People from many religions believe that God speaks to them in special ways, through people who are inspired in what they say or what they write. In the Christian world the Bible is counted as the Word of God, the authoritative voice of God speaking to His people. Yet there has never been a time when all Christians have agreed on what books belong in the Bible. The Biblical canon (list of inspired books) has varied from one Christian group to another. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, which is the largest and one of the oldest of Christian denominations, includes the books of Tobit, Judith, Ben Sirah, Baruch, Wisdom, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, plus additions to Esther and Daniel. Luther removed these books from the Bible (even though they had been a part of the Bible for over a thousand years), saying that they are “not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.”
Other Christian groups, such as Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches also have differing canons. Various Christian councils over the centuries have tried to decide what books belong in the Bible. Councils in Hippo (393 AD), Carthage (397 and 419), Trullo (692), Florence (1451), Trent (1546), Westminster (1646) and Jerusalem (1672) produced a number of different canons. Often decisions were based on what previous church authorities had decided, citing lists of books drawn up by previous councils or early church fathers.
Some Protestants have accepted books that are 1) Apostolic in origin, 2) universally accepted in the early church, 3) publicly read in worship in the early church and 4) theologically consistent with other books. While these criteria provide an interesting rationale for judging what books belong in the New Testament, there is nowhere in the Bible where these criteria are given. These criteria are themselves just part of a human-made decision about what books to include. There are many other criteria that we could possibly use, such as whether a book is practical and useful for spiritual life, whether it is historically accurate or whether it agrees with science, but again, would it not be better to look at the Bible itself and see what it tells us about what books are the Word of God?
Some Christians have made a big issue out of the question of the canon, even saying that people will go to hell for adding or taking away books from the Bible. They quote the Book of Revelation, which says, “If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18, 19). They miss the fact that “this book” means not the Bible as a whole, but the Book of Revelation, which for centuries was a separate book or scroll before being bound together with the rest of the Bible.
In fact, a similar command was given by Moses: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32). Yet since Moses’ time many books have been added to Scripture, including most of the Old Testament and all of the New. Every Christian canon has added some books and omitted others. This does not change the need to keep each book in its integrity, avoiding additions or subtractions in any individual book of Scripture.
The Gospel of John states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. All things were made through Him.” (John 1:1). This is reminiscent of the beginning of Genesis, where it says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” How did He create? By His Word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth” (Psalm 33:6). The Book of Genesis is a record of what God spoke. “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’…And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament” …And God said…. And God said….” (Genesis 1). The phrases “God said” and “the Lord said” occur 43 times in Genesis alone. In Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers we find another phrase: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,…” There are over 90 passages in those three books where the Lord speaks this way. In the Prophets we have phrases like “Thus says the Lord:…” There are 313 of these in Jeremiah alone. The point here is simple: the Word of God contains things that God says.
In contrast there are some books of the Bible that do not contain God’s words. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon, for example, do not even mention God. The books of Ruth, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ezra and Nehemiah mention God, and contain prayers to God, but do not tell what God says to His people. The same is true of the books in the Apocrypha (except for 2 Esdras).
The Jewish canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was formed gradually sometime between about 250 BC and 200 AD. The Hebrew Scriptures fall into four general groups. The first is the Torah or “the Law” which included the five books of Moses. These were widely accepted in the time of Christ, even by people such as the Sadducees and Samaritans who did not accept any other books as inspired. Next were the Nevi’im or “Prophets,” which were also widely accepted. The Ketuvim or “Writings” included books that were doubtful to many. Finally come the Apocrypha, which were accepted widely enough to be included in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by early Christians) and later the Catholic Bible, though these same books were later rejected by both Jews and Protestants. The chart shows which books contain the Lord speaking many times, fewer times, and very few or no times:
The Law (Torah)
Accepted earliest and most widely
The Prophets (Nevi’im)
Accepted early and widely
The Writings (Ketuvim)
Accepted later after some doubt
Eventually rejected by many
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel,1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations(note 1), Daniel (note 2), Ecclesiastes, Esther Ezra, Nehemiah, 1&2 Chronicles
Tobit, Judith, Add. to Esther Wisdom, Ben Sira, Baruch, Add. to Daniel,1 & 2 Maccabees,1 (3) Esdras, 2 (4) Esdras, Prayer of Manasses
Key: God speaks many times, fewer times, no times
Note 1: Lamentations does not say much about the Lord’s words, but a lot about His actions. Moreover, in some canons Lamentations is counted as part of Jeremiah.
Note 2: The book of Daniel does not use formulas such as “Thus says the Lord,” but it does contain many dreams and interpretations that are clearly said to be from the Lord (“There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days.” Daniel 2:28).
Note 3: Some of the data for this table can be found in this Red Letter Old Testament that has words and visions from God highlighted in red.
Jesus and the New Testament writers quoted often from the Old Testament. Sometimes Jesus refers to the books of the Law and the books of the Prophets as whole groups: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17, 18). “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus says that not one jot will pass from the law and that all the Prophets contain things about Himself. This indicates that He was giving Divine Authority to the Law and the Prophets as complete collections of books. So for example, even though Jesus never quoted Joshua or Judges, we can assume that the phrase “all the Prophets” included Joshua and Judges as inspired books.
“Every jot and tittle”
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
“All the Prophets” (note 1) Joshua, Judges,1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Psalms Proverbs (note 2), Job(note 2), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations (note 1), Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Esther Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles(Note 1)
Tobit, Judith, Add. to Esther Wisdom, Ben Sira, Baruch, Add. to Daniel, 1 & 2 Maccabees,1 & 2 (3&4) Esdras, Prayer of Manasses
Key: Quoted by Jesus, Counted as Prophets by Jesus, Never used by Jesus.
Note 1: the term “all the Prophets” might include Psalms and Daniel, since these are prophetic books, and possibly Lamentations, which is also prophetical in style, is said to be written by Jeremiah the prophet and has sometimes been counted as part of Jeremiah. Chronicles, being similar to Samuel and Kings, might also fit this category. These books, however were categorized as “the Writings,” not as “Prophets.”
Note 2: Proverbs and Job were never quoted by Jesus, though they are quoted in the Epistles of the New Testament.
Note 3: You can find references for these quotes here.
Jesus never refers to the “Writings” or Ketuvim as a group. He quotes the Psalms many times, referring to them as “Law” and “Scripture,” and even saying that “it cannot be broken” (John 10:34-35, with Psalm 82:6), and He puts Psalms alongside the Law and Prophets as if equal to them (Luke 24:44). Jesus also quotes Daniel, calling him a prophet (Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14; see alsoMatthew 24:30, 26:64, Mark 14:62, 13:26, Luke 21:27). This is summarized in the chart below. If you compare this chart with the previous one, you will see that for the most part the Books which quote God in the Old Testament are the same ones that Jesus refers to as Scripture.
John tells us that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). This has deep spiritual meaning, including the idea that Jesus was the embodiment of Divine Truth (see John 14:6, 18:37, 8:40-46). It also includes the idea that Jesus fulfilled prophecies about Himself that were in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In dozens of places throughout the Gospels we read of events that took place specifically so that scripture would be fulfilled. This included the circumstances of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 17), upbringing (Matthew 2:23), preaching (Matthew 4:14; 12:17; 13:14, 35; Luke 4:21), healing (Matthew 8:17), and events leading up to His death and resurrection (Matthew 21:4; 26:54; 26:56; 27:9; 27:35), to give just a few examples.
Jesus fulfilled more than just the prophecies that were mentioned as being fulfilled. He said that every jot and tittle had to be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18). “All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). All of God’s Words testify of Jesus because He is the Word made flesh. “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). “To Him all the prophets give witness” (Acts 10:43). This is the primary characteristic of God’s Word: it is all about Jesus Christ. Any book that is not about Jesus, is not the Word of God.
Prophecies often use symbolic language, so the boundaries of what constitutes a prophecy can be difficult to determine. The following chart summarizes which books contain prophecies that the Gospels quote as being fulfilled, or ones the Gospels briefly allude to, or that ones that tell about “the Day of the Lord.” Other books have no definite prophecies about Jesus, though they may contain types or symbols of Jesus. Joshua, for example, was a type or symbol of Jesus because he was a leader who brought victory to Israel, and his name was a form of “Jesus,” but he is not included as a prophecy below.
“Every jot and tittle”
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
“All the Prophets” Joshua, Judges,1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Psalms, Proverbs, Job,Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, DanielEcclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah,1 & 2 Chronicles
Tobit, Judith, Add. to Esther, Wisdom, Ben Sira, Baruch,Add. to Daniel,1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 (3) Esdras,2 (4) Esdras, Prayer of Manasses
Key: Fulfilled in Gospels, Brief allusions, “day of the Lord”, No clear prophecies.
One of the remarkable things about the Gospels is that in them God is speaking not through prophets, but through His own Human Form. “In times past the word of God came to our fathers through the prophets, in different parts and in different ways; But now, at the end of these days, it has come to us through his Son” (Hebrews 1:1,2). People who heard Him speak “were all giving witness, with wonder, to the words of grace which came from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). His words were very deep, yet real and practical. “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). His disciples could find no other like Him “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Because the words of Jesus Himself are so powerful, some versions of the New Testament have the words of Christ in red. Page through one of these and you will see which books contain His words. There are pages and pages of red letters in the four Gospels and Revelation, only a few verses in Acts, and almost none in the Epistles. You can see the whole New Testament with words of Christ in red one one page (with very small type on this page: Red Letter New Testament.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he advises those who are married not to divorce and remarry. As this advice comes from Jesus Himself in the Gospels (Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18), Paul states that the one commanding this is “not I but the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10). He then goes on to add his own words: “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say…” (1 Corinthians 7:11). Of these matters he says, “I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment” (1 Corinthians 7:25, 26). This is a clear statement that his writing is not the Word of the Lord. Elsewhere he asks that his letters be read in church, but this request includes letters to and from Laodicea that have not been included in the canon (Colossians 4:16; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:27). Peter(?) describes Paul’s letters ambiguously as being written according to the wisdom given to Paul, and subject to misunderstanding and distortion like other scriptures (2 Peter 3:15, 16), yet 2 Peter was last to be accepted into the Canon and many today doubt its authenticity.
When Luther removed the Apocrypha from the canon, he stated, “These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” In this he was following Jerome who in the fourth century claimed that that the Apocrypha includes books that the church “reads for edification of the people, not as authority for the confirmation of doctrine,” and not among the canonical Scriptures. The point here is that deciding whether certain books are the Word of God is different than deciding whether they are good for the church, historically and doctrinally accurate, and books that ought to be read. The book of Esther, for example, tells the inspiring story of a courageous woman who risked her life to save her people. It is a good book to read, containing nothing heretical, but does not mention God, and is not used by Jesus or any of the Apostles, so there is little reason other than tradition to count it as the Word of God. This is not a criticism or rejection of the book so much as an observation of what kind of book it is.
Most discussions of Biblical canon focus on traditions. Scholars scour early Christian writings to see which books were quoted by church fathers and which books were most popular. They debate whether the traditions of early Christians who used the Septuagint outweigh the traditions of second century Jews who rejected the Apocrypha. In the end most of the arguments rely on people who wrote two or three centuries after Christ.
Yet should we rely on traditions to determine the Word of God? Shouldn’t it be the Word of God that determines our traditions instead? Jesus criticized those who laid aside the commandment of God, holding to the tradition of men, thus making the Word of God of no effect through their traditions (Mark 7:8, 13, Matthew 15:3-6). Can we rely on that same tradition to determine what books are the Word of God?
Once some Sadducees, who accepted only the Torah, challenged Jesus on the reality of life after death. He did not criticize them for accepting only those five books. Instead He used the Torah by itself to show the reality of life after death (Matthew 22:23-33).
Again, in dealing with Samaritans, who like the Sadduccees used only the Torah, Jesus did not make an issue of what books they accepted. When a Samaritan woman asked Him about differences between Jewish and Samaritan religious traditions, He replied “God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” For Jesus, our religious tradition is less important than the spirit we bring to our worship, and the the Scripture the Samaritan worman had was enough to get her looking for and believing in the Messiah (John 4:7-29).
Whether one chooses to rely on traditions of the church, or to let the Word of God define the Word of God, there are few doctrinal issues which hinge on disputed books. Most Christians which hold to a more restricted canon still admit others as good books for the church, and many who have a broader canon are willing to let the words of the Lord Himself be the starting point for defining doctrine. And the Lord gave the greatest importance not to having the right list of books, but to having the love for one another that the books teach.
When we are thinking of what people add to or take away from Scripture, of prime importance is how we live by it. If we understand and believe the Word of God but fail to act on it by loving others, we are taking away the most important part of scripture. Jesus criticized those who “tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42, Matthew 23:23). Doing is an essential part of the Word:
For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified. (Romans 2:13)
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)
Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46).
The one who received seed on the good ground is one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces. (Matthew 13:23)
The purpose of all Scripture is to teach us to love the Lord and to love each other: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). If love is lacking, all the knowledge we have from Scripture is wasted. “Though I have prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). And if we have love for one another, nothing more needs to be added: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Since all Scripture hangs on love, not adding to or taking away from Scripture means not adding to or taking away from love.