The Canon of the Bible:

Definition of Terms:

  • Canon: From the Greek κανών kanōn, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”, the biblical canon is the set of texts believed to be Scripture that a particular community regards as part of the Bible.
  • Antilegomena: From the Greek ἀντιλεγόμενα, the Antilegomena are written texts whose authenticity or value was disputed in the early Church.  Some works, such as the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Book of Revelation, eventually found their way into the Bible while others, such as  the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache, were ultimately left out.

The canon of the Bible was not something universally agreed upon in the early Church.  While the Church Fathers had access to the various books and letters that would eventually compose the New Testament, the idea of a “biblical canon” -or a list of books that belong in the Bible- is an idea that gradually formed over time.  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.   The access each community had to the books included in the modern Bible varied because each letter was often written as an epistle to only a specific Christian community or individual in order to address a specific need of that community.  It would take time for these various letters to spread due to the cost of writing materials in the ancient world- such as papyrus, parchment, ink, and labor -which was quite high.  Because literacy also varied, communities relied heavily upon the public readings of letters -usually by their local bishop- to hear and understand the message it contained.  Different communities would also place different levels of importance on certain writings depending upon their knowledge of the author and its relevance to their community.  Thus, the collection of books considered to be authoritative Scripture varied amongst different Christian communities in the early centuries of the Church.  As heretical writings began to emerge in the late second century and claimed Apostolic authorship, the need for a definitive list of authentic writings grew amongst orthodox Christians. Out of this need, several competing canon lists would develop amongst various Christian groups, but they would disagree on exactly which books should be included (see Early Biblical Canons for a list of competing early canons)

Not all of the books which are now included in the modern New Testament were originally accepted by the entire church. Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation 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 modern-day canon, although they were considered Scripture by many early Christians. These included the Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, The Acts of Paul, the Epistle to the Laodiceans, theGospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (1 Clement).  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 and authorship when one considers that the Gospels were all written anonymously and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is unknown.  Despite claims made by early Christians that Hebrews was written by either Paul or Barnabas, the true author still remains hidden.  As for the Gospels, it is only through the tradition handed down by the Fathers that we can claim to know the authors to be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Questions of authorship not only pertain to the works themselves, but even to chapters and verses contained within certain works.  Biblical scholars have pointed out that certain chapters within the Gospels are not found in the earliest extant manuscripts and suggest that they were later additions to the works.  Examples include Mark 16:9-20, which is not included in the two earliest remaining manuscripts; the Greek codices Sinaiticus (ℵ01) and Vaticanus (B03).  Another example would be John 8:1-11, which tells the story of the woman caught in adultery.  The earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not include this story.

Even with the aid of Tradition, the larger Christian world would witness a wide variety of various versions and interpretations of the Bible emerge over the next few centuries (see list of Early Versions and Translations of the Bible). Out of these various traditions developed the modern canons and myriad of interpretations found in today’s Bibles.  Christians today continue to disagree upon which books should be contained in the Bible.  While most Protestant canons only recognize 66 books as authoritative Scripture, the Catholic canon includes 73.  Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian Churches vary on the number of books with most counting 73 to 76 books, but some accept as many as 80.  So, how do modern Christians reconcile these differing opinions and find common ground for theological debates?  How did the early Church eventually decide what books to include in the Bible?  The decision for the early Church ultimately came down to authority. Various biblical canons developed through debate and agreement on the part of the religious authorities within their respective faiths and denominations.  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.  This begs the question, however; if different authorities give differing lists, then faulty authorities could include non-inspired writings or leave out important inspired texts.  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.

This leaves the question of which authority to follow.  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 (see Apostolic Succession).  In the first century, the Holy Spirit inspired appointed men in the Church to write authoritative books about Christ.  God then guided his Church to know which books were inspired and the Church eventually codified them into the New Testament (see the various Early Church Councils).  God thus guided His Church through the use of inspired Tradition -which preceded Scripture since Christ never wrote anything down and never commanded the Apostles to write anything down- to discern which books were Orthodox, of Apostolic Origin, and were Universally Accepted. Through the use of divinely inspired Apostolic Succession, the Church was then able to authoritatively declare these books to be divinely inspired without the fear of or possibility of error.

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Development of the New Testament:

Bible Verses:

*There are no relevant Bible verses that list the books that should be included in the New Testament.  (The Table of Contents is a modern invention added centuries later).

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Church Father Quotes:

Papias of Hierapolis
“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” -Papias of Hierapolis, Exposition on the Sayings of the Lord as quoted by Eusebius in Church History 3:39:15.

Dionysius of Corinth
“We passed this holy Lord’s day, in which we read your letter, from the constant reading of which we shall be able to draw admonition, even as from the reading of the former one you sent us written through Clement.” -Dionysius of Corinth, Letter to Pope Soter 2.

Irenaeus of Lyons
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies 3:1:1)

“It is not possible that the Gospels be either more or fewer than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the Spirit of life; it is fitting that we should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side and vivifying our flesh… The living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord” (Adv. Hr., III, xi, 8).

“Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, ‘First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence:’ [Shepherd of Hermas 26:2] He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one.” -Irenaeus of Lyons Adversus Haereses Book IV, Chapter 20:2.

Clement of Alexandria
“The circumstances which occasioned . . . [the writing] of Mark were these: When Peter preached the Word publicly at Rome and declared the gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had been a long time his follower and who remembered his sayings, should write down what had been proclaimed” -Clement of Alexandria, Sketches [A.D. 200], in a fragment from Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 14:1).

“By Divine Inspiration, therefore, the power which spoke to Hermas [ref. The Shepherd of Hermas] by revelation said, ‘The visions and revelations are for those who are of double mind, who doubt in their hearts if these things are or are not.’” -Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1:29:181:1

“And such a ray of godliness shone forth on the minds of Peter’s hearers, that they were not satisfied with the once hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with all manner of entreaties importuned Mark, to whom the Gospel is ascribed, he being the companion of Peter, that he would leave in writing a record of the teaching which had been delivered to them verbally; and did not let the man alone till they prevailed upon him; and so to them we owe the Scripture called the Gospel by Mark. On learning what had been done, through the revelation of the Spirit, it is said that the apostle was delighted with the enthusiasm of the men, and sanctioned the composition for reading in the Churches. Clemens gives the narrative in the sixth book of the Hypotyposes.” -Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes Book 6 as quoted by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 2:15

“And in the Hypotyposes, in a word, he has made abbreviated narratives of the whole testamentary Scripture; and has not passed over the disputed books — I mean Jude and the rest of the Catholic Epistles and Barnabas, and what is called the Revelation of Peter. And he says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same coloring in the expression is discoverable in this Epistle and the Acts;. . .” -Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes as recorded by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 6:14.

Tertullian of Carthage
“I would admit your argument, if the writing of The Shepherd had deserved to be included in the Divine Instrument, and if it were not judged by every council of the Churches, even of your own Churches, among the apocryphal. . . the Epistle of Barnabas, (Tertullian’s name for the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews) “is more received among the Churches than the apocryphal epistle of the Shepherd.” Tertullian, De pudicitia 10

Origen of Alexandria
“Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism and published in the Hebrew language” (Commentaries on Matthew [cited by Eusebius in History of the Church 6:25]).

Now in the catholic Epistle of Barnabas, from which perhaps Celsus took the statement that the apostles were notoriously wicked men, it is recorded that ‘Jesus selected His own apostles, as persons who were more guilty of sin than all other evildoers.’ And in the Gospel according to Luke, Peter says to Jesus, ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Moreover, Paul, who himself also at a later time became an apostle of Jesus, says in his Epistle to Timothy, ‘This is a faithful saying, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief’ . . . What absurdity, therefore, is there, if Jesus, desiring to manifest to the human race the power which He possesses to heal souls, should have selected notorious and wicked men, and should have raised them to such a degree of moral excellence, that they became a pattern of the purest virtue to all who were converted by their instrumentality to the Gospel of Christ?” -Origen of Alexandria, Contra Celsum 1.63.9.

“And if one should dare, using a Scripture which is in circulation in the church, but not acknowledged by all to be divine, to soften down a precept of this kind, the passage might be taken from The Shepherd, concerning some who as soon as they believe are put in subjection to Michael. . .” – Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew 14:21.

Eusebius of Caesarea
“Matthew had begun by preaching to the Hebrews, and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own Gospel to writing in his native tongue [Aramaic], so that for those with whom he was no longer present the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote” (History of the Church 3:24 [inter 300-325]).

“And the fourteen letters of Paul are obvious and plain, yet it is not right to ignore that some dispute the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it was rejected by the church of Rome as not being by Paul and I will expound at the proper time what was said about it by our predecessors. Nor have I received his so-called Acts (of Paul) among undisputed books.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:3:5)

“Let there be placed among the spurious works the Acts of Paul, the so-called Shepherd and the Apocalypse of Peter, and besides these the Epistle of Barnabas, and what are called the Teachings of the Apostles, and also the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), if this be thought proper; for as I wrote before, some reject it, and others place it in the canon.” -Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica III, 25.

“Of the writings of John, in addition to the gospel, the first of the epistles has ben accepted without controversy by ancients and moderns alike but the other two are disputed and as to the Apocalypse there have been many advocates of either opinion up to the present.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:24:17-18).

“But since the same Apostle (Paul) in the salutations at the end of Romans has mentioned among others Hermas [Romans 16:14], whose, they say, is the Book of the Shepherd, it should be known that this also is rejected by some and for their sake should not be placed among accepted books but by others it has been judged most valuable, especially those who need elementary instruction. For this reason we know that it has been used in public in churches, and I have found it quoted by some of the most ancient writers.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:3:6).

Council of Rome
“It is likewise decreed: Now, indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: What the universal Catholic (15) Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book; Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Jesus Nave, one book; of Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; of Kings, four books; Paralipomenon, two books; One Hundred and Fifty Psalms, one book; of Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book; Ecclesiastes, one book; Canticle of Canticles, one book; likewise, Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus, one book. Likewise, the list of the Prophets: Isaias, one book; Jeremias, one book, along with Cinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezechiel, one book; Daniel, one book; Osee, one book; Amos, one book; Micheas, one book; Joel, one book; Abdias, one book; Jonas, one book; Nahum, one book; Habacuc, one book; Sophonias, one book; Aggeus, one book; Zacharias, one book; Malachias, one book. Likewise, the list of histories: Job, one book; Tobias, one book; Esdras, two books; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; of Maccabees, two books. Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church receives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, one to the Hebrews. Likewise, one book of the Apocalypse of John. And the Acts of the Apostles, one book. Likewise, the canonical Epistles, seven in number: of the Apostle Peter, two Epistles; of the Apostle James, one Epistle; of the Apostle John, one Epistle; of the other John, a Presbyter, two Epistles; of the Apostle Jude the Zealot, one Epistle. Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament.” Pope Damascus I, The Decree of Damasus 2; Council of Rome

Athanasius of Alexandria
“But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the canon, the latter being read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.”
-Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter from Johannes Kirchhofer, Quellensammlung zur Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons bis auf Hieronymus (Zürich: Meyer and Zeller, 1844), 7-9.

Council of Hippo
“That beyond the canonical Scriptures nothing should be read in church under the name of the Divine Scriptures. The canonical Scriptures are; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, The Judges, Ruth, Reigns four books, The Paralipomenon two books, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the Twelve Books of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Ezra two books, Maccabees two books.
Of the New Testament:
The Gospels four books, Acts of the Apostles one book, Epistles of Paul fourteen, Epistles of Peter, the Apostle two, Epistles of John the Apostle three, Epistles of James the Apostle one, one of Epistle of Jude the Apostle, Revelation of John.” (Brevarium Hipponense 36).

Augustine of Hippo
“How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers but by the unbroken chain of evidence? So also with the numerous commentaries on the ecclesiastical books, which have no canonical authority and yet show a desire of usefulness and a spirit of inquiry. . . . How can we be sure of the authorship of any book, if we doubt the apostolic origin of those books which are attributed to the apostles by the Church which the apostles themselves founded.” -Augustine on the anonymity of the Gospel authors. Contra Faustum, Book XXXIII.6.

“Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?” -Augustine of Hippo, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Chapter 5

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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).

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