Christian Biblical Canons
A Christian biblical canon is the set of books that a particular Christian denomination or denominational family regards as being divinely inspired and thus constituting an authorised Christian Bible. Such bibles are always divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Early Church primarily used the Greek Septuagint (or LXX) as its source for the Old Testament. Among Aramaic speakers, the Targum was also widely used. The apostles did not leave a defined set of scriptures; instead the canon of both the Old Testament and the New Testament developed over time.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the New Testament describes the process of assembling the histories and letters circulated within the early Church until the canon was approved by a series of councils seeking to ensure legitimacy as inspired scripture:
The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council.
Fifty Bibles of Constantine
In 331, Constantine I commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Those codices contain almost a full version of the Septuagint; Vaticanus is only lacking 1–3 Maccabees and Sinaiticus is lacking 2–3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.
There is no evidence among the canons of the First Council of Nicaea of any determination on the canon, however, Jerome (347-420), in his Prologue to Judith, makes the claim that the Book of Judith was “found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures”.
The Vulgate Bible
Pope Damasus’s commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West. This list, given below, was purportedly endorsed by Pope Damasus I:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth, 4 books of Kings, 2 books of Chronicles, Job, Psalter of David, 5 books of Solomon, 12 books of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 2 books of Esdras, 2 books of Maccabees, and in the New Testament: 4 books of Gospels, 1 book of Acts of the Apostles, 13 letters of the Apostle Paul, 1 of him to the Hebrews, 2 of Peter, 3 of John, 1 of James, 1 of Jude, and the Apocalypse of John.
The two books of Esdras refer to the books of 1 Esdras and Ezra–Nehemiah, which are entitled ‘First Ezra’ and ‘Second Ezra’ in the Old Latin bible; corresponding to the two books ‘Esdras A’ and ‘Esdras B’ of the Septuagint version. Jerome, as the author of the Vulgate, in the preface of the Books of Samuel and Kings explains the following: “To the third class belong the Hagiographa, of which the first book begins with Job … the eighth, Ezra, which itself is likewise divided amongst Greeks and Latins into two books; the ninth is Esther.”
Pope Damasus I is often considered to be the father of the Catholic canon. Purporting to date from a “Council of Rome” under Pope Damasus I in 382, the so-called “Damasian list” appended to the Decretum Gelasianumgives a list differing from that which would be the accepted by Canon of Trent only in including 1 Esdras as canonical, and, though the text may in fact not be Damasian, it is at least a valuable sixth century compilation.The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states that, “A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the ‘Gelasian Decree’ because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent.”
Augustine and the North African councils
Augustine of Hippo declared without qualification that one is to “prefer those that are received by all Catholic Churches to those which some of them do not receive” (On Christian Doctrines 2.12). By “Catholic Churches” Augustine meant those who concurred in this judgment, since many Eastern Churches rejected some of the books Augustine upheld as universally received. In the same passage, Augustine asserted that these dissenting churches should be outweighed by the opinions of “the more numerous and weightier churches”, which would include Eastern Churches, the prestige of which Augustine stated moved him to include the Book of Hebrews among the canonical writings, though he had reservation about its authorship.
Augustine called three synods on canonicity: the Synod of Hippo in 393, the Council of Carthage (397), and the Council of Carthage (419). (M 237-8). Each of these reiterated the same Church law: “nothing shall be read in church under the name of the divine scriptures” except the Old Testament (arguably including the books later called Deuterocanonicals) and the canonical books of the New Testament. These decrees also declared by fiat that Epistle to the Hebrews was written by Paul, for a time ending all debate on the subject.
Philip Schaff says that “the council of Hippo in 393, and the third (according to another reckoning the sixth) council of Carthage in 397, under the influence of Augustine, who attended both, fixed the catholic canon of the Holy Scriptures, including the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, … This decision of the transmarine church however, was subject to ratification; and the concurrence of the Roman see it received when Innocent I and Gelasius I (A.D. 414) repeated the same index of biblical books. This canon remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session.” According to Lee Martin McDonald, the Revelation was added to the list in 419. These councils were convened under the influence of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.
A consensus emerges
The division of opinion over the canon was not over the core, but over the “fringe”, and from the fourth century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and by the fifth century the East, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon, at least for the New Testament.
This period marks the beginning of a more widely recognized canon, although the inclusion of some books was still debated: Epistle to Hebrews, James, 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. Grounds for debate included the question of authorship of these books (note that the so-called Damasian “Council at Rome” had already rejected John the Apostle’s authorship of 2 and 3 John, while retaining the books), their suitability for use (Revelation at that time was already being interpreted in a wide variety of heretical ways), and how widely they were actually being used (2 Peter being amongst the most weakly attested of all the books in the Christian canon).
Christian scholars assert that when these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new, but instead “were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church”.
The Eastern Churches had, in general, a weaker feeling than those in the West for the necessity of making a sharp delineation with regard to the canon. They were more conscious of the gradation of spiritual quality among the books that they accepted (e.g. the classification of Eusebius, see also Antilegomena) and were less often disposed to assert that the books which they rejected possessed no spiritual quality at all. For example, the Trullan Synod of 691–692, which was rejected by Pope Constantine (see also Pentarchy), endorsed the following lists of canonical writings: the Apostolic Canons (c. 385), the Synod of Laodicea (c. 363), the Third Synod of Carthage (c. 397), and the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (367). And yet, these lists do not agree. Similarly, the New Testament canons of the Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches all have minor differences.The Revelation of John is one of the most uncertain books; it was not translated into Georgian until the 10th century, and it has never been included in the official lectionary of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whether in Byzantine or modern times.
The Peshitta is the standard version of the Bible for churches in the Syriac tradition. Most of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament are found in the Syriac, and the Wisdom of Sirach is held to have been translated from the Hebrew and not from the Septuagint. This New Testament, originally excluding certain disputed books (2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation), had become a standard by the early 5th century. The five excluded books were added in the Harklean Version (616 AD) of Thomas of Harqel.
The standard United Bible Societies 1905 edition of the New Testament of the Peshitta was based on editions prepared by Syriacists Philip E. Pusey (d.1880), George Gwilliam (d.1914) and John Gwyn. All twenty seven books of the common western canon of the New Testament are included in this British & Foreign Bible Society’s 1905 Peshitta edition.
The Armenian Bible introduces one addition: a third letter to the Corinthians, also found in the Acts of Paul, which became canonized in the Armenian Church, but is not part of the Armenian Bible today. Revelation, however, was not accepted into the Armenian Bible until c. 1200 AD. when Archbishop Nerses arranged an Armenian Synod at Constantinople to introduce the text. Still, there were unsuccessful attempts even as late as 1290 AD to include in the Armenian canon several apocryphal books: Advice of the Mother of God to the Apostles, the Books of Criapos, and the ever-popular Epistle of Barnabas.
The Armenian Apostolic church at times has included the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs in its Old Testament and the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, but does not always list it with the other 27 canonical New Testament books.
East African canons
- The New Testament of the Coptic Bible, adopted by the Egyptian Church, includes the two Epistles of Clement.
- The canon of the Tewahedo Churches is somewhat looser than for other traditional Christian groups, and the order, naming, and chapter/verse division of some of the books is also slightly different.
- The Ethiopian “narrow” canon includes 81 books altogether: The 27 book New Testament; those Old Testament books found in the Septuagint and accepted by the Orthodox; as well as Enoch, Jubilees, 2 Esdras, Rest of the Words of Baruch and 3 books of Meqabyan (these three Ethiopian books of Maccabees are entirely different in content from the four Books of Maccabees known elsewhere).
- The “broader” Ethiopian New Testament canon includes four books of “Sinodos” (church practices), two “Books of Covenant”, “Ethiopic Clement”, and “Ethiopic Didascalia” (Apostolic Church-Ordinances). However, these books have never been printed or widely studied. This “broader” canon is also sometimes said to include, with the Old Testament, an eight-part history of the Jews based on the writings of Flavius Josephus, and known as “Pseudo-Josephus” or “Joseph ben Gurion” (Yosēf walda Koryon).
Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the Council of Florence (1439–1443). During the life, and with the approval of this council, Eugenius IV issued several Bulls, or decrees, with a view to restore the Oriental schismatic bodies to communion with Rome, and according to the common teaching of theologians these documents are infallible statements of doctrine. The “Decretum pro Jacobitis” contains a complete list of the books received by the Church as inspired, but omits, perhaps advisedly, the terms canon and canonical. The Council of Florence therefore taught the inspiration of all the Scriptures, but did not formally pass on their canonicity.
It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone (the doctrine of sola scriptura) that it became necessary to establish a dogmatic canon.
Martin Luther was troubled by four New Testament books: Jude, James, Hebrews, and Revelation; and though he placed them in a secondary position relative to the rest, he did not exclude them. Martin Luther proposed removing these Antilegomena, the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon, echoing the consensus of some Catholics such as Cardinal Cajetan and Erasmus, and partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola gratia and sola fide, but this was not generally accepted among his followers. However, these books are ordered last in the German-language Luther Bible to this day. Luther also removed the so-called “deuterocanonical” books from the Old Testament of his translation of the Bible, placing them in the “Apocrypha, that are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read”.
Council of Trent
In light of Martin Luther’s demands, the Council of Trent on 8 April 1546 approved the present Catholic Bible canon, which includes the Deuterocanonical Books, and the decision was confirmed by an anathema by vote (24 yea, 15 nay, 16 abstain). The council confirming the same list as produced at the Council of Florence in 1442, Augustine’s 397-419 Councils of Carthage, and probably Damasus’ 382 Council of Rome. The Old Testament books that had been rejected by Luther were later termed deuterocanonical, not indicating a lesser degree of inspiration, but a later time of final approval. Beyond these books, the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate contained in the Appendix several books considered as apocryphal by the council: Prayer of Manasseh, 3 Esdras, and 4 Esdras.
Several Protestant confessions of faith identify the 27 books of the New Testament canon by name, including the French Confession of Faith (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession of Faith(1647). The Thirty-Nine Articles, issued by the Church of England in 1563, names the books of the Old Testament, but not the New Testament. The Belgic Confession and Westminster Confession named the 39 books in the Old Testament and, apart from the aforementioned New Testament books, expressly rejected the canonicity of any others.
The Lutheran Epitome of the Formula of Concord of 1577 declared that the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures comprised the Old and New Testaments alone. Luther himself did not accept the canonicity of the Apocryphaalthough he believed that its books were “Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read”.
Synod of Jerusalem
The Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 decreed the Greek Orthodox Canon which is similar to the one decided by the Council of Trent. The Eastern Orthodox Church generally consider the Septuagint is the received version of Old Testament scripture, considered itself inspired in agreement with some of the Fathers, such as St Augustine, followed by all other modern translations. They use the word Anagignoskomena (Ἀναγιγνωσκόμενα “readable, worthy to be read”) to describe the books of the Greek Septuagint that are not present in the Hebrew Tanakh. The Eastern Orthodox books of the Old Testament include the Roman Catholic deuterocanonical books, plus 3 Maccabees and 1 Esdras (also included in the Clementine Vulgate), while Baruch is divided from the Epistle of Jeremiah, making a total of 49 Old Testament books in contrast with the Protestant 39-book canon. Other texts printed in Orthodox Bibles are considered of some value (like the additional Psalm 151, and the Prayer of Manasseh) or are included as an appendix (like the Greek 4 Maccabees, and the Slavonic 2 Esdras).
Most of the Old Testament books of the Protestant Apocrypha are called deuterocanonical by Catholics per the Council of Trent, and all of them are called anagignoskomena by the Eastern Orthodox per the Synod of Jerusalem. The Anglican Communion accepts “the Apocrypha for instruction in life and manners, but not for the establishment of doctrine”, and many “lectionary readings in The Book of Common Prayer are taken from the Apocrypha”, with these lessons being “read in the same ways as those from the Old Testament”. The Protestant Apocrypha contains three books (3 Esdras, 4 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh) that are accepted by many Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches as canonical, but are regarded as non-canonical by the Catholic Church and are therefore not included in modern Catholic Bibles.
Various books that were never canonized by any church, but are known to have existed in antiquity, are similar to the New Testament and often claim apostolic authorship, are known as the New Testament apocrypha. Some of these writings have been cited as scripture by early Christians, but since the fifth century a widespread consensus has emerged limiting the New Testament to the 27 books of the modern canon. Thus Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches generally do not view these New Testament apocrypha as part of the Bible.
Today, most biblical compilations comply with either the standards set forth by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1825 which corresponds to the Protestant Bible, or with one that includes the deuterocanonical books prescribed for Catholic Bibles and the anagignoskomena for Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bibles.
Other common variations include the pocket-sized Gideons International versions that include the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs although the selection of books for inclusion does not comprise a canon.
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company..
- Apol. Const. 4
- Martin Hengel (2004), Septuagint As Christian Scripture, A&C Black, p. 57, ISBN9780567082879
- The Canon Debate, pages 414-415, for the entire paragraph
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.: Canonicity: “…”the Synod of Nicaea is said to have accounted it as Sacred Scripture” (Praef. in Lib.). It is true that no such declaration is to be found in the Canons of Nicaea, and it is uncertain whether St. Jerome is referring to the use made of the book in the discussions of the council, or whether he was misled by some spurious canons attributed to that council”.
- Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. InterVarsity Press. p. 225.
- Jerome: The Principal Works of St. Jerome, CCEL
- Decretum Gelasianum
- Lindberg (2006). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing. p. 15.
- Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. p. 234.
- The “Damasian Canon” was published by C. H. Turner in JTS, vol. 1, 1900, pp. 554–560.
- F.L. Cross, E.A. Livingstone, ed. (1983), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 232
- Corey Keating, The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon.
- Philip Schaff, “Chapter IX. Theological Controversies, and Development of the Ecumenical Orthodoxy”, History of the Christian Church, CCEL
- McDonald & Sanders’ The Canon Debate, Appendix D-2, note 19: “Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod of Carthage.”
- Ferguson, Everett. “Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon”, in The Canon Debate, eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002) p. 320
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 230
- cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 22.8.
- Lee M. MacDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 1995, p 132
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 215
- P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds. (1970). The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1). Cambridge University Press. p. 305.
- Metzger, Bruce (1987). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon. pp. 237–238.
- Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. p. 97.
- Metzger, Bruce M. (1987). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Syriac Versions of the Bible by Thomas Nicol
- Geoffrey W. Bromiley The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Q-Z 1995– Page 976 “Printed editions of the Peshitta frequently contain these books in order to fill the gaps. D. Harklean Version. The Harklean version is connected with the labors of Thomas of Harqel. When thousands were fleeing Khosrou’s invading armies, …”
- Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium: Subsidia Catholic University of America, 1987 “37 ff. The project was founded by Philip E. Pusey who started the collation work in 1872. However, he could not see it to completion since he died in 1880. Gwilliam,
- “Reliability”. Theological Perspectives. Archived from the originalon 2009-06-15.
- Ethiopian Canon, Islamic Awareness.
- “Fathers”. Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL).
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. section titled “The Council of Florence 1442”.
- “Martin Luther”. Archived from the original on 2008-03-22.
- “Luther’s Treatment of the ‘Disputed Books’ of the New Testament”.
- “Gedruckte Ausgaben der Lutherbibel von 1545”. Archived from the original on 2001-05-14. note order: …Hebräer, Jakobus, Judas, Offenbarung
- “German Bible Versions”.
- Fallows, Samuel; et al., eds. (1910) . The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopædia and Scriptural Dictionary, Fully Defining and Explaining All Religious Terms, Including Biographical, Geographical, Historical, Archæological and Doctrinal Themes. The Howard-Severance co. p. 521.
- Metzger, Bruce M. (March 13, 1997). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford University Press. p. 246. ISBN0-19-826954-4.
Finally on 8 April 1546, by a vote of 24 to 15, with 16 abstensions, the Council issued a decree (De Canonicis Scripturis) in which, for the first time in the history of the Church, the question of the contents of the Bible was made an absolute article of faith and confirmed by an anathema.
- “Council of Basel 1431-45 A”. Papalencyclicals.net. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
- Praefatio, Biblia Sacra Vulgata, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart 1983, p. XX. ISBN3-438-05303-9
- Schaff, Philip. Creeds of the Evangelical Protestant Churches, French Confession of Faith, p. 361
- Belgic Confession 4. Canonical Books of the Holy Scripture
- The Westminster Confession rejected the canonicity of the Apocrypha stating that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646
- Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Volume 3, p. 98 James L. Schaaf, trans. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–1993. ISBN0-8006-2813-6
- Schaff’s Creeds
- “The Orthodox Study Bible” 2008, Thomas Nelson Inc. p. XI
- S. T. Kimbrough (2005). Orthodox And Wesleyan Scriptual Understanding And Practice. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. p. 23. ISBN978-0-88141-301-4.
- Ewert, David (11 May 2010). A General Introduction to the Bible: From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations. Zondervan. p. 104. ISBN9780310872436.
- Thomas, Owen C.; Wondra, Ellen K. (1 July 2002). Introduction to Theology, 3rd Edition. Church Publishing, Inc. p. 56. ISBN9780819218971.
- Henze, Matthias; Boccaccini, Gabriele (20 November 2013). Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch: Reconstruction after the Fall. Brill. p. 383. ISBN9789004258815.
- Van Liere, Frans (2014). An Introduction to the Medieval Bible. Cambridge University Press. pp. 68–69.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. pp. 230–231.
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