Passing the Tests
Prior to acceptance into the canon, a book had to pass two essential tests. First, it had to articulate the truth about God. Second, it could not contradict previously accepted canonical books. These two tests were of paramount importance because, as the Bible says, God cannot speak what is false (Hebrews 6:18), nor can he contradict himself (2 Corinthians 1:17–18). A book that failed either of these tests could not be considered the word of God. Such writings were not accepted in the biblical canon.
The Bible itself talks about both these tests. To falsely claim to be a prophet was both foolhardy and reckless. “But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death” (Deuteronomy 18:20). The passage continues: “You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:21–23).
The oldest surviving document that lists the contents of the Old Testament canon comes from a Christian scholar named Melito of Sardis and is dated at A.D. 170.
The apostle Paul commended the Berean Christians because they did not accept his teachings at face value. Instead they diligently searched the Scriptures to be sure his teachings were consistent with other Scriptures (Acts 17:11). He also praised the Thessalonian Christians because they accepted his teachings as coming from God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The apostle John commanded that his readers test the truth he proclaimed by the known standard (the Old and New Testament writings) before they accepted it as a message from God (1 John 4:1–6).
Passing these tests, the books of the Old and New Testament were accepted as being the word of God. Look at the evidence:
When Moses wrote, his books were immediately placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:26).
Joshua's book and the books of Samuel were also immediately accepted (Joshua 24:26; 1 Samuel 10:25).
Daniel had a copy of Moses and the Prophets, which included the book of Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2, 10).
Paul quoted the Gospel of Luke as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18; Luke 10:7).
Peter had copies of Paul's letters (2 Peter 3:16), proof that the New Testament books were being compiled early in the first century A.D.
The apostles commanded that their letters be read aloud and dispersed among the churches (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; Revelation 1:3).
Who then determined the biblical canon? Christians believe God did, by inspiring certain men to write down, without error or omission, what he deemed necessary for mankind's salvation and service. People simply recognized the Scriptures that were inspired by the prophets and apostles.