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The Formation of the Canon of Scripture

Download and print this timeline (PDF)

Click image to download and print this timeline (PDF)

Click image to download and print this timeline (PDF)

A summary of our Sunday school lesson on November 29, 2015.
Download this study (PDF).


1. “canon”: from Gr. kanon, ruler, standard for measurement
2. canon of Scripture: “the list of the writings acknowledged by the Church as documents of the divine revelation” (F. F. Bruce)
3. In Roman Catholicism, the church establishes the canon; the church gave birth to the canon. For Protestants, the process of canonization is the process by which the church recognizes which books are canonical and which are not. The canon gave birth to the church.

Old Testament

1. End of OT canonical era: Since Malachi, the last OT book, was written ca 430 BC, the OT canon era, then is from 1445-430 BC.

a. Josephus (AD 37-95): the Hebrew Scripture was complete; no canonical writings were composed after the reign of Artaxerxes (464-424 BC), Malachi’s time.

b. The Talmud: “After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.”

c. New Testament: The NT never quotes any OT book after Malachi as authoritative.

2. Council of Jamnia (AD 90):This Jewish council met to discuss the canonicity of the OT Scriptures. This council did not include any new books as canonical, but simply reaffirmed those books already considered canonical throughout the OT period.

New Testament

1. Self-attestation: the apostolic writers recognized their own writings as the very Word of God (1 Cor 4:16; 14:37; 1 Thess 2:13; 5:27; 1 Tim 5:18; 2 Pet 3:15-16; Rev 1:11).

2. Oral tradition: From the beginning, the NT writings were circulated by oral tradition.

3. Timeline:

a. Middle 2nd century: every book of the New Testament was referred to as canonical by at least one of the early church fathers.

b. Heresies affecting the Canon:

(1) Marcionism: Marcion, a Gnostic, rejected the whole OT, and recognized only parts of Luke, and 10 of Paul’s letters. Gnostics believed that the wrathful OT God is not the same as the loving NT God. Many Christians today have this same heretical view.

(2) Montanism: Montanus (ca 150 AD) predicted the Second Coming in his time and in his own region of Phrygia (present-day Turkey). Because if this false prophecy, the Book of Revelation fell into disfavor with some early church writers.

c. The Muratorian Canon (AD 170) and Old Latin translation (AD 200):All NT books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter were a part of these two manuscripts.

d. Eusebius (AD 270-340): This church historian wrote that all the NT books were canonical, and only James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude were disputed.

e. Athanasius (AD 296-373): In his Festal Letter in 367, he gave the first full and final declaration on the extent of the 27 NT canon we have today, saying, “Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away.”

f. Councils of Hippo (AD 393) and Carthage (AD 397): first church councils to lay down the limits of the canon of Scripture. The Canon is closed.

Criteria Used in Recognizing the New Testament Canon

1. Apostolicity: All NT books have to be written by apostles or close associates of the apostles. This also excluded all writings beyond the 1st century, since all the apostles have died by then. This is one reason why the highly-regarded Shepherd of Hermas was excluded.

3. Orthodoxy: No writing containing teachings that contradicted the apostolic writings could be canonical.

4. Universal church recognition: Writings must have been universally recognized as canonical by the early church.

What About the Roman Catholic Apocrypha?

The word apocrypha comes from the Greek word apokryphos, which means “obscure” or “hidden.” The apocryphal works then are of unknown authorship, of doubtful authenticity, spurious. Although Jerome included the apocryphal books in his Latin edition of the Bible, he considered them non-canonical, that is, outside the inspired Word of God.

These seven books are: 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon), Baruch, Tobit, Judith, and additions to Daniel and Esther. They were never included by Jews (see Council of Jamnia above) or the universal church in the canon of the Bible.

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers rejected many of the Roman Catholic teachings, particularly purgatory (2 Maccabees 12:39-45), use of magic (Tobit 6:5-7), forgiveness of sins by almsgiving (Tobit 4:11, 12:9), and offering of money for the sins of the dead (2 Maccabees 12:43-45). To contradict these Protestant teachings, the Catholics finally included the Apocryphal books in the Canon of Scripture in the Council of Trent in 1545.

Here are the reasons why these apocryphal books cannot be included in the Canon:

1. As mentioned above, they are of unknown authorship, of doubtful authenticity, and spurious.

2. The Jewish Bible never included the apocryphal books. They considered the Canon as closed after Malachi (see Josephus and Talmud above).

3. Some of these books even acknowledge that there were no more prophets in Israel after Malachi (1 Macc. 9.27; 14:41).

4. Jesus and the apostles never cited any apocryphal books as the authoritative Word of God.

5. The apocryphal books are doctrinally and historically flawed. They contradict the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Online References

“The Old Testament Canon and Apocrypha” by

“The Canon of the New Testament” by F. F. Bruce

“The Gnostic Hunger for Secret Knowledge,” by Christian History Institute.

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