I think most Christians assume that the Bible is a monolithic entity, like a seamless cloth or a fissure-free rock.
We may know that there are in fact 66 books, but we view these as essentially different chapters of the same, single book. We may know that there were different human authors in different time periods and cultural settings, but we view this as effectively irrelevant—every book has the same divine author behind them, and that’s what really matters. And since this divine author produced every jot and tittle in the book, every statement is important, even every word.
For most Christians, in other words, the Bible is a “flat” text: it’s all from God, so you can’t elevate any passages or books above any others, or ignore any passages or books either. It’s all inspired by God, so it’s all equally important—and we need this “whole counsel of God.”
In theory, that is. In practice no Christians actually do this. Every Christian prioritizes some biblical texts or themes above others, whether unknowingly or through some elaborate theological justification. But most won’t admit they do—no one wants to be accused of having a “canon within the canon.”
Well, I’m here to admit to my own “canon within the canon,” and to declare that this is actually okay. In fact, I think the Bible itself points us to this. Here are three reasons why I think “all Scripture is inspired by God” cannot mean that “all Scripture is equally important.”
First, the New Testament authors don’t use all Scripture equally.
Estimates of New Testament citations of the Old Testament vary—there are no quotation marks in the Greek text, so sometimes it can be hard enough to tell for certain that something is a direct quotation, let alone a more indirect allusion. One good estimate, though, is from the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (4th edition): 343 direct quotations of some portion of the Old Testament, and 2,309 allusions and verbal parallels to Old Testament texts.
Here’s what’s interesting: there are some clear patterns in all these quotations and allusions, patterns that show that some Old Testament books and ideas were more significant to the New Testament authors than others.
The top five most-used books? By a pretty fair margin it’s the Psalms and Isaiah, followed by Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Some of these are, of course, longer books, so you’d expect more quotations from them. But other lengthy Old Testament books are further down the list, not cited nearly as often, including Leviticus and Numbers, Samuel and Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, Job and Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
But it’s not just that some Old Testament books are cited much more frequently. It’s the way in which they are cited, the particular passages that are used, and how these fit within the New Testament texts.
The “in the beginning” of creation, the creation of humanity “in God’s image,” the Abrahamic covenant, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, the “love your neighbour” command, the “love God” command, the Davidic and Royal Psalms, the “Servant” and “Good News” passages of Isaiah—these are some of the texts and stories and themes that show up over and over again in the New Testament, that shaped the theologies of the New Testament authors. These, in fact, are what provide the basic plot points of a larger narrative that underlies much early Christian theology.
Other Old Testament passages, including some that many Christians today really like—the “days” of Creation, the Flood story, most of the particular laws of Moses, the Conquest narrative, specific stories of Israel’s kings—these get hardly a mention in the New Testament.
In other words, the New Testament authors prioritized some books and passages over others in their own Scriptures, our Old Testament. They had a “canon within the canon”—a set of biblical texts and themes that stood out from the rest as more significant.
Second, the Gospels portray Jesus as reading Scripture in a selective way, a way that points to himself.
This follows much the same pattern as the rest of the New Testament noted above. In the Gospels Jesus’ ministry is cast primarily in the light of the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms of David. Other prophets—both storied prophets like Elisha and writing prophets like Daniel (especially Daniel’s “son of man”)—also get a strong nod. The Creation of humanity, the Abrahamic covenant, and Moses and the Exodus are important for shaping the life and teachings of Jesus, though these are mostly filtered through the lens of how Isaiah used these stories and themes.
But specific laws of Moses? By and large these are cited by Jesus only to qualify them in some way, or to offer a different interpretation of them than Jesus’ opponents, or even to overturn them entirely if they don’t fit within Jesus’ larger understanding of what God was doing in the world through him. The major exceptions to this? The commands to love God and neighbour.
All this means that when Luke says that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to the disciples the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” this can’t mean that Jesus is behind every rock or shadow in Scripture. Or that when Matthew says that Jesus has “not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” that “not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” this can’t mean that every command of Moses must be directly applicable to Jesus’ followers.
Third, the New Testament describes Jesus, not Scripture, as the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity.
The New Testament writings are remarkably unified on this, though they describe this in different ways.
There’s Matthew, picturing the resurrected Jesus as having “all authority in heaven and on earth” and so calling disciples to “obey everything he has commanded” in his teachings—indeed, his teachings are the “rock” upon which his followers are to build their lives. There’s John, calling Jesus the eternal “Word of God” made flesh, the one who has made the invisible God known to humanity, and decrying those who “diligently search the Scriptures” to find salvation without realizing that Jesus, the True and Living Way, stands among them.
There’s Paul, describing the gospel of Jesus the crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord as “of first importance” and the basis of salvation, and declaring Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God” who has supremacy above all things. There’s Hebrews, depicting Jesus as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his very being,” the one through whom God has authoritatively spoken in these last days, even in distinction from the Hebrew prophets of old. There’s Revelation, portraying Jesus as the one who speaks God’s word like a sword, bringing encouragement to God’s people and judgment on God’s beastly, death-dealing enemies.
All these New Testament depictions of Jesus point to the same conclusion: Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity, not anything else, not even Scripture. This means, then, that as Christians we read Scripture in order to know Jesus, and then we strive to follow this Jesus whom Scripture has revealed. And this in turn means that there is a natural prioritization within the Bible: those texts that more clearly and directly speak of Jesus have greater priority for Christians than those that speak of Jesus less clearly and directly.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). We can potentially learn good things for a godly life from any passage in Scripture.
But in terms of fundamentally shaping our worldview, our theology, the essential framework of our faith? In terms of providing the basic lens through which we even read the rest of Scripture? The Bible itself points to a layered “canon within the canon”: first, the New Testament descriptions and interpretations of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and second, the Old Testament texts and stories and themes that shaped these New Testament understandings of Jesus.
That’s my “canon within the canon,” and I’m not afraid to admit it.
A few extra notes on this:
1) What I’ve described, of course, is a Christian way of reading the Christian Bible. However, most of the Christian Bible (our “Old Testament”) is also the Jewish Scriptures, the Tanakh, and Jews will naturally read their Scriptures differently than Christians. Although I think the “canon within the canon” approach I’ve described above makes the best sense as a Christian, I see great value in the approach that many Jews take to their Scriptures. A common Jewish approach is not to take the Scriptures as a “flat,” monolithic text either, but rather to see the various biblical texts as diverse voices, even sometimes conflicting voices, within a conversation that we as readers are invited to participate in and learn from.
2) Yes, the “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is the Jewish Scriptures, essentially the Christian Old Testament. However, I think the basic idea applies to all the ancient human writings the historic Church has identified as “Scripture,” including our New Testament: they are all “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” and therefore “useful” for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training” in the way of God. However, I also think the same basic prioritization I’ve described here also applies to the New Testament: the New Testament writings do not equally clearly or directly point to the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.
3) For a more scholarly sketch of my approach to these things from a different angle, see my book chapter called “Scripture and Tradition: Seeking a Middle Path.”
Second image: James Tissot, “Sermon of the Beatitudes”