The word “canon” means rule or measure. In terms of the Bible, it specifically refers to the list of the books that are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are thus are part of Sacred Scripture. Therefore, the books in the Bible are called canonical and the books that are not determined to be inspired by God are extra-canonical (AKA – apocryphal).
Almost all Christians believe in the truths found in the Bible, but there are two different lists of what belongs in the Old Testament – the list used by the Catholic Church (and most Eastern Orthodox) vs the list used by most Protestants. The Protestant canon contains 7 fewer books than the Catholic canon. These 7 books are called the deuterocanon (“second” canon). These books were given the name ‘deuterocanon’ because a few hundred years ago we did not have copies of them in Hebrew and they were not part of some Hebrew Bibles we had manuscripts of at the time. Thus, they were deemed to be part of a second canon written in Greek. In the 20th Century archaeologists made many discoveries of even older manuscripts. Therefore, we now have manuscripts, or partial manuscripts, that show that most, if not all, of the books were written in Hebrew or Aramaic.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters call these seven books of the deuterocanon the ‘apocrapha’, meaning they believe they are not part of the canon of the Bible.
Thus, although we agree on the books within the New Testament, we have two different lists of what books should be part of the Old Testament.
Many Christians have never reflected on the history of the Bible and how it came to be. They just assume that it is authoritative and we should consider all the books in the Bible as Sacred Scripture.
Here is a brief history of how the Bible came to be put together.
- Jesus came and taught his disciples. During the time of Jesus there were several different lists of the Old Testament Scriptures in different Jewish groups.
- Jesus’ disciples spread his message orally for many years after His death, before writing anything down.
- His disciples started to write down the life and teachings of Jesus.
- During the time of the early Church, a group of Jews decided to try and set the Jewish canon (the Old Testament). This failed to solve the issue of different lists for different Jews. Thus, the Jewish canon was never decided authoritatively by the Jews. Yet, the Jews no longer had the authority to set the Jewish canon for Christians, because the authority of Jesus was now given to the Church.
- Different local churches started to compile different writings. Many of the lists differed from one another dramatically.
- The Church started to discern, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what was inspired and what was not. This goes for both the New Testament and the Old Testament.
- Several Catholic Councils of Bishops declared the list of Scripture as we have it today:
-Council of Hippo, 393 A.D.
-Carthage, 397 A.D.
-Carthage, 419 A.D.
- This list remained fixed through hundreds of years.
- Saints, bishops, Popes and the Council of Florence (1442 A.D.) affirmed the list.
- The list is challenged seriously for the first time by Martin Luther, when he rejects the 7 deuterocanonical books. He unilaterally decided to throw them out of his new canon. Thus, the Protestant Bible is first born in the 1500s. He bases this decision on faulty evidence:
- He claimed they contained doctrines contrary to the rest of Scripture (rather, he didn’t like the teachings that supported Catholic doctrines).
- He claimed that the Jews had set this canon (rather, there were still different lists by different Jewish groups).
- He claimed that only the Scriptures written in Hebrew were of the canon (rather, he didn’t have access to the documents that show they were written in Hebrew).
Here is some other evidence in favor of the Catholic list of the OT canon.
- God never gave the Jews a way to settle the debate over what books should be in the Jewish canon.
- In the time of Jesus there were several different groups of Jews with different lists of their Scriptures:
- The Samaritans and Sadducees accepted the law but rejected the prophets and writings.
- The Pharisees accepted all three.
- Some Jews used the Greek version called the Septuagint. This is the list that the Catholic Church uses. Textual analysis indicates that most of the New Testament writers quote most often from the Septuagint in the NT, therefore indicating that they used and accepted it.
- Some smaller groups with different lists.
- The early Christian Church Fathers accepted the deuterocanonical books as inspired.
To summarize – the Catholic Church put together the different books of the Bible, while guided by the Holy Spirit. This list was not challenged until Martin Luther threw out 7 books. Unfortunately, many Christians uncritically accept the lie that the Catholic Church added 7 books, which doesn’t square with the evidence. We can be confident that the books in the bible, as ratified by the Catholic Church, are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit for our salvation.
In other words, the reason the Bible is trustworthy is because the Church is trustworthy. The reason the Church is trustworthy is because Jesus Himself is.
I know this is the Cliff Notes version. If you want more details, I recommend the book – Where We Got the Bible by Henry Graham.
Incoming search terms:
- canon bible history
- hebrew bible
- list the books of the bible
- meaning of deuterocanonicals
- old testament catholic church
- the history of the bible and canonical scriptures