Do not Add to His Words: Thoughts on the New Testament Canon27 January 2015
Joel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.
Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)
There are people today who would claim this to be an authentic saying of Jesus Christ and that the book it comes from, the Gospel of Thomas, should be included in the Bible. As Christians, how do we know that Thomas and other gospels are not proper parts of the canon? How do we know that the 27 books we read are genuine, reliable, and really should be the only ones included? Is our canon missing books?
Again, these are questions many of us who are committed Evangelicals fear to ask, and when we search out the subject we often stay as close as possible to our favorite Bible teachers. There are, however, some hard truths about the canon of the New Testament and the authority of the Scriptures, truths we rarely face. And this reticence prevents us from being completely faithful to the Bible and Christ.
In the previous article we examined the Old Testament in light of the Apocrypha and Septuagint. In this essay we will examine the character of the canon of the New Testament and the authority of Scripture.
If Anyone Adds to Them…
When we are asked to explain or defend our canon of Scripture sometimes these verses come out in the discussion:
Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar. (Pr 30:5,6)
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev 22:18,19)
This type of argument convinces very few skeptics. “This book” in Revelation refers to the whole Canon? Why not for Proverbs, then? Have we sinned by adding books beyond Solomon’s writings? How about earlier than this? Have we sinned in adding books to the canon after the closing of the Law? After all, there is the stern warning in Deuteronomy:
You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. (Deut 4:2)
If we apply the same reasoning, then both Christians and Jews are sinning! Using our own logic, the canon of Scripture should only have five books in it. On this basis, the Samaritans, a small community that lives in modern Israel, are the only faithful ones, since they only hold to the first five books of the Bible as canonical.
These passages, which warn against the changing the word of God, really give no clue as to which books should be accepted as inspired.