Development of The Christian Biblical Canon
For mainstream Pauline Christianity (growing from proto-orthodox Christianity in pre-Nicene times) which books constituted the Christian biblical canons of both the Old and New Testament was generally established by the 5th century, despite some scholarly disagreements, for the ancient undivided Church (the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, before the East–West Schism). The Catholic canon was set at the Council of Rome (382), the same Council commissioned Jerome to compile and translate those canonical texts into the Latin Vulgate Bible. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent (1546) affirmed the Vulgate as the official Catholic Bible in order to address changes Martin Luther made in his recently completed German translation which was based on the original Greek of the component texts. The canons of the Church of England and English Presbyterians were decided definitively by the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), respectively. The Synod of Jerusalem (1672) established additional canons that are widely accepted throughout the Orthodox Church.
Various forms of Jewish Christianity persisted until around the fifth century, and canonicalized very different sets of books, including Jewish–Christian gospels which have been lost to history. These and many other works are classified as New Testament apocrypha by Pauline denominations.
The Old and New Testament canons did not develop independently of each other and most primary sources for the canon specify both Old and New Testament books. For the biblical scripture for both Testaments, canonically accepted in major traditions of Christendom, see Biblical canon § Canons of various Christian traditions.
Development of the Old Testament canon
Main article: Development of the Old Testament canon
The Old Testament includes the books of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) or protocanon, and in various Christian denominations also includes deuterocanonical books. Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants use different canons, which differ with respect to the texts that are included in the Old Testament.
Martin Luther, holding to concurrent Jewish and some ancient precedent, placed the deuterocanonical books from the Old Testament of his translation of the Bible in a section he labeled “Apocrypha” (“hidden”). The Westminster Confession of Faith, published in 1647, was one of the first Reformed confessions in the English language to exclude the Apocrypha from the canon, leading to the removal of these books in later Protestant Bible publications in the English-speaking world. To counter the growing influence of the Reformers, the fourth session of the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 confirmed that the deuterocanonical books were equally authoritative as the protocanonical in the Canon of Trent, basing its refutation of Martin Luther’s depiction of the Apocryphal texts on the first published Christian canon which drew from the Septuagint texts used by the authors of the 27 Books of the New Testament. In compiling his index of the Old Testament, Luther drew from the 24 books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), which was still an open canon as late as 200 and probably even after the Catholic canon was set in 382. The Protestant Old Testament consists of the same books as the Hebrew Bible, but the order and division of the books are different. Protestants number the Old Testament books at 39, while the Hebrew Bible numbers the same books as 24. The Hebrew Bible counts Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as one book each, and the 12 minor prophets are one book, and also Ezra and Nehemiah form a single book.
The differences between the modern Hebrew Bible and other versions of the Old Testament such as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, the Greek Septuagint, the Ethiopian Bible and other canons, are more substantial. For a more comprehensive discussion of these differences, see Books of the Bible.
Table of books
Books of the Old Testament
Development of the New Testament canon
The development of the New Testament canon was, like that of the Old Testament, a gradual process.
Irenaeus (died c. 202) quotes and cites 21 books that would end up as part of the New Testament, but does not use Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude. By the early 3rd century Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books as in the modern New Testament, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation (see also Antilegomena). Likewise by 200 the Muratorian fragment shows that there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to what is now the New Testament, which included four gospels and argued against objections to them. Thus, while there was plenty of discussion in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the “major” writings were accepted by almost all Christian authorities by the middle of the second century.
The next two hundred years followed a similar process of continual discussion throughout the entire Church, and localized refinements of acceptance. This process was not yet complete at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, though substantial progress had been made by then. Though a list was clearly necessary to fulfill Constantine’s commission in 331 of fifty copies of the Bible for the Church at Constantinople, no concrete evidence exists to indicate that it was considered to be a formal canon. In the absence of a canonical list, the resolution of questions would normally have been directed through the see of Constantinople, in consultation with Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (who was given the commission), and perhaps other bishops who were available locally.
In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of exactly the same books that would formally become the New Testament canon, and he used the word “canonized” (kanonizomena) in regard to them. The first council that accepted the present Catholic canon (the Canon of Trent) was the Council of Rome, held by Pope Damasus I (382). A second council was held at the Synod of Hippo (393) reaffirming the previous council list. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Council of Carthage (397) and the Council of Carthage (419). These councils took place under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed. Pope Damasus I’s Council of Rome in 382, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical to that mentioned above, or if not the list is at least a 6th-century compilation claiming a 4th-century imprimatur. Likewise, Damasus’s commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West. In 405, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse. 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.” Thus, from the 5th century onward, the Western Church was unanimous concerning the New Testament canon.
The last book to be accepted universally was the Book of Revelation, though with time all the Eastern Church also agreed. Thus, by the 5th century, both the Western and Eastern churches had come into agreement on the matter of the New Testament canon. The Council of Trent of 1546 reaffirmed that finalization for Catholicism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England and the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for English presbyterians established the official finalizations for those new branches of Christianity in light of the Reformed faith. The Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 made no changes to the New Testament canon for any Orthodox, but resolved some questions about some of the minor Old Testament books for the Greek Orthodox and most other Orthodox jurisdictions (who chose to accept it).
Table of books
Books of the New Testament
- “Canon“, George J. Reid. In The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Charles George Herbermann (Robert Appleton Company, 1908) pp. 272, 273.
- “Decree of Council of Rome (AD 382) on the Biblical Canon”. Taylor Marshall. 2008-08-19. Retrieved 2019-12-01.
- Reig, George. “Canon of the Old Testament.”The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908).
- “Quotations in the New Testament. Crawford Howell Toy”. The Old Testament Student. 3 (9): 363–365. May 1884. doi:10.1086/469455. ISSN0190-5945.
- “Do the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes Belong in the Bible?”. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 2019-12-01.
- These are one book in the Jewish Bible, called “Trei Asar” or “Twelve”.
- Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments. (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1963) p. 109.
- Both points taken from Mark A. Noll’s Turning Points, (Baker Academic, 1997) pp. 36–37.
- H. J. De Jonge, “The New Testament Canon”, in The Biblical Canons. eds. de Jonge & J. M. Auwers (Leuven University Press, 2003) p. 315.
- The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1) eds. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge University Press, 1970) p. 308.
- Lindberg, Carter (2006). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing. p. 15. ISBN1-4051-1078-3.
- Brakke, David (October 1994). “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria’s Thirty-Ninth ‘Festal Letter‘“. The Harvard Theological Review. 87 (4): 395–419. doi:10.1017/S0017816000030200. JSTOR1509966.
- McDonald & Sanders’ The Canon Debate, Appendix D-2, note 19: “Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod of Carthage.”
- Everett Ferguson, “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 Dei22.8
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 234
- Burkitt, F. C. (1913). “The Decretum Gelasianum”. Journal of Theological Studies. 14: 469–471. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 225
- Everett Ferguson, “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, which cites: Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance(Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) pp. 237–238, and F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 97
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 215
- The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1) eds. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge University Press, 1970) p. 305; cf. the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Canon of the New Testament”
- Catholic Encyclopedia, “Canon of the New Testament”