Biblical Canon

The term canon derives from a Greek word for measuring stick. As applied to the writings of scripture, it refers to the universally accepted books of the Bible. The texts of the Hebrew Bible were likely written down and edited over a thousand-year period with the last book, Daniel, dated to the period of Hellenization that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great (c. 167 BCE). Texts that were written after this period can be found in the canon of some Christian communions but are considered by Protestants as “Apocrypha.” While recognized as worthy of study, these books are not sanctioned for use by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as appropriate texts to read as scripture in worship. Tradition suggests that the final designation of Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) texts as canonical was determined at the end of the first century CE, possibly at a council of the Sanhedrin that had been relocated to Jamnia following the destruction of Jerusalem.

It took a long time for the New Testament canon to stabilize as there were many books being used by the many early church communities. It is likely that some books were simply more available to some communities, and that some books were deemed more useful. Of the canonical Gospels, the Gospel of John appears to be the book most copied by scribes and Mark appears to be the least copied, judging from the texts that have been found to date. This may indicate that the early church communities found John to be more useful. Most scholars associate the earliest list of New Testament books declared as authoritative that matches today’s New Testament, with a letter that was written by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in the year 367 CE.

The following were some of the criteria or attributes used to determine whether an ancient text belonged in the biblical canon:

Ancient and Apostolic Authorship—A book had to be written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle, which also meant that it had to be an ancient text and not a contemporary re-interpretation of an older writing. For example, tradition suggests that the gospel of Mark was written by a person named John Mark, who was not an apostle but was thought to be a close associate of the Apostle Peter. This ascription of authorship was generally accepted by the early church of the 3rd and 4th century as the final New Testament cannon was being finalized into a version that reflects what we have today, even though the oldest manuscript of the Gospels does not specifically reference any particular author.

Theological Orthodoxy—A book had to support a perspective that a majority of the faithful would agree was consistent with the content of divine revelation in other scripture. In the case of the New Testament, the book needed to reflect the accepted understanding of the character of the person and work of Jesus Christ and consequently agree with the existing apostolic writings.

Universality—The book should be accepted as authoritative by a majority of the faithful in communities across the known world. It needed to be a book that was helpful, inspiring, and instructional, and one being read and used in the churches throughout the Body of Christ.

For Reflection and Discussion:

What surprises or puzzles you about the long process of developing the Bible?

What criteria would you use to determine whether something belongs in scripture?

Why is it important for churches to agree on a certain set of biblical texts?