All Christians realize that if God has revealed Himself by communicating His will to man, man must be able to know with assurance where that revelation lies. Hence the need for a list (i.e. canon) of books of the Bible. In other words, man needs to know without error (i.e. infallibly) what the books of the Bible are. There must be an authority which will make that decision.
The canon of the Bible refers to the definitive list of the books which are considered to be divine revelation and included therein. A canon distinguishes what is revealed and divine from what is not revealed and human. “Canon” (Greek kanon) means a reed; a straight rod or bar; a measuring stick; something serving to determine, rule, or measure. Because God did not explicitly reveal what books are the inspired books of the Bible, title by title, to anyone, we must look to His guidance in discovering the canon of the Bible.
Jesus has told us that he has not revealed all truths to us.
- Jn 16:12-13
- I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
Jesus then told us how he was planning to assist us in knowing other truths.
- Jn 14:16-17
- And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.
- Jn 15:26
- When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.
The New Testament writers sensed how they handled truth-bearing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
- 1 Cor 15:3-4
- For I handed on (paredoka) to you as of first importance what I also received …
- 2 Tim 2:2
- And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust (parathou) to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.
There was a constant history of faithful people from Paul’s time through the Apostolic and Post Apostolic Church.
- Melito, bishop of Sardis, an ancient city of Asia Minor (see Rev 3), c. 170 AD produced the first known Christian attempt at an Old Testament canon. His list maintains the Septuagint order of books but contains only the Old Testament protocanonicals minus the Book of Esther.
- The Council of Laodicea, c. 360, produced a list of books similar to today’s canon. This was one of the Church’s earliest decisions on a canon.
- Pope Damasus, 366-384, in his Decree, listed the books of today’s canon.
- The Council of Rome, 382, was the forum which prompted Pope Damasus’ Decree.
- Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse wrote to Pope Innocent I in 405 requesting a list of canonical books. Pope Innocent listed the present canon.
- The Council of Hippo, a local north Africa council of bishops created the list of the Old and New Testament books in 393 which is the same as the Roman Catholic list today.
- The Council of Carthage, a local north Africa council of bishops created the same list of canonical books in 397. This is the council which many Protestant and Evangelical Christians take as the authority for the New Testament canon of books. The Old Testament canon from the same council is identical to Roman Catholic canon today. Another Council of Carthage in 419 offered the same list of canonical books.
- Since the Roman Catholic Church does not define truths unless errors abound on the matter, Roman Catholic Christians look to the Council of Florence, an ecumenical council in 1441 for the first definitive list of canonical books.
- The final infallible definition of canonical books for Roman Catholic Christians came from the Council of Trent in 1556 in the face of the errors of the Reformers who rejected seven Old Testament books from the canon of scripture to that time.
There was no canon of scripture in the early Church; there was no Bible. The Bible is the book of the Church; she is not the Church of the Bible. It was the Church–her leadership, faithful people–guided by the authority of the Spirit of Truth which discovered the books inspired by God in their writing. The Church did not create the canon; she discerned the canon. Fixed canons of the Old and New Testaments, hence the Bible, were not known much before the end of the 2nd and early 3rd century.
Catholic Christians together with Protestant and Evangelical Christians hold the same canon of the New Testament, 27 books, all having been originally written in the Greek language.
Catholic Christians accept the longer Old Testament canon, 46 books, from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Alexandrian Canon.
Protestant and Evangelical Christians, from the Reformers onward, accept the shorter Old Testament canon, 39 books, from the Hebrew Palestinian Canon. Jews have the same canon as Protestants.
Canonical books are those books which have been acknowledged as belonging to the list of books the Church considers to be inspired and to contain a rule of faith and morals. Some criteria used to determine canonicity were
- special relation to God, i.e., inspiration;
- apostolic origin;
- used in Church services, i.e., used by the community of believers guided by the Holy Spirit.
Other terms for canonical books should be distinguished: the protocanonical books, deuterocanonical books, and the apocryphal books.
The protocanonical (from the Greek proto meaning first) books are those books of the Bible that were admitted into the canon of the Bible with little or no debate (e.g., the Pentateuch of the Old Testament and the Gospels)
The deuterocanonical (from the Greek deutero meaning second) books are those books of the Bible that were under discussion for a while until doubts about their canonicity were resolved (e.g. Sirach and Baruch of the Old Testament, and the Johannine epistles of the New Testament).
The apocryphal (from the Greek apokryphos meaning hidden) books have multiple meanings:
- complimentary meaning – that the sacred books were too exalted for the general public;
- pejorative meaning – that the orthodoxy of the books were questioned;
- heretical meaning – that the books were forbidden to be read; and lastly
- neutral meaning – simply noncanonical books, the meaning the word has today.
Another word, pseudepigrapha (from the Greek meaning false writing) is used for works clearly considered to be false.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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Last Updated: July 17, 2004