Someone who wishes to remain anonymous asked the following:
We believers put all of our faith in the Bible we have as the only true Word of God, but aren’t there other writings and letters that were not included in our Bible… How do we know we have the right one? and also why is this rarely taught in church?
This is a good and common question that a lot of people don’t ask for fear of being looked down on as “less spiritual”. But I think that is anything but the truth. Everyone’s mind works differently; for some answering these questions is very helpful while for others, hearing the debate is confusing and can actually be a stumbling block. For me, this was an important question to have answered. I found that when these questions were approached with humility and an honest desire to understand God better, they helped to deepen my faith and relationship with Him.
Ok- so the last part of the question first: “why is this subject rarely – if ever – taught in church”. – First of all, I would tell you that there are some churches that actually do teach on this from time to time. But you’re correct in noting that we (Calvary GVR) don’t teach on this a lot. Perhaps in the beginning of a sermon I may say a quick word or two about the origin of a book of the Bible but it’s generally not my focus.
Even though this is a worthwhile subject to learn about, it’s secondary to our main calling as teachers of the Word. God has called us as Pastors to preach the Gospel, declare the whole counsel of God, teach and shepherd the people, protect God’s people from false teachers, teach people to apply God’s Word, to lead the body in Worship …. I could go on here, but my point is that the church has its hands full of very important Gospel-oriented priorities. And particularly in corporate worship (Sunday mornings) we are convicted that we best glorify God and feed the sheep by declaring, explaining and preaching God’s Word.
Consider Paul’s words about the effectiveness of simplicity in ministry : “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). This is our main mode of ministry. While apologetics and teaching on the history of Scripture are great tools, I genuinely believe anything that may be a distraction to “Christ and Him crucified” – however good – should take a backseat in our public worship…
That being said, Christ called us to “make DISCIPLES of the nations” (Matt 28:19) – not simply believers. That is where teaching in this area can be very fruitful. However, this kind of study needs to take place in intensive focused discipleship or special Bible study groups, with students who are ready and mature enough to receive this. The truth is that this kind of study is incredibly specific area of research and can be very dry. A lot of it rides on textual analysis, historical evidence, historical dating methods and cross references between different sources. It’s hard to teach well and can be pretty hard to follow unless you think that way. Which btw – awesome if you do. If you learn in this area I am sure that the Holy Spirit will give you opportunities to use this knowledge to His Glory and to further the Kingdom.
I personally would love to do a Bible study/discipleship group focused on this topic but during this season I don’t have the bandwidth to focus on that and if I’m honest I can’t really say that I am being called to this sort of ministry right now. But if you feel strongly convicted that this is something we should address in the church I would urge you to begin by praying: pray that God would make His will in this abundantly clear, and that He would raise up a teacher, resources, and willing students.
And now the rest of the question: why do we include some books in the canon of Scripture and not others – it’s too big of a topic for me to answer on all 66 books of the Bible and to talk about all of the things that are excluded from the canon of Scripture, but I certainly can give you some general principles and start pointing in the right direction.
Here’s a “quick and dirty” as to how books were canonized – which may help us to understand why some books are included and others aren’t however, it’s important to note that each book of Scripture and each book that was rejected has its own unique story and set of circumstances, so these guidelines are more of a general rule.
OT books – all OT books in the Christian Bible were widely recognized as canon by the Jewish establishment even before Christ. Evidence of this is found throughout ancient writings, archeological digs (synagogues throughout the ancient world) and the dead sea scrolls. The formation of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the OT – which Jesus also cited extensively) was also key evidence of the canon of the OT. There are a lot of literary arguments and textual studies and historical stuff we could get into, and it’s all much more complex than that, but for me and a lot of others, the most compelling reason to affirm these books is that Jesus Himself used and directly quoted from most of the OT books that we understand as canon.
NT books – for the NT books we have a lot more direct historical evidence outside of the pages of Scripture. First of all – every book included in the NT had to be linked (by other historical sources- early church fathers or other Apostles) to someone who had a 1st hand encounter with Christ eg – although Luke was not a disciple of Jesus, he was a disciple of Paul’s and he got his information from interviews of the people involved in the events. Mark got his gospel accounts from Peter. Also, the author and the book/letter had to be confirmed with miraculous signs and the content was subjected to scrutiny by the living Apostles and church fathers.
This cannot be said of other letters which claim to be “lost gospels or epistles”. They are generally written by unknown authors, or if they claim to be by an actual apostle there is no other historical evidence for that besides their claims.
Along similar lines is the issue of circulation – early church leaders had minimal access to writing materials- they only copied and circulated the most important books. In the case of the NT canon archeologists would find evidence of hundreds and sometimes thousands of copies of the canon books right alongside scrolls of Isaiah and the Torah. Non-canonical books simply don’t show up in the historical record like that – archeologists will find an odd one here or there – mostly incomplete, but there is no evidence that they were being used for worship widely throughout the early church.
Another related factor is the age of the sources- all of the canonical NT books can be traced back to being widely used, distributed and accepted in Christian worship within 15 to 80 years (one generation) of Christs death and resurrection. What this means is that they were being distributed and used within the lifetime of people who witnessed the events firsthand. People who were at risk of being martyred for their practice of Christianity were not going to allow the holy books of their faith to be falsified when they were in a position to absolutely know the truth – and there is an unprecedented amount of agreement in identical texts that are found in houses of worship all over the Ancient World (keep in mind the printing press wasn’t invented until about 1400 years later). Non- canonical “gospels” – on the other hand – show up on the scene hundreds of years (in some cases over a thousand years) after the events they claim to describe and there is never evidence that they were distributed en masse. Also important to note that these books tell fractured bits and pieces of stories that are completely unrelated to or at times completely contradict the Bible books that we already know to be more ancient and reliable.
As for the apocryphal books (extra books in the Catholic Bible), there is quite a bit of debate about when, and how much of these books were used in worship and considered to have authority in the early church. Some of these books tell interesting history in the church and are generally historical in nature from the post-exile but pre Christ era (Maccabees are an example)… others like Enoch are absolutely known to have been written at least 3,500 years after the historical person, Enoch, would have walked the earth. As for the content of these books – I haven’t read the entire Apocrypha myself so I’ll withhold big blanket statements, but I will say that what I have read doesn’t really change any of our essential doctrines. If someone were to choose to go through the apocrypha I would highly recommend a very cautious approach and guidance. I also think that is more of a scholarly kind of pursuit and I don’t know how much it would help the average Christian in their walk unless they were specifically called to minister to Catholics.
As an aside, the Book of Mormon and Jehova’s Witness watchtower publications etc were written in the past couple hundred years and don’t claim to be part of the canon of Scripture.. much of what they teach directly contradicts what Scripture teaches and also run into problems with the Scriptural mandate that new scripture or teachings cannot be added (Gal 1:8; Rev 22:18-19)
I could write much much more on the subject, but I would rather refer you to a couple of good sources that can explain it better
I would recommend to start by checking out these articles from focus on the family https://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/is-the-bible-reliable/
After that, we can dig into some more intense sources.
I have a couple of old textbooks on this, but before going down that road I would lend you a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. There is a lot of cool interconnecting historical evidence in there (not all on the formation of the canon- but generally on the truth of Scripture)
Also FF Bruce wrote a book called The Canon of Scripture that would be helpful in answering more on understanding how specific books came to be.
You could (and many have) spend a lifetime studying just this topic, but the main thing we need to figure out in church (vs a seminary), is how much of this is actually useful and important to the worship of God and the equipping of the saints.