The Canon of Scripture

(3rd in The Hard Texts of Scripture Series)

While teaching at the Virginia Military Institute, Stonewall Jackson nicknamed his four canons, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” Jackson, an elder in the Presbyterian church, was making a play on words. There were many gospels written, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the four canonical gospels, that were approved by the ancient church for inclusion in our New Testament.

The Canon of the Protestant Old Testament consists of 39 books. 5 books of the Law, 12 Historical Books, 5 Books of Wisdom, and 17 books associated with the Major and Minor Prophets.

The Canon of the New Testament consists of 27 books. Four gospels, a history of the early church we call “the Acts of the Apostles,” 21 epistles, or letters, and one book, the Revelation of St. John the Divine which is both a letter and an apocalypse, or an unveiling. The Revelation unveils some truths about history, and advances some truths about the end of history, which is still to come.

In 2nd Timothy 3:16, the apostle writes:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

Several of my friends are fond of reminding me that, in the original language, the word here translated “inspired by God,” is literally God breathed. They are absolutely right. This text overlooks the human authors of scripture, concentrating on Scripture’s origin in God himself.

Now in this text from 2nd Timothy, we can be quite sure that “all scripture,” is primarily a reference to the Hebrew Bible, which we now call the Old Testament. The Bible of the Early Church was the Hebrew Bible, but not in Hebrew. Early Christians mainly used a popular (koine) Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that we call The Septuagint, named because, according to tradition, seventy scholars made the translation.

I would not have you to think that the Canon of the Hebrew Bible was fixed too early. In the lifetime of Jesus, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were divided over it. The Sadducees regarded only the five books of the Law as Canonical: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees regarded both the Law and the Prophets as Canonical, and some of them would have extend the canon to include the Writings, by which they meant “the rest of the books.”

2nd Peter 1:21 also talks about the origin of Scripture. Here God continues to be the source of inspiration, but the text from 2nd Peter takes into account the role of God’s human agents. The apostle writes:

21 … no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2nd Peter 1:20-21 RSV

This text, like 2nd Timothy 3:16, insists on Divine Inspiration, but it also allows for human agency. “…men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Now here is the kicker. Inspiration is no longer limited to Moses and the prophets. By the time 2nd Peter was written the Canon of Scripture had been broadened to include at least some of the Epistles of Paul. We know this because in 2nd Peter 3:16 the author warns his readers that some of what Paul has to say is “hard to understand,” and, as a result, he said, and I quote, “the ignorant and unstable twist (them) to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” End quote. The key phrase here is “as they do the other scriptures.” At the time that 2nd Peter was written, at least some of the Paul’s letters were already regarded as on a par with the Old Testament.

With the text of 2nd Peter as background, let us think for a moment, from a human perspective, about the creation of the New Testament. First, came the Epistles of Paul. 2nd Peter mentions them, but he does not number them, Paul is Peter’s contemporary. 2nd Peter did not mention the gospels as scripture. If the apostle Peter was at all connected with this letter that bears his name, it is easy to see why. Both St. Peter and St. Paul were killed in Rome during the reign of Nero Caesar, probably in the timeframe 65 to 68 A.D. We know from internal evidence that Mark, the earliest gospel, was not written down until just before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD . Likewise, we know from internal evidence, that Matthew and Luke were written down at least a decade after the fall of Jerusalem; and scholars think that John’s gospel was written down a decade after that. Papias, who wrote in the mid second century AD, tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written down by John Mark, who was with Peter in Rome, and took down what Peter taught, though not in any particular order. Depending upon how you date them, the other epistles by Peter, James, John, Jude, and the Revelation, were spread out over the same time frame as the later Epistles of Paul, and the four canonical gospels.

Now let’s think about how it was, on a Sunday Morning, for the early churches. When they came together, they read the Hebrew Bible. Members shared a sniper of scripture, a psalm, a hymn, a spiritual song. (1st Corinthians 14:26). And they remembered what Jesus had said, and they told the stories about Jesus that were a part of the oral tradition. The gospels were not written down for a very good reason. Most of the early disciples were Jews before they were Christians, and most, like Jesus himself, were influenced by the teaching of the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked for a General Resurrection at the end of history, at which time the righteous dead would be raised to Eternal Life, and the unrighteous dead to Judgment. There was never any thought that just one person, like Jesus, would be raised from the dead in isolation from everyone else. Therefore, when Jesus was raised from the dead, and appeared to his disciples, the disciples naturally assumed that the General Resurrection of the dead had begun, and would soon be complete, undoubtedly at the triumphant return of Jesus. The first generation of Christians did not write the gospels down, because they thought that Jesus was coming back, the very next day, or perhaps, the week after that, and besides they still had the first generation of witnesses. In Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia we read about a fellowship meal featured two apostles, both Paul and Peter, a double apostolic dinner! It was only after the first generation of witnesses, like Peter, began to die out, that the gospels were written down. The gospel of Mark probably started to circulate as a result of Peter’s death. And, we know from the internal evidence of John chapter 21, that the death of the beloved disciple undoubtedly influenced the circulation of that gospel.

The important thing for us to see is that the New Testament as we know it was not circulated together for many, many generations. Some churches had only the Oral Tradition about Jesus, which was told and retold, Sunday after Sunday. In addition, some churches had one or more gospels, and one or more epistles, but few churches before the middle of the 2nd Christian century could boast of having all four gospels, or a majority of Paul’s epistles. There were as many scenario’s as there were churches. My point here is that for several generations Christians continued to give their close attention to the Hebrew Bible. The idea that the New Testament would ever completely supersede the Old Testament was absolutely foreign to their thinking, and it ought to be to foreign to ours. As we have seen, it is certainly true that there are some texts in the Hebrew Bible that are for us, so obviously pre-Christ and sub-Christ, that they are hardly worthy of debate. I know of few Christians who think that people with a disability are not worthy to serve in the ministry, or that people born out of wedlock, much less their great grandchildren ten times removed ought to be barred from the fellowship of the church. And Jesus does not asks us to kill our enemies. He ask us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. However, when we read the Old Testament in light of Christ, it continues to be goldmine of practical and spiritual wealth with nuggets of enormous value just waiting to be picked up with almost no effort at all.

Like the early church, we continue to go to the Hebrew Bible for glimpses of the Messiah, and we find them everywhere. We find them in the Law, and in the Prophets, and in the Wisdom Literature, especially in Proverbs and Psalms. Someday, I will do a sermon on these insights. Today, I want to call your attention to the practical and spiritual riches that are so easily available to us in the Old Testament. I will venture three examples.

First, let me call your attention to two very practical examples. Some years ago I had a friend whose house was burglarized. The only thing they took was a valuable collection he had inherited from his father, and improved. When the police investigated they asked if he had had any strangers in the house. He told them that he had recently shown his collection to two men, at different times, that he hardly knew. In fact, he could not furnish a complete name or address for either of them. It is a shame he had not read the story of King Hezekiah that is told in 2nd Kings 20:13. In that story Hezekiah received the envoys of the king of Babylon, and showed them all that was in his storehouses. He showed them his silver, and his gold, and all his spices and fine oils, and his armory, and everything else that was found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. And when Isaiah the prophet heard of it he said:

“Hear the word of the Lord:17 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 18 And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 2 Kings 20:16-18

Had my friend been familiar with that text, he may not have lost his valuable collection.

Now let me share a story of my own. Some years ago, I had a man in the church I was serving who was very angry at me. He was telling people that I was a good enough preacher, but that I was not very much of a pastor. It was obvious to me that I had let him down, but I did not know how. I prayed about how I should approach him. As I prayed, a line from the book of Proverbs came to me, “A man’s gift makes room for him.” Well, I knew that man wanted something I had. He had admired, and offered to buy my very rare 9 pt. Blue Grass Hardware handsaw. I had only paid ten dollars for it, but he counted it a rare jewel. So I took it, and I showed up on his front porch with that saw in my hands, and when he answered the door, and he “saw the saw,” I said, “I have a gift for you.” He said, “You had better come in.” And I did, and we talked and we became the best for friends. That is a pretty simple story about a pretty simple proverb, but it enable two people to grow spiritually. That man was my friend and ally until his death many years later.

Of course, there are other texts in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament that bear directly on our relationship to God. I would mention just one that has recently come to my attention.

It is from Exodus 3. Moses is tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, when he turns aside to see a bush that burns with fire and is not consumed. As he approaches the bush, a voice comes to him saying, “Put off you shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. “ Moses is face to face with the glory of the God who calls himself, “I AM.”

In his book The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill talks about the insight that is unavoidable in this passage. He says that in this life, many things will cause us to burn with passion—-whether sex, or drink, or drugs, or power, etc.; and those things invariably consume us. By contrast God causes us to burn with a different kind of passion, and God does not consume us. God’s fire refines us and makes us more than we ever thought we could be. The apostle picks up this theme in the 1st chapter of 1st Peter, saying that “…now, for a little while, we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of our faith, more precious than fine gold, which, though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise, and honor and glory, at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”The revelation of Jesus Christ will certainly come in its fullness at the end of history. However it is equally true, that the revelation of Christ comes to us, even today, when we are ready to receive it. When the refiner’s fire has done its work, Christ is frequently revealed to us in the here and now, and we come, at last to understand the trials that we have suffered. God treats us like the bush that Mose saw. He refines us with fire, but, to our relief, we are not consumed. We always emerge from the fire of God like gold made pure, and iron turned into steel.

All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, and equipped for any good work. 2 Timothy 3:16

There you have it. The Bible we have, including that portion of it we call the Old Testament, is the Bible that God intends for us to have. It will accomplish all that God purposes for it to do; And if we read it in light of Jesus Christ, it will complete us, and equip us for the good work that God has for us to do.

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.