Explanation of Preservation
Canonicity and Preservation
Textual Criticism and Preservation
How can one be sure that the revealed and inspired written Word of God, which the early church recognized as canonical, has been handed down to this day without any loss of material? Furthermore, since one of the Devil’s prime concerns is to undermine the Bible, have the Scriptures survived this relentless onslaught? In the beginning, Satan denied God’s word to Eve (Gen. 3:4). He later attempted to distort the Scripture in his wilderness encounter with Christ (Matt. 4:6–7). Through King Jehoiakim, he even attempted to literally destroy the physical Scriptures (Jer. 36:23). The battle for the Bible rages, but God’s Word has and will continue to outlast its archenemy and all other enemies.
God anticipated man’s, Satan’s, and demons’ malice toward the Scripture by making divine promises to preserve his Word. The very continued existence of Scripture is guaranteed in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:24–25). This even means that no inspired Scripture has been lost in the past that still awaits rediscovery.
The actual content of Scripture will be perpetuated, both on earth (Isa. 59:21) and in heaven (Ps. 119:89). Thus, the purposes of God, as published in the sacred writings, will never be thwarted, even in the least detail (cf. Matt. 5:18; 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17).
Explanation of Preservation
DEFINITION OF PRESERVATION
Preservation as a doctrine refers to the acts of God whereby he has preserved through the centuries the written record of his special revelation for his people. It begins with the specific instructions he gave to his people to preserve it. It also includes the providential way in which God has kept his Word by the diligent efforts of human agents through the millennia. It began when it was originally written, and it has continued through time as it has been gathered into the collections of canonical writings extant today.
The Westminster Confession (AD 1646) describes the doctrine of preservation this way: “The Old Testament in Hebrew … and the New Testament in Greek …, being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them” (1.8). In other words, God both inspired the writers during the composition of the text and has worked providentially through the centuries to preserve those writings. On this basis, these texts are authoritative and in their original languages can be appealed to as the final word on all matters of faith and practice.
The real question is, does the Bible itself affirm this doctrine? If it does, is that preservation miraculous or providential? Does it promise preservation in one manuscript or in a set of manuscripts or in a Greek or Hebrew edition? What place do versions (i.e., translations of the Bible into other languages) play in the process? What impact do the means of preservation have on canonization?
BIBLICAL TEACHING ON PRESERVATION
Do the Scriptures say anything concerning their own preservation through the processes of transmission (from one generation to the next) and translation (from one language to another)? An examination of what the Bible says does indicate that God has promised to preserve his Word forever in heaven (Ps. 119:160). This brings both understanding and confidence to one’s trust in God’s preservation of the Scriptures themselves. The scriptural promises are for a divinely providential rather than a miraculous preservation of the text on earth.
The Case for Perfect, Eternal Preservation. The Bible makes a direct promise regarding the preservation of God’s Word in heaven. Psalm 119:89 states, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” In the original the term “firmly fixed” means literally to be established or set in place in a lasting way. This is similar to a pillar that is permanently placed within a building when constructed. So God’s Word is forever fixed. But the key here is that the verse says that God’s Word is fixed in heaven, not on earth. This indicates that God has a permanent and perfect record of his inspired written revelation to man, but he has kept that record in heaven. The psalmist goes on to say, “Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever” (Ps. 119:152). Again, God’s Word is fixed, unchanging, and everlasting, but the perfectly preserved form of that Word is in heaven. Isaiah contrasts the transitory nature of man with the eternally enduring perfection of God’s Word when he writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). God’s Word is eternal, but this text gives no direct indication that this eternality includes a promise of a perfectly preserved copy of it here on earth. Peter also refers directly to this verse and says, “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). This statement equates the New Testament gospel message with the Old Testament as the Word of God. It also makes its eternal preservation a certainty by implication. But God still makes no direct promise in Scripture that he will preserve his Word here on earth in a flawless copy or an inspired edition beyond the original autographs themselves.
Scripture also affirms not just the certainty of the preservation of God’s Word but also the fulfillment of it. Jesus speaks of the lasting nature of God’s Word this way: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). There are two significant points to be made here. The first relates to the terms “iota” and “dot.” The iota refers to the yodh, which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The dot is actually the word for “a hook,” which here describes even the smallest stroke of a pen that would distinguish one letter from another. This could be compared to the hooked line on the R that distinguishes it from a P in the English alphabet. The point Jesus is making is clear: what God has said, he means. Nothing will prevent God from accomplishing any of it—down to the smallest point.
This text is often cited as proof that God has promised to preserve his written Word here on earth. However, a close examination of the text shows that Christ’s point is not that it is necessarily preserved in print here but that all of it will be accomplished or come to pass. Still, this statement seems to inherently imply that God will preserve his written revelation. How can it be a witness to mankind if it is not preserved in print so that man can read it before, during, and after it has come to pass? Nevertheless, the promise is about fulfillment, not preservation. Jesus goes on to make the same statement about his own words when he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Again, the implication is clear: when Jesus speaks, it is as lasting and eternally sure and binding as when God speaks. Contextually, though, Jesus was speaking about the fulfillment of all that he said concerning the events that would take place in that generation and in the coming age. It was not a promise directly related to the record of his words or of the teachings in the New Testament.
So the Bible affirms that God has promised to fulfill every word and every promise given in Scripture. It also confirms that God will preserve his Word forever, unchanged, in heaven. But there is no direct statement or guarantee of an absolutely flawless preservation of a copy or copies of his Word here on earth. That does not mean that he has not preserved it in a completely reliable way. It means that he has chosen to preserve the earthly record of his revelation in a providential way through diligent human efforts. Because thousands of Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts have been recovered and carefully compared, the best Christian scholars have concluded that the original biblical text has been essentially recovered and reconstituted. So God’s Word has been preserved perfectly in heaven and faithfully on earth.
The Call for Diligent Earthly Preservation. In the heavenly realm, God has promised to preserve his Word flawlessly forever. In the earthly realm, he has providentially preserved it through his people, who have the responsibility to protect and transmit it. This is evidenced first of all from the repeated commands God gave to his people not to add or take away anything from his Word (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Jer. 26:2; Rev. 22:18–19). These repeated charges make it clear that what God said through the pens of the human authors was exactly what he wanted to say. His people were accountable not only to obey it all but also to preserve it to the letter. When these statements are coupled with Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:18, it is obvious that the final standard by which everyone will be measured is the originally inspired autographs. As such, it is essential that God’s people exercise extreme care in copying, translating, and producing his Word, not to mention diligence in interpreting it. God has fixed his Word in heaven, but he leads believers in the responsibility to retain and secure its integrity here.
The best evidence that God has retained his Word flawlessly in heaven while entrusting the preservation of the earthly record to his people is found in the Scripture itself. In Exodus it says that when God finished speaking, he gave Moses “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). So God personally wrote this portion of Scripture in stone and gave it to Moses. But when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets in hand, he saw the sin of the people and in anger smashed the tablets (Ex. 32:19). God actually allowed Moses to destroy the only copy of those commandments—even before the people had seen or heard them. There was, at this point and for a brief time thereafter, no earthly copy of these commandments. Nevertheless, God was able to restore fully and verbatim what was lost through the actions of a man. He instructed Moses to cut out two tablets like the first ones and come up to Mount Sinai. Then, over the next forty days, he had Moses write out on those tablets the same commandments that he had originally given (Ex. 34:1–2, 27–28). God does entrust the care of his Word to his people.
He is also able to restore it to the letter if it is lost. The most extensive example of both God’s willingness to allow his Word to be destroyed and his ability to restore it is in Jeremiah 36. It was the fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign as king over Judah. God told Jeremiah to take a scroll and pen his word as a message to be given to the king calling him to repentance. The text says, “Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him” (36:4). Baruch then delivered that scroll to the officials, who took it to the king. When a servant read it to the king, his response to God’s call to repent was clear: “As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot” (36:23). This scroll was the first edition of the book of Jeremiah. God again allowed a man to destroy his Word. In this case, it was not anger over sin (as in the case of Moses) but an outwardly rebellious rejection of God’s Word! That the Word of God was not destroyed is evidenced by the next event. God again restored it verbatim:
Now after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned.” … Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, who wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them. (36:27–28, 32)
The book of Jeremiah found in today’s Bible is the original text destroyed by the king along with God’s additional revelations and judgments, which include the record of Jehoiakim’s rejection and destruction of the original text. God’s Word is settled in heaven, and he is able to recall it and inspire a prophet to write it accurately again.
While it is true that God has acted directly at times to restore portions of his Word that have been lost or destroyed on earth, he has also withheld it as a judgment. He allowed the temple priests to misplace the book of the Law for more than fifty years (2 Kings 22:8–10; 2 Chron. 34:14–16). For more than a generation God’s people were without his Word because of their unfaithfulness. Yet even though a generation was ignorant of God’s Word, he still held them accountable for it. God punished the nation for the wickedness committed during the time of their carelessness.
Coming at this point from a different angle, the exception proves the rule. For example, at least two words are missing from every extant copy of Samuel dating back at least two thousand years (see 1 Sam. 13:1). The significance of these omissions is minimal. The two words that are missing are numbers related to Saul’s age at the time he became king and to the number of years he reigned as king. It is a fairly simple exercise to do the math and discern a limited number of potential readings that make sense of the text. Nevertheless, this missing portion of text alone proves that the earthly preservation of Scripture is not a perpetual, miraculous act of God. He has instead entrusted his people with the responsibility to retain his Word through diligent human efforts. The Old and New Testament scribal practices demonstrate precisely this kind of careful scrutiny and care of the extant copies and the copying process.
If God has not flawlessly preserved his Word on earth—and has instead left it up to the efforts of men—are the copies still considered Scripture? The Bible considers copies of the Scriptures to be the Word of God. For example, God gave instructions to Moses concerning the practices that were to be followed by the future kings of Israel:
And when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deut. 17:18–20)
Two key points can be derived from this passage. First, the king’s copying was to be done under the watchful eye of the priests, which indicates that the copies were to be done with extreme care and painstaking precision. The king was instructed to make as exact a copy as possible, which was then certified by the priests as accurate. God expects his people to be zealous in preserving his Word—even in the copying process. Second, the copy was to be obeyed with promises for obedience equal to following the instructions of the original itself. In this way, God tethered the copies of Scripture to the autographs of Scripture. A copy of the Word of God is the Word of God insofar as it matches the original.
As stated, the work of preserving the text of Scripture is a providential act, not a miraculous one. Even though God has at times acted directly to restore a portion of his Word that was destroyed, that has not proven to be his standard practice. Instead, he has placed the burden of responsibility to recognize, preserve, and transmit his Word on his faithful people. Thus, preservation involves two distinct elements—canonicity and textual criticism.
Canonicity and Preservation
The Bible is actually one book from one divine author, though it was written over a period of fifteen hundred years through the pens of over forty men. Beginning with the creation account of Genesis 1–2, written by Moses around 1405 BC, and extending to the account of eternity future in Revelation 21–22, written by the apostle John around AD 95, God progressively revealed himself and his purposes in the inspired Scriptures.
All this raises a significant question: How can one know which supposed sacred writings were to be included in the canon of Scripture and which ones were to be excluded? Over the centuries, three widely recognized principles were used to validate the writings that constituted divine, inspired revelation. First, the writing had to have been authored by a recognized prophet or apostle or by someone associated with one, as in the case of the books of Mark, Luke, Hebrews, James, and Jude. Second, the writing could not disagree with or contradict any previous Scripture. Third, the church had to display a general consensus that a writing was an inspired book. Thus, when various councils met in church history to consider the canon, they held no official vote for the canonicity of a book but rather recognized universally—after the fact—that it was written by God and belonged in the Bible.
With regard to the Old Testament, by the time of Christ the entire Old Testament had been written and acknowledged by the Jewish community. The last book, Malachi, had been completed about 430 BC. Not only did the Old Testament canon of Christ’s day conform to the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles today, but it did not contain the uninspired Apocrypha, that group of fourteen extrabiblical writings that were written after Malachi and attached to the Old Testament in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint (ca. 200–150 BC). Though rejected, these spurious writings are included in some versions of the Bible. However, not one passage from the Apocrypha is cited by a New Testament writer, nor did Jesus affirm any of it when he recognized the Old Testament canon of his era (cf. Luke 24:27, 44).
By Christ’s time, the Old Testament canon had been divided into two lists of twenty-two or twenty-four books respectively, each of which contained the same material as the thirty-nine books of our modern Protestant versions. In the twenty-two-book canon, some books were considered as one—for example, the Book of the Twelve (incorporating the twelve so-called Minor Prophets), Jeremiah and Lamentations, Judges and Ruth, and 1 and 2 Samuel.
The same three key tests of canonicity that applied to the Old Testament were also applied to the New Testament. In the case of Mark and Luke-Acts, the nonapostolic authors were considered to be, in effect, the penmen for Peter and Paul, respectively. James and Jude were written by Christ’s own half brothers. While Hebrews is the only New Testament book whose authorship is unknown for certain, its content is so in line with both the Old and New Testaments that the early church concluded that it must have been written by an apostolic associate. Since circa AD 350–400, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament have been universally accepted as inspired by God.
DEFINITION OF CANONICITY
Canonicity refers to the church’s recognition and acceptance of the books of Scripture as God’s inspired Word. The term itself comes from the Greek word kanōn, which originally meant a “reed” or a “rod.” Since a rod was frequently used as a measuring stick, the word began to convey the idea of a “standard” or “rule.” The word kanōn is used four times in the New Testament, always in a metaphorical sense. Paul employs it three times in 2 Corinthians 10 (vv. 13, 15–16) to refer to a geographical boundary. In Galatians 6:16, he uses it to refer to a moral standard or rule for believers to live by. All this illustrates that by the end of the apostolic age, the term was predominantly understood as a word that referred metaphorically to a rule, a measure, a boundary, or a standard.
It was not until the middle of the fourth century AD that the term was used to speak of the authoritative collection of books recognized as the product of divine inspiration. In fact, Athanasius (295–373) first applied the term canon to Scripture in the Decrees of the Council of Nicaea, published shortly after AD 350. In these writings, he referred to The Shepherd of Hermas as not being part of the canon. Shortly thereafter, the Council of Laodicea used the terms “canonical” and “noncanonical” to refer to individual books either as accepted as part of the Bible or rejected as not inspired by God. It is in this sense that the term has been understood in reference to the Scriptures.
There are two primary ways in which the canon has historically been defined. The traditional view of Roman Catholicism holds that the Bible is an authoritative collection of writings. That is, the Bible contains the books that the church has collected and authoritatively determined and affirmed as Scripture. According to this view, the church decides which books belong in the Bible.
The biblical view understands that the canon is a collection of divinely authoritative writings. It is not the church (or the people of God) that determines which books are inspired by God and are thereby Scripture. The writings themselves are vested with the authority of God on the basis of divine inspiration. They are the Word of God because they were written under the Spirit’s inspiration. The people of God (the church for the New Testament, Israel for the Old Testament) merely recognize the authority present within those writings. Canonicity is based on the fact of inspiration, not the process or agency that did the collecting.
NEED FOR THE CANON
Beginning with the composition of the Torah, there is a clear, divine injunction to recognize and preserve the written revelation of God. By the time of Christ, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament (perhaps actually comprising twenty-two in Hebrew, with some books such as 1 and 2 Samuel combined in one scroll) were universally recognized as Scripture. The need for a New Testament canon on par with the Old Testament is also apparent. The apostles were Christ’s formal and authorized representatives (Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; Acts 1:4–8, 15–26; 2:42). As they began to pass from the scene (whether through death or martyrdom), it became increasingly necessary to preserve their teachings. Even the apostles were concerned about this issue (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). Preserving the written testimony of the apostles became ever more significant as the first century neared its end. This providential process of preservation began with individual churches copying, collecting, and sharing these writings. Later, the church at large formally recognized the inspired twenty-seven books of the New Testament as Scripture. This process of recognition did not establish the canon but did formally affirm what was already established based on inspiration.
The Old Testament Canon. The Old Testament was written over a period of about one thousand years. The Pentateuch was completed by Moses just prior to his death in 1405 BC, with the exception of Deuteronomy 34:5–12, which chronicles Moses’s death, possibly written by Joshua. These first five books were unhesitatingly accepted by Joshua and the elders of Israel as the divinely authoritative Word of God and were placed into the ark (Deut. 31:24–26). The Old Testament canon was functionally established by Ezra in the fifth century BC following the return from captivity. It is generally recognized that the Old Testament canon was established by a three-principle evaluation. First, the book was written through the process of inspiration itself—usually affirmed by the author himself (2 Sam. 23:1–2; Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1:1–2). Second, the prophet’s contemporaries frequently recognized the work (Ex. 24:3; Josh. 1:8; Jer. 26:18; Dan. 9:2). Third, the prophet’s contemporaries determined to preserve the book as part of God’s Word (Deut. 31:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Prov. 25:1; 2 Kings 23:24; Dan. 9:2). In addition to these basic considerations, Jewish leaders compared any new revelation with the existing Scriptures as required by God’s law (Deut. 12:32; 13:1–5).
By the time of Christ, a universally accepted and fixed collection of books was recognized as the canonical Old Testament. These books coincide with the thirty-nine books contained in the Protestant Old Testament; Israel never accepted the Apocrypha as canonical. The testimonies of Jesus and the apostles demonstrate their absolute acceptance of the Hebrew canon as Scripture. Jesus quotes from each of the major sections of the Old Testament—including Moses and the Pentateuch (Matt. 4:1–11; John 3:14; 5:45–47), David in the Psalms (Luke 20:41–44), and Isaiah (Matt. 13:13–15) and Jonah (Matt. 12:39–40) from the Prophets. He affirms each as part of God’s authoritative Scripture by basing both doctrine and practice on what it says. The testimony of the apostles mirrors that of Jesus. They quote from the Old Testament in their preaching (Acts 2:17–21, 25–28, 31, 34–35; 3:22, 25; 4:25–26). They frequently build their case for the gospel in the New Testament from Old Testament citations (Matt. 1:22–23; 4:14–16; 8:17; 12:17–21; 13:35; 21:4–5; John 12:38–41; 19:24; Rom. 1:16–17; 3:9–20; 4:1–12; 9:6–13, 15–17, 25–26, 27–29, 33). Even Paul’s evangelistic practice of going first to the Jews in the synagogues and reasoning from the Old Testament Scriptures attests to their unreserved acceptance of the Jewish canon (Acts 17:2–3).
One noticeable distinction between the Hebrew Old Testament and modern Bibles in English and other languages is the arrangement of the books. Jesus and the New Testament writers generally acknowledged a two- or threefold arrangement of the Old Testament books—the Law and the Prophets or the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Luke 24:44). It would seem that Jesus recognized an arrangement of the Old Testament books that began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles, largely based on his reference (Luke 11:50–51) to the blood of the prophets from Abel (Gen. 4:1–16) to Zechariah (2 Chron. 24:20–22). This order is much like that found in the definitive edition of the Hebrew Old Testament, drawn from the Masoretic text. While the arrangement in the English Bible is derived primarily from the Vulgate and secondarily from the Septuagint, the English Bible’s differences with the Hebrew Old Testament in no way alter the fact that it contains the same specific books that are recognized as canonical in the Hebrew Bible—the order is secondary.
The New Testament Canon. The New Testament was written over a period of fifty years. It consists of twenty-seven books composed by eight or nine different human authors and includes four Gospels, the book of Acts (the companion volume to Luke’s Gospel), twenty-one Epistles, and the book of Revelation. The first written was the epistle of James in AD 45. The last was Revelation, penned by John in about AD 95. Prior to these New Testament books, the church had no authoritative writings apart from the Old Testament, which Jesus and the apostles recognized as the Word of God. The New Testament books were recognized as equally divinely inspired and authoritative as the Old Testament at the time they were written. Peter attested to Paul’s letters as being Scripture (2 Pet. 3:14–16). Paul quoted from Deuteronomy and Luke, affirming both as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18). John testified that he wrote Revelation at the direct insistence of Christ himself as a revelation from God to his church (Rev. 1:11, 19; 4:1; 22:8–13). The New Testament books were added to Scripture at the point of inspiration and original authorship. They were canonical at the time of writing—not when the church accepted them as such. There was, however, a process over time whereby the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were individually and collectively recognized as Scripture by God’s people. This process of canonization for the New Testament included three historical stages: circulation, collection, and recognition.
The period of circulation. The early church recognized the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament as Scripture as a settled truth. The divine authority of these books was unquestioned. This commitment was demonstrated through the consistent practice of Christ and his apostles quoting from the Old Testament and identifying it as the very Word of God. At the time when the New Testament books were originally written, the churches that initially received them recognized them as Scripture, and soon afterward those churches began to read these texts side by side with the Old Testament Scriptures in their assemblies (1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3). The practices of copying and sharing these texts with other churches accompanied the recognition of these books as Scripture, just as some books even called for such practices (Col. 4:16). This early circulation and collection process resulted in a largely church-wide awareness of most of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament by the early second century AD. However, the beginnings of this process involved primarily the circulation of these texts on an individual basis.
The period of collection. The corporate worship services of the early church followed the patterns established by the synagogue. This included the public reading of Scripture and expositions or homilies (sermons) often derived from those texts (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 17:2–3; 1 Tim. 4:13). Over time, churches copied, circulated, and collected more and more New Testament books so they could be read and included in the worship services. By the second century AD, these collections began to secure an increasingly universal acceptance among the churches, which resulted in the sharing of these texts more frequently as collections than as individual books.
The mid-second century saw the first significant church controversy over the identification of the canon itself. The second-century heretic Marcion (ca. AD 85–160) published his own formal list of what he considered to be authoritative New Testament writings. His canon included a shortened form of Luke’s Gospel, and ten of Paul’s epistles (excluding the Pastorals). Perhaps more than any other event, it was this act on the part of a heretic that compelled the orthodox church to begin to formally answer the question, which books belong in the New Testament canon?
The first significant response of the orthodox churches is reflected in the Muratorian Fragment. It is sometimes referred to as the Muratorian Canon (ca. 170) because it lists both the New Testament books that are to be accepted as authoritative and other books that should be excluded. This document very likely reflects a formal response to Marcion. While the condition of the document itself renders it incomplete as an absolute witness to the books that were accepted, it does identify twenty-one or twenty-two of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament today. Those missing include Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. The epistles of John are included, but it is unclear if they are referred to as a single epistle or if one or more are excluded. Regardless of the missing content of this document, it is clear that controversy and practical considerations compelled the early church fathers to come to a consensus in identifying which New Testament books were divinely authoritative and belonged alongside the Old Testament canon.
The period of recognition. The beginning of the fourth century AD brought with it both an end to the persecution of the church and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion. This period concluded nearly three centuries of sporadic and concentrated efforts to stamp out the church throughout the Roman Empire. In the most recent persecution, Diocletian (AD 245–311) called for the deliberate burning of countless sacred Christian works, including copies of the New Testament Scriptures as a result of his edict in AD 303. When Constantine (AD 272–337) became emperor, he not only legalized Christianity in AD 313 but also commissioned Eusebius (ca. AD 260–ca. 340) to oversee the production of fifty copies of the New Testament. It was this decree that immediately elevated the issue of formally recognizing the specific books that make up the New Testament canon.
Eusebius, having personally experienced much of the persecution under Diocletian, became perhaps the most significant early church historian. He records in his history not only much related to the historical events themselves but also a great deal about the challenges in recognizing the New Testament canon. Eusebius divided the early church writings into three categories: the acknowledged books, the disputed books, and the heretical books. As the categories suggest, his list begins by identifying those books universally accepted as canonical (i.e., divinely authoritative). These are all the books whose authenticity is undisputed. The normal standard included the issue of divinely sanctioned authorship—that is, it was written by an apostle or one who possessed a derived apostolic authority (e.g., Luke). Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, Eusebius’s list included all but James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude in the acknowledged books. He also listed Revelation as possibly questionable due primarily to a lack of circulation among the Eastern churches. In the end, all twenty-seven books of the New Testament were included.
The finalization of the formal process of recognizing the New Testament canon was to a large degree completed by Athanasius (AD 295–373). In his Festal Letter of AD 365, he defined the extent of the New Testament canon as the twenty-seven books of our New Testament today. He also strictly forbade the use of any others as canonical—including the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas (both of which were debated). These decisions were later ratified by the Council of Hippo in AD 393. Since that time, there has been throughout orthodox Christianity a universal acceptance of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as canonical.
CRITERIA FOR CANONICITY
As mentioned, the canonicity of all sixty-six books of the Bible was established at the point of inspired authorship. Only God the Holy Spirit can testify to the authority of his Word. This is the reality of the self-witness of Scripture. From a Christian perspective, recognition of the Old Testament canon was settled by Jesus and the apostles’ acceptance of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew canon. For the New Testament, though early believers were living by the truths of the inspired books for centuries, the historical recognition took some time. However, that does not suggest that there was no canon. It only means that a consensus regarding the limits of the collection had to triumph over other suggestions and options.
The external criteria for accepting any book as canonical included the original essential qualifications of (1) apostolic or prophetic authorship evidencing inspiration, (2) consistent doctrinal agreement with existing Scripture, and (3) a universal acceptance by the people of God.
Human authorial credentials are a valid criterion for canonicity. God produced his Word through the agency of divinely authenticated human writers. In the Old Testament, these writers frequently authenticated their message by performing miraculous signs or making prophetic declarations that validated their divine calling. In the New Testament, God produced his Word through the agency or authority of an already authenticated apostle (1 Cor. 14:37–38; Gal. 1:9; 1 Thess. 2:13).
Second, God made it clear from the beginning that any future revelation was to be examined in light of existing Scripture before it was accepted as authentic (Deut. 13:1–5). God has consistently revealed himself throughout the canonical books so that all are in agreement with each other and the whole (Acts 17:11). Coupled with this, God directly limited both canons when he announced the close of each. To close the Old Testament canon, God announced that the next prophet would be the Elijah who was to come (Mal. 4:4–6). In the case of the New Testament, Jesus definitively declared the close of the canon to John (Rev. 22:18–19). So with the passing of the last apostle came the passing of any additional revelation until the Lord returns.
Third, the evidences of inspiration can be divided into two categories: (1) it must be true and truthful in what it says, and (2) there should be evidence in the very reading of the Word that it is able both to convey truth and to convict the human heart of sin (Heb. 4:12). Beyond this, God’s Word should be able to persuade his people corporately to recognize and affirm the authenticity of any given book. Since God’s Spirit inspired the writer to produce a divinely authoritative writing, that same Spirit has attested to it in the hearts of God’s people.
In the end, only God is able to bear adequate witness to himself and to what he has inspired (John 5:33–47; Heb. 6:13). God’s Word attests to itself. It is essential that God’s people learn to discern for themselves from the pages of Scripture how to recognize God’s inspired works. As it relates to both the Old and New Testament canons, there is stunning, definitive, and unanimous affirmation that the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible, and no others, are inspired by God.
COMPLETION OF CANONICITY
How does the church today know that God will not amend the current Bible with a sixty-seventh inspired book? In other words, is the canon closed?
Scripture texts warn that no one should delete from or add to Scripture (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6). Realizing that additional canonical books actually came after these words of warning, one can only conclude that while these admonitions permitted no deletions whatsoever, they did, in fact, allow for authorized, inspired writings to be added in order to complete the canon protected by these passages.
Several significant observations, when taken together, have convinced the church over the centuries that the canon of Scripture is actually closed, never to be reopened. First, the book of Revelation is unique to the Scripture in that it describes with unparalleled detail the end-time events that precede eternity future. As Genesis began Scripture by bridging the gap from eternity past to this present space-time existence with the only detailed creation account (Genesis 1–2), so Revelation transitions out of space and time into eternity future (Revelation 20–22). Genesis and Revelation, by their contents, are the perfectly matched bookends of Scripture.
Second, just as there was prophetic silence after Malachi completed the Old Testament canon, so there has been a parallel silence since John delivered the book of Revelation. This leads to the conclusion that the New Testament canon was closed then as well.
Third, since there have not been, nor are there now, any authorized prophets or apostles in either the Old Testament or New Testament sense, there are not any potential authors of more inspired, canonical writings. God’s Word, “once for all delivered to the saints,” is never to be added to but is to be earnestly contended for (Jude 3).
Fourth, of the four biblical exhortations not to tamper with Scripture, only the one in Revelation 22:18–19 contains warnings of severe divine judgment for disobedience. Further, Revelation is the only book of the New Testament to end with this kind of admonition and was the last New Testament book to be written. Therefore, these facts strongly suggest that Revelation was the last book of the canon and that the Bible is complete; to either add or delete would bring God’s severe displeasure.
Finally, the early church, those closest in time to the apostles, believed that Revelation concluded God’s inspired writings, the Scriptures. So based on solid biblical reasoning, we can conclude that the canon is and will remain closed. There will be no sixty-seventh book of the Bible.
Textual Criticism and Preservation
Since the Bible has frequently been translated into multiple languages and distributed throughout the world, how can one be sure that error has not crept in, even if unintentionally? It is certainly true that as Christianity spread, people desired to have the Bible in their own languages, which required translations from the original Hebrew and Aramaic languages of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. Not only did the work of translators provide an opportunity for error, but publication also afforded continual possibilities of error since copies were made by hand until the printing press arrived circa AD 1450.
Through the centuries, the practitioners of textual criticism, a precise manuscript science, have discovered, preserved, catalogued, evaluated, and published an amazing array of biblical copies from both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the number of existing biblical manuscripts dramatically outdistances the existing fragments of any other ancient literary work. By comparing text with text, the textual critic can confidently determine what the original prophetic/apostolic writing contained.
Although existing copies of the main, ancient Hebrew text (Masoretic) date back only to the tenth century AD, two other important lines of textual evidence bolster the confidence of textual critics that they have reclaimed the originals. First, we can compare the tenth-century AD Masoretic text to the Septuagint, the Greek version translated circa 200–150 BC, with the oldest existing manuscripts dating back to circa AD 325. There is, in general, an amazing consistency between the two, which speaks of the accuracy in copying the Hebrew text for centuries. Second, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947–1956 (manuscripts that are dated ca. 200–100 BC) proved to be monumentally important. After comparing the earlier Hebrew texts with the later ones, only a few slight variants were discovered, none of which changed the meaning of any passage. While some argue for the development of a plurality of authoritative texts for the Old Testament because of periodic significant differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text, it appears far more likely that a single authoritative, early Masoretic text base was maintained by scribes following the Babylonian exile. While variants are evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls and various versions, the extant records show a consistent conformity to the Masoretic text. Even though the Old Testament had been translated and copied for centuries, the latest version (the Masoretic text) is readily recognized as an authentic and authoritative representation of the original autographs.
The New Testament findings are even more decisive because a much larger amount of material is available for study. There are over five thousand extant Greek New Testament manuscripts that range in size from the whole New Testament to scraps of papyri that contain as little as a part of a single verse. A few fragments date to within twenty-five to fifty years of the original writing. New Testament textual scholars have generally concluded (1) that over 99 percent of the original writings have been reclaimed, and (2) that of the remaining potentially alternate readings, there are no variants substantially affecting any Christian doctrine. It has even been asserted that if every possible variant were accepted, the message of each chapter of the Bible that would be affected would read essentially the same.
With this wealth of biblical manuscript evidence in the original languages and with the disciplined activity of textual critics to establish with almost perfect accuracy the content of the autographs, many errors that have been introduced or perpetuated by the thousands of translations over the centuries can be identified and corrected by comparing the translation or copy with the reassembled original. By this providential means, God has fulfilled his promise to preserve the Scriptures.
EXPLANATION OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM
While Protestants universally agree about the identification of the books of the Bible themselves, some issues related to content still demand attention. This is due to the fact that none of the original works of the biblical authors have survived to this day. The only way the biblical books were preserved and passed down was by hand copying them until about AD 1450, when printing presses began mass producing the Bible. This hand-copying process necessarily introduced scribal errors into the biblical text, which explains some of the issues related to the wording of individual passages and even some of the more significant controversial textual problems (e.g., Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11).
At this point, the process of textual criticism comes to help. Textual criticism is best defined as the careful examination of the existing ancient copies of Scripture in order to determine the purest copies of the original text. The process itself is a science, but fundamental valuation decisions factor into the equation when choosing one reading over another, and these involve human judgment. The basic process begins with a careful examination of every existing, reliable copy of the biblical text in question. The textual critic considers various alternate readings and identifies the reading that has the strongest textual evidence to be the original penned by the biblical author. If more than one reading has strong evidence for it, the secondary ones are listed as marginal readings (often in a column note or a footnote in most Bibles). Typical textual-critical weighting factors include the oldest reading, the shortest reading, the most widely attested reading geographically, and the reading that best explains the variant(s). When these factors are taken together, the textual critic can make an educated decision in order to affirm the reading that most likely reflects what the biblical author originally wrote.
The process of textual criticism involves issues of varying levels of complexity between the two Testaments. There is a massive amount of textual evidence for the New Testament. As noted, some Greek manuscripts date back to within a generation of the actual writing of the text. This evidence also covers a broad geographic area and is confirmed over the full time frame from about AD 100 to about 1450, when the first printing presses began to publish complete collections of the Greek New Testament. By way of comparison, the Old Testament was written over a period of about a thousand years from 1400 to 400 BC. There are far fewer existing witnesses to the Old Testament text than to the New Testament text. Much of the textual evidence is more than a thousand years removed from the original writing. Even the reliability of some of the oldest witnesses (like the Qumran scrolls) is debated. These factors collectively contribute to a greater reliance on versional evidence for the Old Testament text.
Nevertheless, when all the textual evidence for both Testaments is evaluated, most scholars affirm that the Bible is essentially in agreement word-for-word with the original from Genesis through Revelation. Even beyond this, when all the variants are examined, most of them are readily identifiable and easily resolvable. They include things as obvious and insignificant as spelling errors, incidental omission of words, transposition of words or letters within a word, and the like. Still other variants are obviously a copyist’s explanatory insertions or deliberate alterations for various reasons. When these added considerations are taken into account, the Bible can be shown to be reliable as a faithfully preserved copy of what the original authors wrote. For that which remains, there are no significant readings in doubt, and none alter or even bring into doubt any biblical doctrine. God has inspired the writing of his Word. He has also providentially preserved it through the process of human copying.
If the Bible really is God’s Word, then why are there are no original manuscripts of any of the sixty-six books of the Bible in existence today? Would not a quick look at the original letter Paul wrote to the saints at Rome or at the actual scrolls on which Moses penned the book of Genesis immediately resolve any questions as to what the Bible originally said? Why are there no preserved original autographs of any of the books of the Bible? The primary reason for this is that parchment, vellum, and other materials do not readily hold up over thousands of years. Add to this the normal wear and tear that comes with repeated usage, neglect, transportation, natural disasters, and even deliberate destruction in times of persecution, and it is easy to see why none of the originals remain. However, a divine motivation may also stand behind the loss of all the original autographs. It eliminates the possibility for hyper-reverence and cultlike veneration to be given to the documents themselves instead of to the God who inspired them. This human tendency compelled Hezekiah to destroy the bronze serpent because people began worshiping it instead of the God who used it (2 Kings 18:4).
As discussed above, God providentially tethered the copies of Scripture to the autographs of Scripture. A copy of the Scriptures in the original language is the Word of God insofar as it matches the original. In the same way, a version (i.e., a translation) can be considered the Word of God insofar as it matches the meaning of the Word expressed in the original language. That is why there must be just as much care (if not more) given to the translation process. What a translation conveys in a different language must match as nearly as possible the meaning expressed in the original. If the copying process is expected to be exact (and that is just the process of copying word-for-word what the original says), how much more does God expect of those who are rendering it in a different language?
This is why great care should be exercised in choosing a Bible version. Readability is important in choosing a version. God intends his people to understand what he says and what he means by what he has said. At the same time, if a version poorly translates or errantly represents what God’s Word says in the original language, it misleads God’s people. God will not change his standards to match men’s errors. Thus, the more literal a translation is and the more precisely it conveys what the original languages say, the more reliable it is as a witness to God’s people. A good translation of the Scriptures into any language is the Word of God as it accurately reflects the meaning conveyed in the original language. Formal, word-for-word translations are best. But there is no evidence, biblically or historically, demonstrating that God miraculously endowed a translation with inspiration in itself. A translation is a derived witness to God’s Word. It is not a correction or an updated version of the original.
Ancient translations can also play a key role in helping to confirm a correct reading in an original-language manuscript. This is because the ancient versions record what the translator understood as the sense conveyed by the original-language text in front of him. Since these versions were written in some cases many centuries before the oldest original-language records that are still extant, they were translated from texts that are older than those that exist today. As such, they can be useful in confirming a preferred alternate reading.
The most significant ancient versions are the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta. The Septuagint is the most noteworthy of these because it is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that the church fathers frequently cited. At times, it may even be cited in the New Testament itself. It dates back about two centuries prior to the birth of Christ. The Vulgate began as a revision of the Old Latin by Jerome. It dates back to the time of the early church fathers at the beginning of the fifth century AD. Its most significant feature is that much of the Old Testament was based on the examination of Hebrew texts (rather than a Greek version). As such, it may in some cases read more closely to the original than the Septuagint. The Peshitta is a translation of the Bible into Syriac. It is the first and oldest version of the entire Bible (Old Testament ca. AD 150 and New Testament ca. AD 425). The amazing thing about these versions is that they all agree essentially (in most cases, nearly verbatim) with the overall witness of the copies of the original-language manuscripts extant today. Even where variants occur, more than 90 percent of them are insignificant or easily resolvable (including issues such as spelling and word order). God has indeed providentially preserved his Word through the diligent efforts of his people.
God intended his Word to abide forever (preservation). Therefore, his written, propositional self-disclosure (revelation) was protected from error in its original writing (inspiration) and collected in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments (canonicity).
Through the centuries, thousands of copies and translations have been made (transmission) that did introduce some errors. However, because an abundance of ancient Old and New Testament manuscripts remain today, the exacting science of textual criticism has been able to reclaim the content of the original writings (revelation and inspiration) to an extreme degree.
The sacred book that Christians today read, study, obey, and preach deserves to unreservedly be called the Bible or the Word of God since its author is God and it bears the qualities of total truth and complete trustworthiness, all of which characterize its divine source.
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 113–130). Crossway.