Thursday, July 29, 2010


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Canon.

Q:  How did the Bible come to be composed of the books it currently contains?  Is there a verse within the Bible that specifies which writings should be included?

When a person first looks at the table of contents in their Bible, it might initially appear that the Bible is a single book with several sections, but it was actually written by numerous authors over the course of around 1500 years.  Even after the last book of the Bible had been completed, the Bible was not available at first in a single printed volume, as we are accustomed to finding it, but normally on scrolls containing only one of the Bible’s books.  Because of this history, many people find themselves with questions regarding why our Bibles contain the writings they do. 

The Bible began with the first five books written by Moses during the time when the Israelites were freed from Egypt.  These books included the early history of the world, beginning with the flood and ending with the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt and their 40 years traveling to the Promised Land.  These five books were called the “Pentateuch,” the “Torah,” or “The Law.”

During the years between Moses’ death and the birth of Jesus, authors continued to write down the history of Israel.  At the same time, men called prophets began to deliver messages from God to His people.  These messages were written down by the prophet himself, or by another person who heard him speak, and were also included as part of the Old Testament.  Additionally, books such as Proverbs and Psalms, which was the Old Testament hymn book, were recorded and passed down.  Together, these collected writings became known as the “Scriptures” during the time of Jesus, and their content was agreed upon among the Rabbis of Israel at the time.  Hebrew Bibles used by Jewish Rabbis today still include the same books.

During the life of Jesus, He participated in the services held at the synagogues, read from these books, and quoted frequently from them as he preached and debated throughout Israel.  On several occasions recorded in the Gospels, Jesus refers positively to “The Scriptures” without noting reservations as to their content.  On other occasions, He refers to “The Law and the Prophets” and once to “The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) which are even more specific endorsements of the Old Testament as a whole. 

When it comes to the New Testament, there is no declaration within the Bible regarding which books it contains.  As a result, misconceptions have been widespread, especially fueled in recent years by novels and movies about the subject.  Many imagine that there must have been a meeting at some point in ancient history where pastors and theologians gathered to vote whether each of the many supposedly Christian books and letters circulating in the ancient world at the time were “in” or “out,” resulting in the New Testament we know today.

The first account on which this imagined scenario is misleading is that, while there was a council during the fifth century after Jesus’ birth regarding the contents of the New Testament, there was not widespread debate regarding the contents of the New Testament leading up to this council.  As early as the middle of the second century following Jesus’ birth, there was widespread consensus regarding which books were suitable as sources for Christian doctrine and for public reading in worship and which were not. 

Secondly, the early church did not make decisions based on majority vote, but by unanimous consensus, therefore they confirmed the contents of the New Testament based on careful study and agreement on two fronts:  whether a given book was actually written by an Apostle of Jesus and whether it had received broad acceptance as authentic among the churches. 

Lastly, this council did not meet for the purpose of ruling on the contents of the New Testament.  Rather, it met to recognize the already existing consensus regarding its contents and to confirm the inauthenticity of a few new forgeries which had arisen during their time. 

This ancient consensus on the books contained in the Bible has consistently been acknowledged by Lutheran, Protestant, and Orthodox churches worldwide until the last few decades when conspiracy theorists have proposed alternative explanations.  In spite of the fact that the Bible itself contains no list of its accepted books, the Bible we know today can be recognized with certainty as the authentic collection of Prophetic and Apostolic writings concerning Jesus.

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