Theology: The Scriptures (CANONICITY)

Canonicity is the aspect of Scripture that determines which books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, are actually the Word of God revealed to man through inspiration.

The importance of this study is in the fact that there are many other books that were written within the same time frame as the Bible. Some of these books have been set forth as equal to, if not part of Scripture. The believer needs to know why the Books we have in our Bible are there, and why other books written at the same time are not in the Bible.


1. Pardington states, concerning the term canon, that it is a “rule of life or doctrine.” (Pardington, Revelation George P. Ph.D.; “Outline Studies In Christian Doctrine”; Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1926, p 33)

2. Theissen states, “It means, in the first place, a reed or rod; then a measuring-rod; hence a rule or standard. In the second place it means an authoritative decision of a Church council; and in the third place, as applied to the Bible, it means those books which have been measured, found satisfactory, and approved as inspired of God.” (Thiessen, Henry C.; “Lectures In Systematic Theology”; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1949, p 102)

3. Bancroft mentions, “By the canonicity of the Scriptures is meant that, according to certain and fixed standards, the books included in them are regarded as parts of a complete and divine revelation, which is therefore authoritative and binding in relation to both faith and practice.” (Taken from the book, Elemental Theology by Emery H. Bancroft. Copyright 1977 by Baptist Bible College. Used by permisssion of Zondervan Publishing House. p 20)

Bancroft lists a doctrinal statement which bears reading. “The books of the Old and New Testament as we have them today are shown to have been accepted very early by the church as comprising the complete revelation from God and as having been written by the human authors to whom they are accredited.” (Taken from the book, Elemental Theology by Emery H. Bancroft. Copyright 1977 by Baptist Bible College. Used by permisssion of Zondervan Publishing House. p 26)

Canon comes from the Greek term “kanon” which is a reed or measuring rod. This is Strong’s number 2583, and it is used in Galatians 6:16, “And as many as walk according to this rule” The term probably came from the Hebrew term “kaneh” which means rod or measuring rod.

The term canon was used by Athanasius in reference to the Bible in A.D. 367 in a document called the Easter Letter, but the idea was around much earlier. The canon was set in A.D. 397 at the Council of Carthage.

The term canon does not mean that the authority or genuineness of the book came from some designation placed upon it by man or council, but that by the book’s very nature, it was Recognized by the church as authoritative and genuine.

The books that are in the canon today are there because God inspired them, and from the day of their being set down, were The Word of God. God also guided the church in the recognition process so that the proper books were found to be authoritative. The councils and people only recognized the fact they were the Word of God on an official basis.

This is a summary of guidelines that were used in determining the canonicity of the books of the Bible.


1. The book must have been written, edited, or endorsed by a prophet.

2. The Old Testament books were endorsed by Christ and Paul. Christ, Luke 24:27,44; John 5:39. Paul, 2 Timothy 3:16.

3. The New Testament quotes all but seven of the Old Testament books. (Obadiah, Nahum, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Some list only Esther, Ecclesiastes & Song of Solomon.)

The Apocrypha, those books included in the Roman Catholic Canon, were never quoted in the New Testament. The Apocrypha was accepted as part of the Catholic Canon at the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546.

Jewish tradition tells us that Ezra gathered the Old Testament canon together. The Old Testament canon was not settled until the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90, and then there was discussion until A.D. 200. Most feel that Ezra’s time was the actual beginning of the canon even though it wasn’t set by a council until later.

The following reasons are presented.”

(1) The testimony of Josephus that the canon was completed in the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus in the life-time of Ezra;

(2) Ezra was especially concerned with the sacred books. He is called ‘the scribe’ (Nehemiah 8:1, 4, 9, 13; 12:26, 36), ‘a ready scribe in the law of Moses’ (Ezra 7:6), and ‘a scribe of the words of the commandments of Jehovah, and of his statutes to Israel’ (Ezra 7:11);

(3) the character of Ezra’s time was such that the collection of the sacred books may appropriately have been made in it. After the Exile the people were founding anew the religious institutions of the nation. What could be more natural than to gather the volumes of the sacred library?” (Theissen, p 103)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are also important to show that the canon was pretty much set between the testaments. These scrolls have information from all the Old Testament canon except for Esther. Along with scrolls from the canon there are other scrolls as well. Some of these are commentaries. The commentaries are only on the books that are in the canon. This indicates that the people collecting these scrolls saw a difference between the canon books and other books. Through the Dead Sea Scrolls we have authentication of all Old Testament books except Chronicles, Esther and the Song of Solomon.

The Church fathers held to the canon which we have, with the exception of Augustine. Augustine accepted the Apocrypha, though some writers state that he did not fully accept the Apocryphal books as authoritative.


Different men through the ages have used different criteria for determining canonicity. Luther held that if a book could teach Christ it was acceptable as scripture.

1. “…must have been written or endorsed by an Apostle, or received as divine authority in the Apostolic Age.” (Pardington p 35)

Theissen expands on this and lists four criteria: a. “was the book written by an apostle” or “did the author of the book sustain such a relation to an apostle as to raise his book to the level of the apostolic books?” (Mark, Luke, Acts and Hebrews were decided with this section of the question.) b. “were the contents of a given book of such a spiritual character as to entitle it to this rank?” (This rule eliminated the Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha) c. “was the book universally received in the church?” (This test was the delay in accepting of the antilegomena books.) d. “did the book give evidence of being divinely inspired?” (Theissen, p 104)

The New Testament canon was drawn together by the church and ratified, or accepted as such, at the council of Laodicea in A.D. 363. The church worked many years prior to this to decide which books should be included in the canon.

“…the canon of the New Testament was formed gradually under the providence of God, the Holy Spirit in the churches, we believe, giving the needed discernment to accept the genuine and reject the spurious. The fact that certain books were for some time held in doubt, but later were accepted simply shows what care was exercised.” (Pardington p 35)

Thiessen quotes Salmon’s A Historical Introduction To The Study Of The Books Of The New Testament, “It is a remarkable fact that we have no early interference of Church authority in the making of a Canon; no Council discussed this subject; no formal decisions were made. The Canon seems to have shaped itself…Let us remember that this non-interference of authority is a valuable topic of evidence to the genuineness of our Gospels; for it thus appears that it was owing to no adventitious authority, but by their own weight, they crushed all rivals out of existence.” (p 121 quoted in Theissen p 103)

We must remember that the books of scripture were read in the churches, 1 Thessalonians 5:27; the books of scripture were circulated among the churches, Colossians 4:16; the churches were warned of forgeries, 2 Thessalonians 2:2. This would indicate that the books involved were held as more important and valuable than other books of the period. They felt that these were the Word of God.

There were basically only seven books held in question. They were called “antilegomena,” or that which is spoken against. Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation

There are three manuscripts from the A.D. 170-350 era that need to be mentioned.

a. The Muratorian canon is a Latin manuscript which has our present canon with the omission of Hebrews, James, and 1 & 2 Peter. The manuscript is torn so these books may have been there at one time. This listing was discovered by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1740

b. The Old Syriac version Lacked only 2 Peter, 3 & 3 John Jude and Revelation. The rest are as they are today.

c. The old Latin version (A.D. 200) lacked II Peter, James, and Hebrews.

The important part of these texts is that the person assembling them did not add other books that were in existence. Even though they left out some books that were under discussion, they did limit themselves only to books in the present canon. This shows the books were recognized as Scripture.


Apocrypha simply means something that is hidden or covered. These are Old Testament books that are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, but rejected by Jewish and Protestant people. These are books that were written around 200 B.C. to A.D. 100.

A secondary usage of the term is the listings of books that are technically listed as Pseudepigrapha. (Kauffman, Donald T.; “The Dictionary Of Religious Terms”; Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1967)

The Dictionary of Religious Terms lists the following books as the Apocrypha: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Esther 10:4 -16:24, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Daniel 3:24-90, 13-14, The Prayer of Manasses, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees.

The Catholic Bible lists the following books over and above the usual Canon: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Esther 10:4-16:24, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah, The Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees. (Some list 1& 2 Esdras as four separate books, since these are four books combined into two.

The Additions to Daniel are also entitled and listed in some listings. Also listed at times are the Prayer Of Azariah and The Song Of The Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel And The Dragon. These books are not found in the Hebrew Old Testament, however they are found in the Septuagint (LXX) and the Latin Vulgate.

The Roman Catholic Church accepts the Apocrypha as scripture while most of protestantism reject them. The Lutheran and Episcopalian churches do not view them as adequate for doctrine, but some do use them for illustrative purposes in the Christian life.

The non canon books have many problems within themselves which kept them from being considered part of the canon. They do have historical information which may be of value to the Bible scholar and to the Historian. Example: The book of Acts records the death of Herod in 12:23,

“And immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory; and he was eaten of worms, and died.”

We don’t know if the Maccabean account of a similar death is the same, however it sheds some light on what Acts might have been speaking of.

Barnes mentions, “A similar disease is recorded of Antiochus Epiphanes, in the Apocrypha, II Mac. 9:5, “But the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, smote him with an invisible and incurable plague; for a pain in the bowels that was remediless came upon him, and sore torments of the inner parts (v 9), so that worms rose up out of the body of this wicked man,” Probably this was the disease known as “morbus pedicularis.” This has to do with being infested with lice. (Barnes, Albert, “Notes On The New Testament”; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, p 196, commenting on Acts 12:23)

Josephus in Antiq.,b. 17:ch. 6:5 states that Herod the Great, grandfather of Herod Agrippa, died of the same disease. In one place it is described as a slow, smelly, and painful death. It affects the mental faculties before death comes. (Whiston, William, Translator, “Josephus — Complete Works”; Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1960, p 364-365)


Adapted from “General Biblical Introduction” by Revelation H.S. Miller, for your interest and study. The author lists a total of twenty reasons.

1. It is understood by almost everyone that they never appeared in the Hebrew canon.

2. NeitherChrist, the apostles, nor any other writer, quoted the apocrypha in the New Testament, even though the books were in existence at the time of the New Testament’s writing.

3. Josephus the Jewish historian rejected them.

4. Philo a Jewish philosopher of Alexandria wrote multitudes of information, and within that writing, quoted the Old Testament, yet never quoted, or even mentioned, the apocrypha.

5. The apocryphal books are listed in no catologue of Old Testament books within the first four centuries A.D.

6. Jerome rejected the apocrypha and stood solidly for the Hebrew canon. (Jerome lived ca. 347-419)

7. Inspiration is not claimed by any of the authors of the apocryphal books.

8. The books contain errors in the areas of geography and history. They contradict themselves, the Bible and history.

9. They teach and uphold beliefs that contradict the canonical books. Miller lists: “Lying is sanctioned, suicide and assassination are justified, salvation by works and by almsgiving, magical incantations, prayers of the dead for the dead, etc…..”

10. There is a noticeable style and flow difference between these books and the books of the canon.

11. The books contain many absurdities.

12. When reading the Bible and then reading the apocryphal books there is a noticeable difference. The two do not belong together.

13. Most of the books were written much later than the Old Testament books were written. Some were probably written in the time of Christ.

14. The books were not held as canonical until the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 announced them a part of the canon and condemned anyone that disagreed.

15. The use of terms like “the Scriptures” in the New Testament would indicate that the writers and Christ were referring to a completed set of books, or Old Testament canon.


This is a group of writings that have been set forth as Scripture as well. They differ from the Apochrapha in that they claim to be authoritative. “Writings wrongly attributed to worthies such as Enoch, Moses, Solomon, etc. They are both Jewish and Christian. Examples of Christian epigrapha are the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Ascension of Isaiah.” (The Dictionary of Religious Terms.)

The Hebrew canon of the Old Testament breaks the books into three divisions, with the final division being broken into three subdivisions:

1. The Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

2. The Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Malachi (These men were in the office of prophet at the time they wrote.)

3. The Kethubhim: (Psalm to Chronicles in Hebrew Old Testament)

A. Poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, Job.

B. Megilloth: (A scroll of papyrus or animal skin.) Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther.

C. Non-Poetical Historical: Daniel (Because he wasn’t in the prophetic office.), Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles

Canonicity aids the believer in accepting the books of the Bible as the Word of God. These books are to be trusted and used in the believer’s everyday life. The Bible can and should be the central guide in our lives via the application of It to our lives by the Holy Spirit.[1]


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