The canon of the Bible and apocrypha

The Bible is a specific collection of books. The Protestant churches recognize a canon of 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. These books carry great authority in the churches, as the inspired Word of God, and therefore the ultimate norm for matter of faith. The Belgic Confession declares (BC art. 4):

We believe that the Holy Scriptures consist of two parts, namely, the Old and the New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These books are listed in the church of God as follows: (here follows the list of 66 books of the canon).

The Westminster Confession of faith makes a similar statement (WCF 1.2):

Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament, which are these: (the 66 books are listed) All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.

While Protestant churches are agreed on this canon, it is good to reflect on it. How did the church decide specifically on these 66 books? As we will discuss, this choice was not always obvious. Historically, several additional writings have been considered for inclusion in the canon. Even today, the Roman church and Eastern churches tend to include several more books in their Bible editions.

The Old-Testament Canon

For the Old Testament, Christians simply adopted the Jewish Scriptures. The Jews were in good agreement about which books belonged to the “Law, Prophets, and Writings” and had divine authority. There were debates among rabbis in Jamnia around 70 AD, which affirmed the Old Testament canon as we know it. Likewise, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote at the end of the first century:

We do not have thousands of book that disagree and conflict with one another; we have only twenty-two, containing the record of all time, and justly accredited. Of these, five are the books of Moses […T]he prophets who followed Moses have written down in thirteen books the things that were done in their days. The remaining four books contain hymns to God and principles of life for human beings. From Artaxerxes to our own time a detailed record has been made, but this has not been thought worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because there has not been since then the exact succession of prophets. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.38-41)

The count of 22 books instead of 39 is due to the fact that the Jews grouped various books together. In detail, Josephus’s list is as follows:

The Law

The Prophets

The Twelve (minor prophets)

The Writings

The last sentence in Josephus’s quote is a reference to the history recorded in Maccabees, written several centuries after the Babylonian captivity. It is not given canonical status because it falls outside the era of “prophetic succession” that ended with Malachi.

The apocryphal books

But there was a complication. Starting around 150 BC, the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is called the Septuagint. (In reality, “the Septuagint” does not exist; there were multiple translations, some of which differ greatly.) Most churches read this Greek version rather than the original Hebrew. Justin the Martyr (150 AD) treated the Septuagint as the ultimate authority. In this way, the Greek Seputagint became “the Christian Bible” in the early church.

But the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament were published together with some other religious Greek texts. Some of these texts are additions to Old Testament books:

  • added to Ezra-Nehemiah: 3 Ezra and 4 Ezra
  • added to Esther: six extra chapters
  • added to Jeremiah: the Book of Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah
  • added to Daniel: the Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon

Then there are complete books:

  • Tobit (the story of an Israelite exile in Nineveh)
  • Judith (the story of a Jewish woman who saves Israel from oppression)
  • the Wisdom of Solomon
  • Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Jesus Sirach), a collection of proverbs
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees, a history of the Jews long after the exile

Generally speaking, these additional texts were considered less authoritative than the other Old Testament books. (See the quote from Josephus above.) But this distinction was not always kept clear. In the course of time, these non-canonical books that were published and used in the churches became known as “ecclesiastical books”, or “apocryphal” (hidden) books.

When church father Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the so-called Vulgate version), he included the apocrypha with some reluctance. This Bible version was the authority in the Western church throughout the Middle Ages, and is still authoritative in the Roman church. Even the King James Bible of 1611 included a translation of the apocrypha (although printed in a separate section).

The Reformed churches were clear on the matter: these ecclesiastical or apocryphal books are not to be considered the Word of God, and are not authoritative in the church. The Belgic Confession resolves the matter as follows:

The church may read and take instruction from these so far as they agree with the canonical books. They are, however, far from having such power and authority that we may confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the holy books. (BC art. 5)

Apart from these apocryphal books, there were other old Jewish writings known and used around the time of Christ. They never had canonical status, but the early church was familiar with them. The best-known of these is the Book of Enoch, which is alluded to and quoted in the letter of Jude. Other such books are the Sybilline Oracles, and the Testament of the Patriarchs.

The New-Testament Canon

In the New Testament, “the Scripture(s)” always refers to the Old Testament. The words and works of Jesus were initially only known as an oral tradition. But when the apostles wrote letters to the churches, these were immediately recognized as authoritative. It is remarkable that Peter (in 2 Pet 3:15-16) already implied that Paul’s letters are “Scriptures”!

The New Testament canon grew organically. The letters of Paul and the other apostles were copied and distributed among the churches. Four gospels were written, to record and detail the words and works of Jesus. Toward the end of the first century, this collection of writings was not only completed, but also accepted in the churches as authoritative.

We don’t have a clear historical record of this process. The best evidence is that early church fathers quote the gospels and the epistles as authoritative Scripture. The earliest list of New Testament books we still have is from around 180 AD. The so-called “Muratorian fragment” lists the books with a brief summary. The beginning of the list is missing, but it almost certainly listed Matthew and Mark. Then the list contains:

the third gospel, by Luke
the fourth gospel, by John
the acts of the apostles
the letters of Paul: to the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Galatians, the Thessalonians, the Romans; to Philemon, to Titus, two to Timothy
the letter of Jude, two letters of John
the Wisdom of Solomon (!)
the revelation of John
the revelation of Peter (with hesitation)

The differences with our canon of the New Testament are small. The Muratorian fragment also explicitly rejects a number of books; see below.

A few New Testament books remained disputed in the first four centuries: Revelation, James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2/3 John. Eventually the church recognized them as the Word of God. It also became necessary to make clear statements about the canon. Heretics (e.g. Marcion around 140 AD) had denied the canonicity of certain books, and promoted their own religious writings; decisive measure must be taken. Probably the first council that officially delineated the New Testament canon was the Council of Hippo in 393, listing the 27 books we have today, in almost the same order.

Other writings from the New-Testament era

A final category of writings consists of books and letters written in the first few centuries AD. Some of these were occasionally included with the New Testament. Several of these writings are pseudepigraphs, false claiming to have been written by one apostle or another.

The following books were often read in the early churches:

  • the Shepherd of Hermas
  • the Teachings of the Apostles (Didache)
  • the Letter of Barnabas
  • the two Letters of Clement
  • the revelation of Peter

Eventually, however, it was agreed that these writings do not have apostolic authority of the rest of the New Testament.

In recent decades, there is a renewed interest in pseudepigraphs such as the Gospel of Thomas. This is a collection of purported sayings of Jesus, written in Coptic shortly after 200 AD. It depicts a much more “gnostic” Jesus.

We can be grateful to God for giving the earliest church a keen insight in this matter. These Christians were able to recognize God’s Word in the apostolic letters and the genuine gospels, and to separate them from merely human pious writings and fakes.

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