What Kind of Fire is it?

Ok so yes, this is late. But it is still important.

If you haven’t heard, John MacArthur released a new book and he did so with gusto, including a conference advertised by this video:

Now, I can’t tell you everything that is going on in that video. There’s a whole thing with what appears to be random scenes from the bible enacted by action figures. (Is that Stephen at the beginning? And why is he missing a leg?). This much I do know, John MacArthur does not think the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is part of true Christianity.

Now I should be clear about something up front. I like John MacArthur’s studies. When I first started to undertake serious study of the bible, MacArthur was one of my early entry points. While I don’t tend to read him as much today, I nevertheless think many of his studies and earlier sermons are invaluable.

Also, in case you were unaware, I should note that I am not a Dortian Calvinist. Look, I’ve got lots of friends who are. That’s fine. We can disagree on that and still speak constructively about the message of the bible and partner together for God’s Kingdom and to fulfill the works he has called us to and prepared for us (“that we should walk in them” as the Apostle Paul says). So already I’m in disagreement with MacArthur who has become increasingly vocal about Calvinism, and more intolerant of those who disagree with his position (sadly I have lots of former friends who are Calvinists in much the same vein).

I also would not characterize myself as being Charismatic or Pentecostal. “So why,” you might ask, “do you even care about this?” Quite honestly, it’s about unity. And the whole Strange Fire issue directly undermines the unity of the Church. I say this not to shun MacArthur, because one does not build unity by pushing others to the fringe, but to encourage other Christians not to write off what has become the largest and fastest growing area of Christianity today.

I get that there are certainly some abuses within the Charismatic church, largely centered around the so-called “health and wealth gospel.” If you are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain. The health and wealth gospel takes the focus off of the redemptive, transformative, revolutionary and radical power of the cross and empty grave and places it on personal material gains in this life. Does God want you to have joy? Absolutely. Does that joy consist primarily in being materially wealthy and physically healthy? Not remotely. Yes, it is true that the bible says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7 NIV) and one verse later “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9 NIV). Yet it is the intervening verse that directly undermines the health and wealth message “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8 NIV). This message, which is purported sometimes by charlatans and, more often than many of us would like to admit, by earnestly believing preachers who simply don’t know any better, is a dangerous message. It appeals to those who are desperate, tells them to focus on a false and quickly fading hope, taking their eyes off of the goal Christ has put before them, and blames the individual for not believing strong enough when things don’t work out. In this way it makes the poor even more poor and blames them for that, it encourages the ill to divert their funds away from genuine treatments (ones that God had a hand in making) and tells them to buy snake oil. It is dangerous and preys (either intentionally or unintentionally) on the most vulnerable. Yes it should be opposed because it is not the gospel.

Still, to argue that all, or even most, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are part of this false gospel, as MacArthur very strongly implies, is grossly mistaken. You don’t reject all of them for the abuses of a minority. MacArthur, though, goes even one step further. He declares that members of this church are practicing “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is very serious charge! This comes from Matthew 12. Jesus says that anything will be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man (referring to himself), but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. MacArthur, fully aware of the content of what that means, quickly passes judgment that millions, if not billions, of those professing to be Christians, those who have died to themselves with Christ, are consigned to hell, and will not be raised with Christ. But judging by the way in which he does so, you would think he is wholly unaware of this. Further, he explains that he is sure he is correct because, according to MacArthur, blasphemy of the Spirit is “assigning to God the work of Satan.” But right away there’s a problem.

Let’s actually look at Matthew 12. In it, Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing on the Sabbath. For doing such a work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees begin their plan to have Jesus executed. Not too longer afterward, Jesus performs an exorcism, driving out a demon from a man, healing him of his physical maladies at the same time. The Pharisees declare that Jesus does this under the power of Beelzebul, another name for Satan. It is in this context that Jesus brings up the “blasphemy of the Spirit.” If anything, it is not assigning to God the works of Satan, but rather it is assigning to Satan the works of God, exactly what the Pharisees are doing.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than that. Jesus declares that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (v. 30) just before he mentions this unforgivable sin. I would argue that this sin has more to do with disrupting the unity of the Church. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that John MacArthur has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that there is a lack of caution here that should give us pause, especially when speaking about the broader Church. The Spirit works to preserve and unify the Church. As Jesus prayed in John’s gospel (ch. 17, NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

If what we do is damaging to the unity of the church, it should be abandoned. We should strive to work together with others, even when we disagree, so long as we have our eyes fixed on the cross of Christ, and not our own wealth or lack thereof. Pray for unity. Build up, do not tear down. May we all grow together into God’s building.

This was written in response to a direct question. If you have a question you’d like me to write about on the blog, let me know (comments below are a great way to do that).


Summary of the series: Where did our Bible come from? (part 13)

This is a summary of the posts in this series in an effort to both give a sense of cohesion to it and to provide a reference point for those who may have missed one or two (or more) in the series, but wanted to keep up. I’ve provided links to each of the posts if you would like to follow up. I’ll start by briefly reviewing each post (where you can click the hyperlink) and then give my summative comments at the end.

Part 1: Introduction: In this post I introduced the series and also mentioned that Bruce Metzger’s Text of the New Testament as a good resource. Also I began to refine which version of the bible we were looking at which led into the next part.

Part 2: The KJV only position and its problems: Here I briefly explain what the KJV only position is and why it is wrong.

Part 3: Defining which Bible we’ll use: In this post I finish talking about which bible I was focusing on. We settled on the Christian Protestant version on the bible and reasons for this were given.

Part 4: Introducing the Old Testament: Here I talked about the old theory of the Hebrew Canon and the Hebrew structure of the canon.

Part 5: Settling on the Old Testament: In this post I review the history of the canonization process for the Old Testament, with the recognition that it is ultimately speculative to some degree though certainly affirmed by the New Testament.

Part 6: The Window for the New Testament: In this post I discuss the historical time from during which the New Testament would have been written and canonized, which is considerably smaller in scale than that of the Old Testament.

Part 7: The Marcion Canon: Here I review the history of Marcion’s canon for the Gospels and why it was rejected.

Part 8: The Diatesseron: Here I examine the other early unification of the four gospels which, while admirable, was also rejected.

Part 9: The First Two Criteria: Here I begin to examine the criteria that the early church, either knowingly or unknowingly, used in identifying the biblical canon. This was based on F. F. Bruce’s excellent work The Canon of Scripture which is the other major resource I used. The criteria were apostolicity and early compostion.

Part 10: The Next three criteria: I examine the next criteria, which are Orthodoxy, Catholicity, and Use as Scripture.

Part 11: The Final Criteria: In this post I give a discussion of the doctrine of inspiration of Scripture.

Part 12: The Bible in English: In this final post I talk about the translation of the bible, particularly into English to talk about how we got the bible today.


In Summary: The main thing I wanted to do with this series was, of course, answer the question of how we got to our bible today (meaning the protestant bible in English). Of course I could have been more in depth along the way and even gone farther to talk about things like the Brick New Testament and other non-traditional translations, but I have given what I think is a good general overview of the history of the bible. Primarily, I wanted to demonstrate that the bible as we have it was not decided upon arbitrarily nor was it a single person’s decision. Rather, the community of God over multiple generations recognized that certain writings were of a special character that they could be regarded as authoritative and informative for our faith and practice even today. More than anything, I hope that you can walk away from this series with a certain level of confidence. If there is anything that I brought up, but have failed to address and you are just dying to know what I say about it, please let me know in the comments. I’ll be back, hopefully, with some posts on the Olympics this year not too far from now.


Where did our Bible come from? Part 12: The bible in English

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post in this series (or generally). I’m coming to the close of this series though, just this post and one more to sum it up. It’s my hope that by the end of it, you’ll not only have gained an understanding of how we got from a small tribal group in the mideast to the bible in your hands (or on your phone, or computer, or e-reader, or whatnot), but also be able to read it with a certain level of confidence. With the last post, I had given the last criteria for New Testament Canonicity, inspiration. After going through the reason our bible includes the books it does in the Hebrew and Greek as I did over the past several posts in this series, I though it might be good to talk breifly about how we got from those Greek, Hebrew (and Aramaic) texts to the translated texts, particularly English ones.

The Latin Vulgate

So the very first translation of the bible including both Old and New Testament was into Latin and was called the “Vulgate.” Now the Old Testament had previously been translated into Greek as the Septuagint (which we’ve talked about) and before that as the Aramaic Targums. There was also an earlier Latin translation of the entire Bible (Old and New Testaments), it was actually several independent translations and all of them together were known collectively as the Vetus Latina or sometimes Old Latin. However, it did not have the wide audience that the later Vulgate manuscript did.

The Vulgate was the translation undertaken by Jerome, probably sometime between 380-420. It was not done entirely by Jerome, but he did the bulk of the work including translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, the most significant improvement over the Old Latin, which had based its work on the prior Greek translation. In this way, it became apparent how translations from the original source, undertaken with a certain amount of diligence, were superior. In the Western church, the Vulgate became standard.

Early Vernacular Translations

Some of the earliest bible translations were from the Old English and Old German (and later some Old French). I’ll focus on the English ones, since that One of the better examples in English was a translation of the Gospel of John by the Venerable Bede (or at least known and used by him) prior to his death around 735. Around 900, Alfred the Great, one of the first (or arguably the first) king of the Anglo-Saxons, distributed copies of various passages from the bible (most frequently the ten commandments). By 990 an Old English translation of the four Gospels had appeared.

However, once several groups, who had relied upon the biblical text in translation for their views, were condemned as heretics, things began to change. The most notable of these groups (at least as far as contemporary noteriety) were the Waldensees (sometimes Waldensians) who, among other things, believed in a form of reincarnation. Some Landmark Baptist groups like to include the Waldensees in their in their history (such as the somewhat infamous “Trail of Blood” track), which should be cautioned against due to their divisive and simply dangerous theology. At any rate, the result of these condemnations was a ban, put out by Pope Innocent III, in 1199, on any new copies of the bible that were not authorized by the church. Eventually this ban was extended and made more explicit by a later Synod, in 1234, to ban the possession of unauthorized translations and effectively limit, if not eliminate, their use in the common language.

Despite this, by 1383 an English translation of the entire bible, for which John Wycliffe has been given credit, appeared. This (Middle English) version was the first relatively widespread version of the entire bible in English and was based entirely upon the Vulgate. It was banned at the Oxford synod of 1408, but nevertheless persisted in some form or another (though was considered by many to be too vulgar for the text of the bible). Followers of Wycliffe were often called Lollards, a derogatory term coming from the Middle English for “mutter.”

Predating Wyclif, and from whom he may have gotten his ideas, was Jan Hus. A Czechoslovakian monk (though he is also claimed by Germany) who advocated that the priesthood of all believers so extreme that he led a movement to begin again the translation of the bible into the common language of the people (a Czech version of the bible did appear roughly the same time as this). For doing so, however, and violating the clear edict of the Western Church, Hus was burned at the stake.

It should be noted that these moves to have the bible in the common tongue may have been more symbolic than practical. After all, literacy was hardly widespread at the time. Those who did learn to read were generally of the wealthy class and learned to read first, as almost all paid instruction was at the time, in Latin. The Latin versions were widespread enough for these wealthy who could afford them and so it seemed that the move to have the bible into the common tongue was either purely symbolic, or (more likely) was a call to also improve education of all people so that they were able to read it. I might be a little idealistic in that assertion, but that would eventually become explicit after the Protestant Reformation.

Protestant Bibles

The emphasis that Hus had placed upon the priesthood of all believers had its most significant impact following the Reformation and evidence of it can be seen in some of Martin Luther’s works. This is likely one reason behind Luther’s translation of the bible into German. This remarkable feat was accomplished over many years and actually shaped the German language in profound ways. That said, it is likely that other concerns, beyond the idea that everyone should be able to read and interpret the bible, were likely also at play. Luther’s bible, which was one of the first works published on the printing press owned by Gutenberg in 1534, also had a political motivation for it. Since the primary authority in pre-Reformation Europe seemed to be the Roman Church, Luther (and other protestants) needed a way to get the support of the stateindependent of the Roman Church. By translating the bible into German, rather than reprinting a Latin one, a sense of Germanic pride could have been encouraged, eventually allowing Germany to break from Rome and declare itself Protestant (unfortunately this also led to some incredibly bloody conflicts, culminating in the Thirty Years War).

Predating the publication of the Luther Bible, however, was an English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale. His 1526 translation was met with sanctions, but has survived better than Wycliffe’s translation. A considerable improvement on Wycliffe’s Bible was a return to the original Greek manuscript as the basis for translation instead of the Latin, showing the influence of Erasmus Desiderus of Rotterdam (who had also influenced Luther), likely the greatest biblical textual scholar who has ever lived. Tyndale’s Pentateuch (which may or may not have been done by Tyndale) appeared in 1530 followed by the book of Jonah. Tyndale’s work is notable for being considered somewhat “earthy” in its use of language, since he thought it should reflect the language every day people spoke.

Other English translations of other parts of the bible were also published in the years following and in 1535 the first complete English bible translated from the Original languages was published by Myles Coverdale in Antwerp. While it may seem odd that the first complete English Bible was published in a Dutch city, there are numerous historical reasons for this. Up until 1527, Britain was still secure in its Allegiance to Rome, earning Henry VIII the title of “Defender of the Faith” (a title retained by the current British monarch). However in that year Henry applied to have his marriage to his current wife annulled (in part because he probably genuinely believed God had disapproved of it). Since the Pope had given a special concession for the marriage to occur in the first place, due to the close prior relationship between Henry and Catherine of Aragon, the application was denied. This began a series of events that eventually led to England’s break with Rome (Scotland has its own break with Rome separate from that in England). Although the final break came about in 1536, as a result of gradual changes, the country was far from settled in its Protestantism (that would not come until the reign of Elizabeth) and at any rate would not have been quite as hospitable to such a radical thing as the bible in English.

Additionally, the area around Antwerp and Amsterdam and most of what is now the Netherlands was were the Anabaptists had their strongest impact. The Anabaptists were more radical in their reformation than the other Reformers and that included a radical move toward the priesthood of all believers. This encouraged both to an increase in education (leading to literacy) eventually and to a move to have the bible in the common languages. However, the most well known bible of this period was yet to come (and would be published in London).

Modern Translations

The first of what might be properly termed a “modern translation” of the bible into English would be the King James Bible. By the time of King James reign, England and Wales (and Scotland) had become firmly protestant and was ready to have a more formally approved English Bible. In 1604 work began on the English Translation of the Bible authorized by the King. It would be completed in 1611. This was one of the few times (perhaps the only time) that a work of literature in one language was translated into a literary masterpiece in its own right in another language. The language was probably more formal than that used by the common man, but considering its sponsorship by the King that may have been the point. For a long time, very little translation work was done in English following this. However, once new and better manuscripts began to emerge, and as English continued to evolve away from the high Elizabethan language of the KJV, it became apparent that new translations might be useful.

While I won’t go into the specifics of each version, I am going to sum this up by saying some general comments about English translations. The thing I want to say first and foremost is that you can have confidence in the translations you use everyday. They were (likely) performed by large committees of scholars using the best textual evidence available today. The distinctions between the various translations are rarely, if ever, enough to lead to vastly different theological stances in and of themselves. That usually is a matter of interpretation. I will however, also offer a word of warning. Anytime something is translated it is interpreted. Therefore, any and every bible translation is, in a sense, a commentary on that very bible. While most translators certainly work to minimize this, it can never be entirely avoided. In order to compensate for this, in your own study, just be aware of it. For daily readings, it is doubtful it will change much. However, if you are doing a deep and in depth study, I would merely encourage you to read a variety of different translations that will give you a sense of what these interpretive moves might be. In the end, though, you can have confidence that after a rather lengthy process, the current bibles in English are ones that have emerged as a result of careful scholarship.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 11: Inspiration of Scripture

This is part of a series. Click here for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, especially because it has been a while and you might like a review.

So when I left off the series I had given five of the six major criteria the early church had for determining canonicity. These were not criteria that were arbitrarily selected, but upon examining those writings that unquestionably functioned as Scripture, they noticed these criteria in common and they were held exclusively by these canonical Scripture. While books outside the canon may have held one or even a few of these criteria, only those within the canon held them all. However, the one criteria that only Scripture held and all Scripture held is the final, and most important, criteria: Inspiration.

The word “inspiration” is used in a variety of ways in our world today, so perhaps we should be more clear about what we mean. As best as I can tell there are seven ways that inspiration can be used to talk about the bible, six of which assume some sort of divine place and one of which does not. We might think of them as on a scale. I’ll list them below with the top assuming that God is the sole author of the writing and the bottom assuming man is the sole author of the writing. I’ve given them the standard label in theological language here and discuss them below.

1)    Dictation

2)    Verbal Plenary

3)    Dynamic

4)    Neo-Orthodox/Witness view

5)    Spiritually Illuminated Human

6)    Limited Inspiration

7)    Just Inspiring

Now, I should mention that there can be a significant amount of overlap between some of these groups. I also think that one can be perfectly justified in saying different sections of scripture were inspired differently, at least with the ‘dictation’ view. Let me explain. It seems pretty clear that portions of the Torah, the first five books of the bible, were dictated from God to Moses, who spoke with God face to face. Still, it seems unlikely that the same could be said for other portions of Scripture, such as some of the psalms, where the writer is asking God to do rather ungodly things (“Happy be they who dash their infants heads against the rocks”). Still, even with that diversity, I’d maintain that the early church stayed in the top part of that list, and that the contemporary church would do well to do the same, or else risk losing any real sense of authority beyond itself. Let me briefly explain each of these views.

The dictation view states that God wrote the Scripture in its entirety and the human writer functioned merely as a sort of Scribe.

The verbal plenary view states that God fully inspired every word of Scripture completely. It is sometimes taken to the extent that it was inspired beyond what would have been possible for the human author to have known, particularly in stretching to areas beyond theology. For instance the view that Genesis 1 is not only saying something theologically, but is also saying something about history and science is an example of a verbal plenary view of inspiration.

The dynamic view of inspiration indicates that the human author and divine author have a kind of partnership; not in the sense that each does a portion, but that the Holy Spirit works together with the human author to produce something unique to both.

The neo-orthodox view makes an interesting move. Associated largely with Karl Barth (though arguably going back as far as Martin Kähler), this view says that the written Scripture we have is not, itself, the Word of God. Instead the Word of God is God’s activity in history. As such, Scripture is merely the witness to the Word of God and not the Word itself. Jesus is the Word of God. Divine action is the Word of God. Even preaching may function as the Word of God. It is for this latter reason that this theology also began to be called ‘kerygmatic theology.’

The spiritually illuminated view of inspiration is the position that inspiration just means that the human author received some additional divine insight, but that the writing (scripture) is still essentially human.

The limited inspiration view is the position that only some areas of scripture can really be described as inspired and much likely isn’t inspired divinely.

The final view is a non-religious view. It simply states that if something is somehow uplifting it is, therefore, inspired.

As I’ve said, it seems best to keep to the top half of the list, but I wanted to put all these views out there so that you were informed (if you hadn’t been). What do you think? Do you think we should only keep to one particular view of inspiration? Which one?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 10: the next three criteria

This post is part of a series, click back to the home page to review any part of it you may have missed.

Last time I talked about two (of six) criteria that were used, though likely not consciously, by the early church to determine which books, letters, and other writings would be considered part of Scripture. This time, I’m going to talk about the remaining four. As a reminder, I’ve based these criteria (though slightly modified) off of F. F. Bruce’s found in The Canon of Scripture.


While this seems to put the cart before the horse (doesn’t Scripture establish what is, in fact, orthodoxy), it is a useful criteria. In this case, what it means is that nothing that directly contradicts another section of already accepted Scripture could be included in the final product. This is a way to explain why Marcion’s canon, which wanted to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, failed: Marcion contradicted what was already accepted as orthodoxy.

Also keep in mind that the Scripture were written as a response to the actions of God as they were observed. First and foremost in the writers’ minds was that Jesus was truly God, and truly human, and that he really died and was raised from the dead. Anything that contradicted that (as many of the “Gnostic” texts did) could not be considered part of the canon. Again, this wasn’t something they decided to sit down and apply, but came about likely due to common sense.


This should be understood in terms of “universality.” In other words, the only things that were considered part of the canon were things that could be (or had been) accepted widely. An example might help.

The letters of Clement were widely accepted and highly praised in parts of the Roman Empire, particularly near Rome. However, they did not enjoy much acceptance in other parts of the Empire (and beyond) where the Church was well established. In short, these letters didn’t seem to apply to everyone. That is an important criteria for the Scriptures: they are universal in their scope. That also means that the Scriptures we read today are, in that same way, timeless. Yes they may have been written for a specific situation at a specific time, but early on people recognized that they could apply well beyond that narrow purpose to the broader purpose of Scripture.

Use as Scripture

I’ve argued this a few times already in this series so I won’t belabor the point. The main thing I want to keep in mind here is that before any Church council acknowledged what was, in fact, already Scripture, these documents had already begun to function in that way. These books showed evidence of all of these criteria mentioned so far and had already begun to be used with some authority. The final criterion, though, is probably the most significant. Because of that, I’m giving it its own post.

So come back next time as I talk about the many nuances behind what we mean when we say Scripture is “inspired.” Yes, the next post will be all about Inspiration.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 9: The first two Criteria for Canonicity

This post is part of a series. To catch up you clan click to read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8

As I’ve already mentioned, following the Diatesseron (which wasn’t itself really a controversy), there no real major controversies surrounding the acceptance what we now take to be the bible. While there may have been minor disagreements, these gradually faded and by the time of Eusebius, the Murotorian Fragment and Athanasius most of these had dissipated to the point where the council that finally approved the canon was merely confirming what the churches had already decided was authoritative. The books that were accepted all seemed to meet the same criteria, which, while never formally written down in this period, can help to shed light on why these books were seen as somehow authoritative. In the following list, I’ll follow, more or less, the scheme laid out by F. F. Bruce in his book The Canon of Scripture which I would highly recommend if you want to read more about this history.


For the New Testament, one of the most important factors seems to have been that the book in question had some direct link to an apostle. By this, apostle should be understood in the sense of someone who saw the risen. Paul could lay hold to this claim because he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus before beginning a period of instruction in the dessert.

This means that anything written by an apostle would meet the criteria. Paul’s letters therefore fit the bill, as do the gospels of John and Matthew, along with the letters of John. This idea of a link also seemed to have included those who studied directly with an apostle. For this reason Luke and Acts (Luke was known as Paul’s companion and seems to have accompanied Peter for a time) could be included as could Mark (who, it is believed, was collecting stories recounted by Peter), as well as Hebrews, if it wasn’t written by Paul (I personally like Martin Luther’s argument that Apollos wrote it). And it seems every book in the New Testament would meet this criteria.

Early Composition

It seems that this served more to eliminate certain books than include others. For instance, the Sheperd of Hermas was very well received for a long period of time, and could have been written by someone who knew one the apostles. However, it was written very late relative to when the rest of the New Testament was written. Why, however, is this important?

As I’ve mentioned a few times, the New Testament was written in an incredibly narrow period of time. While the Old Testament took centuries, if not millennia, the New Testament was written in a matter of a few decades. That, together with apostolicity, serves to highlight two points.

First, what we have in the bible is first hand accounts or the record of first hand accounts. In dealing with history, these are people who saw something and wrote as a response to what they saw. In short, they were true witnesses. This lends their statements a certain (high) amount of credibility. While most ancient sources may have long periods of history between when the events they describe occurred and when it was written down, no such historical gap exists for the bible. Although it may seem like a long time to us now to have a distance of 30 or 40 years between the resurrection and the emergence of the four written gospels, in ancient terms this was an incredibly short distance. Additionally, it can be argued that this time was needed both for the early work of building the church and so that the events could adequately be processed. It seems very clear from the gospel accounts that at the time the events happened the disciples didn’t really grasp the full weight of what they had seen. It took time to process this before they understood it. The resurrection made them realize that it was important, but only time spent with the Holy Spirit could make them realize why and how it was important.

Second, this brief period of time during which the New Testament was written highlights the true impact of the resurrection. The resurrection, like the incarnation and crucifixion, was a game changer. Unlike those other events, though, the resurrection could not be explained away as simply coincidental phenomena. This was something unique. Not only was it unique, though, it also fundamentally changed the nature of God’s relation with man, both in our direct relationship with him as adopted child to father or bride to a groom, and also in our relation with his self-revelation. Here, as had never before occurred, in Jesus people saw God unmediated. There he was as a person. In the resurrection, the limitation of human flesh was stripped away and we caught a glimpse not only of God the Son, but of the heavenly reality of the Kingdom of God. So impactful was this encounter that it demanded a huge explosion of writing. Not only that, but the writing could not even keep up, prompting John to note that we would never be able to write down everything Jesus did.

The resurrection, along with the ascension and then the receipt of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also meant that the nature of revelation had changed. No longer would revelation be of this authoritative sort. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t active or even that he doesn’t reveal himself today. Instead, it means that Jesus was the apex of revelation. Not until his return will anything be close to the level of revelation witnessed at the resurrection. Thus the New Testament, in a way, is more important than the Old Testament because it bears witness to this height of revelation. Let me just add the caveat, though, that without the Old Testament as a backdrop, the New Testament makes very little sense to us. Not only that, though, now through the Holy Spirit the Church has a sustained direct access to God that was not available prior to the Incarnation of Jesus. This access is available to everyone allowing us to have an intimate relationship with God and, as the New Testament makes clear, the primary means the Holy Spirit guides us is through this already established revelation (though I would admit not exclusively).

Since that is the cases we can say that the canon is closed, even ignoring these other criteria. However, it may still be fruitful to explore these other criteria and since I’ve gone on for so long about these two, I’ll have to come back to them next time.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 8: The Diatessaron

Ok, I’ve been bad, really bad, about keeping up with blog posting. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy. Unfortunately, I’ve been busy writing the sort of stuff that probably wouldn’t work to well in a blog post (I doubt anyone (or more than a handful of people) wants to read a 25,000 word piece about German idealist philosophers and their impact upon the continental theology of a later German theologian’s idea bout contingency). That said, I hope to get back into blogging on trains and such. To be honest, though, I may still be a bit patchy the next couple weeks, but I will make an effort to at least get two posts a week out (maybe getting back to three). Today, I’m going to briefly make mention of the Diatessaron, which really drove home the point that the church needed all four distinct gospels, not a single harmony, and then next time (whenever that is) try to move towards a slight conclusion as to what the probable criteria was for determining which books were, in fact, Scripture. Following that, I may say something about translation and the use of the bible today, but we’ll see.

The Diatessaron

If you want to review (hey it’s been a while) feel free to click back to other posts in this series. Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Last time I made mention of the first attempt to bring about a single gospel. Marcion’s purpose, however, was a malicious one. He sought to expunge any evidence of the Old Testament from the bible and so simple cut out those parts that didn’t match his worldview. He tried to shape the Word of God, rather than be shaped by it. Because of this, he was one of the earliest heretics of the early church. Please note that he was not considered a heretic because the views he held were mistaken (which they were), but because he refused any correction and actively sought to convert others to his mistaken view at the cost of unity to the church. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the more “virtuous” attempt to produce a single gospel: The Diatessaron.

Between rough 150-175, the Diatessaron was produced by Tatian, who was a Christian Apologist (the group who came right after the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers). I say that the Diatessaron was a “virtuous” attempt to produce one gospel because Tatian’s motives were not to divide the church, nor did he want to edit out parts of the text that didn’t fit his worldview. Instead, he attempted to blend together all four gospels into a single “harmony” of the gospels that could be read, chronologically, straight through. In doing so, he attempted to explain seeming contradictions. In a few places, however, he simply removed the seeming contradiction (he famously did not include the genealogies of Jesus from either Matthew or Luke. Still, of the four Gospels as they are accepted today, remarkably only 56 verses do not have a corresponding or analogous verse in the Diatessaron.

Rejection of the Diatessaron

While the Diatessaron was accepted in the Syrian until the early 5th century, the overwhelming majority of the church, though appreciative of it, rejected it as genuine Scripture. What was the reason for this rejection? While we can only speculate, we nevertheless have good reason to believe that the early Church felt that it was important to maintain the four unique perspectives on the Jesus event, warts and all. The “four winds” as they were often called, were important in their unique peculiarity. The church may have rejected the Diatessaron, but it did so primarily because it needed the authenticity, the “realness” of the four Gospels.

This should give us cause, on the one hand, to consider that these four gospels are likely what they say they are: namely historical accounts written by real people who were either themselves eyewitnesses, or who were in conversation with eyewitnesses of the Christ event. On the other hand, it should cause us to appreciate the gospels in their uniqueness. Why did Mark leave out things that Matthew and Luke thought important? Why does John seem to follow a wildly different chronology from the other three (and include completely different accounts of miracles)? Why does Matthew use the term “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God”? Why does Mark skip past the infancy of Jesus? And on and on the questions could go. The fact is, we have four unique accounts of what happened. While the general story is the same in all of them, they chose to tell it in different ways. Therefore, although all four have the same purpose (something akin to promoting faith in God and Jesus Christ), they each, nevertheless, seem to have distinct, not homogenous, purposes beyond that. The truth is, we have four, not one, and that is important.

Transition between this time period and the criteria

With regard to the rest of the New Testament, there were a lot of more minor shifts, and no major pronouncements until the canon was more or less identified. I mentioned in my first post on the New Testament some of the timing related to when certain books were accepted. It seems, though, that the recognition of the rest of the New Testament  occurred without much incident, at least compared to the acceptance of the four Gospels as four different Gospels. Next time, I’m going to look at some of the criteria that may have been used to determine which writings could be accepted as Scripture very early on, and what that means for us.

Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion

This is part of a series. You can go back and read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 if you feel like you’ve missed something.

Emerging from Conflict

Last time I established the window during which the New Testament went from non-existence to formal acknowledgement of the 27 books we know as the canon. There I framed this process largely in terms of a response to Gnosticism (I’ll have to do a posts on the Gnostics at some point). In the comments a former classmate of mine noted that this category of Gnosticism might not be very helpful. While I agree that we should avoid viewing it as a monolithic group, and we should avoid too much of a dualistic distinction between them and Christianity, at least historically, I nevertheless still feel it is a valid and useful category. However, what this revealed was a presupposition that I had neglected to state from the beginning of my dialogue on the New Testament.

While I believe that the canon was formed and began to function as authoritative for one set of reasons, I believe that the formal recognition of this canon by the Church was due to an entirely different set of reasons. Essentially, it is my contention that the Church developed a formal recognition of the biblical canon in response to conflict.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Think of morality. There are certain things we just instinctually know are wrong, things that make the blood boil: like murder. However, there are other things that are only wrong insofar as they lead to other wrongs. For instance, there is nothing in traffic regulations that makes obeying them inherently good or disobeying them inherently bad. However, their function in keeping other individuals safe is what makes them appropriate rules. In the same way, the gospel is Christ Jesus. That is he is inherently the person (and God) whom you put your trust in, follow, rely upon for salvation, and look to as a source of authority. There is nothing in particular words on a page that make them in favor of that or against that. However, in distinction from traffic laws, what we consider Scripture is not arbitrary. There is this thing, we call it inspiration, that Scripture has and non-scripture doesn’t (and so maybe there is something to these words on a page). So we don’t create the Scripture (as with traffic laws), but we identify what is Scripture. However, there is no need to distinguish between the two on a day to day basis if there is nothing else pretending to hold the same claim as Scripture: namely that it points to Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is only in the presence of conflict, when other people suggested limiting, adding to, or changing the Scriptures in such a way that they no longer pointed to Christ, that it becomes necessary to come up with a rule (greek: kanon, it’s the same word that we use for canon of Scripture) for determining what will count as Scripture.

So, while Scripture itself, being inspired, is distinct from other claims to authority, it is only in the face of conflict that there is a need to distinguish between what is actually Scripture and everything else. In the last post, I mentioned the conflict between what I consider the orthodox church and the Gnostic pseudo-church. However, it is likely that a large chunk of the New Testament began to be recognized as canonical in large part due to a very early controversy. Specifically, I’m talking about Marcionism.

The Marcion Controversy

While Eusebius claims that Marcion was a Gnostic (I should really do that post), this seems incredibly unlikely because, given what we can reconstruct from his critics, he would have had little tolerance for many of their myths. Still, given some other aspects of Marcion it is possibly an understandable mistake.

Marcion started out as a Bishop in the early church. However, he began to teach, and advocate, a very specific limitation of the biblical canon. Marcion seemed to believe that the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) was not the same as the Father of Jesus. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament God was a wicked God, who was vengeful, demanded bloody sacrifice, created the material world (which he believed was evil), and generally angry. He believed that the true God was the “unknown” or “alien” God who was different from the Old Testament God. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Marcion, proved that the God of Jesus was superior to the Old Testament God and that is whom we follow.

While most of this comes from his critics, most notably Tertullian, my homeboy (not really), we nevertheless have good reason to believe it is accurate. This is, in part, because the dualistic understanding of the world, like the Gnostics after him, is rooted in religious Platonism that was common during this time. And the exact same controversy that happened with Marcion occurred again in the tenth and thirteenth century.

In order to make the evidence better fit his vision, Marcion compiled the first canon of what he considered Christian Scripture. In it he included a single Gospel, most likely Luke’s Gospel, heavily edited to remove Old Testament references and (it seems) any of the birth narratives. Then he included ten of Paul’s letters (not the pastorals), also heavily edited. The Old Testament was completely removed. As a result of his teaching and his decision to limit the canon to these books, Marcion was told to stop teaching these doctrines and stop promoting this far too limited canon. He refused and became one of the earliest heretics, subsequently pushed out of the mainline church (often called the “proto-orthodox” church because Orthodoxy came to be associated with adherence to the Nicene Creed which had yet to be written). Rather than keep quiet, though, Marcion instead established his own church against the Christian church, though it eventually dwindled and disappeared, with almost all evidence of its existence being removed.

Oh, and all of this happened before 160 (around the time Marcion died)! That’s incredibly early. Marcion was likely born around 85, during which time the New Testament had either just been written (by the most conservative accounts) or was still being written down. I say this now so you don’t get the idea that the Christian church was going around for centuries without any clear decisions on canon, some of the earliest decisions had be made almost immediately after the writing of the New Testament.

The Reaction

In what is an incredibly rare occurrence, I find myself in (qualified) agreement with Bart Ehrman, along with other scholars. The majority of scholarship argues (rightly I think) that the Marcionite Controversy was probably one the most, if not the most, significant moment for identifying the New Testament canon. Ehrman is again likely correct when he identifies the story, circulated by Epiphanius, of Marcion attempting to “seduce a virgin bride” prior to his excommunication not as Christian slander (as other scholars had argued), but as a metaphor for Marcion trying to seduce the church (the virgin Bride of Christ) (don’t get used to my agreeing with Ehrman, it’s not likely to happen again). What this reveals is that the majority of the church, and not just bishops but congregants too, recognized that there was something wrong not only with Marcion’s theology, but with his canon.

The church decided a few things as a result of this. First, the Old Testament could not be dispensed with. It was, instead, integral and foundational to the understanding of God. Jesus was not preaching about a different God than the one in the Old Testament, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and in relation with that same God as Son to Father. Jesus, and Paul, quoted the Old Testament at length, not to dispute it, but to affirm it and use it authoritatively, the Old Testament could not be expunged.

Second, the Church decided that they need all four gospels, as they were written. No harmony of the gospels that unified them into a single document would be appropriate. Keep this in mind, incidentally, when people point out any supposed “discrepancies” between the four gospels. The early church was not ignorant of these, but they neither considered them genuine contradictions, nor particularly troubling. What was important, it seems, was that all four voices (Gospels) were permitted to speak.

Third, the Church felt the early canon beyond the Old Testament and the Gospels should include more than just the ten letters of Paul that Marcion noted (and, if it is correct he included things like the letter to the Laodecians, we might be able to surmise that some of the letters where either considered inauthentic or inappropriate for the New Testament canon). Thus, while the four Gospels and the Old Testament were accepted, the Church was still trying to identify what else could validly be considered Scripture. This process we’ll keep talking about in the next post(s).

Sidenote: I’m going to skip talking in depth about the Ebionites, who would be the polar opposite of Marcion. In short, the Ebionites believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that all of Judaic law still remained. Thus they were essentially Jewish with a few Christian elements. As such they accepted the Old Testament, an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel, parts of James and (possibly) Hebrews in an edited form. I am not going to talk about them in depth because 1) very little beyond that is actually known about them (this may be due to the fact that they were even earlier than Marcion), 2) they were never really Christian, and were more likely Jews who were pushed to Jewish fringe (yet failed to accept the full gospel, and 3) they were never large enough to create the same level of conflict that Marcion did. Finally, they were rejected for essentially the same reasons that Paul gives for rejecting the Judaizers (see the Galatians series on this blog for more on that).

Things to Keep in Mind Today

Today, although most Christians outright reject Marcionism in name, they nevertheless function as followers of Marcion. Two-thirds of the bible is Old Testament, and, within the New Testament, slightly less than a third was written by Paul. Why, then, does the preaching in most churches limit itself largely to Paul, and when it does deviate from that it remains mostly in the New Testament. If we accept the full canon of Scripture we should preach all of it (pastors), and read all of it (everyone).

Second, theologically we need to avoid Marcion thinking as well. The Old Testament God and covenant is not in conflict with the New Testament. It is the same God, and he covenants with his people in much the same way (though obviously the incarnation changes that in a radical manner). If we ever find ourselves setting up a dichotomy between a God of grace and a God of works, we have failed to read the bible properly. Let me be very clear: God has always been a God primarily of grace. This grace has never negated the requirement for good works. Instead, the grace of God should always be understood as the foundation for all good works. Good works are neither superfluous, nor the way we receive grace. Instead we receive grace and that has the result in us of good works and seeking to maintain continued relationship with God.

What do you think: Do you sometimes find yourself slipping into the line of thinking of Marcion? What can be done to avoid this?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 6: The window for the development of the New Testament

If you’re just joining this series, I’m currently giving a rather lengthy answer to the question of how we ended up with the books that we consider the bible. Feel free to go to the home page and click back on the previous posts which introduce this concept, state why we don’t accept various other descriptions of canon, and gives some interesting tidbits about the development of the Old Testament. Today’s post now begins to talk about the New Testament. Once that is wrapped up, we’ll talk about the unity of the bible and then conclude with some final helpful tips.


While the process of the canonization of the Old Testament was complex, we unfortunately know very little about that process (the same cannot be said of the New Testament). The only things we could definitively say were that the Torah was considered canonical very early on, likely just after its completion, and that by the time of Jesus what Protestants accept as the Old Testament had begun to function canonically, even if a formal pronouncement of canon had not yet occurred. In fact the genuine need to declare a set of books as canonical to the exclusion of others did not seem to arise anywhere in a definitive state until the fourth century among Christians (while the Jewish council of Jamnia was earlier, it is unclear that it actually had authority over other Jewish communities). The criteria for canonization seemed to be less a matter of date of writing and more a matter of function. Recall that the “writings” (Kethubim) was likely the last collection canonized, yet it spans the largest period of time. Arguably, Job is the earliest book in all of the Old Testament and Chronicles is the most recent. Eventually the text of the Old Testament eventually began to function as authoritative, probably due to the other criteria mentioned last time, without having the official approval on it as authoritative. This indicates something that we need to keep in mind about the early church: the need for a canon was less important than the actual content of the gospel, namely Jesus Christ who was God incarnate, died in our place, and was raised from the dead conquering all evil in this world with a great sense of finality.

The need for a canon is felt

However, by the time of the fourth century a number of other “gospels” and dubious epistles had begun to appear. The Gnostic sect of Platonism, which had taken that dualistic philosophy and sought to add some rather grand religious concepts to it, had decided that it would attempt to assimilate Christianity. This decision, which, like many other religious decisions, was likely less formal and more gradual, resulted in them taking some themes from Christianity, such as a focus on Christ as God, an emphasis on the evils of sin and (as a result of sin) the world as it currently operated, and the suggestion that there is a higher truth to the world to which most of those in the world are blind. However, to these themes the Gnostics subtly added their own, twisted theology: themes like the suggestion that creation is inherently bad (rather than temporarily fallen), that Christ was not really human, that there were multiple gods, and that salvation was really a matter of attaining a secret knowledge and not commitment to Christ as one person of the single God. As a result of this, it became necessary for the church to distinguish itself from the Gnostics who were preaching an incorrect and dangerous gospel. Since the Gnostics were subtly using the same language and terminology of Christianity, the clearest, easiest, and quickest way to distinguish this false gospel from the true gospel was to lay out a specific canon that limited which writings would be considered authoritative.

Keep in mind that, much like the Old Testament, the council which formally stated the 27 books we know as the New Testament did not establish the canon, but merely recognize those writings that already functioned as canon for the early church, and had arguably been functioning as canon from a very early period. Nevertheless it will be helpful to know the absolute end date for the decision that marked which 27 books would compose the New Testament.

Upper Limit

The latest possible date for any church would be around 508 for the Syrian church, who had only formally accepted 22 of the 27 before this date. However, most of the Church had accepted the 27 books of the New Testament by the time of the councils of Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397). Before this, church fathers Jerome and Augustine had already listed these books as canonical, but the earliest complete list we have comes from a letter by Athanasius in 367. Usually this type of study lists the “Eusebian Canon” which is a collection from a letter by Eusebius from the very early 300s. However, Eusebius was never the most trustworthy source and even his letter does not list the full 27 (Revelation is not mentioned, nor is the letter we know as Hebrews (though a different Hebrew letter was mentioned)) and includes other books not considered canonical (like the Apocalypse of Peter). However, the overwhelming majority of the New Testament is part of a list dating around 200 called the “Muratorian Fragment.” It is only a fragment and references two Gospels (not written in the fragment, but likely Matthew and Mark), Luke John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, 1 & 2 John and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) as being canonical. A little later, again in the 300s, Origen mentions essentially the full 27 books, but lists many of them as disputed (James, Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude). However, we do have a nice end date that suggests by the mid-300s, at the latest, the 27 books of the New Testament was essentially established.

Lower Limit

What about when the New Testament began to be written? We’ve established the upper limit on when these books were codified. What about the lower limit? The earliest of the written gospels is almost universally accepted to be Mark. While a handful date Mark as early as 50, it seems more likely that Mark was written sometime between the late 50s to the mid-60s. However, we have strong reason to believe that the  earliest New Testament writing is actually one of the Pauline epistles, very likely the first letter to the Thessalonians. While it could have been written as early as the late 40s, it is more likely to have been written sometime in the earl 50s. So, it is likely that by the 50s documents begin to emerge and be circulated that might be considered Scripture. It is also very likely that the writers of the New Testament understood that what they were writing was Scripture, a point that I’ll address in a later post. While we could also frame the question in terms of when the last New Testament book was written, that is a much more complicated, and less agreed upon, answer. Sometime between 70 and 150 the final New Testament book was written. Personally, I tend to set the dating for the final book as fairly early, with Revelation (generally, but not necessarily) considered the last book to be written by most, and the last book written prior to the close of the first century. The dating of Revelation essentially boils down to whether the persecution the church is undergoing would make more sense as that instigated by Nero, or the more sever, but later, persecution instigated by Domitian (since I accept an earlier date, I would lean toward Nero).


Nevertheless, we now have a window during which the New Testament went from unwritten to the authoritative 27 books we know today: from roughly 50-367. It seems the New Testament was both written, and considered authoritative, over a much briefer period of time than the Old Testament. While the Old Testament took shape over more than a millennium (if not two millennia), the New Testament took that same status over a matter of a couple centuries (if not merely a few decades). With that established, now we can begin to look more specifically at the development of this authority, starting with the Gospels, in the next post.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 5: Settling on the Old Testament Canon

This is part 5 of a series on the history of the biblical canon. Feel free to read parts 1, 2, 3, or 4 first.

Last time, I essentially argued that the canon of the Old Testament was not really established, as it used to be supposed, by the Jewish council of Jamnia. Instead, I suggested that Jamnia merely noted the collection of texts that had already begun to function authoritatively, or as the early phase of the biblical canon. I also noted that in order to talk about canon, we should probably talk about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in terms of the division the Jewish people gave to it: Torah (Law), Nabi’im (Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings).

When did it all become canonized

Unfortunately, because much of this history stretches back over a few thousand years, we can’t definitively state exactly when each part became part of the canon. It seems pretty clear that by the time of Josephus and the council of Jamnia there was a (more or less) assumed canon. After the rejection of the Jamnia theory, another possible suggestion was that each section (Law, Prophets, and Writings) became considered canonical independently. While this is probably the case, the first modern formulation of this theory gives a fairly late date to each process: it argues that the Law was canonical around 400BC, the Prophets around 200BC, and the Writings around 100BC. The problem is, all of those dates seem far too late. We have very good reason, actually, for suggesting a much earlier date than this.

First, it should be noted that as far as Christians are concerned, the primary criterion for Canonicity should be related (in some way) to Jesus Christ. It is certainly the case that Jesus himself refers to the “law and the prophets” numerous times throughout the gospel. While this may seem to leave the “writings” in an uncertain place, in Luke 24:44 Jesus does explicitly refer to the “law, prophets, and psalms” the latter of which we could take to mean the “writings” (since the formal approval of it as a category with that exact name might not have been until later). Therefore, while the formal council recognition of it as a category may not have occurred until later, all three categories at leastfunctioned as part of the canon, which is really what makes it a canon anyway.

For additional evidence, it should also be noted that while Jesus does not explicitly refer to the category by name, he nevertheless quotes from it throughout the gospels. This is true even of  the (what many consider very late) book of Daniel since he regularly refers to himself as the “son of man,” which is the preferred term for the universal ruler in the latter half of Daniel. So whatever else may be said about the Protestant Hebrew Bible, it at least seemed to function as authoritative in Jesus’ estimation, which should be adequate. Nevertheless, let’s look at this a bit more.

It does seem pretty clear that the law was considered canonical from a very early period of time. At the absolute latest, one would have to acknowledge that by the time of Josiah, it had already begun to function as canonical. But there is reason to think that it functioned as canon before that time. Even during the writing of the Torah, allowances were made for it to be kept in the tabernacle (and later temple) including how it was to be handled (in the ark of the covenant). Throughout virtually all of Israel’s history, there was an understanding that the Law was different from other writings (indeed other law codes). This was not something made by man only, but something that God had directly inspired, seen most clearly by the dictation he gives at Mt Sinai. While God does intervene in the other sections of the Hebrew Bible, though, it is never in as direct a manner as it was in the Law. For this reason, the law is elevated in Judaism above other writings, the same way that the Gospel is (at least implicitly) elevated in the Christian Church. It forms the heart of the community because it is there that we first have an encounter with God that is more direct than at any other point in history. In Judaism it is through the law that the Hebrew and God meet, in Christianity it is through the incarnation of Jesus that God comes and meets all of us (Jew and Gentile). Ultimately, however, beyond the Torah we have no clear date for when the rest of it functioned as canon. Any type of dating (beyond giving an end date) amounts almost entirely to guess work. What we might be able to talk about, though, is the more fundamental question of why it is considered canonical.

Criteria for the Hebrew Canon

While a myriad of possible criteria for canonicity, none of which were ever formally stated, have been suggested, many can be rejected outright. The limitation to Hebrew is inadequate because large sections of Daniel, and various bits of Ezra were written in Aramaic which, although related, is nevertheless an entirely distinct language (it’s related to Hebrew in roughly the same way German is related to English, which is to say it is an etymological relation, not a practical one). It was also suggested that only books thought to be composed prior to the events in Ezra would be considered Canonical. While this is promising, it is not clear that this would be a valid criteria as it is entirely possible that Malachi (and possibly a few others) were written later than Ezra. Really the single criteria suggested from a Scholarly standpoint again has to do with how the text functioned:

Only those texts that were regularly read and used within the Jewish religious community were considered (ultimately) to be canonical. This is why Esther, though it does not explicitly mention God, is nevertheless canonical: it was read during Purim (note: it is readily acknowledged by virtually all Jewish scholars that even though God is not mentioned, he is nevertheless present throughout the book, and this may have been a rhetorical device). Thus, by the time of Jesus, it seems that each of these sections were regularly read, recited, and studied in the Jewish community. However, while that may be the primary scholarly criteria accepted for canonicity, I do not think it should be the only criteria. I’d like to suggest two more criteria for canonicity of the Old Testament (which I think would also apply to the New Testament): historical accuracy, and a response to revelation.

First, historical accuracy. By this I mean to say that the books in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, accurately reflect the history they are attempting to depict. While this has been disputed at various times by a number of scholars, archaeological evidence has nevertheless shown the bible to be remarkably accurate. For instance, for a long time it was assumed that David was nothing more than a mythological king, something like the tales of King Arthur in Anglo-Saxon legends. There may have been a David, so the statement goes, but he could not have been as successful as he is portrayed. That was a popular theory until, however, numerous archaeological findings both in Israel in and in the countries that would have surrounded Israel confirmed that there was, in fact, a highly successful King David who ruled the territory explicitly mentioned in the bible.

All of this seems to make sense, of course, if you read the bible in detail next to the pseudo-history of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Each of these other groups tended to portray their leaders in incredibly glowing terms. Never did their king lose a battle, he always decided to retreat because it wasn’t worth his time. Never did their king commit any egregious errors, but was always a model. Of course they were exhibiting a strong cultural bias. The same cannot be said for the histories recorded in the Old Testament. No one is perfect and everyone, even the model of Kings in David, makes large blunders. The hero of the Old Testament is no culture nor any man, but is God, therefore there was no need to mask the errors their kings committed or the massive failures Israel had at the hands of their enemies (numerous times).

This question of historical accuracy, though, is likely one of the primary reasons why Protestants and (I think) many Jews rejected the later Greek books that are contained in the Apocrypha. Why else would the Jewish people exclude 1 Maccabees, which describes one of Israel’s greatest victories that was celebrated at Hanukkah at least as early as the time of Jesus (if not earlier). However, it is almost universally acknowledged that the history of almost all of the Apocrypha is inaccurate, and that has no place in Christian Scripture.

The second criteria I’d like to add has to do with the reason for writing. Ultimately, I believe that the whole bible was written as a response to the revelation of God in history. While it may function as revelation (by showing us something about God), and is inspired in its composition, it is that it was written following a radical experience of God that makes it part of canon. While the Psalms may not reflect any specific event, they are nevertheless tied to a specific historical event and written as a result of that event. While we continue to experience God today, I think that it is nevertheless in a distinctly different manner than was the case in the Old Testament (more on that in a later post). This, really, is the hallmark of Scripture, and so I’ll reserve some of my comments until later.

To summarize, then, we know that Jesus considered what we know as the Old Testament to be authoritative, and that, coupled with its function in the early Jewish community, its historical accuracy, and the divine impetus that led to its writing are why the Old Testament can be considered Scripture or part of the Canon. Unfortunately many of the specifics beyond this are lost to history, but we have good reason to accept these books as canonical based upon these criteria. Next post: the New Testament.