How the Bible was Canonized
A canon is:
- a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged.
- a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.
Scripture was written over a period of hundreds of years by shepherds and poets and kings. The Bible authors include more than 40 people, and the agreement with which they write is phenomenal. There are 66 books of the Bible. The Old Testament has 39 books, and the New Testament has 27. The listing of Bible books is referred to as the canon, meaning it was accepted as meeting the requirements for the inspired Word of God. Holy men of God wrote as they were moved by the Spirit. God worked through them to preserve and communicate His story and His plan. This is important to understand, because of the criteria that shaped how the Bible was canonized.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and makes up what is called The Pentateuch, and became the first canonized books. This means that the Jews accepted these writings as God’s Word, written through Moses, the prophet. This is one of the criteria pertaining to how the Bible was canonized. This was long before Christ, probably by as much as 500 years. By the time Christ comes on the scene, the Old Testament had been accepted by the Jewish people as God’s Word. And that is how the Bible was canonized with regards to the Old Testament. Jews today who reject Jesus as the Messiah still have the Old Testament as their Bible, which is called The Torah.
So to the question of how the Bible was canonized; this primarily pertains to the New Testament, since the Old Testament was already set. In the first century A.D. Jesus’ followers believed that His return was imminent; therefore, it was some time before the events of His life, death, and resurrection were recorded. As time passed, many of those of Jesus’ generation began to die off and Jesus had not returned. It was then that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels to preserve the history. Being a disciple, or a close associate of a disciple, is another criterion pertaining to how the Bible was canonized.
By examining the timeline of the events depicted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the exclusion of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., along with other historical events that are not mentioned, e.g. the deaths of James, Paul, and Peter which happened prior to 65 A.D., we can pinpoint the date a little better. Although not a criterion specifically, the book still has to be historically accurate to fit the rules of how the Bible is canonized.
It is important to note that the gospels are very reliable. They were written by eye-witnesses to the events described and, although there were many people still living that were also Jesus’ contemporaries, as well as the religious leaders who tried to kill Him, any of whom could have disputed their depiction of the events, no one did. Other writings include Paul’s letters to various churches, the book of James, written by the Lord’s brother, and letters written by Peter.
The criteria used by the church to decide on the reliability of the books included are as follows:
- Was it written by a prophet or apostle? Some books, like Hebrews, were debated longer, due to the fact that we do not know who the author actually is, although many people believe this to be written by Paul. Hebrews was eventually accepted due to conformation to other requirements included in how the Bible was canonized.
- Was it written by a close associate of a prophet or apostle? For example, authorship of Luke and Acts is accredited to Luke the physician, who traveled extensively with Paul. His writings came from information gathered from eye-witnesses and other sources. In the book of Luke, it is clear from his introduction to the work that his goal was to gather the pertinent facts about Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. Luke and Acts were accepted, in part, on the basis that Luke was Paul’s disciple, which adds another layer of accepted criterion in that Paul’s authority was already established.
- Does the writing portray the truth? Anything expressed in a writing that was untruthful was immediately dismissed based on Deuteronomy 18:20-22, where God said that if what a prophet said was not true, then the prophet was not speaking for Him.
- Is the writing faithful to the previously accepted documents? If it contradicts, it is not from God. This criterion is the main foundation for the acceptance of Hebrews, since it not only is true to previously accepted books; it shines even greater light on those.
- Is this writing accepted by the churches? The writings, such as Paul’s letters, were circulated among the Christian churches of that time. As these were being read by churches everywhere and the people of God were being encouraged, comforted, and enlightened it came to be accepted throughout the church as a whole that these writings were from God.
The final acceptance and canonization, of the New Testament in particular, and both Old and New Testaments as a whole was at the Senate of Carthage in 397 A.D. Although some books took longer to be accepted, all of the New Testament books as we know them now were settled by 397 A.D. This is how the Bible was canonized.
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