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Proclamation Index

Why Are There Only 66 Books in the Bible?

by Dr. Thomas Woodward Tom Woodward, Ph.D., has been a professor at Trinity College (Florida) since 1988. He is founder and director of the C.S. Lewis Society. See further at: Dr. Woodward currently lives with his wife in Tampa Bay, FL. His recent work, Doubts About Darwin, just won the Christianity & Culture book award. Tom was designated an AIIA Resource Associate for Bible & Theology in July of 2002. The following is an original article. The canon* of Scripture was formed from the first through the fourth centuries. This was not just a matter  of men stumbling upon new religious books that were historically connected with Christianity and then adding them to the list. No, the careful decision to include books in the canon was made by the Church at large, under God's guidance, using several key guidelines. QUESTION What were those guidelines? What were the standards by which New Testament books were accepted? ANSWER Four criteria were used by Christians in the early centuries, leading up to the listing of the 27 New Testament books. First, there had to be some traditional use of these books- that is, an early and pervasive use for teaching, worship, and witness. And the books had to be well-established among all Christian communities. Second, there was a rule of apostolicity, which meant that the book should be written by, or closely linked to, one of the apostles. Thus, all of the New Testament books were written during the first century, with the last ones probably being two by John (Revelation and the Gospel of John), in the nineties. Third, a principle of catholicity was recognized, which means universality of use and appreciation. Fourth, there were the vital principles of orthodoxy and spiritual fruitfulness, by which books in widespread use were found to conform smoothly to the prior revelation of Scripture, and were seen manifesting the divine power to change lives. QUESTION Christians accept the Old Testament as Scriptural, exactly as the Jewish people do. Their Bible (called "the Tenakh") has the identical content as our 39 books of Genesis through Malachi. Why accept this "Jewish" Bible? ANSWER One basis is the accumulated experience of 1,400 years of life in the Jewish community, before Christ, leading to their confident judgment about the canon. The sense of authority in these books contributed to the ongoing and final affirmation of the Old Testament canon by the end of the first century. Even more powerful is the way that Jesus Christ regarded the Old Testament, citing it repeatedly as the very Word of God. In His teaching, He regarded the Tenakh as authoritative and reliable for faith and practice (see John 10:35). His affirmation of the Old Testament is a persuasive argument. QUESTION What about the Apocrypha, dating from between the two Testaments, recognized as Scripture by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Church? ANSWER Virtually all Protestant Bibles before 1827 contained the books of the Apocrypha, though Protestant churches have never recognized them as Scriptural or canonical. Three things are clear: a) Even the Roman Catholic Church only recognized these books (with a few exceptions) as part of Scripture since the 1546 Council of Trent. b) The Jews never recognized them as canonical, even though they relate to the end of the Old Testament and come from the Jewish  community. c) The early Christian church, long before Catholic-Eastern-Protestant divisions, never regarded the books of the Apocrypha as canonical. In a nutshell, we can trust that God worked through the Spirit-led wisdom and reflection of His people to confirm the content of His Word. He is sovereign, and has faithfully revealed it from age to age. QUESTION What about Paul's missing letter to Corinth (1 Cor. 5:9, 11)? If found, would it be added to the Bible? ANSWER In view of God's controlling power over history, it simply was not His intent that the missing letter be included in the canon. Otherwise it would never have been "lost" in the first place. Also, even if Paul's letter had survived in those early decades of the infant church, it would have had to pass all the other tests of the Church to be considered God's Word. The same logic applies to the Gospel of Thomas, made popular by the Jesus Seminar, and all other such modern proposed additions. ________________________________ * The word canon, which originally meant a "reed" or "measuring stick," came to mean "rule" and, ultimately, an "official list" of scriptural books.

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