MANY SHALL run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased" (Dan. 12:4). This ancient prophecy rings in our ears today with momentous mind-boggling significance. The twin phenomena of almost instant communication and the knowledge explosion have spawned the unwanted byproducts of future shock, culture shock and even religious shock.
The first irony: in an age of unprecedented scientific and technological knowledge, we are suffering from the perpetually growing headache of uncertainty. Governments, groups and individuals grope for an elusive security in an earth characterized by the growing specter of global chaos. We live in a world of ominous forebodings, where even the future existence of biological life is an open question.
The second irony: in an age teeming with technological knowledge of every stripe and description, mankind is nevertheless suffering from a severe case of knowledge starvation. A certain kind of knowledge — knowledge of God's plan for mankind: "My people are destroyed for lack of [spiritual] knowledge...." thundered the prophet Hosea (Hosea 4:6). If anything, that prophecy is much more axiomatic today than in the waning dynasty of the kings of Judah — the time when Hosea prophesied.
The third irony: at a time when more Bibles are being printed in more versions and languages than ever before, biblical ignorance is a hallmark of our age. We have, as a whole, rejected the Word of God as a solution to our monumental modern problems. Yet the Bible is the foundation of all true knowledge.
Does that sound shocking? To capitalize on an overworked cliché, we all need "an anchor for our souls." Something we can grasp onto as the world and all of its man-devised structures shake uncertainly beneath our feet. Never before have we needed to immerse ourselves more in the knowledge of God and His plan for a presently shaky humanity. In other words — we need to get to know our Bibles.
What Is the Bible? The English word "Bible" is a derivative (or anglicized form) of the Greek expression biblia, which is itself a diminutive plural of the Greek term biblos or biblion — meaning "books." The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books (twenty-seven in the New Testament and thirty-nine in the Old).
We often refer to the Bible by the expression "Holy Scriptures," which merely means "Holy Writings." The biblical revelation is a written revelation — although many of its words were originally spoken orally.
The Word of God is composed of two main parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The coming of Christ is the glue that joins these two testaments together.
The original language of the first Testament is basically Hebrew, with some few chapters written in Aramaic (a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew). Hellenistic Greek (or Kaine) is the original New Testament language.
The Bible is an inspired collection of closely related writings. "All scripture is inspired by God..." (II Tim. 3:16, RSV throughout remainder of article). And, "... No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:21).
But the question immediately emerges: How do we know which books are inspired (and therefore are part of the Bible) and which are not?
The Theology of Canonicity Our English word "canonicity" is an anglicized derivative of the Greek term kanan, meaning a "rod" or "ruler." Men and organizations of men could hardly have canonized the biblical books without proper rules or standards.
Canonicity began with Moses. Prior to his time there was precanonical revelation, but in all probability it was largely limited to the vehicle of oral speech. Canonicity was cut and dried in the days of Moses. He knew God as a literal, visible, personal friend. God said of Moses: "With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord" (Num. 12:8). God has revealed Himself to some men in a far more literal manner than He has to others.
Genesis is a capsule history of the human race from man's creation to the time of Joseph — great grandson of Abraham. Its time frame spans many centuries. Of course, it is very possible that the Genesis story was preserved in books, rather than just strictly oral traditions, and carried through the global Flood in Noah's Ark.
Many scholars attribute the Genesis authorship to Moses. But whether he wrote it himself from oral traditions, received it as a direct revelation from God, or merely edited already existing, preserved written accounts is not completely clear. What is clear is its inspiration and canonicity.
Jesus of Nazareth confirmed its historicity in the New Testament. He referred to the Genesis One earth-creation (Mark 13:19), the creation of Adam and Eve (Matt. 19:3-4), the historicity of Abel (Matt. 23:35), the Noachian Deluge (Luke 17:26-27), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (John 8:37; Matt. 8:11), Lot's wife (Luke 17:32) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Mark 6:11, KJV).
In the faith chapter (Hebrews 11), the apostle Paul refers to the first and last events in the book of Genesis (as well as many in between). He begins with creation (verse 3) and then mentions, chronologically, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and finally Joseph, the last main character in Genesis. Paul ends his Genesis commentary with these words: "By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial" (verse 22; cf. Gen. 50:25).
Moses lived the material in the four books following Genesis (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jesus Himself recognized Moses as the author of the Pentateuch: "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" (John 5:46-47.)
Of course, editings and additions were made to the Torah after Moses' death. Examples include the insertion of the parenthetical remark in Numbers 12:3 describing Moses' humility (Moses would hardly have recorded his own meekness) and the account of his death in Deuteronomy 34. Many scholars agree that Ezra the Priest did much of the official editing of the Pentateuch.
There are several possible standards, probably all used in determining final canonicity. Among these were inspiration, internal evidence (some books of the Bible internally assert or imply themselves or other canonical books to be of divine origin — cf. Joshua 1:8; Judges 3:4; Jeremiah 36), previous official public action (Neh. 8:5), and the recognition of previous canonizations (i.e., Moses).
For us today, New Testament corroboration is an extremely important factor. This includes recognition of the Old Testament writings by Jesus and the apostles.
The Tripartite Division The Old Testament was divided into three parts: the law, the prophets and the writings. Jesus Christ recognized this tripartite division in the New Testament: "These are my words which I spoke to you... that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms ["... here probably called 'the Psalms' (rather than writings) because the book of Psalms is the first and longest book in this third section" (Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p. 96)] must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45).
Jesus called these three divisions of the Old Testament "the scriptures." In addition, He implied the standard order still used in the Hebrew editions of the Bible. "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (verse 27).
Jesus gave credence to the historical timespan of the first Testament: "... That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel [Gen. 4:8] to the blood of Zechariah [see II Chronicles 24:20-21 — the final book in the Jewish Version of the Old Testament]..." (Matt. 23:35).
Says noted British scholar F. F. Bruce: "It is almost certain that the Bible with which He [Jesus] was familiar ended with the books of Chronicles, which came right at the end of the 'Writings' in the Hebrew Bible. The evidence for this is that when He wished to sum up all the martyrs whose blood had been shed in the Old Testament times, He used the expression [quoted above in Matthew 23:35].... Now Abel is obviously the first martyr of the Bible, but why should Zechariah come last? Because in the order of books in the Hebrew Bible [see Jewish Publication Society translation] he is the last martyr to be named... in 2 Chron. 24:21..." (op. cit., p. 97).
The Apocrypha Some Bibles contain fourteen additional books called the Apocrypha. There are a number of valid reasons why these books were not included in the official Old Testament canon, and should not, therefore, be regarded as part of the inspired Bible.
Space does not allow broaching all of the reasons here, but you may have the details by writing for our free reprint article "Do We Have the Complete Bible?"
In this article we restrict ourselves to Jesus' omission of the Apocrypha — He never once cited or quoted from it — and the following testimony of the eminent first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus: "For we [the Jews] have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine..." (Against Apion, book I, section VIII). (Josephus has in mind the fact that today's thirty-nine Old Testament books were sometimes included in 22 different scrolls.)
F. F. Bruce comments on this testimony of Josephus: "We are on firmer ground when we come to Josephus.... For he tells us much more precisely what books were accounted specially authoritative by his nation.... Josephus echoes the prevailing opinion about what books were canonical and what were not. And though he uses the Septuagint freely, he does not regard the Apocrypha as canonical" (op. cit., p. 99).
Canonicity Continues With the New Testament Many books were circulating in the New Testament era. Apparently a substantial number of authors even wrote gospels about the life of Jesus. "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:1-2).
The official Jewish community (those sitting in Moses' seat — Matt. 23:2) was responsible for the preservation of the, Old Testament text and "entrusted with the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2). But if the Jews rejected Christ, who then did God designate to perform the same function in New Testament times?
Perhaps Jesus Himself gives us the key: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation [the New Testament Church] producing the fruits of it" (Matt. 21:43).
The Church of God is built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus, of course, being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-20). One of the chief first-century apostles was Peter (Gal. 2:7-8). Notice Jesus' personal commission to Simon Peter: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:18-19).
The indications are that Peter began canonizing the New Testament books. The time setting of his second epistle is very close to his death (II Peter 1:14). In this particular epistle, he is deeply concerned about preservation of truth: "Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body [death] will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me" (verses 12-14).
Now consider this key verse: "And I will see to it that after my departure [death] you may be able at any time to recall these things" (verse 15). How could this be accomplished except by the preservation of written works?
Then in verses 16 through 21 and on to chapter 2:1-3, Peter differentiates between the authentic true doctrine and destructive heresies. There is no doubt that when he authored this second epistle, Peter knew what was written Scripture up to that time. "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (II Peter 3:15-16). Peter not only equated Paul's epistles with Scripture, but he also knew what constituted the other Scriptures.
The Role of Paul But Peter was not the only apostle involved with the canon.
The time setting of Paul's second epistle to Timothy is very near to the apostle's death. "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure [death] has come" (II Tim. 4:6). Paul then makes an urgent request. Notice these important final instructions to the young evangelist: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments" (verse 13).
F. F. Bruce comments on the above verse: "What the parchments were which Paul so anxiously desired Timothy to bring we cannot be sure, but it is a reasonable guess that they contained portions of Holy Scripture" (op. cit., p. 12).
So the indications are that Paul had a role in canonizing parts of the New Testament in cooperation with Peter. However, since neither Peter nor Paul were alive when the final books were written, it remained for another apostle to close the canon.
The Role of John To continue our story, turn to the Gospel of John, the 21st chapter.
Relative to canonicity, verses 21 to 23 are pertinent: "When Peter saw him [the apostle John], he said to Jesus, 'Lord what about this man?' Jesus said to him, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!'... Yet Jesus did not say to him that he [John] was not to die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'"
Plainly, John was to outlive Peter — and for a reason. Jesus was not ready, before Peter's death, to reveal the full measure of "things to come" (John 16:13). John's Gospel and the book of Revelation (two major New Testament books) were yet to be written.
Note F. F. Bruce's comment: "Towards the end of the century, John, perhaps the last surviving companion of Jesus in the days of His flesh, records his reminiscences of his. Master's life and teaching, together with his meditations on them, in such a way as to supplement the earlier Gospels" (op. cit., p. 107).
The Gospel of John was the last canonical biography of Christ to be written. It is very distinct from the other Gospels, mentioning many events omitted in the three Synoptic Gospels.
John's Gospel reveals that Christ Himself had planned for Peter to very possibly be involved in canonization (for the upbuilding of Christ's sheep) and for John to outlive him to complete the job. This is indicated also in the finality of the conclusion of the Gospel of John: "This is the disciple [John] who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were everyone of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:24-25).
The implication is that no other Gospels were to be written.
The concluding verses to the book of Revelation likewise have a ring of finality: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book" (Rev. 22:18).
John, the last original apostle and author of the book of Revelation, was approaching the end of his physical life. No more canonical books would be written in that age.
Standards for New Testament Canonicity What are some possible criteria for canonizing books into the New Testament? Apostolicity is perhaps the major standard. Every book in the New Testament was either written by an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle. "So we find Mark, the companion and interpreter of Peter, committing to writing in Rome the Gospel as Peter habitually proclaimed it... and Luke, the companion of Paul, writes in two books [Luke and Acts] for Gentile readers a narrative for the beginnings of Christianity from the birth of John the Baptist up to Paul's two years' residence in Rome..." (Bruce, op. cit., p. 107). All other New Testament books were written by apostles.
Consistency and accuracy in doctrine, internal evidence of inspiration, etc., are other possible criteria for canonicity.
Much more could be said about canonicity. Much could be argued that is not entirely clear.
But now that we know that the sixty-six biblical books are authoritative in God's sight, what should our attitude and approach toward the study of these Scriptures be? Clearly the important thing for us is what we do with the written revelation in our possession today. Are we reading and studying the Bible as we should?
Methods of Bible Study Overview: the Bible has a distinct theme running through it from Genesis to Revelation. A good way to begin is to read through the whole Bible (in order) from start to finish. The Worldwide Church of God publishes a complete booklet with tips on just how to accomplish this task. Read our free copy of Read the Book.
Overview of a Particular Book: read anyone of the sixty-six books through from beginning to end, endeavoring to determine the outline and the main purpose.
Study by Subject or Topic: individual subjects such as salvation, repentance, Christian living, prophecy, etc., may easily be studied by obtaining a Bible concordance.
Other important keys and methods of Bible study are presented in our free booklet How To Study the Bible.
The important goal, by whatever means you accomplish it, is to get to know your Bible.