God wrote the Bible. (More specifically, God inspired human authors to write each of the 66 books contained in our Bibles.) But God didn’t lower the completed Bible from the heavens leather-bound and double-columned.
The Bible is a unique book. It was written over the course of 1,500 years or so by more than 40 different authors from backgrounds as diverse as prophets, doctors, tax collectors, and kings. It was written in Greek and Hebrew, with a little Aramaic thrown in for good measure.
So how did these diverse writings come to be bound together in the bestselling book of all time?
First comes the Old Testament. The Old Testament “canon” (the collection of authoritative books that make up our Bibles) has been pretty well established for a long time. For our purposes, we can begin with the view of Jesus and the apostles regarding the validity of the Old Testament.
The books we have in our Old Testament had all been written for a few centuries prior to Jesus’ arrival on earth. They were collected into three “parts:” The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Not only did Jesus affirm the validity and authority of most of the books individually (he quoted from every Old Testament book except for Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), he also affirmed the three parts of the Old Testament canon:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’” (Luke 24:44)
So the Old Testament in its three parts (Law, Prophets, Writings/Psalms) was the canon accepted by the Jews and affirmed by the New Testament.
A question that many people will have at this point is how the apocrypha fits in. The Roman Catholic Bible adds an additional 14 or 15 books (though not officially until 1546) that we don’t have in our Protestant Bibles. To oversimplify, we Protestants follow what is called the Palestinian Canon—this arose in Palestine, was written in Hebrew, and was accepted by the Jews. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, follow the Alexandrian Canon—this arose in Alexandria (Egypt) and was based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The issue is too complex for a blog, but Protestants believe this Palestinian Canon is the right one, so we leave out those extra books. This doesn’t mean that the apocrypha is useless (see Preston’s post on why we should read the apocrypha), it just means that it’s not Scripture.
When we turn to the New Testament, it’s important to first take note of the way the New Testament authors viewed the Old Testament. They looked at these books as a collection of authoritative documents that God himself had written. Paul refers to the Old Testament as Scripture, says that it is able to make a person wise for salvation, and then explains that all Scripture is actually breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Peter says:
“No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
So these New Testament authors believed that there was such a thing as Scripture, which they defined as authoritative documents written by human beings under the guidance of the Spirit of God. And here’s where it gets interesting. They were conscious that they, too, were writing Scripture. Peter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture and places these writings on the same level as the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).
In an interesting passage, Paul cites two quotations as Scripture:
“For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (1 Tim. 5:18)
The first citation is from Deuteronomy 25:4, and the second is a quotation of Jesus in Luke 10:7. This verse reveals that the early church saw both the Old and New Testaments as Scripture. It is also worth noting that the epistles sometimes end with a directive to have the letter spread around and read in various churches—a practice that signified their Scriptural importance.
So here’s where we stand. God’s people have long believed that there is such a thing as Scripture, they believed that the Old Testament ought to be considered Scripture, and they believed that their New Testament writings ought to be considered Scripture as well. But it still took centuries for the 27 books that make up our New Testaments to be gathered together under the same table of contents. So tomorrow I will finish the story of how the New Testament came to be bundled together and placed at the end of our Old Testaments.