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The Biblical canon is an exclusive list of books written during the formative period of the Jewish or Christian faiths; the people of these communities believed these books to be inspired by God or to express the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people.


There are differences between Christians and Jews, as well as between different Christian traditions, over which books meet the standards for canonization. The different criteria for, and the process of, canonization for each community dictates what members of that community consider to be "the Bible."


At this time, all of the below canons are considered to be "closed"; that is, most adherents of the various groups do not think that additional books can be added to the Bible. By contrast, an "open" canon would be a list of books which is considered to be open to additional books, should they meet the other criteria. Each of the canons described below was considered open for a time before being closed. Generally, the closure of the canon reflects a belief from the faith community that the formative period of the religion has ended, and that texts from that period can be collected into an authoritative body of work.


The relationship between the closing of the canon and beliefs about the nature of revelation may be subject to different interpretations. Some believe that the closing of the canon signals the end of a period of divine revelation; others believe that revelation continues even after the canon is closed, either through individuals or through the leadership of a divinely sanctioned religious institution. Among those who believe that revelation continues after the canon is closed, there is further debate about what kinds of revelation is possible, and whether the revelation can add to established theology.




Traditionally more open to discussion and editorial interpretation is the concept of a canonic text, that is, a single, authoritative text for each of the books in the canon, one which depends on editorial selections from among manuscript traditions that had been independent of one another. Significant separate manuscript traditions in the canonic Hebrew Bible are represented in the Septuagint translation's variants from the Masoretic text that was established through the Masoretes' scholarly collation of varying manuscripts, and in the independent manuscript traditions that are represented by the Dead Sea scrolls. Additional, otherwise unrecorded texts for Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus lie behind the Book of Jubilees. These, and the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, emphasize that even canonic Hebrew texts did not possess any single hard and fast "authorized" manuscript tradition, in the first centuries BCE. 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. Jerome's Vulgate was a successful attempt at establishing a canonic text, one that passed without challenge until the humanist textual inquiries of the 15th and 16th centuries.




The Jews recognize the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible as the Tanakh. (These twenty-four books correspond in content to the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament)


Evidence suggests that the process of canonization of the Tanakh occurred between 200 BC and 200 AD. The first suggestion of a Jewish Canon comes in the 2nd century BC. 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). (The book also suggests that Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Israel.) Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus likewise collected sacred books. They do not, however, 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.


Additional evidence of a collection of sacred scripture similar to portions of the Hebrew Bible comes from the book of Sirach (dating from 180 BC and also not included in the Jewish canon), which includes a list of names of great men in the same order as is found in the Torah and the Nevi'im (Prophets), and which includes the names of some men mentioned in the Ketuvim (Writings). Based on this list of names, some scholars have conjectured that the author, Yeshua ben Sira (Jesus son of Sirach) had access to, and considered authoritative, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve minor prophets. His list excludes names from Ruth, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, and Job, suggesting that he either did not have access to these books, or did not consider them authoritative. In the prologue to the Greek translation of ben Sirach's work, his grandson mentions both the Torah and the Nevi'im, as well as a third group of books which is not yet named as Ketuvim (the prologue simply identifies "the rest of the books"). Based on this evidence, some scholars have suggested that by the 2nd century BC the books of the Torah and Nevi'im were considered canonical, but that the books of the Ketuvim were not.


The Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, probably in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, provided a standard text for the non-Hebrew-speaking world, and was used by the Apostles and early Christians. In this text the Torah and Nevi'im are established as canonical, but again, Ketuvim have not yet been definitively canonized (some editions of the Septuagint include, for instance I-IV Maccabees or the 151st Psalm, while others do not include them).


Scrolls discovered at caves near Qumran refer to the Torah and Nevi'im and suggest that these portions of the Bible had already been canonized before 68 AD. A scroll that contains all or parts of 41 Biblical psalms, although not in the same order as in the current Book of Psalms, and which includes eight texts not found in the Book of Psalms, suggests that the Book of Psalms had not yet been canonized.


In the first century AD, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria discussed sacred books, but made no mention of a tripartite division of the Bible. Josephus, however, refers to sacred scriptures divided into three parts: the five books of the Torah; thirteen books of the Nevi'im, and four other books of hymns and wisdom. The number of 22 books mentioned by Josephus does not correspond to the number of books in the current canon. Some scholars have suggested that he considered Ruth part of Judges, and Lamentations part of Jeremiah. Other scholars suggest that at the time Josephus wrote, such books as Esther and Ecclesiastes were not yet considered canonical.


Significantly, Josephus characterizes the 22 books as canonical because they were divinely inspired; he mentions other historical books that were not divinely inspired and that therefore do not belong in the canon.


The first reference to a 24-book Jewish canon is found in 2 Esdras 14:45-46, which was probably written in the first half of the second century AD:

"Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people." [RSV]


The "seventy" might refer to the Septuagint, apocrypha, or mystical works.


The Pharisees also debated the status of these extra-canonical books; in the 2nd century AD, Rabbi Akiva declared that those who read them would not share in the afterlife (Sanhedrin 10:1).


The Mishnah, compiled by the second century AD, describes some of the debate over the status of some books of Ketuvim, and in particular whether or not they render the hands "impure". Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to the debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Megillat Taanit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that are not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim. Based on these, and a few similar references, Heinrich Graetz concluded in 1871 that there had been a "synod" at "Jamnia" (or Yavne in Hebrew) which had decided Jewish canon sometime in the late 1st century. This became the prevailing scholarly consensus for much of the 20th century. However, from the 1960s onwards, based on the work of J.P. Lewis, S.Z. Leiman, and others, this view came increasingly into question. In particular, later scholars noted that none of the sources actually mentioned books that had been withdrawn from a canon, and questioned the whole premise that the discussions were about canonicity at all, asserting that they were actually dealing with other concerns entirely. Today there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set.




When Christianity began, it had no well-defined set of scriptures outside of the Septuagint. The earliest Christian canon is found in the Bryennios manuscript, published by J.-P. Audet in JTS 1950, v1, pp 135-154, dated to around 100 AD; it is the 27 book Old Testament list. Early Christianity also relied on the oral tradition of what Jesus had said and done, as reported by the apostles and other followers. Even after the Gospels were written and began circulating, some Christians preferred the oral Gospel as told by people they trusted (e.g. Papias, c. 125 AD).


By the end of the 1st century, some Letters of Paul were collected and circulated, and were known to Clement of Rome (c. 95 AD), Ignatius of Antioch (died 117 AD), and Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 115 AD) but they weren't called scripture as the Septuagint was and they weren't without critics. In the late 4th century Epiphanius of Salamis (died 402) Panarion 29 says the Nazarenes had rejected the Pauline epistles and Irenaeus Against Heresies 26.2 says the Ebionites rejected him. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 6.38 says the Elchasai "made use of texts from every part of the Old Testament and the Gospels; it rejects the Apostle (Paul) entirely"; 4.29.5 says Tatian the Assyrian rejected Paul's Letters and Acts of the Apostles; 6.25 says Origen accepted a 22 book Old Testament plus Maccabees as deuterocanonical plus the four Gospels but Paul "did not so much as write to all the churches that he taught; and even to those to which he wrote he sent but a few lines."


The first of record to propose a definitive, exclusive canon of Christian scriptures was Marcion of Sinope, c. 150 AD. He rejected the teachings of the Old Testament, which he claimed were incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke, which Marcion called simply the "Gospel", he edited to remove any passages that connected Jesus with the Old Testament. This was because he believed that the god of the Jews who gave them the Law of Moses was an entirely different god than the Supreme God who sent Jesus and inspired the New Testament. By editing he thought he was removing judaizing corruptions and recovering the original inspired words of Jesus. He also used ten Letters of Paul (excluding Hebrews and the Pastoral Epistles) assuming his "Epistle to the Laodiceans" refered to canonical Ephesians and not apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans or another text no longer extant. To these, which he called the "Gospel and the Apostolicon", he added his "Antithesis" which contrasted the New Testament with the Old Testament. Marcion's canon and theology were soundly rejected as heretical; however, he forced other Christians to consider which texts were canonical and why. He spread his beliefs widely; they became known as Marcionism. The Catholic Encyclopedia says "they were perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known."


The Diatessaron was a one-volume harmony of the four Gospels, translated and compiled by Tatian the Assyrian into Syriac c. 173 AD. In Syriac speaking churches, it effectively served as the only New Testament scripture until Paul's Letters were added during the third century. Some authorities believe that the Book of Acts was also used in Syrian churches alongside the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron was eventually replaced in the 5th century by the Peshitta, which contains a translation of all the books of the New Testament except for 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation.


Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185) vigorously presented the notion that there were exactly four Gospels, no more and no less, as a touchstone of orthodoxy. He argued that it was illogical to reject Acts of the Apostles but accept the Gospel of Luke, as both were from the same author. In Against Heresies 3.12.12 he ridiculed those who think they are wiser than the Apostles because they were still under Jewish influence. This was crucial to refuting Marcion's anti-Judaizing, as Acts gives honor to James, Peter, John and Paul alike. At the time, Jewish Christians tended to honor James (a prominent Christian in Jerusalem described in the New Testament as an "apostle" and "pillar", and by Eusebius and other church historians as the first Bishop of Jerusalem) but not Paul, while Pauline Christianity tended to honor Paul more than James.


The Muratorian fragment, often considered the first non-Marcion New Testament canon, is often dated at 170 AD (based on an internal reference to Pope Pius I and arguments put forth by Bruce Metzger) but more likely as late as the end of the 4th century according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. This partial canon lists four gospels and the Pauline Letters, as well as two books of Revelation, one of John, another of Peter (the latter of which it notes is not often read in the churches).


Eusebius, around 300, listed a New Testament canon in his Ecclesiastical History 3.3 and 3.25: "Recognized" are four Gospels, Acts, 10 traditional Letters of Paul, Pastoral Epistles, 1st Peter, 1st John; "Disputed" are Didache, Barnabas, Hermas, Diatessaron, Gospel of the Hebrews, Hebrews, Acts of Paul, James, 2nd Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Revelation, Apocalypse of Peter; "Rejected" are Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Matthias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of John, and unnamed others.


The Codex Claromontanus Canon, dated around 350 has the 27 book OT plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, 1-2,4 Maccabees, Barnabas, Hermas and the 27 book NT plus 3rd Corinthians, Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter but missing Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians, and Hebrews.


The Cheltenham Canon, also known as Mommsen's, dated around 350, has a 24 book OT (same as Judaism's Tanakh) and 24 book NT which omits Hebrews, Jude and James.


One of the first synods that set out to judge which books were to be read aloud in churches was the Synod of Laodicea, held about 363. The decrees issued by the thirty or so clerics attending were called 'canons'. Canon 59 decreed that only canonical books should be read, but no list was appended in the Latin and Syriac manuscripts recording the decrees. The list of canonical books, Canon 60, sometimes attributed to the Synod of Laodicea is a later addition according to most scholars and has a 22 book OT and 26 book NT omitting Revelation.


In 367, Athanasius in Festal Letter 39 listed a 22 book OT and 27 book NT and 7 book Deuterocanon of Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, Didache, and the Pastor (probably Hermas). If you ignore the deuterocanon and exclusion of Esther from the canon, this list is the same as the modern Protestant canon and so Athanasius is often considered the father of the modern Protestant canon.


The father of the modern Catholic canon is often considered to be Pope Damasus I. Though 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 is actually a valuable though non-papal list from the early 6th century. Denziger's recension is found in the links at Decretum Gelasianum. The "Damasian Canon" was published by C.H. Turner in JTS, vol. 1, 1900, pp 554-560.


The third Synod of Carthage, in 397, ratified the canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa, 393, the acts of which have been lost. The canon of the Synod of Hippo was supposedly endorsed by Pope Damasus I. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, producing the Vulgate bible, he argued for the "Veritas Hebraica", or the acceptance of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. At the insistence of the Pope, however, he added existing translations for what he considered doubtful books, but did not personally translate them anew. This period marks the beginning of a more widely recognized canon. The inclusion of some books were 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); suitability for use; and how widely they were actually being used. 2 Peter is the most weakly attested of all the books in the Christian canon. One concern regarding the book of Revelation at that time is that it was already being interpreted in a wide variety of heretical ways.


The Orthodox Synod of Trullo in 692, rejected by Pope Constantine, approved Gregory Theologus' 22 book OT and 26 book NT (excluded Revelation) and the Apostolic Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions of which Canon #85 is a list of the canonical OT, Judith, Sirach, 1-3Maccabees, Didache, 1-2Clement, and 26 book NT (excluded Revelation), and the Apostolic Constitutions which themselves were rejected because they were said to contain heretical interpolations.


John of Damascus (c 654-c 749) in Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith 4.17 accepted Didache and Apostolic Constitutions.


Nicephorus the Patriarch of Jerusalem (806-815) in a Stichometria appended to the end of his Chronography rejected Esther, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, Enoch, Didache, Barnabas, Hermas, Clement, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, 3rd Corinthians, Acts of Paul, Revelation, Apocalypse of Peter.


At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola fide, partially because of the early debate over their inclusion), but this was not generally accepted among his followers. However, these books are ordered last in German-language Lutheran Bibles to this day. Bruce Metzger's Canon of the New Testament says in 1596 Jacob Lucius published a Bible at Hamburg which labeled Luther's four as "Apocrypha"; David Wolder the pastor of Hamburg's Church of St. Peter published in the same year a triglot Bible which labeled them as "non canonical"; J. Vogt published a Bible at Goslar in 1614 similar to Lucius'; Gustavus Adolphus of Stockholm in 1618 published a Bible with them labeled as "Apocr(yphal) New Testament." Luther also eliminated the "doubtful" books from his Old Testament, terming them "Apocrypha, that are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read". He also argued unsuccessfully for the relocation of Esther from the Canon to the Apocrypha, since without the deuterocanonical sections, it never mentions God. As a result Catholics and Protestants continue to use different canons, which differ in respect to the Old Testament. There is some evidence that the first decision to omit these 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 from the canon. 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".


Many modern Protestants point to four "Criteria for Canonicity" to determine which books should be included in the Old and New Testament:

1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based on 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 or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.


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 their Old Testament and the Catholic canon for their New Testament.


On April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent by vote (24 yea, 15 nay, 16 abstain) approved the present Roman Catholic Bible Canon including the Deuterocanonical Books. This is said to be the same list as produced at the Council of Florence (1451), this list was defined as canonical in the profession of faith proposed for the Jacobite Orthodox Church. Because of its placement, the list was not considered binding for the Catholic church, and in light of Martin Luther's demands, the Catholic Church examined the question of the Canon again at the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed the Canon of the Council of Florence. The Old Testament books that had been in doubt were 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".


In 1563, the Church of England's 39 Articles, article 6, recognized the Roman Catholic Canon including the Deuterocanonicals.


In 1647, the Westminster Confession of Calvinism decreed the 27-book OT and 27-book NT, all others labelled as apocrypha.


In 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem decreed the Greek Orthodox Canon which is the same as the Roman Catholic but includes Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Psalms of Solomon. The Greek Orthodox generally consider the Septuagint to be divinely inspired.


In 1819, Thomas Jefferson produced the Jefferson Bible by excluding sayings of Jesus which he felt were easily determined to be inauthentic ("like picking diamonds from dunghills" -To Adams, Jan 24, 1814).


On April 24, 1870, Vatican I approved the additions to Mark (v.16:9-20), Luke, (22:19b-20,43-44) and John, (7:53-8:11) which are not present in early manuscripts.


On June 2, 1927, Pope Pius XI decreed the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute.


In 1993 the Jesus Seminar ranked sayings of Jesus for authenticity by vote and published The Five Gospels : What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. In addition to the canonical four gospels, the fifth gospel is the Gospel of Thomas.


Many Christians have accepted and continue to accept the same 27 books as the New Testament, except for those Syriac-speaking Christians who continue to use the Peshitta and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which lists four books of Sinodos (church practices), two Books of Covenant, "Ethiopic Clement", and "Ethiopic Didascalia" within a broader New Testament canon, although their narrow canon is the same as that of other churches; see this webpage for much more detailed information on the Ethiopian Canon) and the Armenian Orthodox who include the Third Epistle to the Corinthians. The Canon of the Tewahedo Church is looser than for most other traditional Christian groups. The Ethiopian "narrow" Old Testament Canon includes the books found in the Septuagint accepted by the Orthodox plus Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, and Psalm 151; but their three books of the Maccabees are quite different in content from those of the other Christian churches which include them. The order of the other books is somewhat different from other groups', as well. This Church also has a "broader canon" that includes more books.


The books that were not accepted, but that are known to have existed in antiquity, are stylistically or in subject matter similar to the New Testament, and claim apostolic authorship, are generally termed New Testament apocrypha.




Adapted from Wikipedia




Go to The formation and translations of the Bible contents page

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