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The Canon of the Bible Is 66 Books Enough?

On this episode of Theology Unplugged we talk about the canon. In this context canon refers to the collection of books that make up the Bible. Did you know that Bibles used by protestants and catholics have slightly different collections of books? Jump to the end of this post to play the podcast or subscribe via iTunes.

The First 5-Min Transcript

Tim Kimberley (TK): Fellas, it’s good to be back in the studio with you guys. It’s great having you join us here on Saturdays on BOTT Radio. And we are talking about not really a problem passage in the Bible but we are zooming way out but I will start it with II Timothy…

(Christopher) Michael Patton (CMP): It is a problem passage.

TK: Well it’s more of just a problem.

CMP: It’s a problem passage that’s not in the Bible.

TK: That’s right. Okay. But let me read II Timothy 3:16 because it says, all scripture is breathed out by God. Okay, all scripture is breathed out by God. But here’s the problem. How do we know what scripture is breathed out by God? How do we know for sure that the 66 books that I have in the Bible that’s in my hands right now was breathed out by God.

CMP: Table of contents. Go to the table of contents.

TK: How do I also know that what if on the nightly news tonight some archeologist in Jerusalem just was digging in the palace of David and just found a whole new collection of writings, should we add that and maybe now there’s 67 books…

The Apostle John Writing the Canon

Editorial Credit: Renata Sedmakova /

CMP: Table of contents.

TK: And then II Timothy 3:16 will apply to those things that were just discovered.

JJ Seid (JJ): Well yea, Paul’s always talking about all these other letters we don’t have. You know what if we find one of them, you know. What about the letter to the Laodiceans he mentions that right? Where’s that? What if someone finds it next week?

CMP: Table of contents. What’s the matter with that?

Sam Storms (SS): Well, I don’t know. I’m just thinking about all the things that I’ve written. I’d like to slide one of my books in after Revelation.

TK: I object. Sam, they were good books but they’re not that good.

JJ: Classics, but I don’t know if they’re timeless classics.

SS: But we can laugh about it but the question is, why or why not. What criteria, to what are we appealing when we exclude Michael’s new book, Now That I’m a Christian. Free advertising there buddy.

JJ: Let’s make this even worse. I walked over to my Roman Catholic friend’s house last week and we were looking up some verses together and he has a different table of contents than I have. Now what do I do with that? We got two different tables of contents?

TK: Well, and let me add this. What do you say, what do you mean when you say “table of contents?” Are you talking about Athanasius’ easter letter from the 365 A.D. where he says here are the books of the Bible and he doesn’t include Esther and he does include Baruch which is in the Roman Catholic table of contents but not in the Bible I have in my hands[1].

CMP: Melito’s table of contents, the table of contents from the council of Hippo.

JJ: We apologize to our listeners. This is a nerd alert.

CMP: The table of contents from the council of Carthage in 389, 393, 402. All of these ones that came together and established a table of contents.

SS: So wait a minute Michael. So are you saying that men in the early church decided what was going to be in the canon? Did the church create the canon that I have sitting on my knee right now called the English Standard Version?

CMP: English Standard Version, where does that table of contents come from? Where does the NIV table of contents come from? Where does the NAS, where does the King James table of contents come from?

JJ: Okay this is starting to sound like a comedy sketch show.

CMP: People may not know this but they are not common… I mean… the table of contents are not inspired.

JJ: Well, and you keep asking questions, we want answers. But now you’re making me even more nervous because you’re throwing out dates that are hundreds of years after Jesus ascended into heaven. What took… what took the church so long?

TK: Yea, well, and I think, I mean, one answer that I would give you of what took the church so long is the church was suffering incredible persecution. And so they were in survival mode. They were reading scripture. We know that books of the Bible were being translated. We’ve found, we own manuscript of scripture that are way before… from the 100’s A.D. And so, I can make a case to say well it took until the 300’s until Christians weren’t being murdered at such rates that they could actually reflect a little bit and say, hey it’s been a while here are the books of the Bible.

JJ: Yea. Here’s my list let me see your list. Let’s see if our lists match up, or overlap, or contradict in any way. Sam do this, because you’re going to say it better than me, but talk about that dynamic of how there were sort of differing lists of what should belong in the canon in various parts of the geographical early church and those lists didn’t necessarily contradict one another but…

MP: No, no I have a better question for Sam first.

SS: Why are you asking me? Both of you.. I think Tim should be put on the spot.

CMP: No, no, no, no, no… this is a question. We’ll get to your question, but Sam, it says in Revelation (22:18–19a)(NIV):

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 anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life…

Isn’t that the end of the canon? Aren’t we done? I mean, revelation has been complete. You’ve written a book on prophecy, you should know this. Is this the end?

Click “Play” below or subscribe via iTunes to get the entire episode.

Related Resources: Canon

  1. Wace, Henry, and Athanasius of Alexandria. “St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters.” Ed. Philip Schaff. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Trans. Henry Burgess and Jessie S. Payne. New York: Christian Literature, 1892. 552. Print. Second Ser.  ↩

Why I Believe the Canon is Theoretically Open (and Am Fine With It)

The term “canon” refers to the accepted books of the Bible. The Protestant canon contains 66 books; other Christian traditions vary, adding a few books often referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or the “Apocrypha.” A commonly accepted understanding among most Christians of all traditions is that the books that belong in the Bible cannot be added to. In other words, the canon is “closed.”

While in one sense I believe the canon is closed, in some ways I do not believe that to be necessarily true. Let me explain.

In order to maintain that the canon is closed, most Christians would refer the the first few centuries of the church. In particular, councils such as Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, as well as Athanasius’ Easter Letter, are pointed to as evidence that the canon of the New Testament had closed by the time they took place. The Old Testament, according to most, was already established and closed by the time of Christ. For this, reference could be made to the New Testament itself, the testimonies of Josephus and Philo, and some of the intertestamental works.

My contention with this assumption is that saying that the canon is “closed” needs to be understood more in an observational way rather than as an authoritative pronouncement. “Closed” might not be the best word, since it implies a necessary finality concerning the contents of Scripture.  I don’t believe we can say this (in the way we usually mean it) for two primary reasons:

1. Scripture itself does not limit the canon to 66 books. No matter how hard you look, you would be hard pressed to find a place that definitely “closes” the canon. Revelation 22:18-19 is often referred to as evidence:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

The problem with using this passage is that it is specific to the book of Revelation. Just because the book of Revelation occurs last in our canon does not mean this warning applies to the entire Bible. It is meant to communicate a general statement about those who would be tempted to add to or take away from God’s word in general, and to the book of Revelation specifically. Yet the same warning is given in the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs: Continue Reading →

Why Do I Reject the Apocrypha?

It may surprise you to know that I don’t have much of a problem with the Apocrypha. I enjoy reading them. As well, as a Protestant, accepting or rejecting them does not really affect my standing in my tradition (nor should it). Granted, I don’t know of any magisterial Protestant churches which have ever accepted them as canonical; if there is one, accepting the Apocrypha would not make them non-Protestant, and it certainly would not make them Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. My point is that I have never felt pressure to fall in line with the Protestant tradition of rejecting them outright. I have often been intrigued by their acceptance among other Christ-fearing traditions. However, while I don’t have much of a problem with the Apocrypha, I do agree with my Protestant tradition and reject them as being a part of the Scripture.

It is hard to define the Apocrypha. Sometimes they are termed “Deuterocanonical” books. This is a more politically correct or theologically neutral way to refer to them coined by Sixtus of Siena, the Jewish convert to Catholicism, in 1566. This semantic distinction has a history and rationale behind it that I will not have time to get into. I will just use the terms Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical books interchangeably.
It is interesting to note, too, that different Christian traditions have different Apocrypha. We can be safe for the moment and say that we are discussing the books accepted into the Bible by Roman Catholics but rejected by Protestants. In the Catholic Bible, the Apocrypha comprise seven unique books (or six, if Baruch is combined with Jeremiah), plus additions to two other books:

Additions to Esther
Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon)
Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (or Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira)
Additions to Daniel
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees

These works are generally believed to have been originally written in Greek (sometimes called the “Greek Canon”) and to have been composed between the writing of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Protestants wrongly assume that these works are only accepted due to the institutionalized church’s reaction to the Protestant Reformers, just as Roman Catholics wrongly assume that they were only rejected due to the Reformation. The issues are more complex than any of the usual sound-bite explanations would lead us to assume. There are very good reasons to accept the Deuterocanonical books and there are very good reasons to reject them. Let me start with a brief defense of their acceptance.

Arguments for their inclusion: Continue Reading →

Book Review of Bart D. Ehrman’s “Forged” – Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

A standard evangelical approach to dealing with the stylistic differences of, say, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals from the rest of Paul’s letters, is to argue that the penman or secretary of these letters may have had a larger role than merely copying down via dictation what Paul said. Ehrman, however, argues (135):

Did the secretaries contribute to the contents of [Paul’s] letters? … Despite what scholars often claim, all of the evidence we have suggests that the answer is no. The same evidence applies to the authors of 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and in fact to all the other early Christian writers.

Ehrman interacts in this section with but one author who makes the claim of heavy secretarial involvement, E. Randolph Richards, whose doctoral dissertation was published in 1991 as The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr). In spite of denying that Richards has produced any evidence along these lines, his discussion of secretary as editor, coauthor, and even composer is collectively replete with primary documentation (43–56). Richards’ evidence for the secretary as coauthor is the weakest. Yet in his section on the secretary as composer—a role which is significantly greater than coauthor—Richards offers irrefutable evidence. He notes that, when Cicero was imprisoned, he asked his friend Atticus to compose letters on his behalf (noted on p. 50 in Richards’ monograph): Continue Reading →

Book Review of Bart D. Ehrman’s “Forged” – Part 2

Part 2: Statistics on Writing Styles

So, how does Ehrman attempt to prove forgery in the NT? He uses the traditional arguments that have been debated for centuries: differences in style, conceptual/theological differences, and historical discrepancies from known facts. Arguments on both sides have been made, and continue to be made, in the scholarly literature. There is a ready answer to arguments that the authors of the NT are not those claimed; see, for example, the NT introductions by Carson and Moo; Guthrie; and Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles.

Ehrman however ratchets up the discussion with statistical analysis. After discussing only a part of the data (word usage) that makes up an author’s style, Ehrman concludes: “In almost every study done [in the last ninety years], it is clear that the word usage of the Pastorals is different from that in Paul’s other letters” (98). The documentation at this point cites but one author, Armin Baum, who argues, contra Ehrman, that Paul wrote the Pastorals! Further, Ehrman fails to mention the most recent sophisticated computer-assisted researches by Anthony Kenny, A Stylometric Study of the New Testament (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), and K. J. Neumann, The Authenticity of the Pauline Epistles in the Light of Stylostatistical Analysis (Atlanta: Scholars, 1990). Kenny’s research concludes that, according to computer analysis, only 1 and 2 Timothy of the Pastorals are Pauline, while Titus is not. Yet no scholar, as far as I know, makes this claim on other grounds: the Pastorals are virtually always seen as a unit, written by the same author, whether Paul or someone else (though sometimes 2 Timothy, not Titus, is viewed as written by a different author than 1 Timothy and Titus). And Neumann, in spite of expecting quite different results, notes somberly that “The hopes did not materialize that the greater labor connected with several syntactic-category indices might produce some very significant criteria. … there is more variability within authors than anticipated” (205). In one test, 2 Thessalonians and 1 Peter both lined up with Paul’s writing style perfectly; in another, Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 were considered Pauline! No wonder Neumann concludes, “Christian authors, especially Paul, are not distinguished by the indices chosen” (213). Surely, these are not the modern sophisticated statistical studies that Ehrman is thinking of, but neither does he mention any in support of his views.

Book Review of Bart D. Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

Part 1 of 3

The James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Chapel Hill, Dr. Bart Ehrman, is the most recognized evangelical-turned-agnostic in the world today. He has written more than twenty books, though in recent years he has focused on popular writing more than academic. This is a strategy that will eventually backfire. His most recent iteration is yet another provocative trade-book hostile to the Christian faith. His most popular previous books have attacked the reliability of the New Testament (NT) manuscripts as witnesses to the original text (Misquoting Jesus), the historicity of the NT (Jesus, Interrupted), and the problem of theodicy—how there can be a good God with so much evil in the world (God’s Problem). Forged takes head-on the authorship of many of the books of the NT, arguing that the ancient church got it wrong on most of them.

The book has eight chapters that, at first glance, look like discrete units. This gives the impression, reinforced by the subtitle to the work, that Forged marshals hundreds of pages of evidence that the writings of the NT are forgeries. But there is extensive overlap between chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. Furthermore, most of Forged is about books other than the NT: forgeries in early Christianity written both by the orthodox and heretics, other Greco-Roman forgeries, even modern forgeries. To the undiscerning reader, Ehrman’s relentless revelations about ancient forgeries will seem like rock-solid arguments—by their sheer volume—for NT forgeries. But surprisingly there is comparatively little on the NT itself.

Ehrman’s argument that there are forgeries in the NT is threefold: First, the ancient church, as with the rest of the Greco-Roman world, always rejected pseudepigraphical writings (or forgeries) whenever they were detected as such. Second, sophisticated computer-generated statistical tools have demonstrated that Paul, for example, did not write the Pastoral letters—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. (Actually, Ehrman provides other arguments, but this one caught my eye since his claims regarding statistics were more than I had heard before.) Third, there is no evidence that the secretaries (technically known as amanuenses) for any ancient letters—including the NT letters—had any role other than to copy down what the author dictated. They did not do any significant editing, nor were they coauthors or composers of these documents.

This threefold argument—if true—would have devastating ramifications for the Christian faith. If Ehrman is right, we would need to toss out several books of the NT: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, James, Jude, and 1–2 Peter. That’s ten letters assigned to the flames, since, according to Ehrman, the real authors of these letters deceived their readers into thinking that they were someone else. A brief examination of Ehrman’s arguments and evidence is therefore in order. Continue Reading →

“If there are Modern Day Prophets, then the Canon is Still Open” . . . And Other Stupid Statements

I am not a charismatic.  It is hard for me to describe myself as a traditional cessationist either. I refer to myself as a “de facto” cessationist. What does this mean? Essentially, when it comes to the so-called supernatural sign gifts such as gifts of tongues, prophecy, workers of miracles, etc, I have never seen anything which would convince me that there are modern day manifestations of these gifts. There certainly could be, I just have not seen them. (I have written about it here.)

Concerning the gift of prophecy (the idea that one can speak on behalf of God in a “thus-says-the-Lord” type way), I have never seen this either. I would love to have God speak to me, or better, through me, in such a way, but he never has. I have never heard the voice of God and have never been his spokesperson other than through my interpretation of Scripture. Although, I must admit, I had a strange occurence twenty years ago. I had a drunk I gave a ride to in downtown Oklahoma City tell me that God told him I was going to be a preacher. At that time in my life, it was a joke to think such. It was not enough for me to think much of, and the guy was drunk!

I could not make a very strong argument that God has stopped sending prophets or stopped speaking directy to people. My theology does not demand such. I have simply just never seen one. However, there is an argument out there that more traditional cessationist’s (those who’s theology argues that the supernatural sign gifts have ceased in the first century, usually with the death of the last Apostle or the completion of Scripture) make to argue their case. It is an argument that I think is very weak and fails to understand the nature of prophecy and the nature of what constitutes Scripture. It goes like this:

If the gift of prophecy is still being given and there are people out there who speak directly on behalf of God, then the canon is still open.

What this means is that if God is still speaking in any way, whatever is spoken, by virtue of it being God’s words, needs to be added to Scripture. Maybe a new book, letter, Psalm, or just a page added to the end of the Bible, this argument insists that a belief in modern day prophecy demands an open canon.

I disagree.

Here is the basic problem I see with such an argument: It misunderstands the nature of prophecy and the nature of the canon. Continue Reading →