The "canon" of Scripture is defined as the books of the Bible officially accepted as Holy Scripture. Written by about forty authors over the course of 1500 years, it was essential that a list be drawn up of the books which reflected the truth of God's message and were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Although each book was canon in God's eyes as it was written, the canon had to be identified by religious leaders as God did not give a list of books to include. Determining the canon was a process conducted first by Jewish rabbis and scholars and later by early Christians. Ultimately, though, it was God who decided what books belonged in the biblical canon.
What is the canon of the Bible and how did we get it?
The complete canon of the Old Testament wasn't completed until after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but parts had been recognized far earlier. The books of the law (also known as the Torah or Pentateuch—Genesis-Deuteronomy) were acknowledged as early as 2 Kings 22. The prophets were identified as Scripture by the end of the second century BC. The Psalms were accepted, but the remaining books varied depending on Jewish sect. The rabbinical school of the Pharisees in Jamnia arrived at a final list of twenty-four books, which equate to the thirty-nine books of the Christian Old Testament. Ten books interpreted in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) were rejected because of the strict guidelines for canon: books must have conformed to the Torah, and had to have been written in Palestine, in Hebrew, and not after the time of Ezra (about 400 BC). Although the Catholic Bible today includes the Apocrypha, the vast majority of Hebrew scholars considered them to be good historical and religious documents, but not on the same level as the inspired Hebrew Scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, have a few minor differences, but they are remarkably similar to the accepted Hebrew Scriptures we have today.
The process for recognizing and collecting the books of the New Testament began in the first centuries of the Christian church. Very early on, some of the New Testament books were recognized as inspired. Paul considered Luke's writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Peter referred to Paul's writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Clement of Rome mentioned at least eight New Testament books (AD 95). Ignatius of Antioch acknowledged about seven books (AD 115). Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle, acknowledged fifteen books (AD 108). Later, Irenaeus mentioned twenty-one books (AD 185). Hippolytus recognized twenty-two books (AD 170-235).
The first "canon" was the Muratorian Canon, compiled in AD 170, which included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. The Council of Laodicea (AD 363) concluded that only the Old Testament (along with the Apocrypha) and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches. The Councils of Hippo (AD 393) and Carthage (AD 397) reaffirmed the same twenty-seven books as authoritative.
The principles used by the councils to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit were fourfold. First, the author must be an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle. Second, the book must have been accepted by the body of Christ at large. Third, the book had to contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching. Finally, the book had to bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit as the divine Author. Most importantly, however, it must be recognized that it was God, and God alone, who determined which books belonged in the Bible. God, via the inspiration of the Spirit, imparted to His followers what He had already decided. The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in His sovereignty, and despite the limitations of sinful man, brought the early church to the recognition of the books He had inspired, and those books are recognized today as the canon of Scripture.
What are the Catholic Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical books?
The Dead Sea Scrolls - What are they and why do they matter?
Were there different authors of the books of the Bible? Who were the authors?
How is the Bible inspired? What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired?
Are there errors in the Bible?
Truth about the Bible