Canonization: Part 1

Canonization is an important area of study for the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition because both place a strong emphasis on their sacred writings. The Jewish tradition points to the Hebrew scriptures as the inspired words of God, and the Christian tradition points to the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings as the inspired words of God. From a Christian perspective, the study of canonization focuses on the recognition process of these two sacred bodies of writings as the inspired words of God. In order to understand this process of how the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings were recognized as God’s written words, the concept of the canon of scripture should be explained.  

Definition of the Canon of Scripture

The ancient Jews would not have used the word canon when referring to their sacred writings, but the concept of a divine standard when applied to the Hebrew scriptures would have been present in the form of titles such as “The Sacred Writings”, “Authoritative Writings” or “The Books that Defile the Hands;”[1] Nevertheless, the Hebrew language had an influence on the development of concept of the canon of scripture. The english word canon, originally derived from the Hebrew word קָנֶה (qaneh) defined as “stalk” or “reed.”[2] In Hebrew culture some reeds were used for measuring, so the word developed the meaning of “rule.”[3] From the Hebrew קָנֶה (qaneh) was derived the greek word κανών (kanōn), which took on the developed idea of a “rule”, “norm” or “standard.”[4]

In the early church the word κανών (kanōn) referred to the summary of Christian teaching that was aligned with the teaching of the apostles, which was the standard by which all biblical interpretation and doctrine was to be held up against. Thus, it had a theological meaning as “the rule of faith” or “the rule of truth.”[5] By the 4th century BCE, κανών (kanōn) had a more technical meaning of a list of authoritative scripture or a standard collection or body of sacred writings.[6] F.F Bruce explains this close connect between these meanings by writing, “While the ‘canon’ of scripture means the list of books accepted as holy scripture, the other sense of ‘canon”━rule or standard━has rubbed off on this one, so that the ‘canon’ of scripture is understood to be the list of books which are acknowledged to be, in a unique sense, the rule of belief and practice.”[7]

Therefore, the canon of scripture in the present usage referring to the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings signifies a collection of holy writings that have been recognized as the inspired words of God and are the authoritative standard and measure in all matters of faith, life and conduct.

[1] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. Revised and Expanded ed. (Chicago, IL:, Moody Press, 1986), 204-205.

[2] Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. (Peabody, MA:, Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 591.

[3] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 101.

[4] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. rev. ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI:, Eerdmans, 1979-86), 591.

[5] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL:, 1988), 18.

[6] Geisler and Nix, A General, 204.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The Canon, 18.  

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