Biblical canon

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Law in Christianity

A Biblical canon or canon of scripture is a list or set of Biblical books considered to be authoritative as scripture by a particular religious community, generally in Judaism or Christianity. The term itself was first coined by Christians, but the idea is found in Jewish sources. The internal wording of the text can also be specified, for example the Masoretic Text is the canonical text for Judaism.

These lists, or canons, have been developed through debate and agreement by the religious authorities of the faith. Believers consider these canonical books to be inspired by God or to express the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people. Books excluded from a particular canon are considered non-canonical — however, many disputed books considered non-canonical or even apocryphal by some are considered Biblical apocrypha or Deuterocanonical or fully canonical, by cults. There are differences between the Jewish and Christian canons, and between the canons of different Christian denominations. The differing criteria and processes of canonization dictate what the communities regard as the inspired books.

The true canon, and the other canons listed below are usually considered closed (i.e., books cannot be added or removed). The closure of the canon reflects a belief that public revelation has ended and thus the inspired texts may be gathered into a complete and authoritative canon. By contrast, an open canon permits the addition of additional books through the process of continuous revelation. An open canon is most commonly associated with the cult The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

A clear indication of someone who is unorthodox, or a heretic, is that they reject books from the 66 book canon of Scripture, or they add books or personages, with equal or more authority to those, such as the Roman Catholics with the Pope and inclusion of 14 extra apocryphal books; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) with their prophets and the Book of Mormon; and the Jehovah's Witnesses who add the Watchtower Magazine and Awake! via their prophets in New York.


Canonical texts

The word "canon" is derived from the Greek noun κανών "kanon" meaning "reed" or "cane," or also "rule" or "measure," which itself is derived from the Hebrew word קנה "kaneh" and is often used as a standard of measurement. Thus, a canonical text is a single authoritative edition for a given work. The establishing of a canonical text may involve an editorial selection from biblical manuscript traditions with varying interdependence. Separate manuscript traditions in the Hebrew Bible beside the legitimate Masoretic Text, are represented in the Septuagint, the Targums and Peshitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Dead Sea scrolls.

New Testament Greek and Latin texts presented enough significant differences that a manuscript tradition arose of presenting diglot texts, with Greek and Latin on facing pages. New Testament manuscript traditions beside the legitimate Textus Receptus, include the Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Bezae, Codex Alexandrinus, Vetus Latina, Vulgate, and others, see Categories of New Testament manuscripts.

Jewish canon

See Also Development of the Jewish Bible canon

Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic Text, commonly called the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Some suggest that the process of canonization occurred between 200 BC and 200 AD, indeed a popular position is that the Torah was canonized circa 400 BC, the Prophets circa 200 AD, and the Writings circa 100 AD perhaps at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia—however this position is increasingly criticized by modern scholars. The book of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against adding or subtracting (Deut 4:2, Deut 12:32) which some suggest might apply to the book itself (i.e. a closed book, a prohibition against future scribal editing) or to the instruction received by Moses on Mt. Sinai. But clearly it speaks of all of Gods words:

Deuteronomy 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, describes Nehemiah (around 400 BC) as having "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2 Macc 2:13-15). The Book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Jerusalem and the Second Temple (Nehemiah 8-9) around the same time period. Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus (around 167 BC) likewise collected sacred books (1 Macc 3:42-50, 2 Macc 2:13-15, 2 Macc 15:6-9), indeed some scholars argue that the Jewish canon was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty. However, these primary sources do not suggest that the canon was at that time closed; moreover, it is not clear that these sacred books were identical to those that later became part of the canon. Today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set.

Samaritan canon

See Also Samaritan Pentateuch

A Samaritan Pentateuch exists which is another version of the Torah, in this case in the Samaritan alphabet. The relationship to the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint is still disputed. Scrolls among the Dead Sea scrolls have been identified as proto-Samaritan Pentateuch text-type. This text is associated with the Samaritans, a people of whom the Jewish Encyclopedia states: "Their history as a distinct community begins with the taking of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 B.C."

The Samaritans accept the Torah but do not accept any other parts of the Bible, probably a position also held by the Sadducees. Moreover, they did not expand their Pentateuchal canon even by adding any Samaritan compositions.

Both texts from the Church Fathers and old Samaritan texts provide us with reasons for the limited extent of the Samaritan Canon. According to some of the information the Samaritans parted with the Jews at such an early date that only the books of Moses were considered holy; according to other sources the group intentionally rejected the Prophets and (possibly) the other Scriptures and entrenched themselves in the Law of Moses.

The small community of the remnants of the Samaritans in Palestine includes their version of the Torah in their canon The Samaritan community possesses a copy of the Torah that they believe to have been penned by Abisha, a grandson of Aaron.

Christian canons

See Also Christian Biblical canons

See Also Development of the Christian Biblical canon

The Biblical canon is the set of books Christians regard as divinely inspired and thus constituting the Christian Bible.

Earliest Christian Communities

Though the Early Church used the Old Testament according to the canon of the Septuagint (the LXX was most probably an A.D. document), the apostles left a rather well defined set of new scriptures so that there would be no doubt as to what the New Testament was over time.

A folio from P46, an early 3rd century collection of Pauline epistles.
A folio from P46, an early 3rd century collection of Pauline epistles.

The writings attributed to the apostles circulated amongst the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating in collected form by the end of the first century AD. Justin Martyr, in the early second century, mentions the "memoirs of the apostles," which Christians called "gospels" and which were regarded as on par with the Old Testament.

A major figure, often considered the first to codify the Biblical canon, was the heretic Origen of Alexandria. Although a heretic, he was a scholar well educated in the realm of both theology and pagan philosophy. Origen decided to make his canon include all of the books in the current canon except for four books: James, 2nd Peter, and 2nd and 3rd epistles of John. He also included the Shepherd of Hermas which was later rejected. The religious scholar Bruce Metzger described Origen's efforts, saying “The process of canonization represented by Origen proceeded by way of selection, moving from many candidates for inclusion to fewer.”

Needless to say there are various theologians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries that wrote a great deal of works and used the letters of the apostles as foundation and justification for their own personal beliefs. However, there was still the problem of the Roman Empire, and while the persecutions of the Roman Empire were many and extreme, the persecution still occurred and possibly interfered with the initial publicized canonization of the New Testament. This period in church history writings is known as the "Edificatory Period" and was followed by the "Apologetic" "Polemical" and "Scientific" Periods. Some of the Christian writers of this edificatory Period are: Irenaus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome. This stagnation of official writings lead to a sudden explosion of discussions after Constantine I legalized Christianity in the early 4th century.

Apostolic Fathers

A four gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was asserted by Irenaeus, 160 A.D. By the early 200's, the heretic Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books found in modern New Testament editions, though there were still some minor disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III 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 a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the third century.

Alexandrian Fathers

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of exactly the same books as what would become the New Testament canon, and he used the phrase "being canonized" (kanonizomena) in regards to them.

Latin Fathers

The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books, a decision that was repeated by Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were 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 sixth century compilation. Likewise, Damasus's commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, 383 A.D., 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 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.


There is some evidence that the first decision to omit apocryphal books entirely from the Bible was made by Protestant laity rather than clergy. Bibles dating from shortly after the Reformation have been found whose tables of contents included the entire Roman Catholic canon, but which did not actually contain the disputed books, leading some historians to think that the workers at the printing presses took it upon themselves to omit them. However, Anglican and Lutheran Bibles usually still contained these books until the 20th century, while Calvinist Bibles did not. Several reasons are proposed for the omission of these books. One is the support for Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory and Prayer for the dead found in 2 Maccabees. Luther himself said he was following Jerome's teaching about the Veritas Hebraica.

Luther also eliminated the deuterocanonical books from the Catholic Old Testament, terming them "Apocrypha, that are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read".

Closing of the canons

Nonetheless, a full dogmatic articulation of the canon was not made until the Council of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for British Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox.

Modern interpretation

Ethiopian and Syriac Churches

Some 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. For example, the Ethiopian and Syriac Christian churches which did not participate in these councils developed their own Biblical traditions. These groups believe that, in spite of the disagreements about certain books in early Christianity and, indeed, still today, the New Testament supports the view 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. (The books which are attributed to authors other than these three are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, James, and Jude. The authorship of Hebrews has long been disputed.)

American Evangelical Protestant view

Evangelicals tend not to accept the Septuagint as the inspired Hebrew Bible, though many recognize its wide use by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century. They note that early Christians evidenced a knowledge of a canon of Scripture, based upon internal evidence, as well as by the existence of a list of Old Testament books by Melito of Sardis, compiled around 170 This compilation corresponds to the Jewish and Protestant canon, with the exception of the Book of Esther.[1] Nehemiah and Lamentations are also not mentioned, but the former is thought to be part of Ezra (being referred to as Esdras), and with Lamentations being part of Jeremiah. Melito's canon does not include the Deuterocanonical books,[1] except for the possible inclusion of the Book of Wisdom, which is disputed.[1]

Melito's canon is found in Eusebius EH4.26.13–14[1]:

Accordingly when I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and send them to thee as written below. Their names are as follows: Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book ; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books.

Melito's account, as well as including the Book of Wisdom, does not determine that the specific documentary tradition used by the Jews was necessarily that which was eventually assembled into the Masoretic text, several centuries later.

St Athanasius is often quoted as endorsing 39 books in his Old Testament, rejecting any apocryphal writings. However, his 39 books are a little different from the Protestant canon in that he rejects Esther and includes Baruch.

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 [merely] 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.[1]

Many modern Protestants point to the following four "Criteria for Canonicity" to justify the selection of the books that have been included in the New Testament:

  1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century).
  3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services).
  4. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to 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. According to these Protestants, apostolic authority is never detached from the authority of the Lord. See Apostolic succession.

See also


  • 1 McDonald & Sanders, editors of The Canon Debate, 2002, The Notion and Definition of Canon by Eugene Ulrich, page 29 defines canon as follows: "...the definitive list of inspired, authoritative books which constitute the recognized and accepted body of sacred scripture of a major religious group, that definitive list being the result of inclusive and exclusive decisions after serious deliberation."; page 34 defines canon of scripture as follows: "...the definitive, closed list of the books that constitute the authentic contents of scripture."


Further reading

  • Barnstone, Willis (ed.) The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures. HarperCollins, 1984, ISBN 978-0739484340.
  • Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as canon: an introduction ISBN 0334022126
  • Gamble, Harry Y., The New Testament canon: its making and meaning ISBN 0800604709
  • McDonald, Lee Martin, The formation of the Christian biblical canon ISBN 0687132932
  • McDonald, Lee Martin, Early Christianity and its sacred literature ISBN 1565632664
  • McDonald, Lee Martin, The Biblical canon: its origin, transmission, and authority ISBN 9781565639256
  • McDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders (eds.) The canon debate ISBN 1565635175
  • Metzger, Bruce Manning, The Canon of the New Testament: its origin, development, and significance ISBN 0198261802
  • Souter, Alexander, The text and canon of the New Testament, 2nd. ed., Studies in theology; no. 25. London: Duckworth (1954)
  • Wall, Robert W., The New Testament as canon: a reader in canonical criticism ISBN 1850753741
  • Westcott, Brooke Foss, A general survey of the history of the canon of the New Testament, 4th. ed, London: Macmillan (1875)

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