Tag Archives: the biblical canon

How We Got the Sixty-Six

Conversations About God (5:3)

To orthodox Jews, the ones who had the Bible first, the Scriptures consisted of only the thirty-nine books that make up the Christian Old Testament many of us are familiar with. Sometimes the thirty-nine were combined together and counted as twenty-four or twenty-two. It all began with Moses and the first five. When Moses came down Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining so brightly they couldn’t even look at him. It’s no wonder that when he said, “I am giving you some dependable messages from the Lord,” there was every reason to take those messages seriously. So they built up a collection of the first five books. These became known as The Law or The Law of Moses. These five became a standard or rule among the Israelites, like a miniature canon.

Later on other prophets wrote books, and they were all measured by the first standard: The Law of Moses. By and by a prophetic collection developed and we had The Law and the Prophets. And then other books came along known as The Writings, or The Psalms. These were compared with The Prophets and with The Law until finally there were thirty-nine books, divided into three canons: The Law, The Prophets and The Writings; or The Law, The Prophets, and The Psalms, (since Psalms was the first book in the third canon).

The New Testament consistently recognized these three canons without any question as to their dependability. Look at what Jesus told His disciples in Luke 24:44: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (RSV). There are times in the New Testament when writers shortened The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms down to just The Law and The Prophets. Sometimes they shorten it clear down to simply “The Law.” So sometimes in the New Testament “The Law” means the whole Old Testament.

Look at some examples of these. First of all, in Matthew 5:17, 18 “the law and the prophets” means the whole Old Testament:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I’ve not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (RSV).

Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that “the law” in verse 18 must be the Ten Commandments. But Jesus is actually talking about the whole Old Testament under the name of “The Law.” Another illustration of that is the reference in John 10:34: “Jesus answered them, `Is it not written in your law, “I said you are gods?”‘” (RSV). Jesus was quoting Psalm 82:6 here, but He called the Psalms “your law.” And He goes on to declare His confidence in the Old Testament: “Jesus answered, . . . ‘We know that what the scripture says is true forever’” (John 10:35, GNB). It seems to me that Christ’s confidence in the Old Testament should be of great significance to a Christian.

You can see these three canons of Scripture; The Law, The Prophets and The Writings, developing already in Old Testament times. Look at Isaiah 8:19, 20:

When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony, if they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn (NIV).

“The law and the testimony” is another way of referring to the five books of Moses and to the prophets. Bit by bit, the canon of the Old Testament was developing. Each book was tested. Does it measure up to the rule? Zechariah 7:12: “They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets” (NIV). Eventually the New Testament was measured by the same canons and the same rules.

Note the books that are in these three canons. The Law includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and all the twelve so-called Minor Prophets up to Malachi. And then the Writings, or the Psalms, include the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Yes, to our surprise, Daniel was included by the Jews in the Writings rather than the Prophets.

You add to these thirty-nine the twenty-seven in the New Testament canon and you have the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible.

Inspiration and the Sixty-Six

Conversations About God (5:2)

First of all, let’s briefly consider the question: Do we have the right collection of sixty-six books? Some Bibles, particularly those used by our Roman Catholic friends, have many more books than that, and these books together are usually called the Apocrypha. In Catholic Bibles the dozen or so books of the Apocrypha are often not collected in the middle, but scattered throughout the Old Testament. Now what do you do when you are visiting a friend who has a Bible with these extra books and that individual has confidence that his or her Bible is the inspired word of God? Are you going to say, “Well, your version is not inspired but mine is?” Would using 2 Timothy 3:16 clear up the question of whose Bible is inspired? “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching. . . .” (2 Tim 3:16, RSV). Does that settle the question? What books are being referred to as “all Scripture?”

In the King James Version 2 Timothy 3:16 is familiar to many, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God. . .” But the early editions of that same Bible contained all those extra books that are in the Roman Catholic Bibles. In fact the Apocrypha remained in King James Bibles until 1827. And the reason it was left out in 1827 was that the British and Foreign Bible Society decided that it didn’t have the funds to continue circulating those Apocryphal books along with the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. So quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 in the KJV won’t settle the question.

Luther was the first translator to gather these extra books together and put them in the middle, between the Old and New Testaments. His influential German Bible version had much to do with the rise of the Reformation. As a Roman Catholic translating from the original, he had to decide whether or not to include the extra books that were scattered throughout his Old Testament. So he gathered them together and put them in the middle with the following notice: “These books are interesting and useful to read, but not for doctrine.” Then when he turned his attention to the New Testament, you may remember, he came to four books that he couldn’t fit in there too well either. He didn’t call them Apocryphal, but saw in them less authority because they “didn’t teach Christ.” So he put Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation at the end, where they remain to this day in German Bibles.

If you are in a Roman Catholic home, of course, your Catholic friend may say, “Well, my Bible has that verse (2 Tim 3:16): ‘All Scripture is inspired of God’ and since this is my Scripture that verse proves the inspiration of the Apocrypha.” Before you answer, it is important to know that the Greek of 2 Timothy can be translated another way, and I believe the context dictates that it be so translated. Look at how the New English Bible puts it: “Every inspired Scripture has its use for teaching the truth. . . .” (2 Tim 3:16, NEB). That means there is such a thing as “uninspired scripture.” You see, it is very likely that Timothy’s Bible was the Greek Old Testament, which contained these extra books. And that’s why Paul had to say to Timothy, “Timothy, you have many books in your possession, but only that scripture which is inspired of God is profitable. . . .”

Notice the total context of what Paul wrote to that young pastor:

But for your part, stand by the truths you have learned and are assured of. Remember from whom you learned them; remember that from early childhood you have been familiar with the sacred writings, which have power to make you wise and lead you to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind (2 Tim 2:14-17, NEB).

Chapter 5: “The Record of the Evidence”

This blog begins chapter five of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

This chapter is the fifth in a series that looks at our heavenly Father in the larger setting of the great controversy over His character and government. Without the Bible we would know nothing about this controversy. Neither would we know about God’s infinitely skillful and gracious handling of this conflict—this crisis of distrust in His family. We have been assuming all along that the Bible can be trusted. But there are legitimate questions that can be raised, and have indeed been raised, through the years. How do we know that we have the right collection of sixty-six books? How do we know that the words of those books have been accurately transmitted through the ages? How do we know that they have been adequately translated? Can you trust the versions of the Bible? And most important of all, can we have any confidence in our interpretation of these books and these words? When we have read it through can we say, “I really have seen dependable evidence about my God?”