Early Christian History

The Reality of the Biblical Canon

The Bible as we know it has been with us for a very long time. Many stories are told about how it was assembled, many of them untrue or distorted. The truth is that the Bible canon developed over the course of centuries and was not a sudden decision, event, or declaration.

Canonical Roots

The earliest Christian canon — that is, by the early 2nd century CE — was the Septuagint. This was a collection of Judaic scriptures translated from Hebrew into κοινη (koiné, “common”) Greek, the cosmopolitan Greek spoken around the eastern Empire, which functioned as a lingua franca. The name “Septuagint” comes from the Greek for seventy, a reference to the 72 reputed Jewish scholars who drafted the translation. (In reality, the translation only of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, were translated by a single large team of scholars; the others were all translated later and in scattered fashion. In fact, many of these were poor translations.)

By this time, of course, Christians had been writing. The genuine Pauline epistles, for instance, date to the middle of the 1st century, along with Q, a sayings-gospel which was a source for the synoptic gospels (which also were in existence by the turn of the 2nd century), as well as others. But it appears that not all of these were widely-known across early Christendom; a single Christian community might have access to a few of them, but not all. Thus, a consensus on these early Christian writings was impossible to achieve. These various groups had only the Septuagint in common, since it had been around for close to two centuries by then.

The Battle for Judaic Scripture

The Judaic scriptures became a point of contention beginning with the Gnostic sage Marcion of Sinope. He condemned the god of the Hebrews, YHWH, as a wayward, deceptive, false god, and thus asserted that true Christians could not accept it. It was “the Word” of a malignant being, he claimed, who was not in accordance with Christ.

Perhaps in order to emphasize his differences with other Christians of the time, who did revere Judaic scripture in the form of the Septuagint, Marcion listed what he considered authoritative texts. These included ten of the epistles of Paul, a redacted version of Luke which removed much of its supernatural and Judaic-related content, as well as a commentary of his own called Antithesis.

The Church Father Tertullian tackled this issue in the course of his Adversus Marcionem, asserting that YHWH had not been the evil being Marcion claimed, and the Judaic scriptures were just as necessary to Christians as anything else. He’s credited with the concept of the twin Testaments, as a way of explaining the context of each and how they juxtapose with each other.

Canon Suggestions

After Tertullian, there are scattered writings, some of which we have only fragments, listing books considered authoritative. None of these were seen as being very commanding. They also varied greatly. Some included works which aren’t considered canon now, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, the epistle of Barnabas, the Acts of Peter and of John, a third epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, the Gospel of the Hebrews, an Apocalypse of Peter, an epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, and others. Some of these also excluded books which are currently Canon, such as some of the epistles of Paul, the epistle to the Hebrews, Revelation, the second epistle of Peter and the third of John, and so on.

The first occasion we know of where the canon was discussed openly and in serious fashion, was the plenary synod of Laodicea (c. 360). While this synod decided that only canonical books were to be used, and while we know the matter was discussed, no specific list of sanctioned books was produced (there is a “Laodicean canon” but this was actually composed after the fact).

Perhaps a little later, St Athanasius listed works he considered canon in one of his correspondences. Interestingly, he also added a brief list of works which were acceptable, yet not truly canon. His canon, however, is remarkably close to the current Protestant canon, these extra books aside.

Although he is mentioned as a contributor to the Biblical canon, a list of canonical works by Pope Damasus I is actually from a couple centuries after his time. It is known, however, that this topic interested him; this may well be the reason why this later list was attributed to him posthumously.

The Third plenary Synod of Carthage (397) also took up the matter of which books were sacred, settling more or less on the current Roman Catholic canon. While direct records of this synod are lost, it was later stated that III Carthage had built upon the canon of Damasus and that he had approved their decision.

At the turn of the 5th century, St Jerome translated the Bible into vernacular Latin. As he went along he decided that the Septuagint and other Greek and Latin translations of Judaic scripture weren’t sufficient, that he had to translate from the Hebrew. This changed things, since the Septuagint had included books and passages of existing books which were not in Hebrew. Jerome did not accept the authority of all the books before him, especially some Christian works as Revelation, the epistle to the Hebrews, and the epistles of Peter. The Pope, however, pressed him to translate these, anyway. He appears simply to have added then-available translations of these books to his own translations of those he did consider sacred.

If there was any single point in time where the Biblical canon was “decided,” this was it; for Jerome’s translation, the Vulgate, eventually became the current Roman Catholic canon. In reality, however, the matter was still under discussion after Jerome’s time. The Synod of Trullo (692), for example, discussed the canon, and other writers such as Nicephorus of Jerusalem offered their own canon lists. The fact is that the Biblical canon was still controversial, even centuries after Jerome.

One could say that the books of the Vulgate became the Biblical canon, merely by default — no other versions of the Bible were as widespread or frequently-quoted.

Ultimately, the Roman Catholic canon was not formally declared until the Council of Trent (1545-1563). After breaking from the Roman Church under King Henry VIII, the Church of England (or Anglican Church) specified a policy concerning the deuterocanonical books; they had illustrative value and could be read during services, but could not be used as the basis for doctrine. Since the 19th century the deuterocanonical books have typically not been included in Anglican Bibles.

Interestingly, this means that the King James translation includes the deuterocanonical books, since the Church of England had not disposed of them by the turn of the 17th century. Most King James Bibles published in the United States, however, do not include them, since it’s Protestant denomincations which use that translation.

Countless Canons

As noted, the Septuagint contained a number of Judaic-scripture works which were not part of the Jewish Tanakh and were for the most part originally written in Greek rather than Hebrew. From Jerome’s time this has set them apart somewhat. While the medieval Church, western and eastern, considered them authoritative, some scholastics and other theologians considered them slightly less important.

Shortly after Martin Luther began the Reformation in Germany, he concluded that these extra books, not part of the Tanakh, were not canon and did not belong in a Christian’s Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church, as part of its effort to respond to the Reformation and counteract it (i.e. the Counter-Reformation), elected to keep these books nonetheless. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) acknowledged the differing nature of these books, but did not dispense with them; instead, they were a “secondary canon” or deuterocanonical. Nearly all of the Orthodox churches also keep them, and have varying doctrines about their level of authority. (The Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, considers them equally authoritative compared to the rest of the Old Testament.

Most Protestant denominations have followed Luther’s recommendation and do not consider the deuterocanonical books (or “apocrypha” as they’re often called) canon — although many Protestant seminaries and Bible colleges include them in their curricula nonetheless.

Other churches have different canons yet. Syriac churches accept the Peshitta (the Bible translated into Aramaic/Syriac) as canon (the best-known of these churches are the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East); it’s comprised of books translated into Aramaic between 100 BCE and 500 CE, and closely follows other eastern Orthodox churches. Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church accepts as canon only the Orthodox books in the Coptic language.

Perhaps the most different canon is that of the Ethiopian Orthodx Church. This church not only adds books to the Old Testament, it also adds to the traditional 27 books of the New Testament. The Ethiopian canon is also of a dual nature; it has a “Narrow Canon” which is close to that of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as a “Broad Canon” which adds several books to each Testament. It includes a few liturgical and catechetical works, book sorts which are found in no other Christian canon.

Yet another canon which differs from many is that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“LDS” or colloquially, the Mormons). The LDS canon is comprised of the King James translation of the Bible (Protestant version); two LDS-specific books, the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price; and another book which is of ongoing authorship and is an accumulation of LDS doctrinal decisions and declarations. Of course, there are some who do not consider the LDS a “true” Christian denomination, however, this is merely a value judgement.

Canonical Misconceptions

Many people erroneously think that the Biblical canon was decided at the Council of Nicæa; and/or enforced by fiat of Emperor Constantine; this is simply not true. If it were, then the canons which now exist would not vary so wildly, nor would there be any canons which specify certain languages — since the churches which now exist nearly all descend from decisions of that Council. It is also belied by the discussions of canon which took place e.g. the III Carthage and Laodician synods which took place decades after Nicæa, and in the correspondence of post-Nicene Fathers such as Jerome, Athanasius, Augustine, and so on. Clearly, neither Constantine nor Nicæa had any weight in this matter.

Many also think that an initial Biblical canon was decided upon by a Council or papal declaration early in the Middle Ages. This is also not true; in the west, at least, no such formal declaration was made until (as noted) the Council of Trent. Most other churches have never had any such formal declaration and simply continue with those canons which fell into place, long ago, simply by acclamation.

Truth is that the Biblical canon is far less certain than most believe. Furthermore, Christians have through the centuries been influenced by works outside of whatever Biblical canons they observe. In particular, the writings of the Church Fathers had a tremendous effect on the development of Christian tradition and doctrine. Also, simple Christian legends — not written down until long after they’d been passed around — affected Christian tradition. Quite simply, the Bible is not the sole originator of Christian belief, no matter which books one places within it.

In many ways, therefore, wrangling over the Bible’s contents is a tempest in a teapot.

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