Why the Bible Is Reliable

Why should I trust the Bible? I've heard experts say that the "canon" of Scripture was actually patched together at a relatively late date by politically driven church councils and ecclesiastical leaders who had agendas of their own to promote. What led these people to include certain books and reject others (the so-called "Apocrypha")? Why should I trust their judgment?

It’s easy to see how those who want to discredit the Bible might ask, “Which came first: the Bible or the church?” But this way of framing the issue is misleading and overly simplistic.

Yes, it took three or four hundred years for the councils of the church to draw up official documents listing the specific books they wanted to include in the approved “canon” of the New Testament. But the church didn’t invent those books. They had all been in existence since the first few decades after Jesus’ death. What’s more, they were all accepted as authoritative and used regularly in worship by congregations across the Greco-Roman world. All this had been going on for a long time before the gathering of the Chalcedonian or Nicaean councils. What the councils did was simply to ratify what Christians had always believed. To say this another way, the books of the New Testament do not owe their authority to any human agency. That authority rises organically out of what these books are in and of themselves: living depositories of the apostles’ witness to Christ.

We should add that the councils of Chalcedon and Niceaea were not “political” in nature. They were convened to deal with divisive theological issues of the day. At these gatherings, the early church fathers painstakingly examined each and every one of the New Testament books. They evaluated them on the basis of a long list of criteria and tests for authenticity and reliability. Included in that list were such factors as authorship, date, theological content, historical tradition, and ecclesiastical practice. There was a great deal of discussion and debate on every side. No decision was made without reference to the consensus of the broader Christian community. The books of the Old Testament were received on the authority of rabbinic scholars who had devoted their lives to preserving the ancient Hebrew text down through the centuries – every jot and tittle of it.

Where the Old Testament Apocrypha is concerned – for example, Tobit, Wisdom, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Judith – it is important to understand that these books have no basis in the authoritative Masoretic Hebrew text. They are found only in the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament produced by Jewish scholars at Alexandria in the 3rd century, B.C. This is why Protestant scholars chose to leave the Apocrypha out of the Old Testament canon. They were concerned to sift out human tradition and “get back to basics.” Roman Catholics, on the other hand, retain the Apocrypha in their Bibles to the present day. This does not necessarily imply that Protestants consider the content of the apocryphal books to be “heretical” or “false.” It simply means that they have doubts about their origins and authorship.

Apocryphal New Testament books, such as the Gospels of Thomas and Judas, were refused admission to the canon for two primary reasons: 1) their late date and doubtful claims to apostolic authorship (Thomas, for instance, was not composed until the 3rd century A.D.); and 2) doctrinal problems. Most of these writings promote a Gnostic form of theology, which is clearly incompatible with the perspective of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter.

Needless to say, this is a vast and complicated subject. We can’t possibly do it justice here. If you really want to know more about the formation of the canon, we’d recommend that you engage in some serious study of the early centuries of the church. Among the many books that might be consulted in this area, you may want to check out a volume entitled Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study, by Robert Laird Harris (part of the Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives series published by Zondervan). This resource is available through online booksellers and at many local Christian bookstores.

If you have further questions, or if you’d simply like to discuss your concerns at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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