Forum Question: How did we get just 66 books of the Bible?

by Rob Lundberg


A few years ago, I was a guest speaker at an Apologetics Focus Sunday, promoted by a nearby local church here in Virginia. I must say that it was a long day for me, but a  delightful and energetic time for all who participated.

What made it interesting is that I gave five presentations, one in the form of a Sunday School lesson, one in the form of a sermon, and three other talks that would later be followed up by a Question and Answer session.

During the Q and A time, a lady who was fancy to the History Channel and the Discovery Channel for their documentaries on religious matters asked two probing questions, one of which I will delve into in this posting. The question was, “Why are there just 66 books of the Bible and not others that they have found later in history?”

This question is a popular one in that it always takes some kind of form, whether someone was viewing the movie Zeitgeist, or listening to a lecture from a liberal professor saying that that the Church was prejudiced to the the other books that could be in the Bible so they left them out. There is nothing new under the Sun to say the least.

Let me dive in and state that the Bible is more than just a book. It is a compilation of 66 books with a common theme that points to a Messiah who would come and die for sinful man’s redemption, be buried and rise from the dead 3 days later in that same but glorified body.

To put is succinctly, the Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents composed over 1500 year, and those documents were written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses recording for us supernatural events that are in direct fulfillment to specific prophecies; and these writers claim that their writings are divine, rather than human in origin. Those 66 books were written from three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and from three different continents (Asia, Europe and Africa). But why just 66 books? The rest of this posting will answer this more clearly.

The Preliminaries

Some of us may have heard the word “canon”, but have not really an idea of what it means. The word “canon” means standard or list or index of standards. When we apply this to the Bible (a.k.a. “Scripture) it means an officially accepted list of books. The important thing that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds is that the church did not create the canon or the books included now as Scripture. The Early Christian Church RECOGNIZED that the books were INSPIRED from their INCEPTION. The Church did not make them inspired, they were inspired by God when written.

Why the Need for a Standard Set of Books?
There were several factors that need to be brought to the forefront as to the need for a standard set of books. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament had certain circumstances that led to their respective standard of documents.
There were a couple of factors that gave rise to the Old Testament canon. The first one was the fact that the Jews were scattered after the destruction of Jerusalem of AD 70 and there was a great need for them to determine which books of antiquity for that time were the authoritative Word of God. A second factor for the need for an Old Testament standard was the fact of the Christian church growing and there came the need for the Jews to reject anything that was not their own coming out of the Christian “community.”
The New Testament on the other hand was faced with some adversity which brought forth the need for the canon of Scripture that would be considered authoritative. There were essentially three reasons.
First there was the adversity of heresy coming from the heretic Marcion (circa AD 140). He had developed his own canon and began to cause havoc in his propagating his work. Second, many of the Eastern churches were using books in their worship services that were certainly spurious documents. The third factor came from Rome in the Edict of Diocletian (AD 303), who declared the destruction of all the sacred books of the Christians including any authoritative scrolls. Eusebius writes,
“It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first edict against us. Soon afterwards other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice.” ~ (Eusebius, History of the Church (VIII.2))
Athanasius of Alexandria tells us in his Festal Letter of AD 367 of a list of the 27 books which are the same exact books in the current New Testament canon.[1] Justin Martyr c. AD 150) in his First Apology, confers that “on the day called Sunday, there is a gathering together to one place of all those who live in cities or in the country, and the MEMOIRS OF THE APOSTLES or the WRITING OF THE PROPHETS are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader has ceased the president presents admonition and invitation to the imitation of these good things.” (First Apology, ch 67)[2]
So we can see that as early as Justin Martyr and as late as Athanasius, the Early Church had recognized a set standard of authoritative works ranging from the what we know now as Old Testament works and New Testament works. But now with all this background how did these books become authoritative?
What were the tests for including a work from an ancient writer into the canon of authoritative works. There were essentially five tests that were dealing with the following:
1. Authority – Did the book come with a divine “Thus saith the LORD?”[3]

2. Prophetic – Was the book written by a man of God?

3. Authenticity – the Early Church used a principle that is common today, “if in doubt, throw it out.”

4. Dynamic – Did the work have a dynamic quality to it that was evidenced in the life transforming power of God? and

5. Was it received and collected and read and used – was it accepted by the people of God (2 Peter 3:15, 16)?

So we can see that there are tests for determining which books were considered authoritative and which ones are not. Before closing this posting up, let me address the other part of this issue, why not the other books like the Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphal works?

What About the Apocrypha and Other Emerging Books?

So now we have looked at the tests and the reasons for the need of a canon of Scripture, what about these books in between the Testaments? What about the Apocryphal books used by the Roman Catholic Church? Why aren’t they included? Josh McDowell sources Unger’s Bible Dictionary in his New Evidence that Demands a Verdict giving several reasons to consider the non canonical nature of the Apocryphal books.
1. They abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms;

2. They teach doctrines that are false and foster practices that are at variance with inspired Scripture;

3. They resort to literary types and display artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with Scripture;

4. They lack distinctive elements that give genuine Scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling.[4]
Norman Geisler and William Nix sum up the case against the non canonical Apocrypha stating,
…(1) None of them enjoyed an more than a temporary or local recognition. (2) Most of them never did have anything more than a semi-canonical status, being appended to various manuscripts or mentioned in tables of contents. (3) No major canon or church council included them as inspired books of the New Testament. (4) The limited acceptance enjoyed by most books is attributable to the fact that they attached themselves to references in canonical books (e.g., Laodiceans to Col. 4:16), because of their alleged apostolic authorship (e.g., Acts of Paul),. Once these issues were clarified, there remained little doubt that these books were non-canonical.[5]
As you can see, there are plenty of good reasons for accepting what we have between the leather or hard-bound covers of our Bibles and why other sources can safely be thrown out as non-authoritative. The problem you and I will run into will come from folks who will challenge the credibility of the Bible and its authority. Use these criterium that you have read here in this posting, and you will not go wrong in giving a good response and putting what I call “a stone in the shoe” of the questioner.[6]
Please feel free to interact with this posting and provide your feed back. Thank you for indulging in this posting.

This was a basic factor for determining the New Testament as being inspired by God and the chief test was apostolic authority. This authority did not mean that an apostle wrote the work but that it was approved by or directed by the apostles. The authority of the apostle was never detached from the authority of the LORD Himself (See Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 1 Cor. 7:10)

[4] Ungers Bible Dictionary in New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999 : 29.

[5] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968 in Josh McDowell. New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999: 25,26.

[6] By this term “a stone in the shoe” it is a way of saying that you and I can give something to our questioner to think long and hard about, and most likely it is something that they have not thought about before.

One comment

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