It is interesting to see how people are attempting to put forth their ideas recently. Rather than be required to have any factual evidence, people have begun to write fiction novels, but declare the material to be based on facts. Then, if there is a historical discrepancy or untruth, no one can argue with the material because it has been presented as fiction. The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have certainly enjoyed such success with their fiction novels. Now The DaVinci Code is also using the same shield to advance its false assertions. The DaVinci Code declares itself to be a fiction novel, but lays down certain suppositions as though they were facts. One of these suppositions is that the church has suppressed certain Bible books and information concerning Jesus. In light of such charges, it is all the more important for us to determine who decided what became scripture and what did not.
Before we begin, we need to define some of the words that are used in such a study. When we speak of the canon, we mean the accepted writings that are inspired, or God breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). It is clear from the scriptures that there was a standard set of writings that were accepted as inspired. “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). The word for “Scriptures” in this passage is the same word used in 2 Timothy 3:16, which literally means “a piece of writing.” Therefore, the Bereans were examining the writings to test Pauls teaching. It becomes clear that even in the days of the first century, there was a body of writings that were considered to be from God. There are many ways that have been used to prove the canon of 66 books that we have in our English Bibles today are the same books that were used by the early Christians and were considered inspired. I do not want this lesson to become too bogged down in detail and minutia in an effort to prove the canon. Rather, I would like to take a very simple approach, considering a little history along the way, so that we can have confidence in the books we have.
It is important for us to realize that we do not read that there is any time in the history of the early church that a group of people came together for the express purpose of determining the canon. This has been advanced by liberal scholars but simply cannot be proven. The Old Testament canon had been understood for quite a time before the first century. The Jews were very meticulous about the preserving and studying the inspired writings. The Hebrew writings ended with Malachi, just as our Old Testament canon also ends with Malachi. In A.D. 90, a council of rabbis came together at Jamnia. Liberal scholars assume they came together to determine which books would be included in the Hebrew canon and which would not. But that is not historically true and scholars who advanced this theory are now retracting it. The primary purpose of the gathering of these rabbis was to question books that were already considered canonical, not to add books that were not canonical. In the end, the rabbis agreed with the long established Hebrew canon. But suppose they had not agreed with the canon and decided certain books should be added or subtracted. The rabbis at Jamnia would have had no authority to bind their canon theories such that others would follow. Jesus also attested to the Old Testament canon. The canon was divided into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus affirmed these books to be Gods word when Jesus told his disciples, “that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44).
The Catholic canon
Since the Jews had the Hebrew canon intact without question and Jesus affirmed that canon while on the earth, why does the Catholic Bible have more than the 39 books of the Old Testament regarded as inspired? There are a few reasons why the Roman Catholics include other books. The writings called Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch, as well as other additions to the canonical book of Esther and the canonical book of Daniel (The Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon) have been called “deuterocanonical” books. “Deutero” means “second” and therefore these books are the second canon. These writings were found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint was commonly used and quoted by the Jews in the first century and is quoted from in our New Testament. The Roman Catholic church argued that since these books were in the Septuagint, they are inspired and ought to be in our Bibles.
However, this is fallacious thinking. Is everything in your Bible inspired? No, we have maps, study guides, charts, commentaries, and even our own writings in the margins. Literature would be found in one codex for transporting ease. Such additional writings does not demand that everyone accepted these writings as inspired. Further, our copies of the Septuagint only date to the 5th century, so we do not know if these books were in their Greek translation or not. The most condemning evidence in my mind, however, is that these books were not regarded as canonical until the Roman Catholic deemed them inspired at the Council of Trent in 1546. We see no acceptance of these books by the Christian church in at least the first four centuries. Many Roman Catholic scholars through the reformation rejected these books.
Further, a simple reading of these additional books helps us to clearly see that these books are not inspired. Consider the ending to 2 Maccabees: “Author’s Apology. Since Nicanor’s doings ended in this way, with the city remaining in possession of the Hebrews from that time on, I will bring my own story to an end here too. If it is well written and to the point, that is what I wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best I could do. Just as it is harmful to drink wine alone or water alone, whereas mixing wine with water makes a more pleasant drink that increases delight, so a skillfully composed story delights the ears of those who read the work. Let this, then, be the end” (15:37-39). One can see that the book does not even claim inspiration.
One inherent problem is that the Catholic church teaches that they are able to set the canon of the scriptures. This teaching has given rise to The DaVinci Code which makes claims that the Catholic church has suppressed the truth concerning Jesus and suppressed many undesirable writings. Of course, this assumes that the Roman Catholic church had control of the New Testament canon and was in existence from the very start, both of which are not true and not provable. The Catholic church did not exist during the compilation of the scriptures nor did it determine which writings to be the scriptures.
The New Testament Canon
Before we can understand how the New Testament was collected into its 27 books, one must put themselves in the shoes of the first, second, and third century Christian. We read that there were many who were claiming to be inspired apostles, but were in fact false apostles, even in the first century. Paul alludes to these false claims in 2 Corinthians 11:13, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.” It seems that these people not only claimed themselves to be apostles, but would write and teach declaring their writings to be the very words of God. “But reject profane and old wives fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). “They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:4). “This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth” (Titus 1:13-14). We read that there were many things being taught in the first century by false teachers and false prophets.
Of course, since Jesus told his apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, there would be a desire to collect the writings of those inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the Christians would need to know if they were reading a true writing of God or something written by a false apostle. The name would be the first test in determining the inspiration of the document. This is why we see many of the apocryphal books called the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. But the greater test was if the documents contents showed inspiration. Just as much as we have read the deuterocanonical books to see if they are flawless and inspired, and just as we applied tests to the Book of Mormon and the Quran, we must also apply the same tests to the early writings.
But great problems were on the horizon. As early as A.D. 140 a person named Marcion attempted to gut the recognized canon on the New Testament. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil creator god that Jesus came to destroy. Marcion, therefore, only accepted the gospel of Luke and the writing of Paul, cutting out all quotations to the Old Testament. In the midst of this heresy, early Christians collected the apostolic writings to counter Marcions influence.
Of greater impact, in 303 A.D. Emperor Diocletian called for the destruction of all the sacred books of the Christians. It becomes clear by the very edict that there already was a set of books recognized as the inspired scriptures. These books were so well-defined that even outsiders would know what the books consisted of and would persecute those who had these books and would burn these books. This edict lasted until 313 A.D. (10 years) as the sacred writings were destroyed. Those who refused to hand over the inspired writings would be imprisoned or killed. Eusebius records, “We saw with our very eyes … the inspired and sacred scriptures committed to the flames in the marketplaces.” Under such conditions, you would know which books were from God and which were not. You would not go to the death to protect a novel or a spurious gospel. You would only go to the death to preserve the true word of God. No one would be willing to die for a merely religious book. Those writings that Christians died to protect are listed in historical documents in the third and fourth centuries as the same writings we have today in our New Testaments.
Conclusion: Who Determined the Canon?
No one determined the canon. The Catholic church, contrary to their claims, did not determine nor protect the canon. In fact, they have added books which are clearly not inspired. Christians did not suppress certain books because they were undesirable. Rather, the books were rejected because they showed obvious evidence of a lack of inspiration.
The Gospel of Thomas is dated to about 200 A.D. and is a collection of 114 supposed sayings of Jesus. There is not narrative, but simply the claimed words of Jesus. Consider some of the passages of the Gospel of Thomas which clearly lack inspiration.
(7) Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.”
(19) Jesus said, “Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become My disciples and listen to My words, these stones will minister to you. For there are five trees for you in Paradise which remain undisturbed summer and winter and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death.”
(29) Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.”
(30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.”
(98) Jesus said, “The Father’s kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.”
(114) Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
These kinds of words should clearly cause us to reject such writings. This is all the people in the early church did to determine which writings were from God and which were not. Those that were clearly inspired were collected and the New Testament canon has remained the same for thousands of years. Historically, no one would go to the death to protect the gospel of Thomas but would for the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We have historical evidence for the canon which we have today. We also have our own logic and reasoning which allows us to distinguish what is the word of God and what is the word of man.