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How Was the Bible Canonized? – Part 2

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How Was the Bible Canonized? – Part 2

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This article is a continuation of last month’s Personal that examined the origin and assembly of God’s Word, the Bible. We have already learned part of the story of how God carefully guided the compilation of the Old Testament, and did so using the Jews. What about the New Testament—and final canonization? What role did the Greeks play? Should certain apocryphal books have been included? Here is more of the fascinating true story of how we got the Bible!

As with Part 1, this article is more technical in nature. For those who want proof of God’s Word, this is necessary. What follows is more powerful narrative of how God built and preserved His Instruction Manual for man. We now continue learning what so few know—or even care to know.

We left off with the crucial role of Ezra—the priest and scribe God used to gather all the books for final Old Testament canonization. The prophet Samuel also added important parts to the Law. Notice: “Then Samuel told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the Lord…” (I Sam. 10:25).

“A book” should read “the book.” This shows Samuel wrote in a book that already existed. The only book then “laid up before the Lord” was the law of Moses. Samuel added Deuteronomy 17:14-20 regarding instructions about Israelite kings. Ezra also inserted comments in Deuteronomy 34:5-6 and 10 about the period after Moses’ death. Obviously Moses could not record his own death and burial.

Ezra came to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, where over 40,000 Jews had returned to rebuild it and other cities. The Temple had been rebuilt by about 515 BC. Most returning exiles were not zealous to obey God, having intermarried with surrounding idolatrous gentiles. About 457, God sent Ezra with over 4,000 priests, Levites and Temple servants to restore the worship of God. Let’s read: “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). This process took 13 years.

Nehemiah, sent to be governor over Judea, assisted Ezra. These two men called the Jewish leaders to sign a special covenant that they would obey God’s laws (Neh. 10:28-39). But Eliashib, the high priest, would not attend.

This meeting established the government mechanism in Judea known as the Great Assembly. Headed by Ezra, it included Nehemiah and all principle priests and elders of Judea. Its 120 members also convened to establish which books were to be canonized. For some years, they assisted Ezra in this final canonization, including dividing the Old Testament’s 22 books into three major divisions.

Some more background. The high priest was supposed to preside over the Great Assembly after Ezra’s death. But Eliashib disagreed with Ezra, and, having other loyalties (Neh. 13:4-7), never met with the assembly. The special covenant required those who married gentile wives to put them away. Eliashib’s grandson, Manasseh, married to a Samaritan princess, refused to end his religious-political alliance between the top families of Samaria and Judea. Excommunicated from Judea, Manasseh moved to Samaria where his wife’s father made him high priest of the Samaritans. This began the Samaritan religion, and the antagonism that developed between Samaritans and Jews. Manasseh built a temple on Mt. Gerizim to counterfeit God’s Temple on Mt. Zion, and rejected the Hebrew Scriptures except for the Pentateuch—or the five books of the Law.

For Jews to distinguish Samaritan counterfeit writings, Ezra changed the Jewish script to what is called square script. Eventually all copies of the Temple Scriptures took this form.

Isaiah had long before written the Book of Kingdoms (or Samuel/Kings). Written from a priestly perspective, Ezra wrote Chronicles, emphasizing throughout that Jerusalem had always been the headquarters of God’s government. This was to show that the Samaritans were falsely claiming they were the center of God’s Way.

Ezra references at least 15 secular sources to validate his claim, while Samuel and Kings use few outside sources. Ezra and Nehemiah countered the Samaritans’ deceitful tactics, in part by canonizing the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, it was actually the Samaritans’ descendants, under Simon Magus, who counterfeited the New Testament. There has always been a battle to overthrow the accuracy, force and effect of God’s Word. Secular sources today have not let up.

Let’s ask: How do we know today’s Old Testament is exactly what Ezra canonized? After the Temple destruction in AD 70, preservation became the responsibility of Jewish religious leaders instead of the state. Several Jewish sects made sure others did not change the text. Some were trying to introduce illegitimate copies. In the 6th century, to clarify discrepancies and “transmit to future generations the authentic Word of God” (Encyclopaedia Britannica), officials restored the old authoritative manuscripts handed down since pre-Roman days. These were made into the standard text—called the Masoretic Text. This is the same one used today, and the same Scriptures Ezra canonized.

The Design and Layout of the New Testament

Now comes the New Testament, written by Christ, the apostles, and other disciples. Certain apostles canonized it. Notice Isaiah’s prophecy: “Sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. Bind up the testimony, seal the law among My disciples” (Isa. 8:13-16).

Isaiah 7:14, 8:8 and 9:6 reveal the context of this passage. It speaks plainly of Jesus’ time. His disciples were to bind up the testimony and seal the Law. They did this. Jesus delivered the New Testament, but required His servants to record, bind and seal this written record. The New Testament was for those “called out” ones (John 6:44, 65), who were to grow in character and qualify for rulership in God’s coming kingdom.

But Christ’s identity and mission, and the concept of anyone ruling in the God Family with Him, was not what the Jews expected to hear. They considered this blasphemy. (Read John 10:31-38.)

The apostles, including Paul, initially believed Jesus would return in their lifetimes and that any New Testament canonization would be unnecessary. (Read these verses: I Thessalonians 4:15-16, II Thessalonians 2:1-2, and I Corinthians 15:51-52.) Eventually the surviving apostles realized Jesus would return much later, and certain verses show they understood their responsibility to bind and seal the New Testament.

More About Canonization and Paul’s Letters

Here is what Christ read to those who were slow to understand events leading up to His Resurrection: “…O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

Think how Christ was in effect confirming the Scriptures. If the Jews had collected the wrong books by His time, would not the Christ who inspired those books have corrected them? Of course He would!

The apostle Peter stated, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed…” (II Pet. 1:19). Peter knew that he and the other apostles had been personally trained by the same Christ who inspired all the Old Testament prophets. Peter knew Christ was the Source of that “sure word of prophecy.”

The Catholics, who claim to have canonized the Bible, have never understood this “sure word.” Here is an example I heard some time ago from a Catholic historian showing how this church views Scripture: “For us, divine inspiration does not mean God possesses a man, and simply dictates the inspired text to him. But rather God implants into a man’s mind a general concept. And when God does that, He allows the man to write that in the historical context in which he lives—what we call the Sitz im Leben—where ‘that is the setting in life.’ So a man may have historical inaccuracies, but God allows the man to write with those misunderstandings because what is important and what is inerrant is the theological concept God is trying to get across to mankind.”

Forgotten are these plain scriptures: “Every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5) and “the words of the Lord are pure words…purified seven times” (Psa. 12:6)!

Now notice the apostle Paul concluding Romans: “To Him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest [obvious], and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (16:25-26).

“Scriptures of the prophets” refers to the Old Testament prophets. But Paul also meant the revelations given to him (II Cor. 12:7). He told the Thessalonians, “…when you received the word of God which you heard of us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually works also in you that believe” (I Thes. 2:13).

Peter stated about Paul’s writings: “…our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him has written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:15-16). Sadly, so many today still butcher the meaning of Paul’s writings.

Now notice his letters were referenced in context to “the other scriptures.” Since Peter had canonized many of Paul’s letters, he knew firsthand that they were now Scripture. Shortly before his martyrdom, Paul told Timothy to bring Mark with him (II Tim. 4:9-11) for a unique mission that included bringing “especially the parchments” (vs. 13)—these were special writing materials for recording crucial documents. Mark was likely sent to Babylon with these parchments for Peter (I Pet. 5:13), the chief apostle who canonized Paul’s writings. By that time, Paul had been martyred.

Soon after Peter canonized Paul’s letters, he was also martyred, by Emperor Nero’s decree. The writings Peter had canonized to that time constituted all New Testament writings except for what the apostle John would add.

The Gospels, Acts and Writings of John

Now come the four gospels. These are in correct order in the King James and other versions. Matthew, a Levite, wrote first, and primarily addressed the Jews. Mark, Peter’s interpreter and companion, came next. He wrote the account as Peter proclaimed events—having been an eyewitness.

Luke, Paul’s companion, wrote for Greek readers. Not an eyewitness, Luke based his writing on diligent research, compiling what several apostles and disciples had earlier documented (Luke 1:2). Verse 3 says Luke wrote of events “in order” to establish their chronology.

John, the last gospel written, was unique—as was Luke. It carries a tone reflecting careful forethought and introspection. John had been away from Judea and the Mediterranean region for 50 years. He and other surviving original apostles had been sent to the areas of the 12 tribes of Israel where God had called many into His Church.

By AD 90, John—God having preserved his life for a special mission—was the only surviving apostle of the original 12. Neither Peter, John nor the others originally understood why John would live longer or what his mission would be. (You may want to read John 21:21-24.) John’s final mission was multifaceted. First came his gospel. Despite what Eusebius and some other historians report, John most likely wrote it while in France for about 50 years, well before the 90s AD and before John returned to Judea and Asia Minor. (To learn more, read my book Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History!)

John went to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, after returning to Judea and finding the Temple and Jerusalem long since destroyed. Ephesus became the headquarters church. From there, John wrote his general letters to the churches. Their tone reflected turbulence and urgency because of apostasy and resulting persecution.

Shortly after John settled in Ephesus, Emperor Domitian began the second imperial persecution. (Nero brought the first.) John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, where he received the Revelation and command to record it. Living in exile gave him the solitude and time to carefully document what would be the final book of the New Testament—the Revelation of Jesus Christ!

After exile, John returned to Ephesus to work closely with Philip, and to train Polycarp and others who would oversee the next stage of God’s Church.

John’s last all-important mission was the final canonization of the New Testament—to seal what would be all of God’s Word—and the whole Bible! As Ezra canonized the true Old Testament Scriptures to distinguish them from Samaritan counterfeits, John had to protect the true New Testament Scriptures from counterfeit writings by the Samaritans, still active centuries later, now under Simon Magus.

Christ commissioned the New Testament be preserved by an unexpected group because God’s Church—systematically hunted down and persecuted over the centuries—would be in no position to preserve it. God used the Greeks to do this. Not under persecution, they were free to remain in their homeland, with their mission being to treasure, preserve and copy the New Testament—word-for-word and letter-by-letter, through the long, dark night of the Middle Ages. It was not essential for these people to believe or even understand the New Testament to preserve it.

Proper Arrangement of the New Testament

Let’s examine the order of books, following the gospels. The Greek eastern church insisted that the general epistles appear before Paul’s writings. The universal church in the west at Rome demanded Paul’s letters—especially Romans—come first after the book of Acts, also written by Luke. They opposed anything labeled Jewish or thought-to-be Jewish. Rome overruled the eastern church, and the general epistles moved to later.

Here are six reasons the general epistles belong before Paul’s letters, not after:

(1) They were intended for the general Church of God and not addressed to specific congregations as were Paul’s.

(2) They largely contain general information.

(3) All the authors of the general epistles preceded Paul in order of time.

(4) The general epistles give necessary background to better understand, and thus set up, Paul’s letters.

(5) God always sent His servants first to the Jews, not the gentiles (Rom. 1:16 and 2:9-10), whom Paul reached.

(6) Paul’s letters contain stronger and more specific instructions. The pastoral epistles of Timothy, Titus and Philemon are even stronger. Hebrews, written by Paul—yet stronger—was first rejected by the Catholics because it sounded “too Jewish.” Here then is the New Testament in correct order:

The Gospels and Acts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts

General Epistles: James, I-II Peter, I, II and III John, and Jude

Paul’s Letters to Specific Churches: Romans, I-II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and I-II Thessalonians

Paul’s General Letter: Hebrews

Paul’s Pastoral Letters: I-II Timothy, Titus and Philemon

John’s Final Writing: Revelation

Often called the “prison epistles,” Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon from prison.

The true Scriptures remain intact even though the order of the Old Testament has been rearranged primarily by the Roman Catholic Church, following the order of the corrupt Septuagint version. Next they rearranged the New Testament, mostly to exalt Rome. But again, this does not mean they decided or established the contents of the Bible!

The Church of God through the ages could maintain purity of doctrine since God promised that all Scripture would be preserved. This is vital for those who would seek God’s truth!

The Apocrypha and Other Uncanonized Documents

In the first three centuries, the Catholic Church used the oldest available fragments of the New Testament. Full of known corruptions, contradictions, deletions and counterfeit additions, these are called the “Western Text.” They vary so much that there is no way to accurately know what would constitute the New Testament. Scholars admit these originated in Rome.

Catholics and Protestants agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but disagree on which books belong. The Catholic Old Testament canon includes the books Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and I and II Maccabees, with sections added in Esther and Daniel that are not in the King James Version. These added books and portions are called the “Apocrypha” and are not accepted as Scripture by Protestants and most others. Further, it is common knowledge among scholars that there are blatant historical inaccuracies in Tobias and Judith.

The Roman Catholics contend that they are the exclusive preservers of the Bible, with sole authority to determine which books should be in the Old or New Testament, and the order in which they are placed. They also admit to exercising this authority by adding the seven apocryphal books and portions of three others to the Old Testament.

In Daniel, they added a portion in chapter 3, titled “Song of the Three Holy Children,” and the entire chapters 13-14, called “Susana and the Elders” and “Bel and the Dragon.”

English synonyms for apocryphal include words like “unauthentic” and “ungenuine.” Ironically, the very name the Catholics chose verifies lack of authenticity! The word apocrypha is Greek and means “hidden” or “secret in origin.” These writings do come from a mysterious beginning and secret origin! They are defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as “inconsistent elements existing side by side with the essential truths of Christianity.”

There are in fact hundreds of apocryphal writings—the “Gospel According to the Egyptians,” “Gospel of the Birth of Mary,” “The Apocalypse of the Virgin,” among so many others. Most of the oldest known titles differ from each other. It is very rare to find any two alike.

Between 200 BC and AD 100, many apocryphal writings appeared among the Essene Jews. Among the most notorious is the book of Enoch. Note that Jude 14 does not mention this book, but rather is quoting a prophecy by Enoch handed down by God’s servants from before the time of Noah. The Book of Enoch was an attempt to discredit God’s Sacred Calendar in the first century BC. It was rejected by Jude and all other apostles. In fact, even the Catholics reject it!

Since it is well documented that the Essene Jews originated many false writings, it is beneficial to learn something of their beliefs. Notice: “The Essenes were an exclusive society, distinguished from the rest of the Jewish nation in Palestine by an organization peculiar to themselves…They had fixed rules…and regulations for the conduct of their daily life even in its minutest details…Their membership could only be recruited from the outside world, as marriage and…[all association] with women were absolutely renounced…the tenets of the society were kept a profound secret, it is perfectly clear from the concurrent testimony of Philo and Josephus that they cultivated a kind of speculation, which not only accounts for their spiritual asceticism, but indicates a great deviation from the normal development of Judaism, and a profound sympathy with Greek philosophy, and probably also with Oriental ideas [emphasis mine]” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition).

I Timothy 4:1-3 puts forbidding to marry with doctrines of demons. The Essenes resorted to inventing documents to justify the many doctrines of demons they adopted.

Record of History

The Apocrypha is traced from the Vulgate of the Roman Catholic Church after the fifth century. From there, it traces back to the Septuagint and on to Alexandrian influences—originating from a mixture of sources such as Samaritan and Essene writings.

The more devout Jews—those of the Diaspora—allowed no canon other than the Scriptures accepted by the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea. The next quote illustrates the exalted position of the canonized Scriptures even outside Judea. Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt, explained that he “makes no quotations from the Apocrypha, and he gives not the slightest ground for the supposition that the Jews of Alexandria of his time were disposed to accept any of the books of the Apocrypha in their Canon of ‘Holy Scripture’” (Philo and Holy Scripture).

The law portion of the Greek Septuagint version (of Alexandria, Egypt) was translated from the Samaritan Pentateuch instead of the official Jewish version. This can be absolutely proven by the 2,000 places where the Septuagint disagrees with the official Jewish version, but agrees perfectly with the Samaritan Pentateuch.

The Jews who translated the Septuagint were “Samaritan Jews.” As late as the early AD 300s, the Apocrypha was not yet added to the Septuagint. These writings joined later a version that was already corrupt.

The highly respected 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that in AD 363 at the Council of Laodicea the Apocrypha was still excluded from Scripture.

In 384, renowned Catholic scholar Jerome began translating the Latin Vulgate directly from the Hebrew. The Apocrypha was excluded because Jerome knew it was false. Soon after, at the Council of Carthage, Augustine, a Canaanite bishop from Hippo, North Africa, led the way to approve the seven apocryphal books. This was the first official “acceptance” of writings that are today still rejected by many Catholic scholars who are members of a church that cannot agree on what is God’s Word.

It was not until well over 1,000 years after Augustine, at the Council of Trent in 1563, that the Catholics declared the Apocrypha “equal” with any book of the Bible. The goal? Single out Protestants by declaring any who rejected it to be “anathema of Christ.”

Despite such a bad track record, some still wonder whether apocryphal works could be inspired. Ask: Did Christ and the apostles ever recognize or quote from any books of the Apocrypha? Did they ever show any approval of them?

Consider this. There are 263 direct Old Testament quotes in the New Testament. And there are 370 New Testament statements which reference Old Testament passages. In both the Old and New Testament, there are no quotes and no allusions to any apocryphal writings!

Now ask this: If the Catholics canonized the Bible—as they claim—why were they unable to include the Apocrypha in the traditional Bible? The answer is obvious. It was God who guided the contents of His Word, through people He chose. God engineered and preserved the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament. Only those who stand in awe of God’s power to do this will avoid being lost in a sea of doubt about His Word. Be sure to read our booklet Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?.

Paul was inspired to record, “Prove all things” (I Thes. 5:21). This includes God’s ability to preserve the complete Bible. If you do this, you can trust God’s promises—any of them! But you can also trust that He means what He says—including all His commands.

Almighty God declares, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).

Take God at His word!

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