Canon (of the Bible) [Heb. qa·nehʹ, “reed”; Gr., ka·nonʹ, “reed, measuring rod, straightedge”].
Originally the reed served as a rule or measuring device. (Ezek. 40:3-8; 41:8; 42:16-19) The apostle Paul applied ka·nonʹ to the “boundary” of territory measured out as his assignment, and again to the “rule of conduct” by which Christians were to measure how they acted, the “routine” according to which they were to walk orderly. (2 Cor. 10:13-16; Gal. 6:16; compare Philippians 3:16.) The “Bible canon” came to denote the catalog of inspired books worthy of being used as a straightedge in measuring faith, doctrine and conduct.—See BIBLE.
The mere writing of a religious book, its preservation for hundreds of years, and its esteem by millions, do not mean it is of divine origin or canonical. It must bear credentials of Divine Authorship demonstrating that it was inspired by God. The apostle Peter states: “Prophecy was at no time brought by man’s will, but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21) An examination of the Bible canon shows that its contents measure up to this criterion in every respect.
The Bible began with the writings of Moses, 1513 B.C.E. In these are preserved God’s commandments and precepts to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the regulations of the Law covenant. What is called the Pentateuch includes the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Job, likely written also by Moses, fills in history after the death of Joseph (1657 B.C.E.) and before the birth of Moses (1593 B.C.E.), a time when there was “no one like [Job] in the earth.” (Job 1:8; 2:3) Moses, it is believed, also wrote Psalms 90 and 91.
That these writings of Moses were of divine origin, inspired of God, canonical and a safe guideline for pure worship, there can be no doubt, in the light of internal evidence. It was not through Moses’ initiative that he became the leader and commander of the Israelites; at first Moses drew back at the suggestion. (Ex. 3:10, 11; 4:10-14) Rather, God raised Moses up and invested in him such miraculous powers that even Pharaoh’s magic-practicing priests were compelled to acknowledge that what Moses did originated with God. (Ex. 4:1-9; 8:16-19) So it was not Moses’ personal ambition to be an orator and writer. Rather, in obedience to God’s command, and with the divine credentials of holy spirit, Moses was moved first to speak and then to write down part of the Bible canon.—Ex. 17:14.
Jehovah himself set the precedent for having laws and commandments written down. After speaking to Moses in Mount Sinai Jehovah “proceeded to give Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone written on by God’s finger.” (Ex. 31:18) Later we read, “And Jehovah went on to say to Moses: ‘Write down for yourself these words.’” (Ex. 34:27) Jehovah, therefore, was the one who communicated with Moses and instructed him to write down and preserve the first five books of the Bible canon. No council of men made them canonical; from their inception they had divine approval.
“As soon as Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book,” he commanded the Levites, saying: “Taking this book of the law, you must place it at the side of the ark of the covenant of Jehovah your God, and it must serve as a witness there against you.” (Deut. 31:9, 24-26) It is noteworthy that Israel acknowledged this record of God’s dealings and did not deny these facts as historical. Since the contents of the books in many instances were a discredit to the nation generally, the people might well have been expected to reject them if possible, but this never seems to have been an issue.
Like Moses, the priestly class were used by God both to preserve these written commandments and to teach them to the people. When the Ark was brought into Solomon’s temple (1027 B.C.E.), nearly five hundred years after Moses began writing the Pentateuch, the two stone tablets were still in the Ark (1 Ki. 8:9), and 385 years after that, when “the very book of the law” was found in the house of Jehovah during Josiah’s eighteenth year (642 B.C.E), the same high regard for it was still shown. (2 Ki. 22:3, 8-20) Similarly, there was “great rejoicing” when, after the return from Babylonian exile, Ezra read from the book of the law during an eight-day assembly.—Neh. 8:5-18.
Following Moses’ death, the writings of Joshua, Samuel, Gad and Nathan (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel) were added. Kings David and Solomon also made contributions to the growing canon of Holy Writings. Then came the prophets from Jonah to Malachi, each contributing to the Bible canon, each endowed with miraculous prophetic ability from God, each in turn meeting the requirements of true prophets as outlined by Jehovah, namely, they spoke in the name of Jehovah, their prophecy came true, and they turned the people toward God. (Deut. 13:1-3; 18:20-22) When Hananiah and Jeremiah were tested on the last two points (both spoke in Jehovah’s name), only the words of Jeremiah came to pass. Thus Jeremiah proved to be Jehovah’s prophet.—Jer. 28:10-17.
Just as Jehovah inspired men to write, it logically follows that he would direct and watch over the collecting and preserving of these inspired writings in order that mankind would have an enduring canonical straightedge for true worship. According to Jewish tradition, Ezra had a hand in this work after the exiled Jews were resettled in Judah. He was certainly qualified for the work, being one of the inspired Bible writers, a priest, and also “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses.” (Ezra 7:1-11) Only the books of Nehemiah and Malachi remained to be added. The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, therefore, was well fixed by the end of the fifth century B.C.E., containing the same writings that we have today.
The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was traditionally divided into three sections: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings or Hagiographa, contained in twenty-four books. The twelve “Minor Prophets” were counted as one book. By combining Ruth with Judges, and Lamentations with Jeremiah, there were only twenty-two, the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet Jerome, though seeming to favor counting twenty-two, said: ‘Some count both Ruth and Lamentations among the Hagiographa, and so get twenty-four.’
The Jewish historian Josephus, in answering opponents in his Against Apion (Book I, par. 8) around the year 100 C.E., confirms that by then the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures had been fixed for a long time. He wrote: “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. . . . As to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, the precepts for the conduct of human life.”
Canonicity of a book therefore does not rest in whole or in part on whether some council, committee or community accepts or rejects it. The voice of such noninspired men is valuable only as witness to what God himself has already done through his accredited representatives. As the noted Hebrew scholar W. H. Green is quoted as saying: “No formal declaration of their canonicity was needed to give [the books of the Hebrew Scriptures] sanction. . . . The writings of the prophets, delivered to the people as a declaration of the Divine Will, possessed canonical authority from the moment of their appearance. . . . The canon does not derive its authority from the church, whether Jewish or Christian; the office of the church is merely that of a custodian and a witness.”—The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. I, p. 554.
The exact number of books in the Hebrew Scriptures is not important (whether a certain two are combined or left separated), nor the particular order in which they follow one another, since the books remained as separate rolls long after the canon was closed. Ancient catalogues vary in the order the books are listed, as, for example, one listing places Isaiah after the book of Ezekiel. What is most important, however, is what books are included. In reality, only those books now in the canon have any solid claim for canonicity. From ancient times efforts to include other writings have been resisted. For example, neither Josephus, who clearly recognized the existence of apocryphal writings, nor Philo, a learned Jew of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.), gave any credence to the apocryphal books. Two Jewish councils held at Jabne or Jamnia, a little S of Joppa (about 90 and 118 C.E. respectively), when discussing the Hebrew Scriptures, expressly excluded all apocryphal writings.
Josephus bears witness to this general Jewish opinion of the apocryphal writings when he says: “It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes, very particularly [as, for example, in the books of Maccabees], but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former [twenty-two canonical books] by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to those [twenty-two] books of our own nation, is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, or take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.”—Against Apion, Book I, par. 8.
This long historical position of the Jews toward the Hebrew Scripture canon is very important, in view of what Paul wrote to the Romans. The Jews, the apostle says, “were entrusted with the sacred pronouncements of God,” which included writing and protecting the Bible canon.—Rom. 3:1, 2.
Acknowledging, but by no means establishing the Bible canon that God’s holy spirit had authorized, were early councils (Laodicea, 367 C.E.; Chalcedon, 451 C.E.) and so-called “church fathers” who were singularly unanimous in accepting the established Jewish canon and in rejecting the apocryphal books. Examples of such men include: Justin Martyr, Christian apologist (died c. 165 C.E.); Melito, “bishop” of Sardis (2d century C.E.); Origen, Biblical scholar (185?-?254 C.E.); Hilary, “bishop” of Poitiers (died 367? C.E.); Epiphanius, “bishop” of Constantia (from 367 C.E.); Gregory, “one of four great fathers of the Eastern Church” (257?-332 C.E.); Rufinus of Aquileia, “the learned Translator of Origen” (345?-410 C.E.); Jerome (340?-420 C.E.), Biblical scholar of the Latin church and compiler of the Vulgate. In his preface to the Vulgate, after enumerating the twenty-two books of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jerome says: “Whatever is beyond these must be put in the Apocrypha.”
The most conclusive testimony on the canonicity of the Hebrew Scriptures is the unimpeachable word of Jesus Christ and the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Though they nowhere give an exact number of books, the unmistakable conclusion drawn from what they said is that the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures did not contain the apocryphal books.
If there was not a definite collection of Holy Writings known and recognized by them and those to whom they spoke and wrote, they would not have used such expressions as: “the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29; Acts 18:24), “the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2), “the holy writings” (2 Tim. 3:15), the “Law,” often meaning the whole body of Scripture (John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25), “the Law and the Prophets,” used as a generic term meaning the entire Hebrew Scriptures and not simply the first and second sections of those Scriptures. (Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16) When Paul referred to “the Law,” he quoted from Isaiah.—1 Cor. 14:21; Isa. 28:11.
It is most unlikely that the original Septuagint contained apocryphal books. (See APOCRYPHA.) But even if some of these writings of doubtful origin crept into subsequent copies of the Septuagint circulated in Jesus’ day, neither he nor the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures quoted from them even though using the Septuagint; they never cited as “Scripture” or the product of holy spirit any apocryphal writing. So, not only do the apocryphal books lack internal evidence of divine inspiration and attestation by ancient inspired writers of Hebrew Scriptures, they also lack the stamp of approval by Jesus and his divinely accredited apostles. However, Jesus did approve the Hebrew canon, referring to the entire Hebrew Scriptures when he spoke of “all the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms,” the Psalms being the most important book in the third section called the “writings.”—Luke 24:44.
Jesus’ words at Matthew 23:35 (and at Luke 11:50, 51) are also very significant: “That there may come upon you all the righteous blood spilled on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” Timewise, the prophet Urijah was put to death during the reign of Jehoiakim more than two centuries after Zechariah’s murder near the end of Jehoash’s reign. (Jer. 26:20-23) So if Jesus wanted to cite the whole list of martyrs, why did he not say ‘from Abel to Urijah’? Evidently it was because the instance concerning Zechariah is found at 2 Chronicles 24:20, 21, and hence near the end of the traditional Hebrew canon. So in this sense Jesus’ statement did embrace all the murdered witnesses of Jehovah mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Abel listed in the first book (Genesis) to Zechariah cited in the last book (Chronicles), which, by illustration, would be like our saying “from Genesis to Revelation.”
CHRISTIAN GREEK SCRIPTURES
The writing and collecting of the twenty-seven books comprising the canon of the Christian Greek Scriptures was similar to that of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christ “gave gifts in men,” yes, “he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers.” (Eph. 4:8, 11-13) With God’s holy spirit upon them they set forth sound doctrine for the Christian congregation and, “by way of a reminder,” repeated many things already written in the Scriptures.—2 Pet. 1:12, 13; 3:1; Rom. 15:15.
Outside the Scriptures themselves there is evidence that, as early as 90-100 C.E., at least ten of Paul’s letters were collected together. It is certain that at an early date Christians were gathering together the inspired Christian writings. We read: “Just when and to what extent ‘collections’ of our NT books began to be made it is impossible to say, but it is fair to infer that a collection of the Pauline epistles existed at the time Polycarp wrote to the Phil[ippians] and when Ignatius wrote his seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, i.e. about 115 AD. There is good reason to think also that the four Gospels were brought together in some places as early as this.”—The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. I, p. 563.
Early writers such as Clement of Rome (30?-?100 C.E.), Polycarp (69?-?155 C.E.) and Ignatius (late 1st and early 2d centuries C.E.), wove in quotations and extracts from various books of the Christian Greek Scriptures, showing their acquaintance with such canonical writings. Clement of Rome in his Second Epistle, chapter 2, speaks of the Gospels and epistles as “Scripture.” Justin Martyr (died c. 165 C.E.) in his Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 49, used the expression “it is written” when quoting from Matthew, in the same way the Gospels themselves do when referring to the Hebrew Scriptures. The same is also true in an earlier work, the Epistle of Barnabas, chapter 4. Justin Martyr in his first “Apology” (chaps. 66, 67) calls the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ “Gospels.”
Theophilus of Antioch (169 C.E.) declared: “Concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.” Theophilus then uses such expressions as “the Gospel says” (quoting Matthew 5:28, 32, 44, 46; 6:3) and “the divine word gives us instructions” (quoting 1 Timothy 2:2 and Romans 13:7, 8).—Theophilus to Autolycus, Book III, chaps. 12-15.
By the end of the second century there was no question but that the canon of the Christian Greek Scriptures was closed, and we find such ones as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian recognizing the writings comprising the Christian Scriptures as carrying authority equal to that of the Hebrew Scriptures. Irenaeus in appealing to the Scriptures makes no fewer than two hundred quotations from Paul’s letters. Clement says he will answer his opponents by “the Scriptures which we believe are valid from their omnipotent authority,” that is, “by the law and the prophets, and besides by the blessed Gospel.”—The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book IV, chap. 1.
The canonicity of certain individual books of the Christian Greek Scriptures has been disputed by some, but the arguments against them are very weak. For critics to reject, for example, the book of Hebrews simply because it does not bear Paul’s name and because it differs slightly in style from his other letters is shallow reasoning. As Dr. B. F. Westcott observes, “The apostolic authority [hence the canonicity] of the Epistle is independent of its Pauline authorship.” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, Greek Text and Notes, 1889, p. lxxi) Objection on the grounds of unnamed writership is far outweighed by the presence of Hebrews in the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 2 (dated within a hundred and fifty years of Paul’s death), contained therein along with eight other letters of Paul.
Sometimes the canonicity of small books such as James, Jude, Second and Third John, and Second Peter is questioned on the grounds that these books are quoted very little by early writers. However, they make up all together only a thirty-sixth part of the Christian Greek Scriptures, and were therefore likely less circulated with less probability of being referred to. In this connection it may be observed that Second Peter is quoted by Irenaeus as bearing the same evidence of canonicity as the rest of the Greek Scriptures. (Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book V, chap. 23, par. 2, and chap. 28, par. 3) The same is true of Second John. (Book I, chap. 16, par. 3, and Book III, chap. 16, par. 8) Revelation, also rejected by some, was attested to by many early commentators, including Papias, Justin, Melito and Irenaeus.
The real test of canonicity, however, is not how many times or by what non-apostolic writer a certain book has been quoted. The contents of the book itself must give evidence that it is a product of holy spirit. Consequently, it cannot contain superstitions or demonism, or encourage creature worship. It must be in total harmony and complete unity with the rest of the Bible, thus supporting the authorship of Jehovah God. Each book must conform to the divine “pattern of healthful words,” and be in harmony with the teachings and activity of Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Cor. 4:17) The apostles clearly had divine accreditation and they spoke in attestation of such other writers as Luke and James, the half brother of Jesus. By holy spirit the apostles had “discernment of inspired utterances” as to whether such were of God or not. (1 Cor. 12:4, 10) With the death of John, the last apostle, this reliable chain of divinely inspired men came to an end, and so with the Revelation, John’s Gospel and his epistles, the Bible canon closed.
The sixty-six canonical books of our Bible in their harmonious unity and balance testify to the oneness and completeness of the Bible, and recommend it to us as indeed Jehovah’s Word of inspired truth, preserved until now against all its enemies. (1 Pet. 1:25) For a complete listing of the sixty-six books that make up the entire Bible canon, the writers, when the books were completed, and the time covered by each, see “Table of Bible Books in Order Completed” under BIBLE.—See also individual article for each Bible book.