A Christian Biblical canon is the set of books that a Christian denomination regards as divinely inspired and thus constituting the Christian Bible. Although the Early Church primarily used the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint or LXX, or the Targums among Aramaic speakers, the apostles did not otherwise leave a defined set of new scriptures; instead the New Testament developed over time.
|“||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.||”|
The Vulgate Bible
McDonald & Sanders, Appendix D-2, lists the following canon for Jerome, (c.394), from his Epistle 53:
|“||"Lord's Four": Matt, Mark, Luke, John, Paul's Epistles (14), 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, James, Acts, Rev.||”|
Augustine and the North African canons
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 Synod of Carthage in 397, and another in Carthage in 419 A.D. (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 (including the Deuterocanonicals) and the 27 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.
The first council that accepted the present canon of the books of the New Testament may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (A.D. 393); the acts of this council, however, are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. Revelation was added to the list in 419. These councils were convened under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.
Pope Damasus I
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. Pope Damasus I is often considered to be the father of the modern Catholic canon. Purporting to date from a "Council of Rome" under Pope Damasus I in 382, the so-called "Damasian list" appended to the pseudepigraphical Decretum Gelasianum gives a list identical to what would be the Canon of Trent, and, though the text may in fact not be Damasian, it is at least a valuable sixth century compilation.
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.
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 the western for the necessity of making a sharp delineation with regard to the canon. It was more conscious of the gradation of spiritual quality among the books that it accepted (e.g. the classification of Eusebius, see also Antilegomena) and was less often disposed to assert that the books which it rejected possessed no spiritual quality at all. For example, the Trullan Synod of AD 691-692, which was rejected by Pope Constantine (see also Pentarchy), endorsed these lists of canonical writings: the Apostolic Canons (~AD 385), the Synod of Laodicea (~AD 363 ?), the Third Synod of Carthage (~AD 397), and the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (AD 367). And yet these lists do not agree. The Synod of Hippo Regius (AD 393) and the Synod of Carthage (AD 419) also addressed the canon and are discussed here. Similarly, the New Testament canons of the national churches of Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Egypt (The Coptic Church), and Ethiopia 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 Greek Church, whether Byzantine or modern.
The late-5th or early-6th century Peshitta of the Syrian Orthodox Church includes a 22-book NT, excluding II Peter, II John, III John, Jude, and Revelation. (The Lee Peshitta of 1823 follows the Protestant canon)
McDonald & Sanders, Appendix D-2, lists the following Syrian catalogue of St. Catherine's, c.400:
|“||Gospels (4): Matt, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Gal, Rom, Heb, Col, Eph, Phil, 1-2 Thess, 1-2 Tim, Titus, Phlm.||”|
The Syriac Peshitta, used by all the various Syrian Churches, originally did not include 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation (and this canon of 22-books is the one cited by John Chrysostom (~347–407) and Theodoret (393–466) from the School of Antioch). It also includes Psalm 151 and Psalm 152–155 and 2 Baruch. Western Syrians have added the remaining 5 books to their NT canons in modern times (such as the Lee Peshitta of 1823). Today, the official lectionaries followed by the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, with headquarters at Kottayam (India), and the Chaldean Syrian Church, also known as the Church of the East (Nestorian), with headquarters at Trichur (India), still present lessons from only the 22-books of the original Peshitta.
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 A.D. when Archbishop Nerses arranged an Armenian Synod at Constantinople to introduce the text. Still, there were unsuccessful attempts even as late as 1290 A.D. 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, 1 Esdras, 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, the Catholic Church officially drew the boundaries of the biblical canon in the session 11 (4 February 1442) of the Council of Florence, listing one by one all the books considered canonical.
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 definitive canon which would include a decision on the 'disputed books'.
Martin Luther was troubled by four 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 the Antilegomena, the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon , echoing the consensus of several Catholics, also labeled Christian Humanists — such as Cardinal Ximenez, 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.
Council of Trent
In light of Martin Luther's demands, the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546, by vote (24 yea, 15 nay, 16 abstain) approved the present Catholic Bible canon, which includes the Deuterocanonical Books, and thus confirming the same list as produced at the Council of Florence in 1442. 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, some editions of the Latin Vulgate include Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras (called 3 Esdras), 2 Esdras (called 4 Esdras), and the Epistle to the Laodiceans in an appendix, styled "Apogryphi", (see also Biblical Apocrypha#The Clementine Vulgate).
In support of the inclusion of the 12 Deuterocanonical books in the canon, the Council of Trent pointed to the two regional councils which met under Augustine's leadership in Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage (397 and 419 A.D.). The bishops of Trent claimed these councils formally defined the canon as including these books.
Among confessions of faith drawn up by Protestants, several identify by name the 27-books of the New Testament canon, 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. None of the Confessional statements issued by any Lutheran church includes an explicit list of canonical books.
Synod of Jerusalem
The Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 decreed the Greek Orthodox Canon which is the same as the one decided by the Council of Trent but adds Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Prayer of Manasseh. The Greek Orthodox generally consider the Septuagint to be divinely inspired.
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, and are known as the New Testament apocrypha.
Many Evangelical Christian groups do not accept the theory that the Christian Bible was not known until various local and Ecumenical Councils, which they deem to be "Roman-dominated", made their official declarations.
These groups believe that the New Testament supports that Paul (2 Timothy 4:11–13), Peter (2 Peter 3:15–16), and ultimately John (Revelation 22:18–19) finalized the canon of the New Testament. Some note that Peter, John, and Paul wrote 20 (or 21) of the 27-books of the NT and personally knew all the other NT writers. (Books not attributed to these three are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, James, and Jude. The authorship of Hebrews has long been disputed.)
Evangelicals tend not to accept the Septuagint as the inspired Hebrew Bible, though many of them recognize its wide use by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century. They note that early Christians knew the Hebrew Bible since around 170 Melito of Sardis listed all the books of the Old Testament except the book of Esther (see Melito's canon).
Many modern Protestants point to four "Criteria for Canonicity" to justify the books that have been included in the Old and New Testament, which are judged to have satisfied the following:
- Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
- Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century).
- Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services).
- Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
The basic factor for recognizing a book's canonicity for the New Testament was divine inspiration, and the chief test for this was apostolicity. The term apostolic as used for the test of canonicity does not necessarily mean apostolic authorship or derivation, but rather apostolic authority. Apostolic authority is never detached from the authority of the Lord. See Apostolic succession.
It is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all books in the accepted canon, however, and some point to books that Protestants hold as apocryphal which would fulfill these requirements. In practice, Protestants hold to the Jewish canon for the Old Testament and the Catholic canon for the New Testament.
- "Canon of the New Testament". http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm.
- [Corey Keating, The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon. http://www.ntgreek.org/SeminaryPapers/ChurchHistory/Criteria%20for%20Development%20of%20the%20NT%20Canon%20in%20First%20Four%20Centuries.pdf]
- 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.
- Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. pp. 225.
- Decretum Gelasianum
- Lindberg (2006). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 15.
- Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. pp. 234.
- The "Damasian Canon" was published by C. H. Turner in JTS, vol. 1, 1900, pp. 554–560.
- 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. pp. 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. pp. 97.
- Metzger, Bruce M. (1987.). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- "The Development of the Canon of the New Testament". http://www.ntcanon.org/Peshitta.shtml.
- "Peshitta". NT Canon. http://www.ntcanon.org/Peshitta.shtml.
- "Reliability". Theological Perspectives. http://www.theologicalperspectives.com/RELIABILITY4.html.
- Ethiopian Canon, Islamic Awareness.
- "Fathers". Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/harden_ethiopic_literature.htm#CHAPTER%20IV.
- text of the 11 session of the Council of Basel-Florence: Five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; two books of the Maccabees; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; fourteen letters of Paul, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two letters of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; Acts of the Apostles; Apocalypse of John
- "Martin Luther". http://www.wels.net/sab/qa/luther-03.html.
- "Luther's Treatment of the 'Disputed Books' of the New Testament". http://www.bible-researcher.com/antilegomena.html.
- "Gedruckte Ausgaben der Lutherbibel von 1545". http://www.bibelcenter.de/bibel/lu1545/. note order: …Hebr�er, Jakobus, Judas, Offenbarung
- "German Bible Versions". http://www.bible-researcher.com/links10.html.
- Metzger, Bruce M. (March 13, 1997). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford University Press. pp. 246. ISBN 0198269544. ""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.""
- The Development of the Canon of the New Testament - includes very detailed charts and direct links to ancient witnesses