35. The Canon of Scripture

Neil Owen


Clifford Denton

This issue of the journal is linked with the previous one, which explored the role of Rabbinic Judaism in our study of the roots of the Christian Faith. Whatever value Rabbinic Judaism may have we must be careful not to undermine the Bible. There is great value in extra-biblical studies as tools to the understanding of Scripture, giving important and useful information about the background to Scripture, linguistically, socially, culturally and historically, particularly setting a framework to the life, times and teaching of the Lord and His Apostles.

Rabbinic studies are important in our overall interpretation of Scripture. We have shown that scholarly Rabbis have ways of thinking and a heritage of Scriptural interpretation that can enrich our understanding and alert us to the fact that Western Christianity is not clear of the influence of the Greek philosophers. Thus a case can be built for freshening and deepening our approach to Scripture, taking account of some aspects of Rabbinic thought. Indeed, this seems to be an essential and urgent issue to address, but in no way are we suggesting that there are other papers or books or letters that can be discovered which should have been bound into the Bible. The canon of Scripture is now complete and it stands as God’s gift to mankind, unique and authoritative, a means of meditation upon the priorities of God through history, on Him and His ways and His people, and a means by which the Holy Spirit can lead us to Him and, through Yeshua, to salvation in Him.

The means by which men were inspired to compile the Old and New Testament are history now, some of which is known. Sufficient is known for us to discover elements of the debates that took place concerning which books should be included and which manuscripts should be used. It is edifying to study this but in no way should we undermine the finished product. Rather we should stand in awe of God who used men in all their imperfection to bring together the completed canon, the writings of imperfect men, preserved over many centuries, but men prepared and inspired by God.

(Taken from the Editorial to Tishrei Vol 2 No 3, Spring 1994, The Nature of Scripture)

The Canon of Scripture

Neil Owen

In this article, the canon of Scripture – the Old and New Testaments combined to form what is known and accepted as the (Holy) Bible – will be considered. The formation and composition of the canon, its textual attestation and the languages in which it was originally written will be examined and the conclusion reached that only by the miraculous oversight of God could it have been brought into being, and endued with the authority which it undoubtedly possesses. “Divine authority is by its nature self-evidencing; and one of the profoundest doctrines recovered by the Reformers is the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, by which testimony is borne within the believer’s heart to the divine character of Holy Scripture. This witness is not confined to the individual believers, but is also accessible to the believing community; and there is no better example of its operation than in the recognition by the members of the Early Church of the books which were given by inspiration of God to stand alongside the books of the Old Covenant, the Bible of Christ and His Apostles, and with them to make up the written Word of God.”

So writes F.F. Bruce in his classic work on the history and origins of the Bible, “The Books and Parchments” (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991, p.104). Whilst the immediate context is the establishment of what we know as the “New Testament”, the quote draws together quite neatly a number of themes central to any consideration of the Bible as a canonical work (or collection of canonical works).

First and foremost of these is the divine inspiration of the Scriptures themselves. If the Bible is not God’s Word, it is just so much literature. If it is, it must compose only those writings which are, in the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “God-breathed”.

Then there is the acknowledgement by the believers that the Scriptures are indeed inspired by God. However many persuasive evidences of their divine origin there may be (and some will be considered below), they will not convince those who are unwilling to be convinced, since “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Finally, the relationship between the two “Testaments” and the ultimate composition of the Canon of Scripture are mentioned.

These, and other, aspects will recur as the subject is considered in greater detail.

The Canon

The relevant definition of the word “canon” as it appears in Collins English Dictionary is “a list of sacred books, etc., officially recognised as genuine.” Thus, when speaking of the “Canon of Scripture”, we mean no more, in simple terms, than the sum total of those writings which are accepted as God-breathed. However, this begs two important questions which must be addressed. How are or were the biblical writings recognized as divinely inspired? And who was responsible for determining their genuineness?


The dictionary definition of the word scripture – “a sacred, solemn, or authoritative book or piece of writing” – is less helpful. In the sense in which the word is used in the Bible and in which it will be used here, it means the unique -and uniquely authoritative – written revelation of Himself by God to men, in which His plans, purposes and ways of righteousness may be found.

The Composition of the Bible

Because of the diversity of subject matter and human authorship, it is not uncommon to hear the Bible described as being not a book, but rather a library of books. This description may be seen as both helpful and, at the same time, unhelpful; helpful in that it explains the enormous variety of style and content of its constituent elements and emphasises the fact that each has its own character; unhelpful in that it could be seen as detracting from its unitary nature. If it is a library, it is one which is incomplete if any single book is missing and which will not allow for the addition of any more. It is perhaps more adequately described as a collection of disparate writings which together form one uniquely cohesive volume.

There are, by the reckoning with which we are familiar, sixty-six of these writings (usually referred to as “books”), thirty-nine of which compose the Old Testament and twenty-seven of which compose the New Testament. Before looking at them any further, however, it is appropriate to give some consideration to this major division of the Scriptures into Old and New Testaments.

The fact that the word “testament” has come to be used in this context is unfortunate, since it fails to convey the meaning of the Greek word which underlies it. Whilst this Greek word – diatheke – can be used to mean “testament” (as in “last will and testament”), it can also mean “covenant” and can be seen from its use in the Bible as the equivalent of the Hebrew word which appears as “covenant” in English translations of the Old Testament. On this basis, Professor Bruce concludes that:

“(w)e may, therefore, replace the word “Testament” by the word “Covenant” in the titles of the two parts of the Bible, and call them respectively, “The Books of the Old Covenant”, and “The Books of the New Covenant”. If we think of the Bible as comprising these two collections, we shall be well on our way to understanding what the Bible is and what it contains.”

It is worth restating the basic truth that the acceptance of the division of the Bible into two parts, and in particular the use of the adjective “new” to describe the second part, must not be seen as implying a greater validity, authority or relevance for either part above the other. Historically, an overemphasis on the New Testament on the part of some Christians has led to unbalanced theology, heresy and a denial of the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith. It is essential that the two Covenants be seen as equally important, mutually dependent aspects of God’s single revelation.

There is no better illustration of the interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments than Jesus’ own words recorded in Luke 24:44-45:

“Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”

It is clear from this (and indeed many other passages) that Jesus regarded His life and ministry as properly understood only in the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.

In addition to illustrating Jesus’ attitude to what we know as the Old Testament, His words also provide an indication of the way in which He (and His contemporaries) regarded them as divided. According to Bruce (op. cit., page 87), Jesus was probably using the word “Psalms” in a generic sense to refer to all the books which are otherwise known as the “Writings”, since it is the longest and, in the Hebrew Bible, the first, of these books. This interpretation is certainly borne out by the reference in the following verse to the “Scriptures”.

It is not uncommon to find in English reference books the proposition that the Old Testament is divided into four sections, the Law, the . historical books, the poetical books and the prophetic books. Whilst there are obvious reasons for this approach, which is not necessarily wrong in itself, it may be thought that there are insights to be gained on Jesus’ understanding of Scripture and Hebraic thinking by adopting a threefold division.

To do this, those books which are often described as historical must be seen either as prophetic books or writings. The Hebrew Bible regards Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as falling into the category of Prophets and Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles as falling into the Writings. In addition, Lamentations and Daniel form part of the Writings, rather than the Prophets, as might be suggested by the order of the books as we are familiar with them.

Some aspects of this arrangement may strike us as strange at first sight, such as the inclusion of Joshua and Judges among the Prophets. However, if the historical elements of these books are seen as secondary (by this is meant not unimportant, but simply as not the defining characteristic), the thinking immediately becomes clearer. After all, the first five books of the Bible are universally recognised as forming an integral section known as the Law and yet they are evidently at the same time an historical record. One possible reason for the inclusion of some “historical” books among the Prophets is put forward by Bruce (op. cit. p.83):

“… these books are not simply concerned with recording events, but with using events to illustrate the great principles on which the prophets insisted. They teach prophetic lessons and are therefore listed among the prophetic books, along with those books which we recognise in a more literal sense as the books of the prophets.”

The order of the books in the Hebrew Bible is also different from that with which we are familiar, since it reflects the threefold division described above (for a comparison of the two, see the Appendix). The order as it is found in English Bibles (and the consequent four fold division) has its roots in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating back to the first three centuries B.C. It is unclear whether the order in which the books were arranged in that translation resulted from a deliberate attempt to rearrange at least some of them in a more chronological sequence or from an alternative order which existed in some Hebrew Bibles but has since been lost. All Hebrew Bibles which have survived exhibit an order different from that of the Septuagint.

One further hint that the order in those Hebrew Bibles was the one with which Jesus was familiar appears in Matthew 23:35, where he speaks of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah …” In the Hebrew Bible, as in any other, Abel is the first man to be slain on account of his righteousness and, since the final book is 2 Chronicles, Zechariah is the last!

Neither order is put forward here as right or wrong. Of far greater importance is the list of books to be included in the Canon and on this subject there is no disagreement. This aspect woll be further considered below.

Like those of the Old Testament, the New Testament books may be seen as falling into either three or four categories, depending on whether Acts is seen as included with the Gospels as a narrative book or excluded as a section on its own. The remaining two categories are, of course, the letters and the single book of Revelation.

It can certainly be argued that Luke saw his second book as having a continuity with the first, from his reference in Acts 1:1 to “all that Jesus began to do and teach” in his “former account”. All that follows certainly speaks of the life of Jesus at work in believers.

Of the gospels, the first three are often grouped together and described as “synoptic”. There is a certain similarity between the narrative contents of the three, which often leads scholars to conclude that they are derived either from one common source or from each other. Despite their similarities, they exhibit markedly different emphases, however, and must be seen as ultimately deriving this character principally from God’s sovereign inspiration. The Gospel of John likewise reveals the earthly life of Jesus in a different way.

Some interesting comments on these similarities and differences can be found in the Companion Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990, p.1510):

“The Divine purpose in the Gospel by John is to present the Lord Jesus as God. This is the one great feature which constitutes the difference between this Gospel and the other three.

It has already been noted that in the first three Gospels the Lord Jesus is presented respectively as Israel’s King, Jehovah’s Servant, and the ideal Man; and that those incidents, words, and works are selected, in each Gospel, which specially accord with such presentation.

Thus they present the Lord on the side of His perfect humanity. It is the main reason for … the marked difference between them, taken together, and the fourth Gospel.”

If a subdivision of the epistles, or letters, is sought, the most obvious is between those which were written by Paul and those which were written by others. The authorship of the book of Hebrews being uncertain, some would wish to classify this as belonging to the former group and some to the latter group. Supporters of the contention that it is a Pauline epistle can point to some fairly persuasive factors, but none is sufficient to put the matter beyond all doubt. Perhaps it is wisest to conclude that there is divine purpose in its anonymity.

The New Testament (and the Bible) is brought to a close by the book which on its own, forms the last category – of prophetic or apocalyptic writing – and which is generally referred to as Revelation. Its position is appropriate, since it contains much material relating to the close of the age and the new heavens and the new earth. Towards the end of the book, we find that famous, solemn warning not to tamper with that which has been written (Rev. 22:18-19), emphasizing the self-sufficiency and completeness of God’s written revelation. Whilst the warning may be specific to the one book in which it appears, it also acts as a reminder that it is God who has set the boundaries of His Word. The way in which the Bible has come to be regarded as the entire authoritative Canon will be considered below.

Before leaving the subject of the composition of the Bible, however, a brief mention of the division into chapters and verses is appropriate. This took place some considerable time after the books were originally written.

Somewhat surprisingly, in the case of the Old Testament, the division into verses preceded by a significant margin that into chapters. The former was carried out by the Masoretic family of Ben Asher around 900 A.D. (dividing the Hebrew Bible into 23,000 verses), the latter by Cardinal Hugh of St Cher in 1244. The chapter and verse divisions of the New Testament were fixed later still, in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively.

These divisions were not part of the original inspired text of the Scriptures. Nonetheless, they do exhibit features (such as the frequency with which chapter 3, verse 16 presents important truth)’ which may be seen as implying a degree of divine oversight.

The Canonicity of the Books of the Bible

The individual books of the Bible are included in the whole because they have been recognised as bearing the stamp of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. We can be confident that God Himself has overseen the process of bringing the work to completion, but it is nonetheless instructive to consider what is known of how it took place. The Old and New Testaments must again be taken separately, since they developed separately; a common thread unites the two, however, in that, from the human perspective, both seem to have come into being by general consensus, rather than active decision.

Some time soon after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, a meeting took place of a number of Jewish rabbis, which subsequently became known as the Council of Jamnia. One of the topics of discussion was the composition of the Hebrew Bible. What is interesting about their conclusions is that, despite reservations on the part of some about a number of the books, they confirmed the existing canon. The fact that documentary records of that meeting indicate that there was already such a canon enables us safely to assume that agreement previously existed as to its composition.

It is probable that this process had been completed before the commencement of Jesus’s earthly ministry. We have already noted that He referred at times to the threefold structure of the Hebrew Bible, a reference which in itself implies an acknowledged body of canonical writings. In addition, of course, He is recorded as having quoted extensively from those writings. On no occasion, He did make reference to any book which is not part of what we recognise as the Old Testament. Nor did He give any reason to suppose that He regarded any of the writings which He quoted as being anything less than wholly authoritative and therefore canonical.

The same may be said of the writers of the New Testament books. There is no hint in any mention of the “Scriptures” that there was at that time any disagreement as to their identity. Marvin Wilson, in his book “Our Father Abraham” (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989, p.112) notes that “scholars point to over sixteen hundred quotations, references and allusions which connect the New Testament with the Old.”

From at least two secular sources too, inferences can be drawn that the Hebrew canon was established by the first century A.D. Both Philo of Alexandria and Josephus make reference to an accepted body of writings regarded as canonical by the Jews of their day. Whilst neither lists the books in such a way as to put their identity beyond doubt, both describe them in a manner which is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Bible as we know it.

It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the Old Testament had reached its final form by the end of the first century B.C. How long before that it had happened is a matter for conjecture (although it cannot have been much more than three hundred years on account of the dating of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi). What is certain, however, is that no record exists of any human forum in which a decision was made on its contents.

Turning to the New Testament, we find that the position is strikingly similar. F.F. Bruce comments:

“What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last a Church Council – the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 – listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their established canonicity.” (Op. Cit. pp 103-4)

In fact, many of the New Testament writings were regarded as canonical at a very early stage. An obvious example of this is the famous comparison by Peter of Paul’s letters with “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Historical records of the development of the Canon are scarce, but those which do exist suggest that the greater part was accepted by the beginning of the second century. They also indicate that the place of only very few books (Hebrews, Jude, James, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John) was ever called into question, and those only by a minority of Christians. By the middle of the fourth century, the matter was beyond doubt, and no serious debate has arisen since over the composition of the New Testament.

This is essentially true of the Bible as a whole. There is not, and never has been, a variety of rival canons, each widely accepted, vying for supremacy. In view of the fact that the Bible is not one self-contained document, but a collection of writings, this is in itself a remarkable fact.

Mention must be made at this point – if only briefly – of the Apocrypha, since its acceptance in some quarters as canonical may be thought to bring this conclusion into question. There is, however, no real reason to see the Apocryphal books as having any claim to canonicity whatsoever. They never formed part of the Hebrew Bible and therefore should not form part of our Old Testament, and, in the Protestant tradition, they never have. They appear in some English Bibles because their Greek translations appeared alongside the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint. Even then, they are not included in the Old Testament, but given a designation of their own, a fact that hints that really they do not belong at all. Furthermore, they contain both dubious doctrine and styles of writing which are out of place in the authorised Canon.

It may therefore be reiterated that the contents of the Bible are a matter of the widest agreement. The very universality of the acceptance of the Canon of Scripture may itself perhaps be seen as evidence of its Divine authorship.

The Languages of the Bible

If the authorship and composition of the Scriptures are the work of God, then it can be presumed that He also ordained the languages in which it was written.

The Old Testament, charting as it does the relationship through history between God and His chosen people, is written entirely in their language, Hebrew. It is instructive to note that Hebrew has a number of characteristics which make it especially well suited to this purpose. F.F. Bruce, for example, makes the point that,

“Much of the vivid, concrete and forthright character of our English Old Testament is really a carrying over into English of something of the genius of the Hebrew tongue. Biblical Hebrew does not deal with abstractions but with the facts of experience. It is the right sort of language for the record of the self-revelation of a God who does not make himself known by philosophical propositions but by controlling and intervening in the course of human history.” (op. cit., page 36)

The same thinking is echoed by Marvin R. Wilson:

“The biblical writers often use vocabulary which is highly colourful, dynamic, and action-centred … A careful study of the Hebrew Bible will reveal what Martin Luther called a ‘special energy’ in its vocabulary. In his struggle to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, Luther discovered in the sixteenth century what many Hebraists of the twentieth century have recently come to affirm with him: it is impossible to convey so much so briefly in any other language.” (op. cit., page 136)

Both writers go on to make the point that the Hebrew writers make extensive use of anthropomorphisms when referring to God. Wilson (p.138) concludes that “(t)he ‘living’ and ‘active’ God of the Hebrews is thus never reduced to mere abstraction.” Something of the character and attributes of God Himself is therefore seen to be revealed by the very language in which that part of His written Word came to be recorded.

The New Testament was originally recorded in Greek, the lingua franca of its day. It seems that God’s purpose in this was to enable the “good news” to be as widely communicated and understood as possible.

However, whilst it was written in Greek, its thought forms are not derived from Greek culture and thinking, but from Hebrew language and culture. To understand the significance of a Greek word in the New Testament, it is of little use to examine its meaning in contemporaneous Greek literature. It is of far greater help to identify the equivalent Hebrew word, perhaps by reference to the Septuagint, and consider its meaning.

Marvin Wilson (op. cit., pp 136-7) borrows a quote of Luther from another publication (“Hebrew in the Church”, by Pinches E. Lapide, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1984, p.x)), which is worthy of further repetition:

“For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool.”

This same point is drawn out and extensively illustrated in David Biven and Roy Blizzard, Jr.’s book “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus” (Shippensburg: Destiny Image Publishers, 1984). This book is interesting not least because of its highly persuasive arguments that Hebrew was widely spoken throughout Israel in Jesus’s day and that it was the language in which He taught (rather than Aramaic as is held by many scholars). Bivin and Blizzard also posit a Hebrew document underlying the four Gospels and much of Acts, referring to these parts of the New Testament as “originally written in Hebrew” (p.23). Much emphasis is placed in their book on efforts made by Dr. Robert Lindsey to reconstruct this long-lost Hebrew text. Whilst there is considerable value (as they ably demonstrate) in identifying the Hebraisms in the Greek text and stressing its Hebrew heritage, it seems to this writer dangerous to speak or write in terms which suggest that a reconstructed document based on a speculative hypothesis (however well substantiated) could be regarded as authoritative. We must surely see the texts which we do have, all of which are in Greek, as that which God has ordained, interpreting them at the same time in the light of their Hebraic background. Seen in this way, the main thrust of Bivin and Blizzard’s argument – summarised below – is entirely valid:

“To this present day there has been in New Testament studies a disproportionate stress placed on the study of Greek and Hellenism. If any additional advances are to be made, especially in better understanding the words of Jesus, the concentration must shift to the study of Hebrew history and culture and, above all, the Hebrew language.” (op. cit., page 23).

The third language of the original text of the Bible is Aramaic. Its use is limited to three places where Bible expositors have seen good reason for the writer to depart from Hebrew for a short time, for example because the passage relates prophetically to the “times of the Gentiles” (Daniel 2:4-7:28) or concerns official dealings with other nations (Ezra 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26). The final instance is a solitary verse, Jeremiah 10:11, which is a single statement directed to the Gentile nations in the middle of an address to Israel. We can be confident that these occur-rences of Aramaic are not aberrations, any more than the use of Hebrew and Greek, but are part of God’s overall design for His written Word.

The Text of the Bible

In considering the text of the Bible, the Old and New Testaments must once again be considered separately, since their respective histories differ. Somewhat surprisingly, extant copies of the New. Testament are available which are far older than extant copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew. No original autograph of any part of either Testament survives, principally on account of the relatively short lifespan of papyrus and parchment. The texts have survived by virtue of being continually copied and recopied.

The process of copying and re-copying the Hebrew Bible was carried on by the Masoretes, Jewish scholars specially entrusted with this important task. They approached their work with painstaking accuracy, devising many detailed methods of ensuring that the occurence of errors was kept to an absolute minimum, such as recording the number of appearances of each letter of the alphabet in each book. The Masoretic text is the principal Old Testament textual source and, although the oldest known copies date back only to the ninth or tenth centuries A.D., it is generally considered that the meticulous care with which they were composed makes them highly reliable. This contention can be further substantiated by reference to extrinsic evidence. Quotations from the Hebrew Bible which appear in a number of documents surviving from earlier centuries and translations into other languages (such as the Septuagint) provide an indication of the Hebrew text up to about a thousand years earlier. Parts of the Bible found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments discovered at Masada are also from a much earlier date. All these external sources are remarkable for the fact that they exhibit relatively few divergences from the Masoretic text, confirming that the latter underwent no material change in that time. Despite its relatively recent dating, therefore, we may be satisfied that the Masoretic text is characterised by a high degree of reliability.

A noted American Old Testament scholar, Dr. Robert Dick Wilson wrote:

“The evidence in our possession has convinced me that ‘at sundry times and in divers manners God spoke unto our fathers through the prophets,’ and that the Old Testament in Hebrew, ‘being immediately inspired by God,’ has ‘by His singular care and providence been kept pure in all ages.’”(Quoted in David Otis Fuller, ed.,”Which Bible?” Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International Publications, 1975, p.48)

It is interesting to compare this conclusion regarding the Old Testament with the following statement of Sir Frederic Kenyon, an authority in the field of Greek textual criticism:

“It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.” (Taken from “The History of the Bible”, quoted in F.F. Bruce, op. cit. p.180)

The New Testament is in fact notable for the wealth of textual material available. The number of extant documents containing all or part of the New Testament runs to about five thousand. In the main, these date back to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, although a number are older still.

The copying and recopying of the New Testament was not carried out with such meticulous accuracy as that of the Old Testament. The sheer number of documents available compensates for this, however, providing material which enables scholars to arrive at reliable readings of the text. It should be noted in this context that it must not be assumed that the older a document is, the more reliable it is, since age is not in itself an indicator of the accuracy of the copying or the number of intervening copies between the copy in question and the original autograph.

Some of the documents which scholars consider to be more important have been given names which are now widely recognised, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Vaticanus. Documents have also been classified in groups, according to the geographical area in which particular textual variants were predominant. This gives rise to other familiar descriptions, such as the Alexandrian text,. Western text or Byzantine text.

This latter is the most numerous and was for many years the most widely used, essentially forming the basis of what is known as the “Textus Receptus” or “Received Text”. This is the text which was used for most of the early printed Greek versions of the New Testament and was employed by the translators of the Authorised Version. During the last century, it came under serious challenge as a result of the discovery ot a number of older manuscripts and developments in the theory of textual criticism. Initially, other texts, such as the Alexandrian text, were preferred to the Received Text, but more recently an “eclectic” approach has been adopted by most translators, drawing on all available documents. Despite its widespread acceptance, this method still has its detractors, who bring to bear a number of strong arguments for adhering to the Received Text as more reliable.

Although the differences between the various texts cannot be ignored by the serious student of the Greek New Testament, it is important to realize that the proportion of the text which is affected by them is very small indeed (only 3%, according to one calculation). The fact that – to quote F.F. Bruce again (op. cit., p.168) – “(t)here is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.”


The Bible is a remarkable – not to say extraordinary – book. Written over the course of many centuries by a wide variety of different human authors, it still exhibits an astonishing degree of internal consistency, which is in itself a pointer towards its divine authorship.

It and its message have influenced many thousands of individuals, some of whom have as a result made lasting impressions on the societies in which they lived. It has resisted all attempts of men finally to demolish its credibility. Indeed, its reliability as an historical record continues to be substantiated by modern archaeological research.

Its relevance transcends the passage of time and many today can testify to the fact that it is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. (Hebrews 4:12).

An examination of its history, showing both how it came into being and how it has been preserved, only adds to the impression that this is a special book. The imprint of the Holy Spirit can surely be seen in its development into the Canon of Scripture.

If it is God Himself who says that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16), then it must also be He who by His divine providence has caused the Scriptures to take shape, that His purposes may be fulfilled.


1. The Books of the Old Testament as they appear in English versions:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

Total: 39 Books

2. The Books of the Hebrew Bible

The Law:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

The Prophets:

(The former Prophets) Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings (The Latter Prophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve Prophets

The Writings:

Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

Total: 24 books.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 2 No 3, Spring 1994, The Nature of Scripture)



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