Good question...

...wasn't the process of deciding what books were to be included in the bible rather BOGUS?!


[updated Mar 8/1999]


I get many questions about the process of how certain books got included or excluded from inclusion in the 'canon'--the list of 'official' books sanctioned by the various Jewish and Christian authorities. This issue is very simple in its structure, but can be complex in its details. One typical letter looks like this:

From what I've studied, the Biblical cannon was compiled by comparing scripture with scripture and "proving the scriptures". But it has always baffled me HOW the original compilers of the canon decided which books were to be included in the canonical list. I know that the Apocrypha (sp?) was not included because of many of the immoral stories and many of the contradictory passages. One of the ways books were included was if a book was quoted in any other book, correct? Then how come some of the Apocryphal books are not included in the Bible, even though they are quoted in our current Bible. (I cannot remember the exact reference, but I remember reading it.) I think the whole idea of the canon has confused me somewhat, and I would like to be able to know for myself AND give an answer to others.
or another, perhaps less sympathetic version:
My question deals with The Naj Hammadi texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other texts that may once have been canon in the early days of Christianity. Clearly, somewhere around 300-400 a.d. someone or some group decided what was going to be the "official canon" of the Church, and correspondingly, what would not. Now some of these early texts state an acceptance of many beliefs not part of modern Christianity (reincarnation, a rejection of ca church hierarchy, etc.).
How do you justify and rationalize this censorship and how (in the absence of any notes that explain the rationale) do you feel about practicing a religion that seems to the interested outsider to be one of the better examples of a created church for political purposes?
Often, the issue of the canon IS PORTRAYED AS a group of official religious leaders, with a pile of possible 'candidate' books in front of them at some big meeting/council, trying to decide which ones they should say are 'inspired' and which ones they should 'condemn' or 'censor'. Such a portrayal is a substantial misunderstanding of the historical process...

At its highest level of abstraction, this canonization process is a special case of the more general process of determining whether a prophetic voice was from God or not. So, 2 Peter 2.1 gives us a simple statement of it: But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. Just as there were false prophets throughout the OT period, so too were there false prophets during the NT time. Since some of these 'false prophets' and 'false teachers' WROTE THEIR STUFF DOWN, the process of analyzing the written works are going to be extensions of the overall discernment process.

The issue is more complex than this, of course, since many of the 'candidate' works APPEAR to be non-prophetic genres--wisdom literature (in the OT), historical literature (e.g. Chronicles, gospels, acts of XX), and epistolary lit (in the NT). But since this process is an extension of validation of a prophetic voice, one of the key indicators will naturally be linkage to some 'known', previously-authenticated prophetic voice.

In other words, in the OT, not only might there be false prophets (giving false oracles, false direction, and false interpretations of Israel's past), there might also be false sages (giving advice against YHWH or giving false interpretations of Israel's past), and false priests/scribes (giving false interpretations and applications of the Law). In the NT, there might likewise be false apostles, false prophets, false teachers. The community must have a way (and the prerogative) to determine what defined/delineated a 'message' for them.

This is ENTIRELY a natural process, from a sociological and historical standpoint. EVERY community defined by a shared belief-system, such as a political movement, scientific paradigm community, goal-defined secondary group, philosophical research program, or religious tradition, has a defined core of beliefs and values. The group, largely through discussion and interaction, can detect when a position advanced within the group is NOT in conformity to the group's identifying traits. In large organizational behavior (one of my professional areas of responsibility) this shows up as 'culture clash' or "organizational dissonance". It is generally the organization as a whole that 'senses' when a member is acting/evangelizing 'outside the paradigm', but it is often the leadership and officials of the organization that make this explicit and take action.

In the case of a political movement, some "leader" will judge something as being at cross-philosophy with the "founding ideals". In a scientific community, the offending scientist's ideas will be judged as being 'fringe' or not in keeping with the methodology (read: "assumptions"!) of the core research team. In a goal-defined secondary group, the idea to expand the horizon to include 'save the snails' may be determined to be outside the core-focus of a more specifically 'save the whales' organization. A philosophical research program may decide that allowing phenomenological data as equal in importance to conclusions reached through the predicate calculus is simply 'beyond the pale'. And a religious tradition may decide that ascribing divinity to hamsters is not a legitimate extension of the core belief system.

In each of these cases, some 'position' --either generated from within or being encountered from outsiders--is evaluated in terms of its 'goodness of fit' with the defining characteristics and goals of the community. It is important to recognize certain characteristics of this process:

  1. The people who most 'embody' the beliefs/values of the organization are generally the earliest 'detectors' of dissonance. This MIGHT be the official leadership (administrative), but often is rather the visionaries, lay leaders, or spokespeople for the group.
  2. In most groups it is the leadership--official OR un-official--that surfaces the issue for the whole. It often raises the issue among both the leadership and the membership, in different settings.
  3. "Heretical" positions--endogenous or exogenous--tend to factionalize the group by creating sub-groups that do NOT share all of the defining structure of the whole. [Trivial differences do not typically destroy a whole, unless the group has become dysfunctional and semi-dead.]
  4. Such sub-groups either 'take over' the whole (if their new beliefs are more compelling that the old beliefs), provoke a synthesis with the 'old' (if the positions can be so integrated), but often they simply 'emigrate' and start their own school or colony of adherents.
  5. The main group--now the wiser and changed--will tend to identify 'what happened', by articulating the differences in position with a finer level of precision than before, and the main carriers of those differences (e.g. individuals, books, ritual). The group behavior will be modified to exclude such influences, and the process then repeats.
This process is a very, very widespread and natural one, and although I have greatly simplified it in the schema above, it should be readily apparent that some of these dimensions will apply to our question.

[The potential for abuse, aberrant praxis, dysfunction, and sub-optimization should be very obvious, ranging from domineering leadership, exogenous censorship, and inquisition-like actions. And, it is interesting that the current ferment in the social/sociological dimensions of philosophy of science concerns this. The 'sociology of science' theme developed by Kuhn has developed into the social constructionism views of science, with accusations of 'marginalization' or 'oppression' of dissenting or 'heretical' paradigmatic positions!]

So, the questions we need to address in approaching this problem are basically these:

As you can see from this very brief characterization of the problem, the MAIN issue will be how to judge the authenticity of ANY prophetic voice...and it is to this issue that we will first turn.

Accordingly, this study will divide into several sections:

  1. General considerations on how this process would 'look' given Christian understandings of scripture, providence, history, sovereignty. In other words, how close would the actual historical process 'look like' what the evangelical would PREDICT the process should look like? [A basic theory-prediction model].
  2. The Epistemic issue--how to get the process started? Where do we get the initial criteria?!...The OT model of judging revelation: The pre-Mosaic backdrop.
  3. The OT model of judging revelation: The Mosaic setup and launch
  4. The OT model of judging revelation: The People fail to perform under the Mosaic system
  5. The OT model of judging revelation: The promise of an alternate route to the Abrahamic blessings--New hearts, New Covenant, New Moses.
  6. The OT model of judging revelation: The "OT in the OT" phenomena--where did the OT authors 'see' God's words?
  7. The OT model of judging revelation: At the "close" of the OT period.
  8. The Intertestamental period: The explosions of writing and the "individualistic" implications
  9. The Intertestamental period: Shared Texts versus Shared Beliefs
  10. The Intertestamental period: The phenomena--where did the Intertstl authors 'see' God's words?
  11. The NT period: Jesus and the locus of revelation
  12. The NT period: Jesus the last OT prophet
  13. The NT period: Jesus, the New Covenant, the New Sinai, the New Moses, and the first NT prophet
  14. The NT period: The Apostolic band--the witness community and first generation
  15. The NT period: The Community--the organism of shared experience and belief
  16. The NT period: The Community--her roots in the Jewish 'literary' community
  17. The NT period: Information flow in the early church
  18. Post-NT: the extension of the process to a 'canon' of the OT
  19. Post-NT: the extension of the process to a 'canon' of the NT
  20. Retrospect--looking back on the process
This subject can be very, very detailed, and there are TONS of books that give that detail...I hope rather to focus on the logic of the process--how it was entirely reasonable, non-abusive, necessary, with adequate precedent, and not such "a big deal" after all...


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