How We Got Our Bible

by Charles C. Ryrie

Ryrie Study Bible

The question of which books belong in the Bible is called the question of the canon. The word canon means rule or measuring rod, and in relation to the Bible it refers to the collection of books that passed a test of authenticity and authority; it also means that those books are our rule of life. How was the collection made?

The Tests for Canonicity

First of all, it is important to remember that certain books were canonical even before any tests were put to them. That’s like saying some students are intelligent before any tests are given to them. The tests only prove what is already intrinsically there. In the same way, neither the church nor councils made any book canonical or authentic; either the book was authentic or it was not when it was written. The church or its councils recognized and verified certain books as the Word of God, and in time those so recognized were collected together in what we now call the Bible.

What tests did the church apply?

1. There was the test of the authority of the writer. In relation to the Old Testament, this meant the authority of the lawgiver or the prophet or the leader in Israel. In relation to the New Testament, a book had to be written or backed by an apostle in order to be recognized. In other words, it had to have an apostolic signature or apostolic authorization. Peter, for instance, was the backer of Mark, and Paul of Luke.

2. The books themselves should give some internal evidences of their unique character, as inspired and authoritative. The content should commend itself to the reader as being different from an ordinary book in communicating the revelation of God.

3. The verdict of the churches as to the canonical nature of the books was important. There was in reality surprising unanimity among the early churches as to which books belonged in the inspired number. Although it is true that a few books were temporarily doubted by a minority, no book whose authenticity was doubted by any large number of churches was later accepted.

The Formation of the Canon

The canon of Scripture was, of course, being formed as each book was written, and it was complete when the last book was finished. When we speak of the "formation’’ of the canon we actually mean the recognition of the canonical books by the church. This took time. Some assert that all the books of the Old Testament canon were collected and recognized by Ezra in the fifth century b.c. References by Josephus (a.d. 95) and in 2 Esdras 14 (a.d. 100) indicate the extent of the Old Testament canon as the thirty-nine books we know. The discussions by the teaching-house at Jamnia (a.d. 70-100) seemed to assume this existing canon. Our Lord delimited the extent of the canonical books of the Old Testament when He accused the scribes of being guilty of slaying all the prophets God had sent Israel, from Abel to Zechariah (Luke 11:51). The account of Abel’s death is, of course, in Genesis; that of Zechariah is in 2 Chron. 24:20-21, which is the last book in the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible (not Malachi as in our English Bibles). Therefore, it is as if the Lord had said, "Your guilt is recorded all through the Bible—from Genesis to Malachi.’’ And He did not include any of the apocryphal books that were in existence at that time and which contained the accounts of other martyrs.

The first church council to list all twenty-seven books of the New Testament was the Council of Carthage in a.d. 397. Individual books of the New Testament were acknowledged as Scripture before this time (2 Peter 3:16; 1 Tim. 5:17), and most were accepted in the era just after the apostles (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude were debated for some time). The selection of the canon was a process that went on until each book proved its own worth by passing the tests of canonicity.

The twelve books of the Apocrypha were never accepted by the Jews or by our Lord on a par with the books of the Old Testament. They were revered but were not considered Scripture. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament done in the third century b.c.) included the Apocrypha with the Old Testament canonical books. Jerome (ca. a.d. 340-420) in translating the Vulgate distinguished the canonical books from the ecclesiastical books (the Apocrypha), which had the effect of according them a secondary status. The Council of Trent (1548) recognized them as canonical, though the Reformers rejected this decree. In our English Bibles the Apocrypha was set apart in the Coverdale, Geneva, and King James versions. The first English Bible to exclude it entirely as a matter of policy was an Amsterdam edition of the Geneva Bible published in 1640, and the first English Bible printed in America (the Aitken Bible, 1782) omitted it.

Is Our Present Text Reliable?

The original copies of the Old Testament were written on leather or papyrus from the time of Moses (ca. 1450 b.c.) to the time of Malachi (400 b.c.). Until the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 we did not possess copies of the Old Testament earlier than a.d. 895. The reason for this is simply that the Jews had an almost superstitious veneration for the text, which impelled them to bury copies that had become too old for use. Indeed, the Masoretes (traditionalists), who between a.d. 600 and 950 added accents and vowel points and in general standardized the Hebrew text, devised complicated safeguards for the making of copies. They checked each copy carefully by counting the middle letter of pages, books, and sections. Someone has said that everything countable was counted. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, they gave us a Hebrew text from the second to first century b.c. of all but one of the books (Esther) of the Old Testament. This was of the greatest importance, for it provided a much earlier check on the accuracy of the Masoretic text, which has now proved to be extremely accurate.

Other early checks on the Hebrew text include the Septuagint translation (middle of third century b.c.), the Aramaic Targums (paraphrases and quotes of the Old Testament), quotations in early Christian writers, and the Latin translation of Jerome (a.d. 400) that was made directly from the Hebrew text of his day. All of these give us the data for being assured of having an accurate text of the Old Testament.

More than 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament exist today, which makes the New Testament the best-attested document of all ancient writings. The contrast is quite startling.

Not only are there so many copies of the New Testament in existence, but many of them are early. The approximately seventy-five papyri fragments date from a.d. 135 to the eighth century and cover parts of twenty-five of the twenty-seven books and about 40 percent of the text. The many hundreds of parchment copies include the great Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century), the Codex Vaticanus (also fourth century), and the Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century). In addition, there are 2,000 lectionaries (church service books containing many Scripture portions), more than 86,000 quotations of the New Testament in the church Fathers, old Latin, Syriac and Egyptian translations dating from the third century, and Jerome’s Latin translation. All of the data plus all of the scholarly work that has been done with it assures us that we possess today an accurate and reliable text of the New Testament.

From A Survey of Bible Doctrine. Copyright 1972 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.

Taken from: Ryrie Study Bible NASB 1986, 1995 by the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago