What Is the Biblical Canon?

The word canon means “standard” or “rule.” Before becoming the central personality of the New Testament canon, Jesus used a kanon in his earthly father's workshop. This Greek word means a carpenter's rule. In turn, the Greek word originated from kaneh, the Hebrew word for reed or a measuring rod (Ezekiel 40:3; 42:16). From the time of A.D. 170, the Church Fathers spoke about the canon of Christian teaching, the canon of truth, the canon of faith, and the canon of the church. Athanasius (A.D. 295–373), one of the Church Fathers, used the word canon in referring to the Scriptures in A.D. 350.

Fantastic Find

The cherished Old Testament scrolls were stored in the holy Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24–26). Once the building of the Jerusalem Temple was completed in 959 B.C., the scrolls were kept in this holy place (2 Kings 22:8).

The ancient Jews did not refer to the Scriptures as the Old Testament canon, but as sacred writings. After handling the Scriptures, the Jewish priest washed his hands before touching anything else. Touching the sacred writings made his hands impure inasmuch as it was his unclean hands touching the clean. This belief protected the scrolls from irresponsible and irreverent handling. It also emphasized the holy nature of the writings.

When Joshua assumed leadership of the Israelites after Moses’ death, God told him to meditate on the Law “day and night” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua needed to know the Law so that he could be an effective leader. The authority of the Law didn't end with the settling of the Promised Land, however. Whenever a new king claimed the throne of Israel, he took on the long and laborious task of copying the Law. The sacred Law instructed that the king read his copy “all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God” (Deuteronomy 17:18–19).

The apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, referred to the Old Testament as sacred writings in a letter to his young friend Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15). The Hebrews and the apostles considered these writings as authoritative Scripture that came from God.

Bible Lesson

The first five books of the Old Testament are known collectively as either the Law, the Pentateuch, or the Torah. The Old Testament was called the Tanak. The T corresponds to the Torah (Law), the N to Nevi'im (Prophets), and the K to the Ke'tuvim (other writings). The two As were added to aid pronunciation.

The Thirty-Nine Old Testament Sacred Books

Although there are a number of writings dating from as far back as the time of Moses, only thirty-nine compose the sacred and authoritative Old Testament canon. Moses penned the first five books, with the exception of the last few chapters of Deuteronomy that recount his death and burial. Other books were written by kings and prophets. The prophet Malachi wrote the final book of the Old Testament during the Persian domination in 430 B.C. After this time, no additional prophets brought messages from God to the Israelites. The Old Testament canon was complete and closed.

The Twenty-Seven New Testament Sacred Books

While instructing his disciples and his followers, Jesus affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament canon. He also promised that God the Holy Spirit would guide his chosen apostles and prophets in writing the books that would become the New Testament canon. Only twenty-seven books of the writings from this time period were determined to be part of the canon. Just as the Old Testament Hebrews accepted God's authority in the sacred writings of the prophets, the early Christians accepted his divine authority in the apostles’ and prophets’ New Testament writings. A book was not the word of God because it was consented to by God's people, but it was consented to by God's people because it was the word of God.

Look in the Book

Roughly 400 years passed, known as the Intertestamental Period (from 430 B.C. to A.D. 26), before the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ birth and ministry were fulfilled. These 400 years of silence were broken by a “voice of one calling (boontos) in the desert” (Luke 3:4 quoting Isaiah 40:3–5). That voice belonged to the last of the Old Testament prophets—John the Baptist. Christians believe that John was the herald who prepared the way for the Messiah—i.e., Jesus.

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