Christian biblical canon

A Christian biblical canon is the set of books that a Christian denomination regards as divinely inspired and thus constituting a Christian Bible. Although the Early Church primarily used the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, or LXX) or the Targums among Aramaic speakers, the apostles did not leave a defined set of new scriptures; instead the canon of the New Testament developed over time.

Like the development of the Old Testament canon, that of the New Testament canon was gradual. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the New Testament describes the process of assembling the histories and letters circulated within the early Church until the canon was approved by a series of councils seeking to ensure legitimacy as inspired scripture:

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.[1]

Fifty Bibles of Constantine

In 331, Constantine I commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius[2] recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.[3] There is no evidence among the canons of the First Council of Nicaea of any determination on the canon, however, Jerome (347-420), in his Prologue to Judith, makes the claim that the Book of Judith was "found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures".[4]

The Vulgate Bible

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.[5] 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[6] gives a list identical to what would be the Canon of Trent,[7] and, though the text may in fact not be Damasian, it is at least a valuable sixth century compilation.[8][9]

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.

"Jesus Nave" was an old name for the Book of Joshua. "2 books of Esdras" could be 1 Esdras and Ezra-Nehemiah as in the Septuagint or Ezra and Nehemiah as in the Vulgate.

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.[10]

Augustine called three synods on canonicity: the Synod of Hippo in 393, the Synod of Carthage in 397, and another in Carthage in 419 AD. (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 (arguably including the books later called Deuterocanonicals) and the 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 (AD 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.[11] These councils were convened under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.[12][13][14]

A consensus emerges

The division of opinion over the canon was not over the core, but over the "fringe",[15] and from the fourth century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today),[16] 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.[17]

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".[12][18][19]

Eastern canons

The Eastern Churches had, in general, a weaker feeling than those in the West for the necessity of making a sharp delineation with regard to the canon. They were more conscious of the gradation of spiritual quality among the books that they accepted (e.g. the classification of Eusebius, see also Antilegomena) and were less often disposed to assert that the books which they rejected possessed no spiritual quality at all. For example, the Trullan Synod of 691–692, which was rejected by Pope Constantine (see also Pentarchy), endorsed the following lists of canonical writings: the Apostolic Canons (c. 385), the Synod of Laodicea (c. 363), the Third Synod of Carthage (c. 397), and the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (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 Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches all have minor differences.[20] 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 Eastern Orthodox Church, whether in Byzantine or modern times.


The late-5th or early-6th century Peshitta of the Syrian Orthodox Church[21] 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:

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.[22]

Armenian canon

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 AD. when Archbishop Nerses arranged an Armenian Synod at Constantinople to introduce the text.[23] Still, there were unsuccessful attempts even as late as 1290 AD 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 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 "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).[24][25]

Reformation era

Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the Council of Florence in 1442. During the life, and with the approval of this council, Eugenius IV issued several Bulls, or decrees, with a view to restore the Oriental schismatic bodies to communion with Rome, and according to the common teaching of theologians these documents are infallible statements of doctrine. The "Decretum pro Jacobitis" contains a complete list of the books received by the Church as inspired, but omits, perhaps advisedly, the terms canon and canonical. The Council of Florence therefore taught the inspiration of all the Scriptures, but did not formally pass on their canonicity.[26]

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.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was troubled by four New Testament 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 these Antilegomena, the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon,[27] [28] echoing the consensus of some 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.[29][30] Luther also removed books and additions to books of the Old Testament that are not found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text and put them in a section which he labelled "Apocrypha", commonly known as the Biblical Apocrypha. Catholics call these books the Deuterocanonicals.

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)[31] 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 and Augustine's 397-419 Councils of Carthage.[32] 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#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 AD) and Carthage (397 and 419 AD). The bishops of Trent claimed these councils formally defined the canon as including these books.

Protestant confessions

Several Protestant confessions of faith identify the 27 books of the New Testament canon by name, 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. The Belgic Confession[33] and Westminster Confession named the 39 books in the Old Testament and expressly rejected the canonicity of any others.[34]

None of the Confessional statements issued by any Lutheran church includes an explicit list of canonical books.

Synod of Jerusalem

The Synod of Jerusalem[35] in 1672 decreed the Greek Orthodox Canon which is similar to the one decided by the Council of Trent. The Greek Orthodox[36] generally consider Psalm 151 to be part of the Book of Psalms. Likewise, the "books of the Maccabees" are four in number, though 4 Maccabees is generally in an appendix, along with the Prayer of Manasseh. Also, there are two books of Esdras, for the Greeks these books are 1 Esdras and Ezra-Nehemiah, see Esdras#Differences in names for details. 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, are known as the New Testament apocrypha. Likewise, there are certain books similar to the Old Testament that Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox agree should be excluded from the biblical canon.

According to the "The SBL Handbook of Style" published by the Society of Biblical Literature, one should consider using the term "deuterocanonical literature" rather than "apocrypha" to refer to literature regarded by some denominations but not others as canonical.[37]

Modern canons

Today, most biblical compilations comply with either the standards set forth by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1825 which corresponds to the so-called, "Protestant Bible" or with one that includes the Biblical apocrypha and deuterocanonical books prescribed for so-called Catholic Bibles.

Other common variations include the pocket-sized Gideons International versions that include the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs although the selection of books for inclusion does not comprise a canon.


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. ^ Apol. Const. 4
  3. ^ The Canon Debate, pages 414-415, for the entire paragraph
  4. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. : Canonicity: "..."the Synod of Nicaea is said to have accounted it as Sacred Scripture" (Praef. in Lib.). It is true that no such declaration is to be found in the Canons of Nicaea, and it is uncertain whether St. Jerome is referring to the use made of the book in the discussions of the council, or whether he was misled by some spurious canons attributed to that council"
  5. ^ Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. InterVarsity Press. p. 225. 
  6. ^ Decretum Gelasianum
  7. ^ Lindberg (2006). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing. p. 15. 
  8. ^ Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. p. 234. 
  9. ^ The "Damasian Canon" was published by C. H. Turner in JTS, vol. 1, 1900, pp. 554–560.
  10. ^ Corey Keating, The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon.
  11. ^ McDonald & Sanders' The Canon Debate, Appendix D-2, note 19: "Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod of Carthage."
  12. ^ a b 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
  13. ^ F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 230
  14. ^ cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 22.8.
  15. ^ Lee M. MacDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 1995, p 132
  16. ^ F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 215
  17. ^ P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds. (1970). The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1). Cambridge University Press. p. 305. 
  18. ^ Metzger, Bruce (1987). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon. pp. 237–238. 
  19. ^ Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Canon of Scripture. Intervarsity Press. p. 97. 
  20. ^ Metzger, Bruce M. (1987). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  21. ^ "The Development of the Canon of the New Testament". 
  22. ^ "Peshitta". NT Canon. 
  23. ^ a b "Reliability". Theological Perspectives. Archived from the original on 2009-06-15. 
  24. ^ Ethiopian Canon, Islamic Awareness.
  25. ^ "Fathers". Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). 
  26. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.  section titled "The Council of Florence 1442"
  27. ^ "Martin Luther". Archived from the original on 2008-03-22. 
  28. ^ "Luther's Treatment of the 'Disputed Books' of the New Testament". 
  29. ^ "Gedruckte Ausgaben der Lutherbibel von 1545". Archived from the original on 2010-04-19.  note order: …Hebräer, Jakobus, Judas, Offenbarung
  30. ^ "German Bible Versions". 
  31. ^ Metzger, Bruce M. (March 13, 1997). The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford University Press. p. 246. ISBN . 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. 
  32. ^ "Two books of Esdras" is ambiguous, it could mean 1 Esdras and Ezra-Nehemiah as in the Septuagint or Ezra and Nehemiah as in the Vulgate.
  33. ^ Belgic Confession 4. Canonical Books of the Holy Scripture
  34. ^ The Westminster Confession rejected the canonicity of the Apocrypha stating that "The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings." Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646
  35. ^ Schaff's Creeds
  36. ^ McDonald and Sanders' The Canon Debate, Appendix C: Lists and Catalogs of Old Testament Collections, Table C-4: Current Canons of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, page 589=590.
  37. ^ Patrick H. Alexander; Society of Biblical Literature (1999). The SBL Handbook of Style: For Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies. Hendrickson Publishers. p. 17. ISBN . 

External links

  • The Development of the Canon of the New Testament - includes very detailed charts and direct links to ancient witnesses
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