How was the canon of scripture decided?
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The Bible consists of Two Testaments.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament consists of 39 books written in Hebrew and Aramaic by various authors over a long period of time and covers history from the beginning (Genesis 1:1) until about 450 BC (the prophet Malachi).
The Hebrew word 'torah' which means 'teaching (of the law)', was sometimes used to designate the whole collection of books, but more correctly referred to the first major section called the Pentateuch (the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) Moses who lived approx. 1500 BC is the acknowledged author.
The next section was called 'The Prophets', which was subdivided into the Former Prophets (i.e. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 (Minor Prophets)). The final section is 'the Writings', and consists of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. This order is different from our modern Old Testaments, but reflects the typically used order of the time based on importance.
All were accepted and considered authoritative by the Jews from the time of their writing, and were passed down as such.
It is impossible to be very precise about the dates of the Old Testament books. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were written approx.1500 BC. (From the comment in Romans 4:23 we may reasonably suppose that Moses had access to an older written account of Genesis). Joshua and Judges were written approx. 1500-1000 BC.
Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were written approx. 1050-900 BC. 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles cover the history of the kingdom from approx.1000-550 BC. Job was written approx. 2000 BC. Psalms were written and compiled approx. 1000-450 BC. Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum and Zephaniah were written approx. 800-700 BC. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel and Habakkuk were written 640-540 BC.
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were written 600-450 BC.
The translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) into Koine Greek was completed around 180 BC and is known as the Septuagint. This contains all the books that appear in the Old Testament in our Bibles today and shows that the books of the Hebrew Bible were agreed upon by that time. Officially, the Hebrew Canon was closed at the Council of Jamnia c. AD 90.
The Septuagint contains extra books that the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic text) does not. These are called the apocrypha. The apocrypha are books that the Jews do not accept as Scripture, but view as historically important.
The Hebrew or Masoretic text is the text used for the translation of the King James or Authorised Version of the English Bible.
The Jewish scribes were meticulous about the copying of scripture and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls between 1947 and 1979 dating back to at least 200BC have confirmed the accuracy of the Hebrew text that we have.
The New Testament
The New Testament consists of 27 books, written in Koine Greek by various authors between about AD45 and AD100, and collated into a single volume within the next two and a half centuries. The earliest listing that we have of the New Testament Canon as it exists today is one by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in c. AD 367. Early ‘Christian’ works that presented themselves as ‘authentic’ but did not obtain general acceptance from within the churches are called New Testament apocrypha.
Familiarity with scripture generally makes apparent the inferiority of both Old and New Testament apocrypha.
Though the original writings of the New Testament no longer exist, having been destroyed by the processes of time, it has been preserved in God's providence by copies being made, first of the originals and then later copies of the copies and so on through the centuries.
The earliest complete copy of the New Testament that we have was made about 300 years after the New Testament was written, although manuscripts of some parts have been found that were copied less than 100 years after the originals were written.
For the first 1500 years of copying, copies had to be made by hand. This means that all the types of errors that can creep into handwritten copies can be found in the manuscripts of the New Testament. Over 5000 Greek manuscripts exist (not to mention various versions translated into other languages), more than any other document of antiquity. So we have enough copies to establish the original reading with a reasonable degree of certainty.
The King James English translation from the Hebrew and Greek was made in AD 1611.
Despite the discovery of more manuscripts since the translation was made, nothing has been found which calls into question any New Testament doctrine.
The correlation of the Old and New Testaments
The New Testament writers make clear that they are building on the foundation of the Old. There are at least 278 different Old Testament verses cited in the New Testament: 94 from the Pentateuch, 99 from the Prophets, and 85 from the Writings. Of the 22 books in the Hebrew Canon only 6 (Judges-Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra-Nehemlah, Chronicles) are not explicitly referred to.
The Bible claim
The Bible claims (as you rightly say) to be written by inspiration of God and its contents, particularly prophecies, bear out its authenticity.
The Bible explains why we die (Because Adam disobeyed God) and how we can be saved by resurrection from the dead if we believe the gospel and are baptised into Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is able to reverse the death sentence on those that believe because he lived a life without sin and voluntarily gave himself up to a cruel death to redeem us.
There is no other book like the Bible that promises eternal life to those who read it and respond to God’s promises contained in it. There is no salvation for mankind other than through Jesus Christ and this information is only available in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of prophecies concerning the Messiah (Greek - Christ) that was to come and the New Testament shows how all is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
We do ourselves a great disservice if we do not take the time to read it and weigh up what it says.
I hope you have found this helpful.
May God bless you,