Biblical canon

The canon (the group of books included in the Bible) is often taken for granted because the Bible itself does not contain any list or references as to what books should be considered inspired and thus included in the Bible.  It is often assumed that there may have been a list composed by the Apostles, but even a cursory look at history shows that this was not the case.  There were actually several competing lists among Christians that varied on which books they included.  When the early Church formally decided upon which books would be included in the New Testament, they used the following criteria to help determine what was Scripture:

1. Apostolic Origin:  Was the writing written during the apostolic era by an apostle or a close acquaintance?

2. Orthodoxy:  Did the writing conform with what had been taught to the early Church by the Apostles?

3. Universal Recognition:  Was the writing already accepted and used liturgically by the whole Church?

The above criteria can basically be summed up as Tradition.  After all, 1: before an Apostle could commit anything to writing, they first had to hear it from Jesus and any acquaintances would have had to hear it from an Apostle.  2: Before one can determine whether a writing is orthodox, one must first have been taught orthodoxy.  3:  Before determining the universal acceptance of a book, one would have to look at which books had been handed down as part of each church’s individual tradition.

Historically speaking, however, even the above criteria falls short.  For example, an even greater appeal to Tradition is required to answer issues in regards to Apostolic Origin when one considers that the Gospels were all written anonymously and the author of Hebrews is unknown; It is only through tradition that we know the authors of the Gospels.  In addition, as one will see, the question of what constitutes Scripture will ultimately require one to recognize and acquiesce to the Church’s final authority on the matter.

To illustrate this, it should be pointed out that not all of the books included in the New Testament were originally accepted by the entire church.  James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelations were all disputed in the early church and were given the name Antilegomena, or “disputed” books.  There were also some books included in these “disputed books” that ultimately did not make it into the final canon, although they were considered Scripture by many early Christians.  These included the Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.  They were 1: believed by the early Church to have been written by the Apostles themselves or by close acquaintances of the Apostles (Hermas is mentioned in Romans 16:14 and Clement in Philippians 4:3).  2: they were dated to the first century and some even pre-date books included in the Bible (for example, The Didache, Letter of Barnabas, and 1st Clement are all thought to predate 2 Peter, 2&3 John, and Revelations).  3: they were considered both orthodox and as Scripture by many in the early Church.  (For example, Dionysius of Corinth, in writing a letter to Pope Soter in 177 A.D., wrote that the Corinthians still read the Letter of Clement during their Sunday worship).

So, how did the early Church eventually decide what books to include in the Bible?  The decision ultimately came down to authority.  It was only by the authority given to it by Christ that the Church was able to author divinely inspired Scripture and so, naturally, it was also by this authority that the Church was able to authoritatively say which books were to be included in it’s canon of Scripture.  Without this authority, any list given would only be a ‘best guess’ and therefore could potentially include books that were not inspired or exclude books that were inspired.  Any resulting Bible, then, could not be considered divinely inspired because any one of it’s components may have been erroneously included… or it could lack divinely inspired cross references from erroneously excluded material.

So, who was this authority and how did it come to exist?  A close study of the Gospels makes it clear that Christ established a visible Church and appointed rightful leaders over it, beginning with the apostles. The apostles then appointed men to succeed them, also by divine design. The bishops of the Church trace their authority directly back to the apostles and therefore to Christ himself.  In the first century, the Holy Spirit inspired some men in the Church to write books about Christ, and the Church eventually codified them into the New Testament. The Church did not cause them to be authoritative–God did that when he inspired them—but then God guided his Church to know which books those were.  Alongside Scripture, God also imbued the Church with Tradition. This Tradition preceded Scripture since Christ never wrote anything down and never commanded the Apostles to write anything down.  What Christ did do was tell the Apostles to “go forth and make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything that I commanded you”  (Matt 28:19-20).  The Apostles then went forth and created disciples and taught them the fullness of truth, only resorting to written letters as situations demanded it and decades after Christ’s Ascension.  This ‘fullness of truth’ is what is referred to as Sacred Tradition, of which Scripture is only a part (although an important part).  It was only with the aid of Sacred Tradition and the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit that the Church was able to authoritatively say what books belong in the Bible.

Development of the
New Testament Canon:

Timeline of the Canon Development:

  • 50-100 A.D.  Books that now comprise the N.T. are written.
  • 50-100 A.D. Antilegomena, or “disputed” books, are written.  Early Church disagreed on the canonicity of these books.  Some of these would eventually be included in the N.T., while some would not.  (ex: Revelation, Jude, 2 Peter, 2nd & 3rd John, Hebrews, James, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas & the Didache).
  • 100-150 A.D.  “Apocrypha”, Christian writings, but were not considered inspired.  Not to be confused with Deuterocanon. Ex: Protoevangelium of James
  • 110 A.D. Papias of Hierapolis first to record the authors of the Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Gospels were written anonymously).
  • 140 A.D. Marcion of Sinope (Gnostic heretic) is first to propose a Christian canon. He included only 10 Pauline epistles and a highly edited version of Luke (known as the Gospel of Marcion).  He rejected the entire Old Testament.
  • 150 A.D. Justin Martyr mentions “memoirs of the apostles” as being read on “the day called that of the sun” (Sunday).
  • 150-300 A.D. Heretical writings, such as Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, are written
  • 170 A.D. The Muratorian fragment, the oldest known list of the N.T., does NOT  include James or 1st & 2nd Peter, but DOES includes the Apocalypse of Peter.  Dated about 170 because it refers to Pius I as the bishop of Rome.
  • 171 A.D. Dionysius of Corinth in a letter to Pope Soter says 1 Clement is read publicly 
  • 189 A.D. Irenaeus of Lyon quotes from 21 books of the current N.T., but does not use Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude.
  • 200 A.D. Clement of Alexandria quotes Epistle of Barnabas & Didache
  • 240 A.D. Origen lists all of the current N.T. except for James, 2nd Peter, and 2nd & 3rd John.  However, he DOES include the Shepherd of Hermas.
  • 300 A.D. 4th century list found in 6th century Codex Claromontanus includes Deuterocanon, Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Barnabas, & Hermas
  • 325 A.D. Eusebius divides Christian writings into four groups:  homologoumena (accepted), antilegomena (disputed), notha (rejected), & heretical 
  • 325 A.D. Codex Vaticanus lists most of N.T., but lacking 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. Includes most of Deuterocanon.
  • 350 A.D. Codex Sinaiticus includes the O.T. with deuterocanon, the entire N.T., and ALSO includes the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.
  • 363 A.D. the Synod of Laodicea lists current N.T., but omits Revelations.  Includes Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah in O.T.
  • 367 A.D. Athanasius of Alexandria lists the entire current N.T. and used the phrase “being canonized” (kanonizomena). He included Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and the Letter of Jeremiah in O.T., but does not include Esther.
  • 385 A.D. the Apostolic Canons includes 1 & 2 Clement, but NOT Revelation 
  • 382 A.D. Council of Rome, Pope Damasus issues the current Biblical canon including the deuterocanon. Commissions St. Jerome to translate Bible into the Latin Vulgate.
  • 393 A.D. The Synod of Hippo Regius declares same canon as Council of Rome.
  • 397 A.D. The Council of Carthage declares same canon as the Council of Rome.
  • 405 A.D. Pope Innocent I lists same canon as Council of Rome in letter to Bishop Exsuperius
  • 410 A.D. Codex Alexandrinus contains the Septuagint with deuterocanon and entire N.T. but also includes 1st & 2nd Clement.
  • 425 A.D. Codex Ephraemi contains entire current N.T., but DOES NOT include 2 Thessalonians or 2 John.
  • 450 A.D. The Peshitta (Syriac translation of Bible) does not include 2nd Peter, 2nd & 3rd John, Jude, or Revelations (later added in 616 AD).
  • 545 A.D. Codex Fuldensis contains the N.T. plus the Epistle to the Laodiceans
  • 1382 A.D. John Wycliffe includes the Epistle to the Laodiceans in his English translation
  • 1534 A.D. Martin Luther’s Bible first to have a section called ‘Apocrypha’. Moved Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelations to the back due to doubts about their canonicity. Added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. 
  • 1546 A.D. Council of Trent affirms the Vulgate as the official Catholic Bible in order to address the changes made by Martin Luther.
  • 1646 A.D. -The Westminster Confession of Faith first to exclude the ‘Apocrypha’ (Catholic deuterocanon) from the O.T.

Church Father Quotes:

The Didache

“You shall not waver with regard to your decisions [Sir. 1:28].” “Do not be someone who stretches out his hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving [Sir. 4:31]” (Didache 4:5 [A.D. 70]).

The Letter of Barnabas

“Since, therefore, [Christ] was about to be manifested and to suffer in the flesh, his suffering was foreshown. For the prophet speaks against evil, ‘Woe to their soul, because they have counseled an evil counsel against themselves’ [Isa. 3:9], saying, ‘Let us bind the righteous man because he is displeasing to us’ [Wis. 2:12.]” (Letter of Barnabas 6:7 [A.D. 74]).

Clement of Rome

“By the word of his might [God] established all things, and by his word he can overthrow them. ‘Who shall say to him, “What have you done?” or who shall resist the power of his strength?’ [Wis. 12:12]” (Letter to the Corinthians 27:5 [ca. A.D. 80]).

Polycarp of Smyrna

“When you can do good, defer it not, because ‘alms delivers from death’ [Tob. 4:10, 12:9]” (Letter to the Philadelphians 10 [A.D. 135]).

Irenaeus of Lyons 

“Those . . . who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts and do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt toward others and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat [Matt. 23:6] and work evil deeds in secret, saying ‘No man sees us,’ shall be convicted by the Word, who does not judge after outward appearance, nor looks upon the countenance, but the heart; and they shall hear those words to be found in Daniel the prophet: ‘O you seed of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has deceived you and lust perverted your heart’ [Dan. 13:56]. You that have grown old in wicked days, now your sins which you have committed before have come to light, for you have pronounced false judgments and have been accustomed to condemn the innocent and to let the guilty go free, although the Lord says, ‘You shall not slay the innocent and the righteous’ [Dan. 13:52, citing Ex. 23:7]” (Against Heresies 4:26:3 [A.D. 189]; Daniel 13 is not in the Protestant Bible).

“Jeremiah the prophet has pointed out that as many believers as God has prepared for this purpose, to multiply those left on the earth, should both be under the rule of the saints and to minister to this [new] Jerusalem and that [his] kingdom shall be in it, saying, ‘Look around Jerusalem toward the east and behold the joy which comes to you from God himself. Behold, your sons whom you have sent forth shall come: They shall come in a band from the east to the west. . . . God shall go before with you in the light of his splendor, with the mercy and righteousness which proceed from him’ [Bar. 4:36—5:9]” (ibid., 5:35:1; Baruch was often considered part of Jeremiah, as it is here).

Hippolytus of Rome 

“What is narrated here [in the story of Susannah] happened at a later time, although it is placed at the front of the book [of Daniel], for it was a custom with the writers to narrate many things in an inverted order in their writings. . . . [W]e ought to give heed, beloved, fearing lest anyone be overtaken in any transgression and risk the loss of his soul, knowing as we do that God is the judge of all and the Word himself is the eye which nothing that is done in the world escapes. Therefore, always watchful in heart and pure in life, let us imitate Susannah” (Commentary on Daniel [A.D. 204]; the story of Susannah [Dan. 13] is not in the Protestant Bible).

Cyprian of Carthage

“In Genesis [it says], ‘And God tested Abraham and said to him, “Take your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the high land and offer him there as a burnt offering”’ [Gen. 22:1–2]. . . . Of this same thing in the Wisdom of Solomon [it says], ‘Although in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality’ [Wis. 3:4]. Of this same thing in the Maccabees [it says], ‘Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness’ [1 Macc. 2:52; see Jas. 2:21–23]” (Treatises 7:3:15 [A.D. 248]).

“So Daniel, too, when he was required to worship the idol Bel, which the people and the king then worshipped, in asserting the honor of his God, broke forth with full faith and freedom, saying, ‘I worship nothing but the Lord my God, who created the heaven and the earth’ [Dan. 14:5]” (Letters 55:5 [A.D. 253]; Daniel 14 is not in the Protestant Bible).

Council of Rome

“Now indeed we must treat of the divine scriptures, what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she ought to shun. The order of the Old Testament begins here: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book; Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Joshua [Son of] Nave, one book; Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; Kings, four books [that is, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings]; Paralipomenon [Chronicles], two books; Psalms, one book; Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book, Ecclesiastes, one book, [and] Canticle of Canticles [Song of Songs], one book; likewise Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], one book . . . . Likewise the order of the historical [books]: Job, one book; Tobit, one book; Esdras, two books [Ezra and Nehemiah]; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; Maccabees, two books” (Decree of Pope Damasus [A.D. 382]).

Council of Hippo

“[It has been decided] that besides the canonical scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the canonical scriptures are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the Son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, the Kings, four books, the Chronicles, two books, Job, the Psalter, the five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and a portion of the Psalms], the twelve books of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Ezra, two books, Maccabees, two books . . .” (Canon 36 [A.D. 393]).

Council of Carthage III

“[It has been decided] that nothing except the canonical scriptures should be read in the Church under the name of the divine scriptures. But the canonical scriptures are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, Paralipomenon, two books, Job, the Psalter of David, five books of Solomon, twelve books of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees” (Canon 47 [A.D. 397]).

Augustine of Hippo 

“The whole canon of the scriptures, however, in which we say that consideration is to be applied, is contained in these books: the five of Moses . . . and one book of Joshua [Son of] Nave, one of Judges; one little book which is called Ruth . . . then the four of Kingdoms, and the two of Paralipomenon . . . . [T]here are also others too, of a different order . . . such as Job and Tobit and Esther and Judith and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Esdras . . . . Then there are the prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David, and three of Solomon. . . . But as to those two books, one of which is entitled Wisdom and the other of which is entitled Ecclesiasticus and which are called ‘of Solomon’ because of a certain similarity to his books, it is held most certainly that they were written by Jesus Sirach. They must, however, be accounted among the prophetic books, because of the authority which is deservedly accredited to them” (Christian Instruction 2:8:13 [A.D. 397]).

“We read in the books of the Maccabees [2 Macc. 12:43] that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings, the authority of the Catholic Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at his altar the commendation of the dead has its place” (The Care to be Had for the Dead 1:3 [A.D. 421]).

The Apostolic Constitutions

“Now women also prophesied. Of old, Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron [Ex. 15:20], and after her, Deborah [Judges. 4:4], and after these Huldah [2 Kgs. 22:14] and Judith [Judith 8], the former under Josiah and the latter under Darius” (Apostolic Constitutions 8:2 [A.D. 400]).

St. Jerome

“What sin have I committed if I follow the judgment of the churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating [in my preface to the book of Daniel] the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susannah [Dan. 13], the Song of the Three Children [Dan. 3:29–68, RSV-CE], and the story of Bel and the Dragon [Dan. 14], which are not found in the Hebrew volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant” (Against Rufinius 11:33 [A.D. 401]).

Pope Innocent I

“A brief addition shows what books really are received in the canon. These are the things of which you desired to be informed verbally: of Moses, five books, that is, of Genesis, of Exodus, of Leviticus, of Numbers, of Deuteronomy, and Joshua, of Judges, one book, of Kings, four books, and also Ruth, of the prophets, sixteen books, of Solomon, five books, the Psalms. Likewise of the histories, Job, one book, of Tobit, one book, Esther, one, Judith, one, of the Maccabees, two, of Esdras, two, Paralipomenon, two books” (Letters 7 [A.D. 408]).

Non-Catholic Quotes:

J. N. D. Kelly (1909-1997),  a Protestant & Early Church historian:

“It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive [than the Protestant Bible]. . . . It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called apocrypha or deuterocanonical books” –Early Christian Doctrines (5th Rev. Ed.), pg. 53

“the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense.” –Early Christian Doctrines (5th Rev. Ed.)

Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007), biblical scholar & translator, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and Bible editor on the board of the American Bible Society

“Nowhere in the New Testament is there a direct quotation from the canonical books of Joshua, Judges, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum; and the New Testament allusions to them are few in number.” –An Introduction to the Apocrypha, Revised ed. (1977).

Martin Luther (1483-1546), Father of the Protestant Reformation & Founder of Lutheranism

“We are obliged to yield many things to the papists (i.e. Catholics)—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.” -Commentary on St. John (Chapter 16).