It is all very well to assert, as we do, that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Holding such a view, in turn, leads us to accept Scripture as authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. It is imperative, therefore, that we have an understanding of the canonicity of the Bible.
What is the canon of scripture? Canonicity refers to the books that belong in Scripture. The canon refers to the writings that are regarded as authentic. It is, therefore, the body of Scripture, as we know it ~ 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament. The word “canon” comes from Greek and Hebrew words that literally mean “measuring rod.” A canonical book is one that measures up to the standard of Holy Scripture by meeting certain requirements. So the canon of Scripture refers to the books that are considered to be the authoritative Word of God.
How do we know that the 66 books of our Bible are the only inspired books? Who decided which books were truly inspired by God? The Roman Catholic Bible includes books that are not found in the Protestant Bible. These are called the Apocrypha. How do we know that Protestants have the right books? These questions are addressed by a study of canonicity. So, canonicity describes the standard that books had to meet to be recognized as Scripture.
On the one hand, deciding which books were inspired seems like a human process. Christians gathered together at church councils in the first several centuries A.D. for the purpose of officially recognizing which books were inspired. But it is important to remember that these councils did not determine which books were inspired. They simply recognized or ratified what God had already determined.
What tests of canonicity were used? What is the history of canonicity? Why are certain disputed books deemed not to be Scripture? The collection of 66 books was properly recognized by the early church as the complete, authoritative Scriptures not to be added to or subtracted from in any way.
The early church councils must have applied certain standards in recognizing whether a book was inspired or not. We are not sure what these criteria were. However, they might have focused on things such as:
- Is it authoritative (“Thus says the Lord”)?
- Is it prophetic (“a man of God” 2 Peter 1:20)?
A book in the Bible must have the authority of a spiritual leader of Israel. In the Old Testament, that is a prophet, king, judge or scribe. In the New Testament, it must be based on the testimony of an original apostle. In assessing the validity of each book there are important questions, such as:
- Is it authentic (consistent with other revelation of truth)?
- Is it dynamic ~ demonstrating God’s life-changing power? (Heb. 4:12)?
- Is it received (accepted and used by believers, historically? (1 Thess. 2:13)?
There are some guidelines for recognizing the correct books.
- Christ refers to Old Testament books as “Scripture” (Mt. 21:42, etc.).
- Josephus, the Jewish historian (A.D. 95), indicated that the 39 books were recognized as authoritative.
It has often been put forward that The Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90) officially recognized our 39 Old Testament books. But there is a problem with the credibility of this. The Council of Jamnia, presumably held in Jamnia (or Yavne in Hebrew), Israel was a hypothetical late first-century council at which the canon of the Hebrew Bible was alleged to have been finalized. First proposed by Heinrich Graetz in 1871, this theory was popular for much of the twentieth century. However, it was increasingly questioned from the 1960s onward, and the theory has been largely discredited.
The Talmud relates that sometime before the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai relocated to the city of Yavneh/Jamnia, where he received permission from the Romans to found a school of halakha (Jewish religious law).
The Mishnah (an authoritative collection of exegetical material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law and forming the first part of the Talmud), compiled at the end of the second-century A.D. describes a debate over the status of some books of Ketuvim, and in particular over whether or not they render the hands “impure.” Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to a debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Megillat Taanit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that is not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim. Based on these, and a few similar references, Heinrich Graetz concluded in 1871 that there had been a Council of Jamnia which had decided the Jewish canon sometime in the late first- century (c. 70–90).
M. Christie was the first to dispute this popular theory in the July 1925 edition of The Journal of Theological Studies in an article entitled “The Jamnia Period in Jewish History.” Jack P. Lewis wrote a critique of the popular consensus in the April 1964 edition of the Journal of Bible and Religion entitled “What Do We Mean by Jabneh?” Sid Z. Leiman made an independent challenge for his University of Pennsylvania thesis published later as a book in 1976. Raymond E. Brown largely supported Lewis in his review published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (also appears in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1990), as did Lewis’ discussion of the topic in 1992s Anchor Bible Dictionary. Albert C. Sundberg Jr. summarized the crux of Lewis’ argument as follows:
Jewish sources contain echoes of debate about biblical books but canonicity was not the issue and debate was not connected with Jabneh…Moreover, specific canonical discussion at Jabneh is attested only for Chronicles and Song of Songs. Both circulated prior to Jabneh. There was a vigorous debate between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel over Chronicles and Song of Songs; Beth Hillel affirmed that both “defile the hands.” One text does speak of official action at Jabneh. It gives a blanket statement that “all Holy Scripture defile the hands,” and adds “on the day they made R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the college, the Song of Songs and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) both render the hands unclean” (M. Yadayim 3.5). Of the apocryphal books, only Ben Sira is mentioned by name in rabbinic sources and it continued to be circulated, copied and cited. No book is ever mentioned in the sources as being excluded from the canon at Jabneh.
According to Lewis:
The concept of the Council of Jamnia is a hypothesis to explain the canonization of the Writings (the third division of the Hebrew Bible) resulting in the closing of the Hebrew canon. … These ongoing debates suggest the paucity of evidence on which the hypothesis of the Council of Jamnia rests and raise the question whether it has not served its usefulness and should be relegated to the limbo of unestablished hypotheses. It should not be allowed to be considered a consensus established by mere repetition of assertion.
Other scholars have since joined in and today the theory is largely discredited.
- The apostles claimed authority for their writings (Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Thess. 3:14).
- The apostle’s writings were equated with Old Testament Scripture (2 Pet. 3:1, 2, 15, 16).
- The Council of Athanasius (A.D. 367) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) recognized the 27 books in our New Testament today as inspired.
Although the New Testament does not speak of a completed canon of Scripture, it does testify to writings already considered to be the Word of God. Peter recognized the writings of the Apostle Paul as Scripture. He cited Paul’s letters, which some were twisting “as they do the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15, 16). When Paul wrote to Timothy he quoted a passage from the Gospel of Luke as Scripture, “For the Scripture says, you shall not muzzle an ox while it treads the grain,” and, “the laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Tim. 5:18). The first verse quoted is from Deuteronomy, but the second is a quotation of one of our Lord’s statements recorded by Luke, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”―Luke 10:7.
Disputed Non-Canonical Books
The Apocryphal books are not Scripture. The Apocryphal books are 15 books written in the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. They record some of the histories of that time period and various other religious stories and teaching. The Catholic Bible includes these books as Scripture. The Apocrypha includes some specific Catholic doctrines, such as:
- purgatory and prayer for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:39-46)
- Salvation by works (almsgiving – Tobit 12:9).
Interestingly, the Catholic Church officially recognized these books as Scripture in A.D. 1546. That is only 29 years after Martin Luther criticized these doctrines as unbiblical. Here are several additional reasons why the Apocrypha have been rejected:
- The Jews never accepted the Apocrypha as Scripture.
- The Apocrypha never claims to be inspired (“Thus says the Lord” etc.)
- The Apocrypha is never quoted as authoritative in Scripture. Although Hebrews 11:35-38 alludes to historical events recorded in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42.
- Matthew 23:35 ~ Jesus implied that the close of Old Testament historical Scripture was the death of Zechariah (400 B.C.). This excludes any books written after Malachi and before the New Testament.
Other Disputed Books
There were other books that some people claimed to be Scripture. Some of them were written in the intertestamental period and called Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (false writings). Others were written after the apostolic age (second-century A.D. and following). These are called New Testament pseudepigrapha. The writers often ascribed these books to the first-century apostles (Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, etc.). They include some fanciful stories of Jesus’ childhood and some heretical doctrines. No orthodox Christian seriously considered them to be inspired.
There were some other more sincerely written books that had devotional value and reveal some of the insights of Christian leaders after the first-century (Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, etc.). They are valuable historically, and even spiritually helpful but they do not measure up to the standards of canonicity and were not recognized as Scripture.
The formation of the New Testament canon began in the early part of the second-century A.D. The earliest list was drawn up in Rome, in A.D. 140, by the heretic Marcion. Although his list was not authoritative, it did demonstrate that the idea of a New Testament canon was accepted at that time. The concept we have today of a completed Bible was formulated early in the history of the church. By the end of the second century, all but seven books (Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation) were recognized as apostolic. And by the end of the fourth-century, all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West. After the Damasine Council of Rome in A.D. 332 and the third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, the question of the Canon was closed in the West. By the year A. D. 500 the whole Greek-speaking church had also accepted all the books of our present New Testament.
Who decided which books should be placed in the Bible?
The simple answer is that God decided which books should be in the canon. He was the final determiner. J. I. Packer writes, “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by his work of creation, and similarly, he gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”
A distinction needs to be made between canonizing and collecting. In one sense no man or council can pronounce a work canonical or scriptural. Yet man was responsible for collecting and preserving such works. F. F. Bruce writes:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa-at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397-but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of these communities.
We have begun to consider what criteria were used in determining which books belong in the Bible? The books admitted to the canon of Scripture were deemed to be inspired by God. Other books were deemed unworthy of inclusion. Why? There were many books that might have had some claim to inspiration. How did the people judge between the true and the false? The Bible itself does not give any set of criteria that ought to be used to determine which books were to be considered Scripture. Although we do not know the exact criteria which were used, they may include the following.
For a book to be considered canonical, it must have been written by a prophet or apostle or by one who had a special relationship with such (Mark to Peter, Luke to Paul). Only those who had witnessed the events or had recorded eyewitness testimony could have their writings considered as Holy Scripture.
Witness of the Spirit
The appeal to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit was also made to aid the people in understanding which books belonged in the canon and which did not. Clark Pinnock writes:
The Spirit did not reveal a list of inspired books but left their recognition to a historical process in which He was active, God’s people learned to distinguish wheat from chaff, and gold from gravel, as He worked in their hearts.
The final test is the acceptance of the people of God. Jesus told His disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn. 14:26). We have the promise of Jesus that his disciples would be given total recall by the Holy Spirit of the things he said and did. These same disciples either wrote the New Testament books or had input into which works were accepted as Scripture. Any book that claimed canonical status yet detracted from the truth of the life of Christ, would have been rejected by Jesus’ own disciples who were eyewitnesses to the New Testament events. Thus, the acceptance of God’s people is an important criterion for a book to be considered canonical.
Another reason we can be assured the correct books are in the Bible is the nature of God. It has been estimated there are a quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeros) stars in the universe. The Bible says God calls them by their names. If God is able to do this, he certainly is able to preserve intact his Word for the benefit of mankind.
Jews and Protestants have the same Old Testament. The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books according to the Protestant reckoning but only twenty-four according to the Jewish reckoning. The books are the same; the difference is in the way they are divided.
The division of the Protestant Bible is as follows:
- 17 historical books: Genesis — Esther.
- 5 poetical books Job — Song of Solomon.
- 17 prophetical books: Isaiah-Malachi.
The Hebrew Bible numbers these as twenty-four:
- The Torah or law contains five books, Genesis-Deuteronomy.
- The Prophets contain eight books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets are grouped into one book.
- The Writings or Kethubim contain eleven books: Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
- The Hebrew Bible combined 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
- The twelve minor prophets were combined into one book.
Josephus numbered the books as twenty-two by attaching Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah. Thus, the books are identical. The only difference is in the way they are divided.
There have been accusations that the Council of Nicaea had a tremendous effect on choosing what books should be in the Bible. It has also been suggested that this council changed some of the doctrines that the church held before that time. The Council of Nicaea met in A.D. 323 to discuss how Jesus Christ was related to God. There were some in the church, led by Arius of Alexandria, who denied that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity. In order to answer these issues, the church had to make a pronouncement on which books authoritative doctrine could be based on. The Council of Nicaea did not meet to discuss which books belonged in the New Testament canon. It only recognized the books that the church had from the beginning considered to be the Word of God.
The books that were recognized as Scripture had already been composed at the time. All the books contained in the New Testament were composed before the end of the first century. Some fifty existing papyrus manuscripts written before A.D. 325 contain parts of every book of the New Testament, except 1 Timothy. There is no truth to the argument, so often brought up, that some of these books were not in existence until the Council of Nicaea. The argument, therefore, that certain doctrine was invented at this time has no basis in fact.
Other early writings
There are some very early works in the history of the church that add to our information about Jesus. These books written between A.D. 80 and A.D. 180 were composed by “apostolic fathers.” They were not inspired, as the New Testament, books are but they do provide us with some confirming information regarding the New Testament events. Some of the most notable examples include the following.
Letter of Clement
In A.D. 95, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthian church. This is an extremely important work because Clement was the leading elder of the church at Rome. He wrote his letter to the Corinthians to end a dispute between the laity and the elders.
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters in A.D. 115 on his way to being thrown to the lions. He made the distinction between his writings and that of the apostles, “I do not enjoin you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles; I am a convict; they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, 4.3).
Quadratus was one of the earliest defenders of the Christian faith. He wrote to Emperor Hadrian about A.D. 125. The work has been lost except for a brief statement in the writing of the church historian Eusebius. Quadratus gives another account of the miracles of Jesus and testifies as the Apostle Paul does that many who participated in the miraculous events surrounding the life of Christ lived long after Jesus ascended into heaven.
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas (not the Barnabas of the New Testament), was written between A.D. 130 and 138. It was written to show that Jesus is a fulfillment of the Old Testament Law.
Though these books were written at an early date, they have never been seriously considered as Scripture. They do not claim biblical authority; some actually disclaim it. In addition, none of them were written by apostles or members of the apostolic company. But they are helpful in shedding light on the New Testament.
Why was the authority of certain Old Testament books questioned?
At certain times, some of the biblical books had their authority questioned. These include:
The problem with the Book of Esther is that the God is not mentioned in the book. The hand of God, however, is certainly evident in the story as he protected the Jews from total annihilation. The mere absence of God’s name is not sufficient reason to deny its status, especially when his providential hand is so evident.
Ecclesiastes was sometimes objected to because of its skeptical tone. The writer of the book exclaims. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2). The problem here is a matter of understanding the author’s intent. Solomon, the writer of the book, is demonstrating that no one can experience ultimate satisfaction in this world. He shows that all people need God.
Song of Solomon
The Song of Solomon was sometimes criticized as being too sensual. The misdirected criticisms of sensuality do not understand the purpose of the book, which is to emphasize the nobility of marriage.
There were some who considered the book of Ezekiel to be against the Mosaic Law. The problem was again one of interpretation, not inspiration.
Proverbs had some who doubted it because of certain supposed inner contradictions.
Yet a proper interpretation of the book will show this is not the case.
Why was the authority of certain New Testament books questioned?
Some of the books that are now in the New Testament canon have, at times, had their inspiration questioned. They are known as the antilegomena, “the books spoken against.” Antilegomena, a direct transliteration from the Greek αντιλεγόμενα, refers to written texts whose authenticity or value is disputed. There were seven books whose authority was doubted by some members of the early church. The reasons vary from book to book. They are: –
The main problem that some of the early church members had with the book of Hebrews was that it was written anonymously. Yet Hebrews is not the only anonymous New Testament book. The four Gospels, for instance, do not name their authors either ~ though this is a convention of Gospel writing. From the earliest times, the letter to the Hebrews was accepted everywhere except in Latin Christianity. The problem still was a lack of a stated author. However, it was soon realized that Hebrews was orthodox in its content and deserved a place in the New Testament.
The main problem some had with James was the content. James put more emphasis on the obligation of believers to perform good works than do the other New Testament writings. But James is about the practical outworking and application of theological truth. It fits a much-needed gap between the doctrine and duty of Christianity.
The most suspect of all the books is 2 Peter. Basically, the reasons for questioning its authorship are the stylistic differences between it and 1 Peter. However, these stylistic differences can be explained by Peter’s use of amanuensis (a scribe or secretary, to do the writing for him).
Second and Third John
Second and Third John were questioned for several reasons. First, the author was not specifically stated ~ he is called merely “the elder.” Both of the letters were addressed to individuals, both are very brief, and were deemed by some to be without much theological content. Because of these factors, there were not too many early writers, who would quote from them.
Jude is a brief letter that gained immediate acceptance everywhere except Parthia, modern-day Iran. Jude was questioned for his use of the apocryphal book of Enoch.
It is no surprise that the Book of Revelation would meet some opposition due to the apocalyptic and symbolic nature of the work. However, it had almost instant recognition everywhere except in Parthia. The biblical scholar R. H. Charles wrote concerning the Book of Revelation, “Throughout the Christian church during the second century, there is hardly any other book in the New Testament so well received as Revelation.”
We must remember that Jesus promised his disciples would be guided into all truth. These seven books were only questioned by some of the church, not all of it. They were eventually recognized by the whole church to be included in the New Testament canon.
There is a group of writings which are considered part of Old Testament Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. But these are not accepted as inspired by the Protestant church and Judaism. These are known as the Apocrypha. The word Apocrypha means “hidden” (ἀπόκρυφος, apókruphos). The Apocrypha refers to the fifteen books written between the years 300 BC and 100 BC (except Esdras which was written about A.D. 100). The number is fourteen if the Letter of Jeremiah is put with Baruch. Eleven of these fourteen books are considered to be sacred Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. When added to the Old Testament they constitute only seven extra books because the others are attached to existing books. The Apocrypha is about the size of the New Testament.
Sometimes people confuse the terms Apocrypha and apocryphal. The word Apocrypha is a specific term used to refer to the particular books that are considered Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. The term apocryphal is applied to other books that are New Testament forgeries. An example of this would be the Gospel of Thomas, which claims to have been written by Jesus’ disciple Thomas. The book is a forgery.
The Protestant reformers, particularly in the sixteenth century, pointed out many cases of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church at that time. From 1545 to 1563, a church council met at Trent to answer some of their charges. Among their decisions was the pronouncement of these books as Holy Scripture. Before that time, they were not regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as sacred Scripture. The Protestant church rejects them for the following reasons.
The primary reason for rejecting the Apocrypha as Scripture is that there is no claim within the books that they are inspired by God. This is in contrast to the canonical Scriptures, which claim to record the revelation of God.
Never cited as authoritative Scripture
Though the New Testament cites directly or alludes to almost every book of the Old Testament as Scripture, it never cites the Apocrypha as being God’s Word. If the people living in the first century considered the Apocrypha Scripture, we would certainly expect them to refer to it as such.
However, what are we to make of Jude’s quotation from the intertestamental book of Enoch, “Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints.’” Jude records a prophecy made by Enoch, who lived before the flood of Noah. Enoch predicted the coming of the Lord to judge wicked individuals. The Apostle Paul wrote of this same judgment. (2 Thess. 1:7-10) This prophecy made by Enoch is not recorded in the Old Testament.
It is not necessary to assume that Jude considered the Book of Enoch as authoritative. Yes, the New Testament does refer to the Apocrypha in Jude 14 and Hebrews 11:35 but does not cite it as Holy Scripture. It cites the work in the same way Paul cited heathen poets (Acts 17:28). This demonstrates that the New Testament writers were familiar with the Apocrypha but did not think of them as having the same status as Old Testament Scripture.
Rejected by the Jews
The Jews have never considered these works to be inspired. On the contrary, they denied their inspiration. At the time of Christ we have the testimony of the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus that 22 books were deemed to be inspired by God (the reason for the number 22 rather than 39 is explained earlier). The books of the Apocrypha were not among these.
Not on early lists
In the early years of the church it drew up various lists of the books it considered to be Scripture. The books of the Apocrypha do not appear on any list until the fourth century.
Rejected by many Catholic scholars
Many Roman Catholic scholars, through the Protestant Reformation, rejected the Apocrypha as Scripture. There was no unanimity of opinion among them that these books should be considered Scripture.
The Apocrypha also contains demonstrable errors. For example, Tobit was supposedly alive when Jeroboam staged his revolt in 931 B.C. and was still alive when the Assyrians captured the Northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. This means that he lived over two hundred years. However, the Book of Tobit says he lived only 158 years (Tobit 1:3-5; 14:11). So it is not the longevity itself, but the detail of the lifespan is contradicted. This is an obvious contradiction. Other examples could be cited. Those who believe in an inerrant Scripture cannot accept the Apocrypha as God’s Word.
No evidence of inspiration
The books of the Apocrypha do not contain anything like predictive prophecy that would give evidence of their inspiration. If these books were inspired by God, then we should expect to see some internal evidence confirming it. But there is none.
The Old Testament is complete
It is clear that in the first century the Old Testament was complete. The Hebrews accepted the same thirty-nine books, (although divided differently) that the Protestant church accepts today. Jesus put his stamp of approval on these books but said nothing concerning the Apocrypha, However, he did say that the Scriptures were the authoritative Word of God and could not be broken. Any adding to that which God has revealed is denounced in the strongest of terms. Therefore, we have the testimony of Jesus against the authenticity of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha cannot be considered canonical because the books do not demonstrate themselves to be worthy of any claim to Scriptural status. Jesus did not consider it part of his Old Testament, and we are told not to add or subtract anything from God’s Word.
What about other books that claim biblical authority?
Throughout the history of the church, many documents surfaced that claimed to have been written by the apostles or those intimately familiar with the life of Christ. However, these works were written by someone other than the named author. These fraudulent works are known as the pseudepigrapha (forgeries). They are also known as apocryphal works and were rejected by all. The early church father, Eusebius, called these books “totally absurd and impious.” Over three hundred different works that fit into this category have been cataloged.
Among the forgeries were a large number of apocryphal or false gospels. Origen, a third-century writer, testified to the existence of other so-called gospels when he wrote, “There are many who have tried to write gospels, but not all have been accepted.” The biblical scholar Edwin Yamauchi offers an appropriate comment:
The apocryphal gospels are non-canonical writings of a motley variety about the purported deeds and revelations of Jesus Christ. Though the Greek word apocrypha originally meant “hidden,” the church fathers used it to describe spurious writings foisted as gospels. Irenaeus refers to ‘an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves (i.e. the heretics) had forged to bewilder the minds of the foolish.’ Although some of them were patterned after the canonical gospels, many bear little resemblance to them. As Origen noted, ‘The Church possesses four Gospels, heresy a great many.’
Many of these works were influenced by Gnosticism. The word gnostic means “one who has knowledge.” Gnosticism (from gnostikos, “learned,” from Ancient Greek: γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge). It is essentially a belief that the material world should be shunned, and the spiritual world should be embraced. The Gnostics taught that salvation came by secret knowledge of God. The Gnostic view of God is contrary to the Bible. In addition, the Gnostics considered that all matter is evil.
An example of gnostic writing can be found in the Gospel of Philip. The original Gospel of Philip was probably written sometime during the second century A.D. The influence of Gnosticism and its emphasis on secret knowledge can be clearly seen in this work:
The Logos said: If you know the truth the truth will make you free. Ignorance is a slave, knowledge is freedom. When we recognize the truth we shall find the fruits of truth in our hearts. If we unite with it, we will bring our fulfillment.
Other statements show that they are on a different level than Scripture:
A Gentile man does not die, for he has never lived that he should die. Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit, and from the virgin earth. Because of this Christ was born of a virgin, in order that he might set in order the stumbling which came to pass at the beginning.
These fanciful statements betray their non-biblical source.
The Pseudepigrapha, apart from being forgeries, was also written long after, in some cases hundreds of years after, the New Testament events. The writers were not eyewitnesses to the life of Christ or to the events of the early church. This is another reason to reject the testimony which they give.
Gospel of Thomas
One of the most prominent of all the forgeries is the Gospel of Thomas. This was probably composed in Edessa in Syria about A.D. 140. Consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus, it is the most extensive collection of non-biblical sayings of Jesus that still exist. The Gospel of Thomas begins as follows, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote. And He said: Whosoever finds the explanation of these words shall not taste death.” We know that the Gospel of Thomas is a forgery for the following reasons.
The author is not Thomas. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Thomas used the incorrect name when referring to the Apostle Thomas as Didymus Judas Thomas. In the four Gospels, Thomas is referred to as either Didymus or Thomas, not both at once. Didymus is the word for “twin” in both Greek and Aramaic. So the author of the Gospel of Thomas must not have been aware of this linguistic connotation.
The secret approach found in the Gospel of Thomas is typical of the writings of the Gnostics. The four Gospels are open about the ways of salvation and the kingdom of God while the Gospel of Thomas views truth from a hidden vantage point. There is no historical setting for the statements. The Gospel of Thomas is a compilation of sayings without the inclusion of important historical events as recorded in the Gospels. We are not told when or under what circumstances the statements were made.
Contradicts the four gospels
Many of the sayings are contradictory to those we have in the gospels. For example, saying 114:
Jesus said, “See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The person of Jesus Christ is different than the one revealed in the canonical gospels, where Jesus is God the Son, second person of the trinity. In the Gospel of Thomas, he is one who points the way by which an individual can attain the knowledge of God. These reasons demonstrate that the Gospel of Thomas is a forgery rather than a legitimate work written by one of Jesus’ apostles.
Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ
One alternative explanation of the life and ministry of Jesus that has caused considerable interest is The Aquarian Age Gospel of Jesus, the Christ of the Piscean Age. This is a book by Levi H. Dowling, first published in 1908. He said he had transcribed the text of the book from the Akashic records. This is a compendium of mystical knowledge supposedly encoded in a non-physical plane of existence. The word akashic from akasha is a Sanskrit word meaning “sky” or “space.” The akashic records are described as containing all knowledge of human experience as well as the history of the cosmos encoded in the very fabric of all existence. In the later twentieth-century, it was adopted by New Age, spiritual groups. The title is derived from the practice of astrology of naming time periods in terms of constellations and their dominant positions in the sky. This work written by Dowling (1844-1911) is allegedly based upon communication he received from a “universal mind.”
The Aquarian Gospel attempts to fill in some of the missing years of Jesus’ youth. It also tries to explain his wisdom by attributing it to contact with holy men of other religions. The astrological idea that a new Aquarian age has come upon us brings with it the need for a new spiritual gospel, the Aquarian Gospel.
Some of the material in the Aquarian Gospel is borrowed from the ancient Gospel of James, a well-known forgery in the early years of the church. The most prominent part of the book deals with the education and travel of Jesus. According to the Aquarian Gospel, Jesus first studied under the Jewish teacher Hillel and then went to India to spend time with their holy men. His learning also supposedly took him to Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt. It was in Egypt that Jesus was said to have joined the sacred brotherhood. He passed through seven degrees and emerged as the Logos. In Alexandria, a council of seven sages was held where they ordained Jesus for the work of the ministry
The Aquarian Gospel then rewrites the four gospels according to its own particular viewpoint. The end of the story has Jesus appearing in a materialized body to people in India, Persia, Greece, and other countries.
Like many previous attempts, the Aquarian Gospel attempts to give an explanation of the wisdom and character of Jesus apart from the biblical depiction. Dowling’s reconstruction shows obvious borrowing from the Ancient Gospel of James. It also shows familiarity with a nineteenth-century work, Nicolas Notovitch’s Unknown Life of Jesus Christ (1887). Notovitch was a Russian aristocrat, Cossack officer, spy, and journalist. But he is best known for this book claiming that during his unknown years, Jesus left Galilee for India and studied with Buddhists and Hindus there before returning to Judea. Notovitch’s claim was based on a document he said he had seen at the Hemis Monastery while he stayed there, but later confessed to having fabricated his evidence. Modern scholars view Notovitch’s accounts of the travels of Jesus to India a hoax which includes major inconsistencies.
The book begins with a historical inaccuracy, “Augustus Caesar reigned, and Herod Antipas was ruler in Jerusalem.” This is an error because Antipas ruled in Galilee, never in Jerusalem. A crucial problem with the Aquarian Gospel concerns its scenario of the source of Jesus’ teachings. If Jesus obtained his wisdom from the masters of India, Greece, and other countries, then why doesn’t his teaching reflect it? The teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are in direct conflict with every central belief of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the other religions with which he supposedly came into contact. The simple fact is that we have in the gospels a first-hand account of the life and ministry of Jesus.
The Aquarian Gospel is a false portrait of the life of Christ, not based upon historical records or eyewitness testimony but rather upon the recollections of an ancient forgery and the imagination of a twentieth-century writer. It has no value whatsoever in providing new or accurate information on the life of Christ.
The Archko Volume
One of the most famous written hoaxes is the Archko Volume. The work is also known as the Report of Pilate or Archko Library. The content of this work is an alleged report of the trial and death of Jesus made by Pontius Pilate to Emperor Tiberius. Its existence can be traced back to Rev. W. D. Mahan of Boonville, Missouri. He published a thirty-two-page pamphlet in 1879 entitled, “A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court.” The success of the Report of Pilate led Mahan to make some more “discoveries.” These included:
- An interview with the shepherds who were given the announcement of Christ’s birth.
- Gamaliel’s interview with Joseph and Mary.
- Eli’s story of the Magi, and other previously unknown interviews surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus.
Mahan claimed these “interviews” were translated from ancient manuscripts in Rome or Constantinople. Edgar Goodspeed writes concerning the accuracy of these:
The picture of Jesus in his interview with Pilate is romantic and theatrical, and the Pilate reflected in the “Report” is historically improbable. The whole work is a weak, crude fancy, a jumble of high-sounding but meaningless words, and hardly worth serious criticism. It is difficult to see how it could have deceived anyone…. Like the “Report of Pilate,” these [the other interviews] bristle with childish blunders…The supposed references to Josephus’s Jewish Wars…simply do not exist. The statement that Josephus in his Antiquities refers to Jesus in more than fifty places is false…That Tacitus wrote his history of Agricola in A.D. 56 is, of course, an error; Tacitus was born in 55, and even if he had been able to write his father-in-law’s biography at the age of one year, there was nothing yet to write, for Agricola himself was only nineteen.
As can be imagined, the Report of Pilate and the later interviews were immediately exposed as frauds. It was noticed, for instance, that entire pages of Eli’s story of the Magi were copied verbatim from the novel Ben Hur! Unhappily, people continue to read and believe these fraudulent works although they have no basis in fact.
One of the most frequently asked questions concerns the so-called Lost Books of the Bible. A book with this title was produced in 1926. It was the reprint of William Hone’s Apocryphal New Testament, first printed in 1820. Hone’s book was copied from two earlier ones published in 1736 and 1737. Since the time of the original writing of the lost books, the field of manuscript studies has made tremendous advances. But none of this has been taken into account by those who publish these works. The contents of the Lost Books include the following:
Four Infancy Gospels
- The Birth of Mary, a work written in the middle of the second century.
- The Protoevangelium of James written about the same time.
- The first Gospel of Infancy composed about A.D. 400.
- The Second Infancy Gospel, which in reality is a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas.
These were so-called infancy gospels that were written to fill in the details of the early unrecorded years of the life of Christ. These works include stories of Jesus forming clay figures of animals and birds which he makes walk, fly, and eat. Another account has a child who runs into Jesus and falls down dead. These examples are representative of the fanciful nature of the accounts.
The Letter of King Abgar
This was supposedly a letter written to Jesus by Abgar, King of Edessa. Jesus’ alleged reply to the letter is also contained. These works were written in the third century.
Gospel of Nicodemus
This is also known as The Acts of Pilate. It was written in the fourth or fifth century. Other works found among the lost books include the Apostles’ Creed. And the spurious letter from Paul to the Laodiceans. These books have been called “outlaw” Scriptures by some. But none of these works were ever thought of as part of the New Testament. Anyone who claims these works were suppressed by the church is speaking out of ignorance or a desire to deceive. It is obvious from the date of composition of these works that they cannot be considered authoritative. The New Testament was written by eyewitnesses or people who recorded eyewitness testimony of the life and ministry of Jesus.
Contrast with the four gospels
F.W. Farrar wrote:
The Four Gospels superseded all others and won their way into universal acceptance by their intrinsic value and authority. After so many salutary losses we still possess a rich collection of Apocryphal Gospels, and, if they serve no other good purpose, they have this value, that they prove for us undoubtedly the unique and transcendent superiority of the sacred records. These bear the stamp of absolute truthfulness, all the more decisively when placed in contrast with the writings which show signs of willful falsity. We escape their lying magic to find support and help from the genuine gospels. And here we take refuge with the greater confidence because the ruins which lie around the ancient archives of the Church look like a guarantee of the enduring strength and greatness of those archives themselves.
Has God revealed anything further to mankind since the first century?
The mere claim that God spoke to an individual does not make it true. There has to be evidence to back up the claim. Does the evidence support the claim that God spoke through them? The Bible instructs us to test the spirits, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn. 4:1). When we test the claims of those who have brought forth a “new Scripture” we find them to be untrue.
The downfall of all the books that have had inspiration claimed for them is that they present a different revelation from what has previously been recorded. They contradict the Bible. For example, the Quran says that Jesus was not the Son of God and that he did not die on the cross for the sins of the world. The sacred books of Mormonism teach that there exist many gods rather than the one God of the Bible. In addition, Mormonism teaches that each male can someday become a god himself. Mormonism thus denies the doctrine of the Trinity. It denies salvation by grace through faith and the eternal punishment of the wicked. Every book written since the completion of the Bible that claims to be a further revelation from God fails on the same ground. They all deny that Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the trinity. These works also deny salvation by grace through faith. They preach a different gospel. The Apostle Paul warned the church at Galatia about such people, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel…But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”―Galatians 1:6, 8.
Furthermore, there is no substantiating evidence (such as fulfilled prophecy) to demonstrate the books are of divine inspiration. The various books that have been written since the completion of the New Testament, that have claimed to be a further revelation from God, fall short of the mark. The Bible warns, “Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who put their trust in him. Do not add to his words, lest he reprove you and you be found a liar.”―Proverbs 30:5-6.
Nothing can be added to the Bible
The canon was closed in the first century. Since then God has not revealed anything on the same level with Scripture.
The Westminster Confession, a seventeenth-century statement of faith, says concerning the Bible:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men (Westminster Confession, 1:6).
This statement sums up the Protestant view of Scripture. Nothing is to be added or subtracted from the Bible. The revelation from God to man has been completed. However, there is no direct word in the Bible that says God has stopped revealing himself.
Some have appealed to the following verses in the Book of Revelation, “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life.” (Rev. 22:18, 19). This is only speaking of the Book of Revelation. It is not a commandment against adding any other book to Scripture. If taken literally, then you could not have any other book in Scripture but the Book of Revelation!
Yet there is a principle here that is clearly taught. No one is to add or to take away from the revealed Word of God. Jude makes a statement that is pertinent to our discussion, “I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3). This verse teaches that a body of truth from God has been delivered to man and that this faith has been wholly delivered. This seems to indicate that no further revelation from God is necessary. God has told us in Scripture everything that we need to know about who he is, who we are, and what will happen to the earth in the future.
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 Although the issues of canonicity more correctly belong to the field of bibliology rather than hermeneutics, I think the journey from hermeneutics to homiletics should encompass the matter of canonicity and that is why this chapter is included.
 See, for example, Jack P. Lewis “Jamnia Revisited” in Lee Martin McDonald (Editor), James A. Sanders (Editor), The Canon Debate, (Hendrickson; Reprint edition, 2002).
 Ketuvim is the third and final section of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), after Torah (instruction) and Nevi’im (prophets). In English translations of the Hebrew Bible, this section is usually entitled “Writings” or “Hagiographa.”
 Yadayim (“Hands”) a treatise of the Mishnah and the Tosefta (a compilation of the Jewish oral law from the late second-century, the period of the Mishnah, dealing with the uncleanness of the hands and their ablution).
 Megillat Taanit (Hebrew: מגילת תענית) is chronicle which enumerates 35 eventful days on which the Jewish nation either performed glorious deeds or witnessed joyful events. These days were celebrated as feast-days. Public mourning was forbidden on 14 of them, and public fasting on all.
 Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, who was planning to kill all the Jews. This took place in the ancient Persian Empire. See Book of Esther.
 Albert C. Sundberg, Jr. “The Old Testament of the Early Church Revisited.” http://department.monm.edu/classics/Speel_Festschrift/sundbergJr.htm ~ Accessed 16 November, 2015. This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997.
 Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. III, (New York 1992), 634–7.
 Albert C. Sundberg, Jr. “The Old Testament of the Early Church Revisited.”
 Jack P. Lewis “Jamnia Revisited,” in McDonald & Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, 2002.
 J. 1. Packer, God Speaks To Man: Revelation and the Bible, (Westminster Press, 1965), 81.
 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960), 27.
 Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 104.
 Some of these poetical books have been variously described/defined as “Wisdom” books.
 The phrase “laity and elders” really belongs to particular theological interpretations rooted in ecclesiologies that are essentially hierarchical. Many Christians believe in the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). They do not argue so much that there ought to be no clergy, rather that there is no laity.
 R. H. Charles, Revelation, The International Critical Commentary, Vol. 1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1906).
 Probably from Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’ poem, Phainomena (Heavenly Displays).
 Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Word From Nag Hammadi,” (Christianity Today, January 13, 1978), 19.
 Edgar Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha: Famous “Biblical” Hoaxes, Beacon Press, 1956), 33, 35.
 F. W. Farrar, The Messages of the Books, (Nabu Press, 2010), 27.