Development of the canon

"The word [canon] comes from the Greek word kanon, which refers to a measuring instrument. It therefore came to mean a rule of action (Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:16)... In the early church the word canon was used to refer to the creeds. In the middle of the fourth century it came to be used of the Bible; i.e., of the list of accepted books that were acknowledged to make up the Bible... The word canon has a twofold meaning. It refers to the list of books that met certain tests or rules and thus were considered authoritative and canonical. But it also means that the collection of canonical books becomes our rule of life." Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1941-1942). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.


Development of the Old Testament canon

What is now known by Christians as the Old Testament of the Bible is still known by the Jews as the Tanakh. Tanakh is an acronym based on the three distinct parts of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Kethuvim (Writings).

Historical Overview

From the time of the Exodus to the end of the Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, records were kept of the history of the Israelites. It is believed that the bulk of the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, was written by Moses while the people of Israel camped at Mt. Sinai.

There are a number of references in the Old Testament to the Law of Moses as being authoritative... Joshua 1:7–8; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 21:8; 23:25; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Daniel 9:11; Malachi 4:4. Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1968-1970). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the case of the other historical books, such as Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, it is believed that the priest-scribe Ezra compiled them from original records made nearer the time of their occurrence (works such as The Book of Jashar and The Book of the Wars of Yahweh). ^1^

These are, as of yet, lost to us but it may be that these will one day be found again. Ezra’s compilation would have taken place in the 5th century B.C. As for the books of prophecy and other writings, both poetic and moral, there is little attestation as to when they were finally organized into a coherent unit but the Tanakh as we know it today was closed around the year 200 B.C. ^2^

Over the next few centuries, the text would be standardized and given proper vocalization and punctuation, allowing for better translation. This work was carried out entirely by the Sopherim (“scribes”) and the Masoretes (“keepers of tradition”).

Canonical History

The Hebrew Tanakh required very little official action to indicate that it should be accepted as the authoritative and inspired Word of God. In the case of the Torah - the Law - everything that Moses wrote down and gave to the Israelites was immediately accepted on the basis that he was a prophet and had received special revelation from God concerning four of the five books of the Torah.

In much the same way, the Nevi’im - the Prophets - were accepted as the direct revelation of God to his chosen people. This not only included the works of the major and minor prophets, but also the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings (which, in the Tanakh, are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Because prophets wrote them, they were received immediately as if they had been written at the very throne of God.

The early Hebrew Scriptures were viewed as holy even during the periods of widespread apostasy in Israel. During the reign of King Josiah of Judah, the Temple of Solomon was being restored and, among the ruins, there was found a scroll - the book of the Law, since identified as the Book of Deuteronomy. When King Josiah heard the words written within this book, he was grieved seeing how far the Kingdom of Judah had gone from the Law of the LORD. In order to make certain that this was, indeed, the Word of God, however, Josiah sent the scroll with some of his chief men to the house of the prophetess Huldah. Concerning it, she said that it was the holy Word of God - being the first person in recorded history to state that the Torah was “set apart” from other writings. (Cf. 2 Kings 22:10-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:15-28)

So the Torah and the Nevi’im - “the Law and the Prophets” that form such a familiar phrase to Christians and Jews - were accepted as canon centuries before Christ.

The Psalms, the Proverbs, and even the Book of Daniel were not considered canon from the day they were given. Just when did they become canon? At this point, it is important to make a distinction between canonical treatment and canonical acceptance. Before the first century A.D., The Psalms were well established in the Hebrew community - being used by all the people for the worship of God. The teachers of the people used them to encourage them and often spoke concerning them. Much the same was done with the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Daniel. Even the Song of Songs had a place in Hebrew worship - being read often at weddings, as with the book of Ruth.

1 & 2 Chronicles - a repetition of sorts of the books of 1 & 2 Kings, although focusing further on the kingdom of Israel - were used by the scribes and scholars for reference and as a general history of the monarchy - continued with the accounts in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which, in the Tanakh, are kept as one book). The book of Esther was read yearly with the celebration of Purim while Lamentations was read on the Ninth of Av - a day of mourning for all the Hebrews remembering the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Thus, the books were treated as canon for many years. In 90 A.D., however, the Council of Jamnia formally adopted them as canonical Hebrew Scripture and declaring that the Tanakh was complete - being the entirety of the revelation of God to His people concerning His promise.

Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

"The existence of biblical books among the scrolls does not in itself prove their canonicity since some of the noncanonical books are also present. However, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are commentaries, and so far all of those commentaries deal only with canonical books. That seems to show that a distinction between canonical and noncanonical books was recognized. Also twenty of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are quoted or referred to as Scripture. In summary, the scrolls give positive evidence for the canonicity of all but Chronicles, Esther, and the Song of Solomon."

Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1979-1983). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

New Testament Endorsement of the Old Testament as Authoritative

"There are some 250 quotes from Old Testament books in the New Testament. None is from the Apocrypha. (Jude [v. 14] quotes from the noncanonical book of Enoch, but that book is classified as Pseudepigrapha, not Apocrypha.) All Old Testament books are quoted except Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. [In Matthew 5:17] the Lord said that the Law and the Prophets were authoritative because they were sure to be fulfilled. This twofold division covers all of the Old Testament. [In Luke 11:51] the Lord said something definitive about the extent of the canon of the Old Testament that He accepted. In condemning the leaders of the Jewish people for killing God’s messengers throughout their history, He charged them with being guilty of shedding the blood of all the righteous from Abel to Zechariah. The murder of Abel is recorded in Genesis 4, and the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24, which in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon was the last book in order (as Malachi is in our arrangement). So the Lord was saying, 'From the first to the last murder recorded in the Old Testament.' Now, of course, there were other murders of God’s messengers recorded in the Apocrypha, but the Lord does not include them. Evidently He did not consider the books of the Apocrypha to be of equal authority with the books from Genesis to 2 Chronicles." Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1999-2010). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Inherent canonicity

"It is essential to remember that the Bible is self-authenticating since its books were breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the books were canonical the moment they were written. It was not necessary to wait until various councils could examine the books to determine if they were acceptable or not. Their canonicity was inherent within them, since they came from God. People and councils only recognized and acknowledged what is true because of the intrinsic inspiration of the books as they were written. No Bible book became canonical by action of some church council." Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1948-1952). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

‎"The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up." J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 109.

Place in the Church

Today, Protestant and Evangelical Christians retain the canon that was formally accepted in 90 A.D. by the Council of Jamnia. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, along with other liturgical churches in the Near East, refuse to accept the council’s ruling as authoritative because they believe that the Hebrews lost the authority to determine what was canon at that time. They ignore, however, the fact that, besides the Council of Trullo, early Church Fathers like Athanasius (the historical defender of the doctrine of the Trinity) and Cyril of Jerusalem--both respected elders in the Church--accepted the Hebrew canon.

Still, refusing to accept this, the Roman Catholic Church did not formalize their canon until the Council of Trent that convened in 1545 and adjourned in 1563. This collection was quite different from the Tanakh - holding historical books and literary fiction that was never accepted as holy by the Hebrews - despite the fact these books were long available before Jamnia. They are the following:

  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Additions to Esther
  • 1 & 2 Maccabees
  • The Wisdom of Solomon
  • Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus)
  • Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah)
  • Additions to Daniel (including the Prayer of Azariah, Bel and the Dragon, Susannah, and the Song of Three Holy Children)

Of these, only 1 & 2 Maccabees are verifiably historical - and, ironically, they are also the only ones that originated in the land of Israel. All of the others were written originally in Greek and were popular among the Jews of Alexandria - who placed them in the Greek translation of the Tanakh - the Septuagint - which was written on the order of Ptolemy Philadelphus for his library.

Development of the New Testament canon

The New Testament documents were not accepted as Scripture because they were in a collection, rather the Church regarded these separate documents as Scripture and accordingly gathered them together. For the first hundred years or so of the Christian faith, documents such as the letters written by Paul and the four histories of Jesus (the Gospels) had been circulated and copied throughout the churches for use in teaching. These documents soon came to be recognized as Holy Scripture, of equal importance (or more, in the eyes of some) as the Jewish Scriptures, which we refer to today as the Old Testament.

The development of the New Testament canon is the process by which the books now composing the New Testament were identified by the Church to the exclusion of other Christian and pseudo-Christian writings in use by some in those early times.

Historical overview

For the first hundred years or so of the Christian faith, documents like the letters written by Paul, and the four histories of Jesus, which we call “the Gospels”, had been circulated and copied throughout the churches for use in teaching. Very quickly, these documents came to be regarded as holy Scripture, of equal importance as the Jewish scriptures, which are referred to today as the Old Testament.

Around 140 A.D. (110 years after Jesus' death), a man called Marcion began teaching a version of Christianity which viewed the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful God incompatible with the loving God of the New Testament. He therefore rejected the theology of the Old Testament. To support his teachings, Marcion published a canon – a list of documents which he considered to be holy Scripture – which included only an edited version of the Gospel of Luke, and 10 of Paul's letters. This situation highlighted the need for consistent understanding in the Church of what documents (or books) were indeed canonical (i.e. accepted as authoritative), and could be used for setting and defending church doctrine. Marcion did not actually start the process of forming the canon, rather the controversy he started accelerated and solidified an existing process.

At the time of Marcion, two different sets of documents had already been assembled and circulated. The first was the four accounts of the story of Jesus – according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – which were bound together and called The Gospel. The second, usually called the Pauline corpus, was the collection of the letters by the apostle Paul. Both of these documents appear to have been quoted as Scripture by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, around 115 A.D., so probably had been in circulation for quite some years before that date. There was also a collection of the general letters – those of Peter, John, James and Jude – with which the Acts of the Apostles, now separated from the Gospel of Luke with which it was originally written, was eventually included.

By 200 A.D., the majority of the New Testament was established. A document called the “Muratorian Fragment” refers to Luke as the third Gospel (assumedly listing Matthew and Mark before it), then lists John, Paul's 13 letters, Jude, two epistles of John and the Book of Revelation as Scripture. In the early 300's, Origen lists the four Gospels, Paul's 13 letters, one letter each of Peter and John, and the Revelation. He also notes that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, amongst other documents were debated by some. At the same time, Eusebius lists all of the New Testament documents except James, Jude, Peter's second letter and John's second and third letters, which he says are disputed by some, but recognised by the majority.

In 367, Athanasius lists the 27 documents of the New Testament alone, and he is quickly followed by Jerome and Augustine in the church in Europe. At the councils of Hippo Regius in 393, and Carthage in 397, the church in the west as a body approved the 27 documents alone as Scripture. According to Bruce, "the process farther east took a little longer; it was not until c. 508 that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were included in a version of the Syriac Bible in addition to the other twenty two books." [1]

Closed Canon

"Since A.D. 397 the Christian church has considered the canon of the Bible to be complete; if it is complete, then it must be closed. Therefore, we cannot expect any more books to be discovered or written that would open the canon again and add to its sixty-six books. Even if a letter of Paul were discovered, it would not be canonical. After all, Paul must have written many letters during his lifetime in addition to the ones that are in the New Testament; yet the church did not include them in the canon." Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 1958-1962). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.


  • Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Festal Letter XXXIX. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, © 1894. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight.
  • Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem. Fourth Catechetical Lecture. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, © 1894. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight.
  • “Bible: The Old Testament.” Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 3. © 2001.
  • Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism, Eerdmans Pub Co (March 1986) ISBN 0802836178
  • F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (IVP, 1988)


  • Ryrie, Charles C. (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (chapter 15, "The Canon"). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • The Books of Paralipomenon (Chronicles). The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight.
  • Bible Canon. The Jewish Encyclopedia. © 2002

See also

Old Testament

New Testament