translation as inspired. Note this quote from Augustine’s City of God.
For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke of these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them... If, then, as it behooves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. ( Book XVIII, Ch. XLIII, as translated by Marcus Dods, D.D., Random House's Modern Library, 1950).

However, it is not even known what constitutes the original text of the LXX, the number of translations or revisions that were involved in its creation, or what Hebrew text was used. The best currently available version is from a late dated manuscript. Because the early Christians used the LXX so much, the Jews denounced it and made a new translation in Greek. They especially did not like the reference to a virgin at Isaiah 7:14, which could be translated young woman.


When a need for a Latin Bible arose in northern Africa, translations appeared based on the LXX, which included the Apocrypha, at times noting a lesser status of inspiration for these books. Anthanasius, a fourth century bishop of Alexandria, upheld the Apocrypha as inspired, in a letter with the first use of the word canon, but noting a lower status, not suitable for doctrine. The regional councils of Hippo and Carthage in the fourth and fifth centuries recognized the Apocrypha as canon without distinction on status, under the influence of Augustine. The council of Rome, 382, also included the Apocrypha, and at this time, Jerome was asked to create a revision of the Latin Bible, which resulted in a new translation known as the Vulgate. It became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, with the Apocrypha included as canon of lower status. In debate with Catholics, Luther questioned the authority of the Apocrypha, which led to Protestants questioning its divine inspiration and its widespread rejection by churches on an official basis by the mid 17th century.

M. Paul Webb
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[Understanding how Protestants establish the canon is particularly important, as it is the basis of why they hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the Bible as Ultimate Authority].
Paul
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