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The Standard for Canonization

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    The Standard for Canonization

    by James Stuart Bell and Tracy Sumner

    The early church fathers — those second- and third-century writers and teachers who took the place of the apostles as leaders in the church — knew they needed to figure out which of the many books and letters available from various sources belonged in their collection of accepted readings — also known as the canon.

    The church fathers believed that the only requirement for inclusion in the canon was that the books and letters be inspired — specifically inspired by God — meaning that they were the words God would speak to them if He were to allow His voice to be heard in the congregations.

    The obvious problem with that kind of test was figuring out how a book or letter — and there were many of them to choose from — was truly inspired by God. It didn't take too long before the early church fathers realized that they would need other tests in order to decide on the canon of Scripture.

    One of those tests for canonizing a book or letter was whether it was written by an apostle or someone who was close to an apostle. So the books by the apostles Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul were included. Luke the physician, who wrote the gospel that bears his name as well as the Acts of the Apostles, was not an apostle. However, he had a very close relationship with the apostle Paul and even traveled with him during his missionary journeys. For that reason, two of his writings ended up as part of the New Testament we have today.

    Gradually, over the course of centuries, the canon developed. It is believed that by about A.D. 175, the canon included essentially the same books as our present day New Testament. By the year 200 the church widely accepted this list as canonical, and it was used widely in church services. Clement, the Bishop of Alexandria, recognized the books, as did many other church leaders of his time.

    Still, it would be nearly 200 years before the canon of Scripture was officially recognized. In the year 397 a meeting of church leaders, called the Third Council of Carthage (modern-day Tunis) — it wasn';t actually a general council but a regional council of African bishops, heavily influenced by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo — acknowledged the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we know them today. Most of the books had already been treated as Scripture for years, but around a half dozen books needed further discussion for final acceptance.

    While the Third Council of Carthage acknowledged the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we now have them, it wasn';t until the Council of Chalcedon that the canon was officially accepted and approved by the church. Interestingly enough, there were several books included in the canon at the Third Council of Carthage that can no longer be found in modern-day Bibles — with the exception of some Catholic Bibles. These other books — known as the Apocrypha — were included in the original King James Bible but were removed in 1885, leaving the sixty-six books we have today.

    Not long after the canon was officially recognized at the third Council of Carthage and adopted at the Council of Chalcedon, another historic milestone concerning the Bible took place. On or around the year 400, the entire Bible was translated, primarily by a Christian leader named Jerome (340–420), into Latin. This version was known as the “Vulgate” which means “written in the language of the people.” Since that time, the Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages and dozens of versions or translations, some of which got the translators in major hot water with the ruling religious authorities of the time.
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