From: Defending Biblical Inerrancy Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2016
Can We Know the True Canon?
The issue of canonicity—whether a book really belongs in the Bible—is a distinct one from that of the nature of inspiration. If we decide that the evidence for the canonicity of one or another Biblical book is inadequate, that would not free us from respecting the authority of the rest. In addition, any book that might lack adequate evidence might still be accepted as accurate and truthful for inspiration is not the prerequisite of either of these. Qualitatively, inspiration goes far beyond both.
Inspiration is only the prerequisite for that given by God through His inspired spokespeople to guide, instruct, and inform the human race. Otherwise mankind has always been free to right on any and all topics—religious and non-religious. Non-Biblical histories could never have been written unless this were the case. Including those I’ve published on a variety of subjects.
In my Concise Handbook on Biblical Inspiration, we examine the evidence for inspiration of our current Bible and find most books well attested. Hence, automatic canonicity for those volumes—unless we think God would simultaneously make a work authoritative but that, if He assured its preservation, that authoritativeness would somehow disappear?
That He would permit documents that duplicate the teaching of other inspired works to disappear on the grounds of non-essentiality—since we have the same doctrines and claims in preserved works—that we can “get our mind around.” It makes inherent sense whether one agrees it actually happened or not. (One could argue that all inspired writings, for example, were preserved.) But to say that the same book could be both written under Divine oversight and somehow not canonical if we have it, I confess I have no idea of how to erect even a theoretical defense of such a concept.
Admitted some of the evidence is not as clear cut for some Biblical portions as for others. We find that routinely in evaluating the credibility of secular history as well so the element of variability doesn’t come as a surprise when dealing with Divine revelation either. We’ve seen earthly precedent for it.
It can not be overstressed that the semibeliever’s objections are not limited to the less explicit cases. They feel free to reject even those with the most explicit assertions.
For example, the claim of various New Testament books to have been written by apostles is often rejected on the grounds that the individual books do not measure up to what they think the attributed authors would really have said. This mind frame feeds upon itself; in extreme cases it produces fraudulent authorship claims for most of the New Testament!
John A. T. Robinson (whose personal theology can’t possibly be dismissed as ultraconservative) cites the circular reasoning of M. Rist. Rist believed that pseudonymous authorship must have been common in the early church since, said he, perhaps two-thirds of the New Testament records and epistles are of that kind: “This alone shows the influence of pseudipigraphy in the early church” (quoted by 10-186). Robinson immediately comments, “If you believe it is everywhere, you cease to have to argue for it anywhere” (10-186).
It would not be an injustice to say that among the hostile critics, it is held by a major minority that fraudulent claims of authorship are the norm and a truthful claim as to authorship the exception. Not just in the Old Testament—where such attitudes are epidemic—but in regard to the New Testament as well. At least in regard to the latter, the more restricted time frame restricts the amount of composite authorship and later re-editings and expansions by later generations that they believe “occurred.”
So it is not just a matter of whether there is evidence for inspiration—and, hence, canonicity—but of the rejection of the most clear cut and emphatic assertions as well. You and I would likely confess a “bias toward belief” (we’d prefer to believe); these liberal scholars, while claiming detachment, too often manifest the most brazen “bias against belief.” We admit our preferences; they prefer to hide theirs behind a mask of (often pseudo-) scholarship as if personal preference played no role while without it they would never have reached the conclusions they did.
Perhaps I am being a shade too harsh, allowing annoyance at the extremists to “rub off” on others not as deeply caught in the mire of unbelief. But for many of them the bias is the fundamental principle and the scholarship the excuse for the bias. Let us guard against the same excess for it is just as wrong for us to play games with the text as it is for them. Let the text say what it says and mean what it says.
I. Old Testament Canon
Through the years, several major theories have been introduced to explain what constitutes the canon of the Old Testament on a basis independent of revelation. In other words, repeated efforts have been made to explain on a purely naturalistic basis why certain books were accepted as part of the canon and others were rejected.
Even those committed to a very profound concept of Biblical inspiration have been known to speak in terms of these approaches. After all, some of them probably did play a major secondary or reinforcing role in the process. Inspiration established the right to canonicity; however that still required the general acceptance of those books before they could be recognized as belonging together in one volume because they shared that characteristic in common.
And before the codex [book] form united them in one volume, there still needed to be a general consensus of what works every one should recognize as authoritative and inspired. (Since the components circulated independently of each other at first in separate scrolls.) In other words they were trying to establish a new physical context, but respectfully recognize what already existed as well—the inspiration of all the contents.
Even so it is useful for us to be informed as to the various factors that were involved in establishing this consensus among later readers. Just as it is also desirable to be aware of their limitations as well. Some of them overlap and are not rigidly distinct from the others. At the end we will return to what this author regards as the decisive standard—inspiration.
A. The Age Equals Canonicity Theory
J. G. Eichorn (1780) spoke in terms of Malachi being the cut off date for canonicity; for acceptance, a book had to have been composed at an earlier date. As far as it goes, this is an adequate test. Or, more properly, establishes an effective cut-off date, after which additions were not recognized.
Certainly the Jews themselves recognized that Malachi was the terminal point for Old Testament revelation. Josephus wrote in this vein, “It is true our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time” (quoted by 11-169).
The Talmud speaks in
even clearer language, “After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and
Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from
Although the casting of Malachi as terminal point for canonicity is quite valid, this still leaves unanswered the question of why certain books written long before Malachi were omitted? Some may well be different names for Biblical books: see our Concise Handbook on Biblical Inspiration for examples.
Yet all such books? Hardly likely! And we refer not just to books whose names are preserved but those whose names have been lost but surely existed as well: they had a literate class, after all. Just as many of the books since printing was invented have vanished, surely many of theirs did as well, having been preserved in only a few copies or less.
Having the “right age” of antiquity did not assure their preservation or their religious reverence. Age without perceived inspiration of the book would account for such volumes, even when still existing, being ignored when deciding what to be used as authoritative. Also it would explain a major reason for their non-preservation: unless they were regarded as composed under Divine superintendence, why bother with the copying except in unusual cases?
Indeed, even the
Talmud quotation above shows this to have been the key factor: “After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah,
and Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from
Were there others who claimed to be such? (That’s rather like asking whether there are folk who delude themselves into believing they are such today!) But claiming was clearly not enough.
To make sense of their rejection, more must have been involved than just someone claiming authority or inspiration: one could responsibly speculate that there had to be enough clear-cut evidence to force acceptance of their claim—not to mention their message being consistent with what had already been revealed. Post-Malachi writers were unable to claim to be prophets either because they did nothing convincing to establish it or because there was a disconnect (contradiction) between what they said and earlier prophets said.
That makes sense, but the full picture may well envolve something far beyond this as well: the teaching found in Malachi 3:1-4 where a Divine messenger is predicted. Interpreted in the New Testament as a messenger preparing the way for the Messiah (Mark 1:2-4), if this was a common Jewish understanding of Malachi 3—and the New Testament use of it in this manner would effectively argue it would have been regarded as a responsible usage by at least a significant percentage of Jews (why introduce it otherwise?)--this would explain the refusal to accept any additional prophets: Only one more was to come . . . the one to pave the way for the Messiah Himself. Him and no one else.
B. The Hebrew Language Equals Canonicity Theory
As a generalization based upon the canon as we now have it, this is a highly appealing thesis. As Sir Godfrey Driver wrote in an introductory essay an edition of the New English Bible, “The whole Old Testament is written in classical Hebrew, except some brief portions which are in the Aramaic language (Ezra 4.8–6.18 and 7.12–26, Jeremiah 10.11, Daniel 2.4–7.28), a sister language which became the lingua franca of the Semitic world.”
Though the segments in Ezra and Daniel are short, they are several chapters long—insignificant in comparison to the total length of the Old Testament, but more impressive than the presence of a few verses would be. But it is certainly enough to prove that the use of Aramaic was not an absolute test to determine exclusion.
In all fairness, however, the Aramaic is included in a book that is otherwise Hebrew. There is no purely Aramaic book in the traditional Jewish canon.
Once again we encounter a partial explanation. It suggests a reason for inclusion being that the work was wholly or greatly in Hebrew. But Hebrew alone doesn’t cover the situation entirely. Ecclesiasticus, 1 Maccabees, and Tobit were written in Hebrew but did not find acceptance in the traditional Jewish canon. Hebrew language without perceived inspiration would account for this.
C. The Jamnia Council Theory
After the destruction of
Those who insist that
it was a formalized regional (or more) “institutional” meeting with this issue
specifically in mind are working from the Council of
First, for the Modernists and their semibeliever compatriots who can undermine the reliability and credibility of those works by encouraging uncertainty about their status until the latest possible date. The earlier it was established, the less likely their fantasies about priestly dishonesty in revising, rewriting, and inventing the Torah and other Old Testament works had time to carry out their nefarious work.
Second, it works to help the Roman Catholic stance on the canon, which allows additional Old Testament books into it. If an institutional meeting of leading spiritual lights of Judaism had the “authority” to “establish” the canon—rather than merely embrace as reliable the existing one—then their own attempt to do so in Medieval meetings has a precedent that, suitably “massaged,” can be usefully introduced.
Laying these aspects to one side, we can organize our discussion around two basic facts:
(1) If the canon were an unsettled issue in the early first century one would have expected it to emerge as an issue in Jesus’ ministry. It did not; therefore the canon was (at least generally) regarded as fixed.
We know that the Jews divided the Old Testament into three broad categories: The Law (Torah/Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets, and the Writings. Also described by an unknown percentage as Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44). To be accepted as authoritative and inspired in origin, a claim had to come from one of those sources—the ones that constitute our modern Old Testament. Jesus embraced that three-fold division and by doing so seems to have inescapably embraced the then accepted definition of what books belonged (or did not belong) within them. In other words, He accepted an already existing canon.
As Luke 24:44 records it, “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I saw still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ ” “Must be fulfilled” carries the clear-cut implication that the original texts were inspired for otherwise how could they be “fulfilled” much less “must be?” (For more of Jesus’ beliefs on the Old Testament see “The Testimony of Jesus as the Criterion of Canonicity’ further below.)
If Jamnia simply reaffirmed what already existed, its acceptance of that canon would hardly be surprising. It would, at most, simply prove that the terrible turmoils of the first century which had eliminated so many “certainties” of Jewish Palestinian life, had also caused some to question the validity of parts of their canon as well. As I enter the last ten percent of my life, it fascinates me that the nature of Biblical inspiration should again be a point of contention even among religious conservatives—it brings back memories of the 60s and 70s! Just as we re-examine earlier issues ever so often, would it be all that surprising if they did as well?
It is known that the Samaritans only embraced the Torah as
their canon. But it is also recognized
that their theology required this: their
temple was simply not in the right place (
It is commonly affirmed (including by
myself) that the Sadducees had a limited canon of just the Torah as well. Since they dominated the priesthood—at least
It would also explain why Jesus answered the way He did their rhetorical question about who a woman would be wife to in the resurrection when she had been married to seven brothers . . . since each had died without having children, she became a wife, in turn, of each brother until they all died (Matthew 22:23-24). He responded:
29 But Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: 32 `I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
When He wants to give proof of the resurrection from “the Scriptures,” He does not go to various proof texts that would enter the mind of most of us. He makes a “present tense” argument from the Torah: “I am the God of. . . .” Do any of us believe that that is the strongest Old Testament argument He could have made?
Valid, certainly. But the strongest? But it would likely be the strongest from the Torah itself. (I’m certainly willing to listen to alternatives). If it was the strongest, when it is not an “obvious” proof text, would that not argue it was the strongest available from the books which the Sadducees themselves would acknowledge as authoritative / canonical?
Though the Sadducees
were important because of their religio-political
Aside: At least as far back as at least Origen, Josephus’ remark, “[They] admit no observance at all apart from the laws” (Antiquities 18:16) has been read as making the Torah versus Prophets and Writings distinction just discussed. Some, however, insist that what was being rejected was not the remainder of the Old Testament as we know it but the unwritten traditions that were embraced by such as the Pharisees.
Antiquities 13:297 has been quoted in defense of this, “[The Sadducees] hold that only written laws should be reckoned valid but that those handed down by tradition from the fathers need not be observed.” (Both quotes from 61, who embraces this approach.)
What was rejected, we are told (61), were the Pharisees’ glosses on various beliefs (Acts 23:7-8): “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit.” It wasn’t that they rejected the existence of angels, just the Pharisees’ particular glosses on those subjects. In particular, it was probably a matter of the latter’s “belief in an elaborate system of angelic hierarchy.”
As to in what sense the existence of “spirits” was denied he does not touch upon. If demonic “spirits” are in mind, one could easily imagine similar theories accepted as obligatory when they were only speculative at the most—especially when we know that they definitely believed in the reality of such entities (Matthew 12:27).
As to the coming physical resurrection “some popular views of the resurrection [were being denied] – such as one woman would have seven husbands in the next life. Therefore their denial is not of the resurrection as much as elaborate concepts that arose concerning the resurrection” (61).
Oddly Luke in Acts 23:7-8 presents all these denials in absolutist terms—not as if they were rejecting some “denominational” spin on the terms but the fundamental concepts themselves. Furthermore our readers can consult the Matthew 22:23-33 text in its entirety and ask: how else could Jesus’ contemporaries have taken the argument except as one over whether physical resurrection can happen at all?
To those directly involved in such an extremely rare re-marriage situation, the issue would have been of concern on its own merits. But to the vast bulk of the population, the question would only have relevance as a “proof” that no physical resurrection will ever occur. Hence, in our judgment, this approach falls extremely short of anything but one of those “curiosities of interpretation” that we come across in our reading.
(2) There is no certainty that this was a “Council” in the latter Catholic sense.
(A) Because we impose the name Council on it—with all the overtones it now has due to later church history--does not prove it was of such a nature. There is a world of difference between these and an informal or even a formal enclave that views itself far more as “lookers for truth” than as having some inherit authoritative, synagogue-binding power. This is not to deny that as they reached a consensus on what they considered the canon to be, they would naturally share it with their own synagogue and whoever else was interested. But there is still a profound difference between these two types of “Councils.”
(B) Edward J. Young (12-160) and others point out that the available evidence suggests that the disputation was basically negative in nature, i.e., whether to exclude certain books that were being challenged. In particular Esther, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon were the books singled out. Even today the latent sensuality of the Song of Solomon “spooks” some; would it have been so different back then? Would God have inspired such a book or, if inspired, wanted it counted in that special rank of “books to be in the Book”?
Esther has its oddity—the name of God isn’t mentioned even once. A God centered book without the mention of God? While Proverbs has its own pungent “rapid fire” “teaching by adage” methodology that also puts it in a special class. (In our case we are probably more congenial, due to cultural influences, to this teaching form.)
Ecclesiastes is seeped in cynicism that some still find hard to handle. As a many decades long student of politics, it strikes me as a magnificent analysis by an aging monarch of the failures inherent in any political system. But that very cynicism that seems to be startlingly realistic to me, turns many others to prefer an arm’s length relationship—it simply isn’t “their” kind of book.
So we can see why these might well raise questioning eyebrows back then just, as in their own way, they often still do even among those who accept their canonicity. They are just so—well, different. They are odd.
But this is a 180 degrees opposite of debating what to include. They seem to already have had an existing consensus on that matter. Hence it seems that even before the Council occurred, a broad general agreement existed as to what constituted the canon and what they had to be concerned with were those few books to which objection had been raised in some quarters. (We have much the same situation in regard to determining what is canonical in the New Testament—a broad core to which there were few if any dissenters outside those normally considered then and now as agenda driven self-centered “heretics.”)
(C) If, despite these indications, this was anything close to a formal Council—in the later Catholic ecclesiastical use of the term—it was unique in Jewish history. Both at Jamnia and earlier,
There is no evidence of an appeal to such a council to establish the canonicity of a book. When the rabbis of Jamnia considered Ecclesiastes, they appealed to the decisions of previous rabbis, not to a council.
Indeed, there are no references to any such council in pre-Christian Jewish history or in the Bible itself. The closest approach is the appeal to the tradition of the men of the Great Synagogue found in the tractate, Pike Aboth. But here the reference is not to a council but to a great generation of rabbis who followed Ezra.
And the argument of Pike Aboth (“Sayings of the Fathers”) is that the chain of tradition goes back without a break through the rabbis, through the men of the Great Synagogue, through Ezra and previous rabbis, back through the seventy elders who assisted Moses and to Moses himself, to whom God spoke on Sinai. The ultimate in the tradition is not a council, but a man to whom God spoke—a prophet (11-155f).
D. The Ezra “Canonization” of the Mosaical Law?
This approach has gained surprising acceptance from both Biblical conservatives and religious liberals and it seems appropriate to spend some additional time on the matter beyond what I had originally planned. The liberal form of the approach is the one that manages to “explain” an idea—canonization—while effectively portraying the Jewish religious establishment (and implicitly Ezra and Nehemiah) as willing to tell the most outrageous lies in order to have their preferred invented and rewritten religious works accepted as authoritative by the Jewish nation.
They completed the writing of the Law—well, no, they began the final writing of the Law, with the bulk of the rest not yet ready to be added. Here is how one semibeliever from the early 20th century put what people like us would call outrageous religious fraud but which people like him—then and today—would call outstanding Biblical scholarship.
His name was Charles Foster Kent and he
did, indeed, produce much useful material—if one takes time to salvage the
usable from his brazen acceptance of supposed Jewish deceit. (It’s called separating the wheat from the
chaff.) He was no less than Woolsey
Professor of Biblical Literature at
next great stage in the canonization of the law is recorded in Nehemiah 10. . .
. The new law thus adopted was evidently
the one gradually developed and finally formulated by the Jewish priests in
set completely aside the Deuteronomic lawbook and the primitive decalogue of Exodus 20, already in force among the
The history of the canonization of the next group, known as the Prophets, is very obscurely recorded, and this largely because it reached its culmination in the Greek period, concerning which we have only the most meagre information. . . .
The order of the book and the probabilities of the situation suggest that the Former Prophets, since they were the immediate sequel of the prophetic histories of the Pentateuch, and recorded the deeds of such heroes as David, Solomon, and Isaiah, were added first. That they also bear the marks of late priestly revision, is direct evidence of the esteem in which they were held by the late priestly school that completed the canon of the Law. [Prophets as endearing themselves to the priestly religious establishment so much that they cherished their works? Is this really compatible with the way they are described--at least much of the time--in the prophets? RW] . . .
It is manifest, therefore, how strong was the tendency, even in priestly circles, to add the Prophets to the Law. . . . It is also significant that in the prologue to the Greek version of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus (132 B.C.) the translator refers repeatedly—as though they were then regarded as of equal authority—to the Law and the Prophets and the rest of the books, or to the other books of the fathers. . . . The reference to the rest of the books in the prologue to Ben Sira indicates that even before 130 B.C. certain other writings had been joined to the canon of the Law.
The last collection, which includes eleven books known as the Hagiographa or Sacred Writings, constitutes the third general division of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a heterogeneous group of histories, prophecies, stories, and wisdom books. Some, like the Psalter, were, as we have seen, probably canonized as early as the Prophets; although the final canon of the Old Testament was not closed until 100 A.D.
We quote him at this length not only because it represents one popular approach to the alleged canonization under Ezra but because it would be useful for our readers to grasp the broad outline of how what we are dealing with is not just one isolated challenge to the origin of a single Biblical book or two: As these folks tell it, virtually the entire package is rooted in repeated religious fraud. What we are dealing with here is a broad systematic assault on even the basic moral integrity of those who wrote the text of the Old Testament. Charlatans and frauds were what they actually were.
Aside: Since Jews were regarded as the embodiment of virtually every evil in the 19th century when this foolishness was born—and even into the early decades of the twentieth—would we be far wrong in attributing this “reconstruction” to the rampant Jew hatred that is called anti-Semitism? Isn’t it the kind of brazen dishonesty such folks expected Jews to engage in?
Those who take the Bible far more seriously than above, have been known to also find a significant appeal in the events recorded in Ezra/Nehemiah. Also writing near the beginning of the twentieth century, William Evans, for instance, stressed that, “About fifty years after the temple was rebuilt Ezra made a collection of the sacred writings (Nehemiah 8:2, 3, 14). To this collection were added the writings of Nehemiah, Malachi, and Ezra. It is a fact of history that Nehemiah gathered the ‘Acts of the Kings and the Prophets, and those of David,’ when founding a library for the second temple, 432 B.C. (See 2 Maccabees ).” (55) (We will return to the 2 Maccabees text a little later in our discussion.)
We find a considerable problem with the claim that there is direct scriptural substantiation that “Ezra made a collection of the sacred writings” in the three Nehemiah texts that he cites but wisely avoids quoting:
Nehemiah 8:2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.
Nehemiah 8:3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
8:14 And they found written in the Law, which
the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of
It does not take more than a casual glance at the text to realize that all that is under consideration is the Law of Moses and not the other two sections of the Old Testament--the Writings and the Prophets.
Furthermore, we certainly find in chapters 8-10 good evidence for the acceptance as authoritative of the five books of Moses. What we do not find here is any evidence that this acceptance originated at this point. Indeed, the description of the material as the law of Moses argues that it was perceived as having long been in existence since he had lived long before them. Why even bring up such a work from the past unless they recognized that it continued to be authoritative? Hence we have a case of recommitment, not creation.
And, of course, there is not the slightest iota of a hint that this is anything less than the complete Torah as we now have it. There is no hint here—and massive ethical argument against it—that such a volume had been or ever was in the future modified or rewritten. For one thing could even the priests be “kept in line” for such a conspiracy?
It can not be overstressed that this document was labeled a product of Moses repeatedly in chapters 8-10:
Nehemiah 8:1 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel.
Nehemiah 8:14 And they found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month,
Nehemiah 9:13 You came down also on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. [Can we separate the Sinai tradition from who was on Sinai, Moses?]
Nehemiah 9:14 You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, and commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, by the hand of Moses Your servant.
Nehemiah 10:29 These joined with their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes.
Edward J. Young properly summarizes such evidences with the observation,
The Law is here regarded not as something new but as something very old, so old in fact that it was believed to have been revealed by God through Moses. And herein lay its authority and effectiveness. The people did not say, “We now pronounce the writings to be authoritative.” They said, [in effect,] “These writings received their authority centuries ago when God made them known to Moses. For that reason we must obey them” [12-161].
The above approach basically views what happened as a renewal of the Sinai covenant or, if you prefer, a public re-embracing of the Sinai covenant that had so often been neglected or repudiated in Israelite history. Their sinful past was quite obvious grounds for carrying out such an action.
On the other hand, there may have been a supplemental reason. Although it is speculation—wasn’t so much of above that is presented as “fact” also such?—it still deserves analysis: We might also be seeing the public presentation of the restored canonical text rather than the actual canonization. (Even this suffers from the difficulty of including far more than just the Mosaical Law, which is all that is referred to in the text . . . though one must admit that the scenario might far more easily work if confined to that one segment of the Old Testament.)
Rusty Russell has written (56):
believe that, as these books were written, beginning with Moses, they were, at
the time, recognized as Inspired of God, and placed in the Tabernacle or Temple
along with the accumulating group of Sacred Writings. Copies were made as needed. In the Babylonian Captivity they were
scattered, and many copies destroyed.
Ezra, after return from the Captivity, re-assembled scattered copies, and
restored them as a complete group to their place in the
The scenario assumes that the prophetic
literature was added regularly to the scrolls in the
Alternatively, the mysterious “sons of the prophets” we read of in 1 and 2 Kings may well have had as their goal the preservation of “their” prophet’s teachings until they became widely recognized to have been true and accepted as such by the religious leadership. Since the John the Baptist movement survived long after his own death, it would not be surprising if, in the Old Testament, certain disciples of the prophets preserved the words of “their” prophet and advocated his teachings for decades or far more after their death.
Hence if we have “textual restoration”—rather than canonization (past or then “present” in mind)—then that may well be an event consistent with the likely historical situation. Whether true or not, the text conspicuously does not say anything that asserts it was the situation or that it was the concern that lay behind what was happening: In other words, the people had major fragments that had survived from various manuscripts and now they had the reassembled completeness. As conjecture it is a very reasonable one, but there is really nothing that rises above this and gets us to the level of actual “evidence.”
2 Maccabees 2 has already been referred to above and here is the place to return to it once again:
13 Besides these things, it is also told in the records and in Nehemiah's Memoirs how he collected the books about the kings, the writings of the prophets and of David, and the royal letters about sacred offerings. 14 In like manner Judas also collected for us the books that had been scattered because of the war, and we now have them in our possession. 15 If you need them, send messengers to get them for you (New American Bible).
Interestingly, a textual footnote adds, “Nehemiah's Memoirs: a lost apocryphal work.” Of course such works could contain historically sound tidbits scattered in its narratives.
Furthermore, the idea of preserving the other sacred writings—above and beyond the Law itself—would also be a logical action on Nehemiah’s part. “Books that had been scattered because of the war” () would fit in nicely with a new, authoritatively endorsed text being prepared by the inspired Nehemiah from those manuscripts. (The “inspired textual critic” if you will!) Even so, this scenario still suffers from the problem that Nehemiah speaks directly and explicitly only of the Law of Moses and not the other writings of the Old Testament.
Josephus writes that the desire for maximum accuracy in copying the scriptures began in those days of Ezra—which fits in well with a “recertification” (if you wish to use that concept) that the now circulating text was the most reliable to be obtained. In other words, the ideal of a “fixed” text did not have to wait until our Masoretic text; the ideal was long in place. (In all fairness, the Josephus text can be read either as that the demand began at this time or is the earliest example of the demand that he knows of to cite):
From the days of Artaxerxes [who sent Ezra back to Palestine, RW] to our own times every event has indeed been recorded; but these recent records have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them, on account of the failure of the exact succession of prophets. There is practical proof of the spirit in which we treat our Scriptures; although so great an interval of time has now passed, not a soul has ventured to add or to remove or to alter a syllable; and it is the instinct of every Jew, from the day of his birth, to consider these Scriptures as the teaching of God, and to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to lay down his life in their behalf. (56.)
Going to another non-Biblical source, appeal has also been made to Fourth Ezra chapter 14 as proof that Nehemiah 8-10 is discussing the results of the canonical process. In this version of events, Moses received at Sinai a variety of teaching and told to publicly circulate only part of them (14:5-6). Although Ezra was quite willing to go and teach God’s will, something was still needed for the following generations to preserve the truth he was delivering (14:20). The Jews of the exile were unfamiliar with the Mosaical Law due to all copies having been destroyed in the burning of Jerusalem and the world still lacked such a written text for those who came afterward:
21 For thy law has been burned, and so no one knows the things which
have been done or will be done by thee. 22 If then I have found favor before thee, send the Holy Spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things which were written in thy law, that men may be able to find the path, and that those who wish to live in the last days may live. (Our quotations come from the Revised Standard Version’s translation of “2 Esdras/4 Ezra.”)
God told him what scribes to utilize to reconstitute all that had been destroyed (). “25 And you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. 26 And when you have finished, some things you shall make public, and some you shall deliver in secret to the wise; tomorrow at this hour you shall begin to write.” In other words, by inspiration, God would re-reveal what had been destroyed.
42 And the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, in characters which they did not know. They sat forty days, and wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. 43 As for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. 44 So during the forty days ninety-four books were written.
45 And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; 46 but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. 47 For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.” 48 And I did so.
In Nehemiah, Ezra reads the Torah and there is no hint it had disappeared; in Fourth Ezra he redictates the Torah. In Nehemiah, Ezra presents the law (Torah) and no mention is implied of other works being shared under the label; in Fourth Ezra such works are clearly included under the label “law.”
Fourth Ezra’s reference to uncirculated works sounds like a version of the (non-Biblical) claim that Moses handed down a written and unwritten law at Sinai. The problem with this is that 4 Ezra has the “covert” revelations placed in writing and far outnumbering the component parts of the publicly revealed revelation! (Does this work, often dated c. 90s A.D., indicate the existence of a kind of Jewish Gnosticism of religious works reserved for the spiritual elite?)
In addition to the above problems reconciling Fourth Ezra with what Nehemiah has to say, there are other factors undermining its credibility—not the least of which is: Does anyone really believe this was composed by Ezra in the first place?
evaluating the claim of the total destruction of the Law or the entire existing
canon, it seems inherently improbable that only
Some find evidence for such a situation on the grounds that it had happened once before—allegedly. In the days of Josiah we read, “Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it” (1 Kings 22:8). The volume was then conveyed to the King (22:9-10), who reacted with horror ()—presumably at how much they had been ignoring its contents ().
That the neglected
worship of Yahweh could result in the Torah being “stuck away in a corner in
the archives” (so to speak)—and forgotten about—makes inherent sense. It took time and effort to prepare the
scroll(s) so why destroy something that might be needed later. That there was a copy makes perfect
sense. Where more likely to find it than
But the Biblical text
does not claim that this was the only copy available anywhere . . . only
that it was the
Assuming that there
were “sons of the prophets” surrounding some or many of the prophets (as in
Kings), we would naturally expect one or more of their writings to be preserved
among them independent of what
Then there are Biblical books that would attract an audience because of their particular contents. For example, Proverbs—a book that many only modestly pious Jews would surely have been interested in. Are we to really believe that such works existed only in a single copy?
In fact, we read in Proverbs 25:1, “These also
are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of
So we have every reason to expect that parts or all of the pre-Ezra/Nehemiah writings were preserved in more than one draft, though not necessarily with any one person having all of them. (As we’ve noted earlier, scroll making was an expensive proposition.)
Fourth Ezra encounters an even bigger problem in regard to the attempted application of it to the “canonization” question: Fourth Ezra is concerned not with the invention or canonization of a book or books. It is concerned with the alleged full rewriting of the same Law that had already existed prior to the exile. The copy of the Law was new, but the text is supposedly that which matched the one that had previously existed but been destroyed.
Fourth Ezra claims Ezra wrote down 94 books—24 were circulated (= the traditional Hebrew Bible) and the other 70 retained for only the wisest of people. If one interprets this in a “Gnostic” sense as we are inclined to do, this claim was made to provide a Divine authority to those restricted writings. If so, it is tacit testimony to the existence of a book of books (the canonical Old Testament) of such established stature and authority that one must raise other writings to their level to gain acceptance of them as authoritative and reliable.
On the other hand, the distinction can be interpreted along the lines of Young, who sees here a distinction “between the canonical and non-canonical books, and the assumption of the author [of Fourth Ezra] is that this distinction was also present in Ezra’s time” (12-162). These other works were useful, credible, and desirable for the religious connoisseur rather than just the masses. Even so, we again would be faced with an implicit recognition of an existing canon rather than the imposed acceptance of a new, previously unknown and unheard of one.
The “Three Step” Theory
This is the scenario that first the Law of Moses was accepted as canonical, then the Prophets, and (finally) that part of the Jewish Old Testament known as the Writings. That there was at least two steps (first the Law of Moses and then the remainder) seems required by the fact that the Law was written first and that later writings appeal to newer generations to return to that law . . . taking its existence and authority for granted as part of the conceptual background of their narrative. But whether there were two, three, or more steps is a different matter.
The whole question assumes that there had to be a formal canonization. The Torah, for example, was either Divinely authoritative from its inception or was not. If it was, why would it need “canonization”? And if it wasn’t, what would endorsing it as “canonical” ever accomplish? It couldn’t provide authority and status that it never deserved in the first place, could it?
Indeed, unless we are to assume that a book could be inspired without deserving automatic canonicity, there were as many “steps” in the canonization process as there were Divinely revealed components.
We could say that God preserved every one of His revelations that He had given in written form; that all else was given in oral form because the written format was intentionally reserved for those components intended for permanence.
Alternatively, if we assume that some inspired books were allowed to perish—to give an exaggeration to get our point across, did God really want a 5,000 page Bible?—we could responsibly argue this was because they duplicated subject matter found in other inspired works. Although inspired and automatically canonical, the duplicative matter made the survival of this particular presentation of the material needless on a long-term basis.
Either way, if God intended for a book to be part of His permanent revelation—and the fact that He assured these books’ survival argues that He did—did they not have an automatic right to be accepted as canonical? Wouldn’t doing anything else be the problem? It depended on the action of no church council or learned theologian.
The second approach presents a potential difficulty: there seems to be a strangeness in allowing a canonical book to perish, but is it any more odd than allowing an inspired one to do so? The problem--if there is one—is the same in both cases. The solution is also the same: Since He allowed or assured they perished, if we accept that God’s core nature is loving concern . . . then we lost nothing essential by their disappearance. We have a shorter Bible than we otherwise would have, but we have just as complete a one as to its doctrinal and moral components.
Hence canonicity and inspiration are functionally equivalent terms. (We will shortly elaborate further on this overlap since it is so vital.) If the two did not overlap, you have the absurdity of inspiration without canonicity and canonicity without inspiration.
This is how language properly would be used, but we have separated the two through long usage: “Canonicity” now testifies as to what was/is accepted as Divinely inspired. It is, if you will, an endorsement that the books are actually such. What gives the components authority though is really their inspiration; even calling a book canonical that lacked it would not truly bestow upon it that element of authoritativeness.
It could show that we considered it worthwhile and beneficial but nothing more. And it might well be. But we have effectively come to equate canonicity and inspiration in popular usage. For better or worse.
The three-step theory of canon establishment suffers from another difficulty as well. For it to work, one has to assume a rigid chronological division between “Prophets” (written first) and “Writings” (written later). This is to assure that the two different types of writings did not overlap, but one type only appeared after the other ceased to be written. Unfortunately for this approach, it does not appear that the Jews were that conceptually rigid in having only a tripartite division of the Old Testament.
Young (12-164) cites Luke 24:44, the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus (Prologue; second century B.C.), plus the first century Jewish writers Josephus (Contra Apionem, 1:8) and Philo (De vita contemplative, c. 40 A.D.) as clear users of a three-fold division. Hence that this was acceptable usage is well documented from both Biblical and non-Biblical sources.
On the other hand it was not the dominant division that was utilized. In the New Testament, the usual distinction is the two-fold “law and prophets”—implicitly granting prophetic status to the volumes found in the Writings (Matthew 5:17, in particular, though we can also add Matthew 7:12; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; Romans 3:21). The Manual of Discipline and the Zadokite document—both from Essenic-style communities of the first century A.D.—use the two-fold division pattern. Harris (11-146) tells us that these Essenic documents contain “no hint of a threefold canonicity.”
Nor was the threefold division popular usage among Greek speaking Jews. All the Greek Septuagint Old Testament manuscripts have the single law/prophets division. They did not make a “Writings” section (11-143).
For the rigid three-fold division to imply that the acceptance/canonization of the two groups took place at different times requires that one be able to accurately divide the books between those belonging under “Prophets” and under “Writings.”
Although Jesus accepted a three-fold division of the Old Testament, He conspicuously does not use the language we are discussing: “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ ” (Matthew 24:44). Here His divisions were Law, Prophets, Psalms. For Him to have accepted the Writings (and I doubt if any will deny He did), then He must have placed them under the prophetic category. Or so it seems to me.
It is far more common, however, to argue that “Psalms” is simply a generic name—citing the introductory book of the Writings for the entire section. Yet the Psalms themselves are so distinctive a piece of literature, “towering” (so to speak), over the rest of the so-called Writings, that I find the scenario hard to accept. “Writings” is a logical title for the third division; Psalms is quite a stretch.
Even those who followed the Law/Prophets/Writings division were known to disagree as to what went under which division. Harris (11-141) points out the Babylonian Talmud’s Baba Bathra (fourth century A.D., but the sources it utilized may be much older), placed eleven books in the Writings. In contrast Josephus included only four.
Josephus’ testimony is of special interest
both because he lived several centuries before the writers of Baba Bathra and because he brought with him to Rome, after
the destruction of Jerusalem, his Biblical scrolls. So he clearly wrote from first century
manuscripts and was versed in the nature of the sectional divisions then in
use. (Due to his close relationship with
the Roman general Titus, it would not be surprising that any Biblical manuscripts
We have just made passing allusion to this phenomena, but additional detail would be useful as well: Another difficulty in pushing for a rigid tripartite textual division—canonization as each section was finished—lies in the fact that some books seem to have been placeable in more than one division, according to one’s individual approach. This would obviously alter the number of books in both directions and would, oddly enough, have an impact on the total number of books that were believed to constitute the Old Testament.
In the first centuries after Christ some gave 22 as the total number: In particular, Josephus (first century A.D.), and Origen (third century).
Most give 24 as the figure: Melito (170 A.D.), Tertullian (200 A.D.), Eusebius, Jerome, and the Talmud.
This variation is occasioned by the positions of Lamentations and Ruth. If these books are joined to Jeremiah and Judges respectively, the number is 22. If they are separated, the number is 24.
But in the present Hebrew canon, Jeremiah and Judges are among the Prophets; Ruth and Lamentations are among the Writings. Therefore, to unite or separate these small books and their larger partners is actually to shift them from section to section (11-143).
These variations argue for the lack of the assumed rigid distinction between Prophets and Writings and seriously undermine any three-fold canonization theory.
F. Inspiration: The Essential Pre-Requisite for True Canonicity
Why should inspiration and canonization be taken as two rigidly different categories when they are actually two interlocked ones?
What additional authority did canonization by some group give to the prophet Isaiah than he already had as a prophet? What did erroneous non-canonization of Isaiah have taken away from him as a prophet? Did his authority vanish? How could it? So formal canonization by individuals or groups is really nothing more than acknowledging the authority the book(s) already had.
We read in Isaiah 6:1-8 the commissioning of Isaiah as prophet. Would a lack of recognition of that, or later canonization, remove that and make it null and void? (Can mortal humans accomplish that—really?)
For one example, we read more than once in the New Testament that such and such spoken by Isaiah was being “fulfilled” in the first century—take Matthew 4:13-16 as an example. If some group declined to embrace Isaiah as canonical, would that somehow blot out the fulfillment? Or would it simply illustrate a blunder among the canonizers?
Would any group or individual producing a list of canonical works have believed for a second that he was altering the authority of a book? No, what he considered himself—or the group considered itself--doing was embracing the authority of books that were already authoritative rather than establishing that authoritativeness. Their rejection of books was not intended as a judicial “you’re guilty” accusation, but a firm you were never among the authoritative books in the first place.
In other words, their perceived job was not to invent but to endorse that which good judgment should already have led people to endorse. Most folk not having the time or any special skills to undertake a formal consideration of such matters, were naturally inclined to rely on the judgment of those who had the intellectual background and time to do so. It was a recognition of these factors that led to the usefulness of such meetings and lists and not a giving to them a veto right over what constituted Scripture.
Would even the most arrogant priest or churchman every have the delusion that they had superior authority to that of true prophets? Some of them were pretty proud creatures, weren’t they? But this much?
All of this is said to bring us back to a point we’ve emphasized time and again because it is so vital: Any explanation for canonization that admits the presence of genuine revelatory data being received from God has to work from this assumption. Could it be that the reason why so much labor is put into explaining “canonization” is because of the dominance of those versions of “canonization” which assume none of the scriptures were really inspired in the first place? If they aren’t, then you have to have such a means of gaining them authority and status that they do not rightly have. But if you think they are ever going to admit this in public . . . to be blunt, are you crazy? That would be to give their infidelity agenda away.
Hence to the extent that the canonization theories we have examined have validity, they walk hand-in-hand with this fact. They partially explain how books became widely accepted as authoritative—skilled individuals who had time and opportunity to undertake a detailed examination of the evidence. But they properly only function when accompanied by the recognition that these men also worked from the premise that the given book was superintended by God in its composition. They weren’t interested in compiling a list of good religious, literature. They were interested in compiling a list that others could safely use as reflecting and containing strictly inspired literature.
How did they make this determination? In part, at least, on grounds such as we appeal to in the Concise Handbook on Biblical Inspiration: Age, language, authorial claim of inspiration, accuracy, predictions that clearly came true, and conformity with previously revealed truth—and the Law of Moses, in particular, for the Old Testament.
The inclusion of so many references to where and when the Old Testament was “fulfilled” in the New Testament is surely included, in part, to vindicate just such a consistency. A new law was coming (Jeremiah 31:31-34) and one would expect such a law to have significant differences from the old. But one would also expect major overlaps in such things as moral demands, which there is. The fact that Old Testament references fit so perfectly what was now happening was the “icing on the cake,” if you will, that helped meld it all into a coherent package.
However we do have one standard in
making our decision that they lacked:
that of the Messiah Christ. As
such, would not Jesus of
G. The Testimony of Jesus as the Criterion of Canonicity
To the unbeliever and semibeliever, this standard would not be recognized as definitive or, perhaps, even reliable. However, for those who look upon Jesus as deity incarnated in a fleshly body, His judgment on the subject is inescapably conclusive. On the other hand, His practice—especially when there was no obvious conflict over it with those who would have preferred to undermine His authority—surely indicates that it fit in well with the prevailing conception of canon held by His contemporaries. As we will quickly note this was a rejection of the highly limited canon that the Sadducees rejected but was in accordance with the Pharisee and popular consensus.
1. Christ accepted the same canon as the Pharisees and general population.
Does Jesus cite as authoritative every book in the Old Testament? No. But we do see Him affirm: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Whether we limit this to the Psalms as we know them (some think additional works might be included under the label), it unquestionably affirms the supernatural origin—for how could it include things that “must be fulfilled” unless originally written under the guidance of Divine oversight?—of the Mosaical Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the book of Psalms, and a body of literature He simply calls “the Prophets.”
Sometimes He reduces the prophetic (“must be fulfilled” sources) from these three to just two: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Since the Psalms are obviously not part of what “Moses” wrote, He must be classifying them under the label “prophetic.” (Which they surely were since statements from the Psalms are introduced in the New Testament as prophetic of the Messiah / Jesus.)
Note that He also introduces it all as Scripture: Basing himself on Moses and the prophets, He explained to them “in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
These He accepts as inspired. These He accepts as written of His own day and the events that then occurred. In short authoritative because of Divine origin—and, if that, how could the term “canonical” (to use our modern language) avoid being attached to it? It is not the reduced “canon” of the Sadducees but the broader one others accepted and which conforms to the Hebrew one of today. In short, the one you and I utilize.
At no point in His ministry did He challenge in any shape or form the canonicity / authority of any book we count as Scripture. This is a strong endorsement of the canon then generally accepted since He was well known to verbally blast the claims of His opponents for their erroneous traditions (Matthew 15:1-9). Yet on the point of what deserved from antiquity to be accepted as Divinely revealed and authoritative, He never departed from what they shared in common.
As noted earlier, repeatedly He referred to “the Law and the prophets,” never questioning that the books His contemporaries accepted as belonging in those categories matched those He also accepted. Silence may not always imply consent, but could such a forthright truth teller and tradition challenger avoid making an issue if there had been a major error made by them and preserved in their traditions?
In a similar vein, He repeatedly used terms like “scripture” without any hint that His definition of what constituted Scripture differed in the least from that which His opponents accepted. Except for the Sadducees . . . and even there, in regard to the dispute about whether there would be a physical resurrection and marriage in it, He would rather introduce a passage from the Law that they themselves limited revelation to rather than be diverted into a controversy over the other books (Mark 12:18-27 [verse 25 in particular]).
The other matter was interesting, but not vital to the debate at hand. Hence He worked from a part of the Scriptures they themselves felt obligated to accept as authoritative rather than introduce passages from anywhere else.
2. This canon, as noted, is the same one Jews and you and I embrace today.
One could logically object by raising the question of the apocryphal books Catholics accept as part of the Old Testament canon. Note carefully that, at most, only the Old Testament list of authoritative books would be at issue. On the New Testament canon we are in completely agreement.
There is no evidence that Palestinian Jews accepted them as belonging in the list of sacred literature as seen by the number of books we know they accepted: there isn’t any room for them. In the current context, the more important fact is that this question only challenges whether we accept too little canon. It implicitly concedes that the canon we share in common is fully and completely valid—at least as far as it goes.
It should be noted in passing, since it is so often overlooked, that the apocrypha can be useful. It can provide interesting thoughts and illustrations. In regard to the Maccabees, it can provide a historical supplement that we otherwise lack. So there is no problem with using or even quoting these works.
But not as if they are Scripture. I have quoted a number of sources in this volume—and this is one in which I am limiting my materials as part of the effort to hold the entire study to a length shorter than much of my work. I quote them because they are illustrative of something good or bad. Or are simply informative and potentially useful. But I never quote them as if Scripture. My usage of the Apocrypha is the same.
II. New Testament Canon
What we said about the Old Covenant is also true about the New Testament: No church council claimed to invent the canon; they did not claim to make the books anything they were not already. Rather they claimed to be listing those books as canonical that had been inspired in the first century. They “endorsed” their lists as ones they and others could be confident met that criteria.
They did so on the basis of their individual or collective wisdom, knowledge, and study and a recognition of which volumes were already either generally accepted, generally rejected, or sometimes questioned. The fact that those last two categories were so often included shows that they did not simply credulously pass on what they had heard but evaluated the available evidence for themselves.
The testimony of the various councils and individual writers (the latter earlier than the former) are of great usefulness in seeing how wise and astute observers—many centuries closer to the original writings than we—judged and evaluated the available evidence. For our own detailed evidence and conclusions in regard to both testaments see my Concise Handbook on Biblical Inspiration: Almost 800 Internal Claims of Accuracy and Revelation.
This section will approach canonization differently than our analysis of the Old Scriptures. There we examined various scenarios that have been developed concerning how “canonization” may have occurred. Here we will approach the matter from a different standpoint: the pre-requisites for us to consider a book part of the New Testament and canonical.
A. To Be Canonical, a New Testament Book Must Have
This is such an obvious standard that it is easy to overlook. Peter verifies the validity of our proposed criteria by embracing the Old Testament’s claim of perpetual survival and applying it to the New Testament gospel message as well, “ ‘But the word of the Lord endures forever.’ Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter ).
If a book has perished it either is a duplication of the teaching / contents of one that has (i.e., it has survived through the other writing) or it was never truly the “word of the Lord” in the first place. If you believe the author of First Peter was inspired, that definitively settles the issue—for both testaments. If you don’t, doesn’t it still make perfectly valid sense as a standard? Where is the weakness or inadequacy in it?
This is not the only place where that epistle touches on the idea in a verbal fashion applicable to both testaments, “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter ). It won’t die; it can’t die because of what it is. “The living and eternal word of God” (Today’s English Version). “The living and everlasting word of God” (International Standard Version).
Jesus Christ Himself
spoke along the same line of the survivability of Divine truth, “Heaven and
earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away”
(Matthew 24:35). They will exist
permanently. They won’t be suppressed or
cease to exist while anything else may well do so.
We mentioned that Peter was quoting from the Old Testament in our first passage. That reading is found in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” “Endures forever” (Today’s English Version). “Is eternal” (Bible in Basic English).
In Psalms 119, we find three assertions of the same thing:
Psalms 119:160 “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.”
Psalms 119:152 “Concerning Your testimonies, I have known of old that You have founded them forever.” “Made them to last forever” (Contemporary English Version, Today’s English Version)
Psalms 119:89 “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven.” [Then how can it possibly be allowed to vanish on earth?]
Yes, these passages teach the unchangeability of the Divine will—sin is not, mysteriously, going to become sinless on Tuesday and back to being sinful on Thursday. But doesn’t it also require the connotation of permanent survival as well, i.e., where mortals will have access to it to learn by it?
B. The Book Must Be of First Century Origin
“First century” need not be taken as a rigid barrier. The writing of a book a few years afterwards would not affect the validity of our generalization. Miraculously revealed information was predetermined to come to an end at some point—regardless of the exact calendar year where we place it:
1 Corinthians 13:8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether [there is] knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
To quote the core of a much longer discussion of mine in regard to this passage:
The dominant interpretation of the text is that Paul has in mind the coming of the “perfect” person, Jesus, at His yet future Parousia. Alternate variants of the same basic idea are that it refers to the coming of the “perfect” world (heaven) or the gaining of the “perfect” life (eternal). In other words, “the consummation of God’s purposes at the end of history.”
We have here, however, a very fundamental conceptual difficulty. Everything pictured from the return of Jesus on is pictured in terms that have to be described as inherently “miraculous” if they are to occur at all: the resurrection of the dead (of the entire human species!), the destruction of the cosmos, judgment day, eternal life, eternal condemnation. If these have any objective, concrete reality they will be a perpetual miracle.
Hence, wrapped up in the very fabric of the New Testament presentation of the final destiny of the human race is the re-inauguration of the miraculous. The only way out of this difficulty would appear to be to say that Paul was wrong in asserting that there would be any period without miracles. . . .
The key to understanding what Paul has in mind is found in the three miraculous gifts he specifically mentions in 13:8: “prophecies,” “tongues,” and “knowledge.” What they all have in common is that they were means believed to reveal the Divine will. Hence “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (13:9); revelation came in bits and pieces. But when the totality of what was to be revealed had come--when the revelation was made “perfect,” lacking nothing—“then that which is in part will be done away” ().
Some deny this fundamental premise that miraculous gifts are all that is under discussion. . . . However, Paul is describing Divine revelation in this verse: “prophecies, tongues, knowledge.” The first two are questionably such, the third one offers no hint of being anything else. Paul is discussing the knowledge embedded in that revelation; not our digging knowledge out of that revelation.
Hence it is far more likely that Paul is looking toward a day when all that needed to be revealed would have been received. At that point, the need for revelation would be completed and those gifts of the Spirit making it possible and confirming its validity could pass away without harm. The New Testament itself speaks in terms of being/becoming a completed system (Jude 3, for example).
For the footnotes omitted above and a much longer discussion of other alternatives (pro and con) the reader should consult the discussion of this text at my website, in Roland H. Worth, Jr., A Torah Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13-14 and 16: Interpreting the Text in Light of Its Old Testament Roots (Volume 3 of 4), at: biblicalresearchresources.com.
As to our current theme: If inspiration ended at or soon after when everything designed to be part of the New Testament was written, then nothing written after that point could possibly be canonical because it could not meet the essential prerequisite of inspiration.
In a wish to maintain contemporary “miraculous gifts,” many very conservative religious folk insist that these gifts are just as operative today as in the first century. By that standard, would it be inappropriate to expect new scriptures to be revealed today? Yet these folk deny it happens. Admittedly the scriptures are adequate to provide us everything we spiritually and morally need—but would any of us deny that it would be nice to have revelation being given that explicitly teaches what we now draw as reasonable, appropriate, or necessary deductions from the sacred text?
So they preserve the “secondary” inspiration gifts in services--alleged speaking in tongues and “prophetic” teaching (i.e., broad moral messages of uplift)--while dispensing with the core purpose, providing authoritative and unquestionable guidance. Would God choose to function in that manner?
So for the purposes here—and because we regard it as far sounder Biblical exegesis—we take the text to refer to the ending of Divine revelation when all that was needed was placed in writing for preservation purposes.
Although most translations require a little “sweat” to think through the implications of the text and what it is referring to, for your convenience, you might wish to consider the following examples where the point is made far clearer:
(Rotherham) 1 Corinthians 13:8 Love, at no time, faileth;--but, whether prophesyings, they shall be done away, whether tongues, they shall cease, whether gaining knowledge, it shall be done away; 9 for, in part, are we gaining knowledge, and, in part, are we prophesying,-- 10 But, as soon as that which is complete is come, that which is in part, shall be done away.
(Bible in Basic English) 1 Corinthians 13:8 Though the prophet's word may come to an end, tongues come to nothing, and knowledge have no more value, love has no end. 9 For our knowledge is only in part, and the prophet's word gives only a part of what is true: 10 But when that which is complete is come, then that which is in part will be no longer necessary.
(International Standard Version) 1 Corinthians 13:8 Love never fails. Now if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For what we know is incomplete and what we prophesy is incomplete. 10 But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with.
(God’s Word) 1 Corinthians 13:8 Love never comes to an end. There is the gift of speaking what God has revealed, but it will no longer be used. There is the gift of speaking in other languages, but it will stop by itself. There is the gift of knowledge, but it will no longer be used. 9 Our knowledge is incomplete and our ability to speak what God has revealed is incomplete. 10 But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will no longer be used.
C. The Writer Either Claimed Inspiration, Inspiration
Was Claimed for Him, or He Was in a Position to
Secure Inspired Information
For example, Paul explicitly claimed inspiration:
1 Corinthians 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Peter accepted Paul as a writer of Scripture, a logical outgrowth of his being inspired: “And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
That takes care of the inspiration and canonicity of all the Pauline writings. As to that of the other apostles, will they were promised binding authority and inspiration (the first would have been highly dangerous without the latter!):
Matthew 18:18 Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.
John 16:13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.
That takes care of the gospel of John--where the apostolic tie-in is clearest from within the text. As it does the three epistles he wrote and the book of Revelation. Of the 27 books of the New Testament that takes care of 13 books directly claiming to have been written by Paul plus 5 claiming to have been written by John (gospel, 1, 2, 3rd John, and Revelation —18 books in all.
No we had best prune that back to 16.
The author calls himself “the elder” in 2 John verse 1 and 3 John verse 1. Not apostle. (Although one certainly doesn’t rule out the other! And if he was getting old, he probably felt a lot more like that than his title apostle!)
In 1 John the author doesn’t even provide that much identification. He does, however, insist that he was an eyewitness: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
In Revelation, the author is simply described as “His servant John” (1:1) and the contents are presented as supernaturally revealed prophecy of coming events. And that remains true whether by an apostle or not.
So if we desire to deny apostolic authorship to these two books, then we still have three authoritative works by one of more “John:” gospel (apostle), a letter (by an eyewitness traditionally considered having that name), and a prophecy by an author with the same name. Even by those identifications we add 3 books to Paul’s core list, giving us 16.
Since Peter was a rather obvious eminent apostle—all the exaggeration made unjustly from Matthew 16:18-19 notwithstanding—we have two epistles attributed to him that must be included. That raises our Minimalist Canon now to 18 parts.
What then of the gospel of Luke—more accurately stated, Luke and Acts since the latter is presented as the intentional continuation of the earlier book (Acts 1:1-3)? Well if Paul is inherently authoritative as an apostle and inspired then we have all the necessary information we need to include Luke in the inspired collection / canon. For Paul quoted Luke as writing scripture: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’ ” (1 Timothy ). The second quote comes from Luke 10:7.
This provides us a Minimalist Canon of 20 books.
That leaves us with seven volumes to consider.
First are the two John “the elder” books which, traditionally, have been considered as referring to the apostle.
Then there are Matthew and Mark . They had apostolic attributions from antiquity though there doesn’t seem anything in their respective texts that would firmly root them to a specific apostolic name. But since there were no alternatives given . . . that would certainly argue for their credibility if not certainty.
Matthew’s gospel makes the greater sense—as a directly apostolic writing, I mean. There is simply so much of it that for him to have preserved this large a volume requires either a detailed researcher (such as Luke) or one who had been intimately involved with the Jesus movement from early on. Since there are no hints of looking at the events from a third party’s eyes, the text surely pressures one to accept it as the work of an eyewitness at the very least.
But what eyewitness? Since the apostles were promised binding and loosing authority and guaranteed accurate recall of Jesus’ teaching, it is hard to avoid concluding that it was by an apostle. Having the power and responsibility to teach, is written preservation of Jesus’ story likely to have been undertaken only by one (John)? And since the name attributed to the book is Matthew, the lack of credible alternatives surely makes him the most probable author. And even if by a different apostle, still entitled to be part of the canon.
Mark’s situation is different. It was commonly presented as a working over of the apostle Peter’s preaching. That an apostle’s teaching might be so preserved is certainly reasonable on its face. Since Peter’s name is attached to only two epistles that would certainly bear implicit evidence that he wasn’t all that attached to the written form of communication. Having worked with both the apostles Paul and Peter and having, through them inspired sources of information, even if one refuses to accept that he had been given a Divine gift as well, it still argues that he had reliable sources of data.
If we were to establish a Minimalist Canon, the adding of Matthew seems required, giving us 23 in all. At Mark our inferential reading may well carry us beyond that to 24. The remaining three documents would still have their being embraced at an early date, as well as their first century authorship, to back them as arguing for canonical status. Whether we grant them that label or not, what is the evidence that makes it at least credible if not conclusive?
The first is the hefty entry of Hebrews. As early as the third century Hebrews had a long established reputation as to authorship though Origen, himself is said to have not been so sure, “Men of old have handed it down as Paul’s but who wrote the epistle God only knows.” Might not one take this and argue that the denial of Pauline authorship was the innovation and not its attribution to him?
Although Paul develops quite logical arguments, hitting one point after another, the nature of the Hebrew arguments sound even to the causal reader as quite different from the Pauline type he or she is used to. But one could properly respond, “The book is like the kind we’d expect if he had ever taken the time to written a detailed critique of the value of the New versus Old Covenants . . . if he’d ever taken time to write one independent of their application to particular congregational problems.” The nature and presentation of Paul’s anti-obligatory Law observance views in the various epistles are utilitarian in nature, written for John Q. Christian. Hence relatively concise, to the point.
In Hebrews we have a man with the time and space to develop the same approach to the Law independent of individual congregational problems and at whatever length he wished. Hence one could rightly argue that, Pauline or not it is still the kind of exposition we would have expected under such circumstances. If you wish, Pauline in thrust if not authorship.
As to Jude, I remain astounded how semibelievers want to date this as one of the latter New Testament writings. The references to Enoch and what happened to the body of Moses are surely the type of subjects—and reference to the kind of sources alluded to in it—ones that Palestinian Christians would have had access to and which would have enjoyed a minimum of popularity at a later date with a Gentile dominated church whose access to such types of literature were presumably quite modest if not non-existent. Hence Jude does sound like one of the earliest books traditionally ascribed to the New Testament whether one chooses to go with a Minimalist Canon or the traditionalist one.
James’ extremely early date seems certain. James 2:2 uses the word “synagogue” as their meeting place (typically rendered as “assembly”). The problems dealt with are common moral ones of the abuse of power and prestige against those who lacked it. Later church issues such as treatment of Gentiles are totally missing. Hence an ultra-early date fits whether one accepts only a Minimalist canon or the full traditional one. It’s from the heart of early Christianity and deserves consideration and usage whether considered authoritative in a canonical sense or not.
Nerves cringe at the concept of a Minimalist Canon? Even if it were true and valid, it would still constitute the bulk of the New Testament and not exclude the usage for edification purposes of the other materials. But encouraging the acceptance of such is not our purpose but to show what fairly and responsibly considered it is the least ( = shortest) canon that would be possible based upon the evidence as preserved. (More on that further below.)
D. The Internal Contents Must be Consistent with the
Doctrinal Stance of Those Who Unquestionably Had
Credentials of Inspiration
Consistency with inspired teaching does not automatically prove canonicity, but contradiction does prove non-inspiration and non-canonicity. However in establishing agreement or disagreement, we must be careful to interpret the book in the light of its time and how it uses its terms and doctrines and not read back into it theological definitions of a far later date.
For example, when James 2:20-24 speaks of salvation by works he is talking about behavior and actions manifesting faith rather than salvation by obedience to some Church’s specially sanctioned religious behaviors. The former was fully compatible with salvation by faith; the latter not. But the latter was invented far later.
One fundamental principle of both testaments is what God demands, He continues to demand. It is not evil to do X (fill in the blank) on Tuesday, but isn’t on Wednesday, but it’s back to sinful on Thursday. In other words, He expresses a moral consistency.
The exception is when something is expressed as right as a generality but we also read explicitly that it is always wrong on one specific day or under one specific circumstance: The endorsing of physical labor in the Old Testament is an obvious example, while labor on the Sabbath (Saturday) was prohibited—but both were revealed in the same law. Hence it was fully consistent with itself rather than contradictory. It revealed both the principle and the exception.
That God stays committed to the same set of standards is brought out in Malachi 3:6, “For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” “I never change” (Contemporary English Version). This includes never changing in His basic character, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers ) “He doesn’t tell lies or change His mind” (Contemporary English Version). The image is one of total, ongoing reliability.
Isaiah 40:8 puts the concept this way, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” “Will never change” (CEV). “Endures forever” (Today’s English Version). “Is eternal” (Bible in Basic English).
That naturally reflects in any revelation He gives being consistent with itself and not subject to erratic, unannounced, unforewarned alteration. Several verses in Psalms 119 express this well:
Psalms 119:89 expresses the stability / consistency of Divine law this way, “”Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven.” “Thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Revised Standard Version). “It is eternal in heaven” (Today’s English Version).
Psalms 119:152: “Concerning Your testimonies, I have known of old that You have founded them forever.” “Made them to last forever” (Contemporary English Version, Today’s English Version).
Psalms 119:160: “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.” “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal” (New International Version). “There is nothing but truth in your word, and all of your righteous regulations endure forever” (God’s Word)
Yet God did predict the coming of a new pivotal religious leader parallel to Moses—which would make Him the initiator of a new and different religious system. The promise is found twice in Deuteronomy 18 in the very early decades of the Mosaical Law itself:
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16 according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.” 17 And the Lord said to me: “What they have spoken is good. 18 I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. 19 And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.
Note that the double emphasis on the singular—as one specific individual in mind. True there would be other prophets and how to decide whether these are genuine is discussed (-22). But they are not discussed in these terms of being the unique prophet, the one parallel to Moses. The one, therefore, qualified to do as Moses did—bring a new religious system into existence. The Messiah.
This early dating is important because it tells us that, effectively, from the very time the Mosaical Law began to be revealed, the prophet whose words would replace it was already being promised. Hence this is no centuries post-event faked pledge. It was one that came through Moses himself. Not our much later invention.
And the promise, the New Testament tells
us, was of Jesus of
Acts “For Moses truly said to the fathers, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. 23 And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.' 24 Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days. 25 You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, 'And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' 26 To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.”
Acts 7:35-37 also cites the same Deuteronomy text and adds the fact that Moses functioned as “ruler” and “judge” (). This explicitly introduces two functions that would accompany Moses’ and the New Moses’ law giving functions as Divinely ordained prophets. Each of whom brought into existence the two religious systems we respectively name after them.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 describes what was to happen as the creation of a “new covenant.” Jesus brought it into effect by shedding His blood. Indeed, in establishing the Communion to commemorate His death and resurrection, He refers to “My blood of the new covenant” as being represented in the fruit of the vine (Matthew 26:28; Mark ; “the new covenant in My blood:” Luke and 1 Corinthians ). Hebrews 8:8-13 specifically quotes Jeremiah 31 and applies it to the covenant / testament established by Jesus. Cf. Hebrews and ..
This system would naturally bring with it, as is usual, significant alterations—Why would there be a “new” one without major changes? But the same principle of “once truth, always truth” would apply to it as well. So long as it stayed in effect, it would operate by that same ground rule of permanency as the Old Testament did.
Indeed, the proof text of Isaiah 40:8 that we cited in regard to the ongoing authoritativeness of the Old Testament is cited and explicitly applied to the New Testament by the apostle Peter,
1 Peter 1:22 Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, 24 because "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever." Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
And the reason Jesus’ law will never be revoked or changed until the end of this physical universe is brought to an end is the same reason His Father did not permit the Mosaical Law to be altered in its day--the supernatural Giver never changes—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
The moral underpinning remains much the same between the testaments, as any close cross-referencing of the New Testament’s moral teaching with that of the Old Testament will show. (It will usually require an unusually exhaustive cross-reference, however.) Since this is so often overlooked, I’ve prepared several volumes of a “Torah Commentaries” series on various New Testament books to bring it out in detail.
Our underlying point
is that anything prior to Jesus of
E. Lacking Other Evidence—or as Confirmatory Evidence
to Reinforce Other Indications—There is the Testimony
of Post-Biblical Writers
For whatever else that is needed to fill in the gaps between what the existing books claim for themselves and what we have today as the New Testament, where will we go? Here we get into the traditional area covered by treatments of canon—the “church fathers” and various church convocations. Not being inspired themselves, this source has obvious limitations.
On the other hand, they were in a position to know what works actually existed and what works did not.
They were in a position to record both their own judgment, that of others, and to judge the consensus then existing as to which books belonged, did nor, or were subject of disputation.
They do, upon occasion, cite even earlier writers and their judgments on such matters.
Most importantly, they were 1,600 or more years closer to the original sources. Misinterpret their contents? Of course, they were human like we are and we are capable of error as well. But on the fundamental question of which books were to be taken as inspired—hence, canonical—their relative nearness put them in a far better position to reliably make judgments on such matters than we.
Hence they provide useful information to supplement those deductions we can make from the Biblical text itself. Their testimony is enhanced even further when they accept books that teach doctrines which are opposed to that which the then contemporary church advocated or practiced.
One other passing observation: If a person does not accept the common non-Catholic canon—and there are variant canons, though the core remains the same throughout—merely pointing to the existence of a book that might be included is really not enough. As one analyst rightly suggests (57):
Such objections, when encountered, should be taken seriously only if the arguer can offer some reason why the competing view or book itself ought to be taken seriously. They should also demonstrate some knowledge of the form and content of the book in question. Simply offering titles and saying, "Why was/wasn't this in the canon?" is not a sufficient form of argument, nor is pointing to this or that church somewhere and asking why they include a particular book in the canon where others do not.
What must be answered is why the questioner believes a judgment on the matter is necessary to be made. It is my obligation to present evidence for what I accept. It is not my obligation to present evidence pro or con in regard to anything else—though I might choose to do so out of intellectual curiosity.
Furthermore, the challenger needs to mention whether he or she would accept the book’s Divine authoritativeness over their own beliefs and behavior if the book mentioned were accepted as canonical. Otherwise, to suggest changes, additions, or deletions in the canon is mere idle word play that would have no impact one way or the other on their own life. So why should it be their concern in the first place? Or, for that matter, mine?
It isn’t “running from an issue.” It’s refusing to waste a bunch of time on something that means little or nothing to the other person in the first place.
F. For Thought: A Minimalized, “Worst Case” Scenario
for a Shorter New Testament
Earlier we presented the theoretical case for a “Minimalist Canon” and pointing out that based on what the New Testament actually says we have 13 books claiming authorship by the apostle Paul.
Three books bearing the name John: the apostolic gospel, the eyewitness 1 John, and the prophetic Revelation.
Two claimed by the apostle Peter.
The gospel and Acts—endorsed as “scripture” by the apostle Paul.
A Minimalist Canon of 20 books out of the current 27, with varyingly good grounds (based on knowledge at least partly from the ancient non-Biblical writers discussed in Section E, just above) that would reasonably justify including the others as well. But still 20 in a worse case scenario.
Of course religious liberals and semibelievers will not be content even with this. You see, as they tell the story, we can’t include Luke and Acts. 1 Timothy 5:18’s citation of Luke-Acts as “scripture” is worthless. You see Paul didn’t really write 1 Timothy. So we reduce ourselves to a canon of 18.
The two epistles of Peter. Forget about it. Not written by him. A false attribution though a part of the text. That gets us down to 16. (See how easy it is when you work from the assumption that large hunks of “scripture” were given to us by pious liars?)
The 13 letters of Paul. Hmm. Here’s a typical answer from those we label unbelievers and semibelievers—which is one of multiple anonymous answers on a certain website at the moment (58):
Thirteen epistles have been attributed to Paul, but most scholars agree that no more than seven are genuine: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians.
A computer analysis finds that two of these do not match the style of Galatians and must still be subject to some doubt: Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. However, most scholars continue to accept them as having been written by Paul.
Paul’s “genuine” letters are reduced from 13 to either 7 or 5—shrinking our canon to a “generous” 10 or a smaller 8.
Of course 2 Corinthians may be a “genuine fake”--for lack of a better term. You see, quite a few insist its multiple epistles pasted together, so to speak. Of course, others say the same for 1 Corinthians as well! We’ll be generous to ourselves and continue to count them, though!
So what do we have left when the scavengers leave the carrion of the canon? As to gospels we only have John by an apostle (cf. John -24), though efforts can be made to undermine the validity of this attribution too! We have Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians—quite possibly Philippians and 1 Thessalonians for the epistle section as well. We have 1 John written by an eyewitness (whether apostle or not) and one book of prophecy—Revelation.
I suppose the semibeliever could argue for the inclusion of certain of the books that did not meet our “cut” for a Minimalist Canon, but if they see no problem jettisoning books clearly and explicitly claiming to be apostolic do you really see them going out of their way to establish the credibility for these other books?
So we have a maximum canon of ten books that can be accepted by semibelievers—but they aren’t really going to accept those either. For the concept that these embody true and genuine, explicit Divine instruction would mean that they would have to obey them. It would require them to be in submission to religious concepts and practices they themselves often feel uncomfortable with or outright reject.
So even though our direct topic is important and interesting in its own right—the canon—this is our way of getting across the naked reality: even establish a “limited but valid canon” and these folks are still not going to “bend their knees in service” to what God has revealed.
To far too many of them, they have gone beyond ever accepting the scriptures’ moral teachings and demands. To such folk, instead of “love the sinner but hate the sin,” we must now “love the sinner and approve of the sin.” Or keep our mouths shut lest their “feelings” get hurt. But if a happy soul goes to Hell, a lot more than “feelings” will be hurt!
Does a heart filled with that kind of
fundamental moral contempt have room to respect and obey any
“revelation” but one that endorses it or worship any God but one that
approves it? But the true God of
Did Paul Create, In Effect, the
First New Testament Canon?
What follows next is speculation—but speculation interesting enough that it deserves at least passing consideration. In the writings of the apostle Peter we found the following remark:
2 Peter 3:15 And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
We used this to prove that Peter considered
Paul as writing scripture. Some go
beyond this and argue that an interpretive gloss is justified here: “as they do also the rest of the scriptures
[which Paul wrote].” From that
assumption the conclusion is quite natural that, “The author of 2 Peter also
knows about a collection of Paul's letters (–16) and assumes that his readers do as
Yes, “as also in all his epistles” could be intended in contrast with “the rest of the Scriptures” in verse 16. Alternatively it could take the above connotation, that difficult texts were being twisted wherever they were found in Paul’s writings. That does not necessarily mean that they were being circulated in one volume (codex) yet, but that they were all recognized as “scripture.” And if not collected into a single volume during his life, then that being done soon afterwards would be a logical next step.
One approach is summarized this way (57):
[David] Trobisch's case starts not with the NT, or even with Paul, but with the ancient practice of collection of letters. Having studied the compilation process of over 200 collections of letters dated from 300 BC to 400 AD, Trobisch notes three central and essential stages:
1. Letters are collected and prepared for publication by the author. For example, Cicero, when collecting his letters, went over them personally making corrections and emendations - polishing them up, getting rid of trivial material and eliminating the names of deceased persons. He then selected which letters of his he wished to have published.
Related to the Pauline letters, Trobisch suggests that Paul himself put together Romans, the Corinthian letters, and Galatians to form the core of his collection. (He suggests that 2 Corinthians is actually a Pauline compilation of several different letters sent to the Corinthian church, an idea that is not entirely without support.)
The issuing of an expanded edition after the death of the
author. A slave of
3. The issuing of comprehensive editions from steps 1 and 2.
These latter two steps, Trobisch does not develop in detail related to Paul's letters, other than to suggest that the remaining letters were the product of steps 2 and 3. We may suggest that Luke himself was the person who undertook the final compilation, perhaps with help from church leaders like Timothy and Titus. All of this, of course, is completely theoretical, but certainly it is significant that a standard "process" existed whereby the preservation, collection, compilation and publication of Paul's letters might have been accomplished--and fit hand-in-glove with the process of canonization [at the same time].
For a more detailed analysis of this possibility also see the lengthy article of Michael J. Kruger (60).