Biblical Canon: A Short History & Proof of Divinity

The Bible Canon

The story of the Biblical Canon is the story of love, faith, and perseverance. No greater story has been told in the history of human literature. For many, in our World, the compilation of the Bible is estranged and unknown. There is a great reason for this because the canonization of today’s Bible is complicated, convoluted, and mystical. This, I feel, is the reason why the Bible is such a profound book of importance and supernatural authority.

For almost two thousand years, the Bible has been the number one selling book of all time, estimated at over six billion copies worldwide, with hundreds of different translations compiled for different ethnic backgrounds and geographical locations.[1]  Although many Theologians have different interpretations, the Bible is a book of stories, detailing the history of mankind from a Judeo-Christian perspective. It is God’s book of his revelation to all of mankind through the eyes of key prophets, preachers, teachers, leaders, his son (Jesus Christ), and his apostles. From the pages of these stories has the world, and mankind, been changed, fulfilled, and destroyed. Its importance to humanity is immeasurable but its controversy has followed its compilation and delineation from the very beginning.

The word canon comes from the Greek meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.” It is the collection of many writings, over the centuries, that were collected by ancient civilizations. “The canon lists vary slightly within various streams of Christianity. These sacred collections were formed in an organic, communal process called canonization.”[2] Here, it is important to note that various controversies have (and persist today) of the different biblical manuscripts that have been included in, and taken out of, the various Bible Canons that have been compiled over the years. There is not, and never was, just one particular Bible Canon. This is a much argued topic that follows the various Bible Canons over centuries. Scholars and Theologians have fought and differed on the various books that comprise the various Bibles. I find, that in light of such controversy, the perseverance and correlating similarities of such manuscripts conclude that despite the controversy, the Bible persists, exists, and shows its inherent power due to this fact.

The Bible is comprised of many ancient manuscripts, codexes, and other ancients writings that have persevered for centuries. “The word manuscript comes from the Latin  manu (hand) and scriptum(written). The original writing is called the autograph, from the Greek autos(self) and graphas (written).”[3] Moreover, many terms have been codified over the years to explain the various writings that have been both in and out of biblical canonization. To this date, there have been 269 written texts that have aided in, or been debated about, that make up most biblical canons of today. These terms are:

  • Protocanon — Works used in public services and as a basis of doctrine.
  • Deuterocanon — Works used in public services but not as a basis of doctrine.
  • Trito-canon — Works that are “good for reading” but not used in service or for doctrine.
  • Additional Material – Works often bound in Bibles, but not considered canonical.
  • Questionable – Works about which there is some debate.
  • Explicitly Non-Canonical – Works as a list outside of the canon.[4]

No question that the varying biblical compilations have adorned our interest, skepticism, and amazement.

bible blur christ christianity
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Early Formation

Even for Scholars, the earliest form of what Christians call the Old Testament, or what Hebrews call the Jewish Bible, is very difficult to pinpoint, both in time and order. Authorship is much debated as to who wrote the various books of the Hebrew Bible. Many scholars argue that Moses was the actual author of the first five books of the Old Testament, while others strongly debate this, most agree that he was the central figure in creating these five books, which is known as “The Torah.”

First accounts of biblical scripture were not captured in papyrus; however, they were transmitted through oral tradition[5]. Ancient tradition practiced the art of storytelling to its very specific detail. This is how so much of the Old Testament was preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. It is from this tradition that many scholars believe while the composition of Genesis was getting created, the Book of Job, handed down from ancestry was available to Moses (or whoever wrote it) was available to him during the creation process and subsequent books. The Book of Job was later put to paper but is considered by most, as the most ancient book in the Old Testament[6].

In addition to oral tradition, writings began on stone tablets. “Inscriptions were made by hammering a sharp chisel into the stone with a heavy rock or tool. Stones were sometimes covered with plaster to create a smooth writing surface (Dt 27:2). Law codes and political achievements, such as the conquest of another nation, were often inscribed in stone. The Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets (Ex 31:18).”[7] The first remnants of biblical scripture, as well as non-biblical writings, were found embedded in stone.

The Old Testament was written by a series of authors over fourteen hundred years. By the time of Moses, an alphabet had been established and humans were writing on animal skins called “papyrus”.[8] It would have been recorded on paper, then recopied and recopied for preservation. Much like the oral traditions, the process of re-copying scripture was held to the highest standard and scrutiny by both theologians and scholars of their time. Retransmitting copies of the Old Testament was terribly scrutinized by Scribes and Masoretes, who translated and re-copied ancient scripture. 

The first writings of the Old Testament (Genesis) were dated about 1400 B.C., while the last book (Malachi) is dated around 400 B.C., giving the writings of various books and authorship one thousand years of compilation[9]. These dates vary depending on the different scholar or theologian, but most agree that the entirety of the Old Testament is between one thousand to fifteen hundred years to compile.  Some date the writing of Genesis as early as 950 B.C.[10]

Although the dates may vary, the striking similarities in the various found writings do not. No matter the date, authenticity, and accuracy of the various re-copied versions of the Old Testament share congruency. When the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1947, over two thousand years after the compilation of the Old Testament, similar copies with similar sentence structure were compared to the earliest known ancient text that we have from over a thousand years ago. The compatibilities were astounding and hard to refute.[11]

What-is-the-Septuagint

The Septuagint

In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Israel. “Under Alexander’s leadership, the Greeks controlled a vast empire, one that united most of the known world.”[12] The Greek language spread, Greek culture began to infuse with Jewish tradition and law. The evolving Hebrew culture was overtaken by Greek culture;  known as the Hellenistic Age.

By 200 B.C. the Old Testament books have been canonized and recognized by most of the Jewish community. In 250 B.C. Jewish culture is multilingual in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Most people spoke Greek and the surrounding areas also spoke Greek due to the Hellenization of most of the World. The fore long conclusion was that the Hebrew Bible, at the time written in Hebrew and Aramaic, (known as Targums)[13] needed to be translated into Greek. “The first translation of the Bible into vernacular, or Koine, Greek was to serve nearly one million Jews living in Egypt, primarily in Alexandria, who could no longer read Hebrew.”[14] The compilation of the Septuagint went from 250 B.C. to 130 B.C. by many scholars and wherever portions of the Old Testament were needed in the vernacular.[15] The Septuagint is said to be made up of seventy scholars and theologians, this is where the name is derived, Septuagint is the Greek word for seventy.

The creation of the Septuagint was widely accepted by society and grew exponentially in the first century. As Christianity spread and began to incorporate Gentiles, who only spoke Greek, the Septuagint began to be the main source of the Old Testament to first-century Christians. This led to much controversy. In the Septuagint, several books were included that the Jewish community of the time did not consider to be Divinely inscribed.  These books became later known as the Books of the Apocrypha, which ended up in the Catholic Bible, but not the Reformed Bible.[16]

At the time of the second fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there were three main forms of the Hebrew Old Testament: the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Septuagint contained 46 books of the Old Testament, the Masoretic Text had, anywhere between 22 and 26 books of the Bible (Hebrew), and the Samaritan Pentateuch included the 5 books of Moses, also known as the Torah. From here there were two great divisions, one for Christianity and the other mostly Jewish. Due to the nature of the Septuagint, and its compilation, many scribes, and leaders of the Jewish community did not recognize the divinity of many books found in the Septuagint.[17] In 100 A.D., at the Council of Jamnia, the Jewish community codified what would be known as the Hebrew Bible, comprised of 36 books. This would be copied for centuries and distributed throughout the world.

person holding a bible
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The New Testament

In as early as 31 B.C., ending in 130 A.D. the Roman Empire began to conquer much of the Greek empire and a martial community of Roman Rule took over known as Pax Romana.[18] The Romans built enormous trading posts, roads, and economic advantages for all the world. This led Christianity to spread throughout the world easily. During the time of Jesus and the Apostolic age, most of Christendom used the Septuagint in their synagogues and study. The establishing Church fathers wrote on parchments called codexes. A codex was “a literary format consisting of one or more groupings of sheets sewn together and bound. Introduced in the first century ad.”[19] The first account of combining these codices with the Septuagint was known as the Muratorian Canon. This took the place over a couple of centuries starting in 160 A.D. with Tertullian and ending in 373 A.D. with Bishop Athanasius being the first to list the twenty-seven-book canon of the New Testament[20].

However, during the first three centuries, there was much debate and conflict as to what writings should be included and excluded from an official Bible Canon. In addition, Latin began to popularize most of the Western hemisphere of Christendom[21]. In the fourth century, the Bishop of Rome (Damasus) commissioned a compilation of the Septuagint and New Testament writings into the Latin vernacular.[22]  This was created by Jerome Eusebius Hieronymus, who was a famous biblical scholar well versed in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He used ancient Hebrew manuscripts for Old Testament and Greek for New Testament[23]. This sparked much controversy because he originally left out many books of the Septuagint, that were not part of the Hebrew canon.[24] This outraged many Theologians and Scholars of early Church history and for several years the Vulgate (meaning “common” or “popular”) was re-copied and the books of the Apocrypha, re-inserted from the Septuagint, were added back in. This came to be known as the original Bible Canon and is still in use within the Roman Catholic Church.   

During the Reformation Luther, and other reformed fathers re-examined the biblical canon. They concluded that the Bible Old Testament should only include those books found in the original Hebrew. They concluded, with the Jewish community, that the book of the Apocrypha, although elevated above other ancient writings of that time, was not divinely breathed and was excluded from what is now known as the Protestant Bible Canon.

Dissemination of the Bible

Up until the printing press, copies of the Bible were meticulously handwritten and scrutinized. In 1228 A.D. Stephen Langton divided the Holy Bible into Chapters. In 1488 A.D. Rabbi Isaac Nathan divided the Old Testament into verses. Robert Stephanus did the same to the New Testament in 1551.[25]

The first English translation from Latin to Middle English of the Bible began in 1382 and ended in 1384 by John Wycliffe. “Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of the clergy, which was central to their powerful role in England. He then attacked the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies.”[26] He was a strong advocate that the Bible should be in the vernacular of the people, and his English translation, known as the Wycliffe Bible was heavily looked upon as the precursor of the Protestant Reformation. In strong opposition to his criticism of the Papacy, many of his doctrines were later declared heretical by the Roman Catholic Church.[27]

The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century sparked the dissemination of the Bible like never before. In 1455 A.D. Johann Guttenberg printed the first movable type Bible; from the Latin Vulgate. Seventy years later, Martin Luther would translate the Greek Bible into German between 1522 to 1534 A.D.[28] Luther’s Bible gave inspiration for the first English printed Bible in 1525 by William Tyndale. Tyndale was later captured, strangled, and burned at the stake for it.[29]

The First legal translation of the Bible was the Myles Coverdale translation in 1535. Later that century, the Geneva Bible (known as the Pilgrim’s Bible), was the first printed Bible to be separated into chapters and verses. This was the Bible that was brought over by the Pilgrims and established in America. This Bible was used by the Puritans to make the case of separation of Church and State against the religious marriage of the Church with the Monarchy.   

KJV-King-James-Version-Bible-first-edition-title-page-1611.xcf

Finally, the last important translation of the Bible (King James) was at the beginning of the seventieth century, first commissioned in 1604 A.D. This translation “was born of the Royal desire for a counterrevolutionary, unannotated alternative to the Geneva Bible. The work of fifty-four translators commissioned by King James and published in 1611 A.D., this ‘Authorized Version’ was the officially sanctioned Bible of England.”[30] “The books of the King James Version included the 39 books of the Old Testament, an intertestamental section containing 14 books of the Apocrypha, and the 27 books of the New Testament.”[31]

The history and makeup of the Bible are astonishing. For centuries, this great book has lead the way for civilization to grow and prosper as human beings. Although its true authorship is as mysterious as its historical makeup, its inherency and ability to stay relevant as societies evolve is nothing less than miraculous. No other form of literature has had as much influence on the history of mankind while evolving with mankind. Yet, the message of faith, love, and hope remains ever unwavering. “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) By understanding the historicity of biblical canon, and all who labored, testified, and died in the process of its compilation and assertion into the annuls of literary lore, no other statement can be made to emphasize the truth and impact that this good book has had on society.  

Bibliography

Barry, John D. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press., 2016.

Beal, Timothy K. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Mariner Books, 2012.

Brake, Donald L. A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the World’s Bestselling Book. Baker Books, 2008.

Drane, John William., et al. The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible. Reader’s Digest Association, with Permission of Lion Pub, 1987.

Evans, Eli. Canon Comparison. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2014.

Freedman, Harry. The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, Conflict and the Quest for Meaning. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Hamel, Christopher de. The Book: a History of the Bible. Phaidon Press, 2001.

Heiser, Dr. Michael. “How We Got the Old Testament.” Sentinel Apologetics. Lecture, n.d. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8m0NeaWK7bw&list=PLFIdsb2DgRLfasAGTLyOgWB1KejGahi6R&index=5&t=4517s.

MaGill, Frank N. Great Events from History: 1 – 950 A.D. Vol. 2, Salem Press, 1972.

Magill, Frank N. Great Events from History: 4000 – 1 B.C. Vol. 1, Salem Press, 1972.

Maier, Dr. Paul L. “How We Got the Bible.” YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo__F1Fiq1Q&t=2068s. Accessed 25 May 2018.

“Main Page.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 11, 2018. Last modified June 11, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2018. https://www.wikipedia.org/.

Parks, Jessica, and Branson Anderson. Exploring Biblical Manuscripts. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016.

Ross, Hugh. Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job: How the Oldest Book in the Bible Answers Today’s Scientific Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2014.

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. The Realm of England, 1399 to 1688. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: DC Heath, 1976.

The KJV Cross Reference Study Bible. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2016.

Footnotes:

[1] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible” (lecture), March 20, 2017, accessed May 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo__F1Fiq1Q&t=2068s.

[2]John D. Barry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press., 2016), Canon, the overview.

[3] Jessica Parks and Branson Anderson. Exploring Biblical Manuscripts. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016.

[4] Eli Evans. Canon Comparison. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2014.

[5] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”  

[6] Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job: How the Oldest Book in the Bible Answers Today’s Scientific Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2014), quotations is taken from entire theme of Book.

[7] Jessica Parks and Branson Anderson. Exploring Biblical Manuscripts. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016.

[8] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”

[9] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”

[10] Frank N. Magill, Great Events from History: 4000 – 1 B.C., vol. 1, Ancient & Medieval (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1972), 96.

[11] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”

[12]Commentary on “What Happened Between the Old and New Testament?” The KJV Cross Reference Study Bible (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2016), 1029.

[13] Dr. Michael Heiser, “How We Got the Old Testament” (lecture), January 9, 2017, accessed June 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8m0NeaWK7bw&list=PLFIdsb2DgRLfasAGTLyOgWB1KejGahi6R&index=5&t=4517s.

[14] Frank N. Magill, Great Events from History: 4000 – 1 B.C., vol. 1, Ancient & Medieval (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1972), 418.

[15] IBID

[16] Dr. Michael Heiser, “How We Got the Old Testament.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Commentary on “Pax Romana”, The KJV Cross Reference Study Bible (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2016), 1252.

[19] John D. Barry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press., 2016), Codex.

[20] Frank N. MaGill, Great Events from History: 1 – 950 A.D., vol. 2, Ancient & Medieval (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1972), 767.

[21] Christopher De Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (London: Phaidon Press, 2001), 12.

[22] Frank N. MaGill, Great Events from History: 1 – 950 A.D., vol. 2, Ancient & Medieval (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1972), 909.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Timothy K. Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012), 119.

[25] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”

[26] Lacey Baldwin Smith, The Realm of England, 1399 to 1688, 3rd ed. (Lexington, MA: DC Heath, 1976), 41.

[27] “Main Page,” Wikipedia, June 11, 2018, John Wycliffe, accessed June 12, 2018, https://www.wikipedia.org/.

[28] Dr. Paul L. Maier, “How We Got the Bible.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Timothy K. Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012), 131.

[31] “Main Page,” Wikipedia, June 11, 2018, King James Bible, accessed June 12, 2018, https://www.wikipedia.org/.

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