Occasionally someone will find an old manuscript in some dusty excavation and say that they’ve found a book that should be included in the Old Testament. Sometimes modern scholars will say that there are books “missing” from the Bible, and God meant to tell us something that wasn’t included in the Holy Scriptures. Throughout history, men have risen up and written their own books, then claimed that these books, too, were sent from God and ought to be respected as God’s Word.
How do we know that our Bibles are complete? How can we be sure that nothing is missing?
Time to learn a new word: canon. No, this isn’t the kind of cannon used to fire cannonballs in war. Canon with one “n” means “rule or norm,” and when we speak of the canon of the Bible, we are talking about the list of all the books that belong in the Bible. These are the books that were inspired by God and written by his prophets.
How do we know if a book has been truly inspired? We look to the people who lived at the time the book was written. Since we weren’t alive at the time, we don’t know if the writer spoke for God, but the people who heard the prophet knew whether or not he was speaking the truth. If his words came true, if God worked miracles through his name, then the people knew he was a true prophet.
The five books of Moses were accepted immediately, as was the book written by Joshua. Samuel wrote a book and added it to the collection of holy writings, so did Daniel. Jeremiah and the other prophets did the same. And while they were speaking and writing, the people could weigh their words and watch their actions and know whether or not these men truly spoke for God. False prophets were weeded out (Deut. 18:22). True prophets were also recognized by other prophets, who quoted from their writings and confirmed their words.
Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism agree about thirty-nine Old Testament books. There are eleven Old Testament books, however, that were written by Jewish writers who lived after the major prophets and before Jesus was born. The Roman Catholic Church accepted these books as part of the canon in 1546, but Jews and Protestants reject them.
These eleven books (actually seven books and four parts of books) are known as the Apocrypha (ah-PAH-crah-fah). If you pick up a Catholic Bible and see names like Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, and Baruch, you’re seeing some of the books of the Apocrypha. Why do protestant churches reject these books?
· We reject them because the Jews rejected them. The Jewish people believed that the Holy Spirit did not inspire any prophets to write the words of God after the time of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Jesus and other New Testament writers often quoted from the Old Testament prophets, but never did they quote any writings from the Apocrypha. Many ancient Jewish writers wrote many books, but no one believes that every writer wrote with the authority of God. And unlike the Old Testament prophets who frequently wrote, “This is what the Lord said,” not even the writers of the Apocrypha claimed to write for God. (Look up Jeremiah 17:19 and 18:1 for examples of how the inspired prophets indicated God speaking.)
· The early church did not use the books of the apocrypha. Four hundred years after Christ, Jerome included them in his Latin translation of the Bible, but he said they were not “books of the canon,” but simply “books of the church.”
· The earliest list of Old Testament books used by the Christian church comes from a bishop called Melito, who wrote about 170 years after Christ. He lists all the Old Testament books in our Bible (except Esther), but he does not list any of the books of the Apocrypha. (Whether or not the book of Esther belongs in the Bible was debated for a while before the matter was settled.)
· The books of the Bible frequently declare themselves to be the Word of God, but the Apocrypha does not make any such claim. The Jewish people who wrote the books of the Apocrypha never said they were writing for God or speaking His words. Neither did Jesus or the disciples ever quote from them or refer to them as God’s word.
· Finally, we do not accept the Apocrypha because they contain teachings that do not agree with other teachings of the Bible: that one should pray for the dead, for instance. This is taught nowhere else in Scripture. And the Apocrypha also teaches that salvation comes from faith plus good works, but Scripture clearly says that salvation comes through faith alone. (“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” Ephesians 2:8-9).
You do not have to worry about having an “incomplete” Bible. The Old Testament books in your Bible have been respected and honored as the true words of God’s true prophets since way before you were born. These words have been carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation so you will have a record of God’s work throughout history.
Next week we’ll talk about how our “New Testament” came to be.
Memory verse: “Yes, I have more insight than my teachers, for I am always thinking of your laws” (Ps. 119:99).
1. What would you say to a friend who came up to you with a book and said it was the Word of God? What if he asked how you knew your Bible was the Word of God?
2. Science has proven the order of life: the universe was created first, then came the earth, then the land and sea. After that came life in the sea, then land animals, and finally, human beings. Many scientists feel that this progress came about through evolution, but the writer of Genesis, Moses, knew this order and wrote about it long before man invented the idea of evolution. What does this tell us about the reliability of Genesis?
3. How easy would it be for you to learn about God if the Bible didn’t exist? Or if it existed as sixty-six separate books? What if you had to go searching through bookshelves if you wanted to read verses from the Psalms and verses from Proverbs? Why is it important that we know we can trust the books that made it into our Bibles?
4. Read Jeremiah 26:18 and Daniel 9:2. In each of these passages, one prophet is reading the writing of another. Which prophet was Jeremiah reading? Which prophet was Daniel reading? Did they believe the writings of these earlier prophets? Did they act on their belief in these inspired writings?
5. Read Acts 2:22. Sometimes God “endorsed” or “proved” a man’s prophetic role by performing miracles or “wonders” through him. Can you name some prophets whose writings were validated in this way?