How the biblical canon was formed
A biblical canon or canon of scripture is a list of texts (or "books") which a particular religious community regards as authoritative scripture. The word "canon" comes from the Greek κανών, meaning "rule" or "measuring stick". Christians became the first to use the term in reference to scripture, but Eugene Ulrich regards the idea as Jewish.
- How the biblical canon was formed
- Faithful to the scriptures episode 03 biblical canon
- Rabbinic Judaism
- Beta Israel
- Samaritan canon
- Earliest Christian communities
- Marcion's list
- Apostolic Fathers
- Alexandrian Fathers
- Eastern canons
- Latin Fathers
- Protestant canon
- Canons of various Christian traditions
- Old Testament
- New Testament
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints
- Other Latter Day Saint sects
Most of the canons listed below are considered "closed" (i.e., books cannot be added or removed), reflecting a belief that public revelation has ended and thus some person or persons can gather approved inspired texts into a complete and authoritative canon, which scholar Bruce Metzger defines as "an authoritative collection of books". In contrast, an "open canon", which permits the addition of books through the process of continuous revelation, Metzger defines as "a collection of authoritative books". (A table of Biblical scripture for both Testaments, with regard to canonical acceptance in Christendom's various major traditions, appears below.)
These canons have developed through debate (canonology) and agreement by the religious authorities of their respective faiths and denominations. Believers consider canonical books as inspired by God or as expressive of the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people. Some books such as the Jewish-Christian gospels, have been excluded from the canon altogether, but many disputed books considered non-canonical or even apocryphal by some are considered to be Biblical apocrypha or Deuterocanonical or fully canonical by others. Differences exist between the Jewish Tanakh and Christian biblical canons, and between the canons of different Christian denominations. The differing criteria and processes of canonization dictate what the various communities regard as inspired scripture. In some cases where varying strata of scriptural inspiration have accumulated, it becomes prudent to discuss texts that only have an elevated status within a particular tradition. This becomes even more complex when considering the open canons of the various Latter Day Saint sects—which one may view as extensions of Christianity and thus of Judaism—and the scriptural revelations purportedly given to several leaders over the years within that movement.
Faithful to the scriptures episode 03 biblical canon
Rabbinic Judaism (Hebrew: יהדות רבנית) recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic Text, commonly called the Tanakh (Hebrew: תַּנַ"ךְ) or Hebrew Bible. Evidence suggests that the process of canonization occurred between 200 BC and 200 AD, and a popular position is that the Torah was canonized c. 400 BC, the Prophets c. 200 BC, and the Writings c. 100 AD perhaps at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia—however, this position is increasingly criticised by modern scholars. According to Marc Zvi Brettler, the Jewish scriptures outside the Torah and the Prophets were fluid, different groups seeing authority in different books.
The book of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against adding or subtracting (4:2, 12:32) which 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. The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, describes Nehemiah (c. 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" (2:13–15).
The Book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Jerusalem and the Second Temple (8–9) around the same time period. Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus (c. 167 BC) likewise collected sacred books (3:42–50, 2:13–15, 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.
The Great Assembly, also known as the Great Synagogue, was, according to Jewish tradition, an assembly of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets, in the period from the end of the Biblical prophets to the time of the development of Rabbinic Judaism, marking a transition from an era of prophets to an era of Rabbis. They lived in a period of about two centuries ending c. 70 AD. Among the developments in Judaism that are attributed to them are the fixing of the Jewish Biblical canon, including the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets; the introduction of the triple classification of the oral Torah, dividing its study into the three branches of midrash, halakot, and aggadot; the introduction of the Feast of Purim; and the institution of the prayer known as the Shemoneh 'Esreh as well as the synagogal prayers, rituals, and benedictions.
In addition to the Tanakh, mainstream Rabbinic Judaism considers the Talmud (Hebrew: תַּלְמוּד ) to be another central, authoritative text. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs, and history. The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah (c. 200 AD), the first written compendium of Judaism's oral Law; and the Gemara (c. 500 AD), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh. There are numerous citations of Sirach within the Talmud, even though the book was not ultimately accepted into the Hebrew canon.
The Talmud is the basis for all codes of rabbinic law and is often quoted in other rabbinic literature. Certain groups of Jews, such as the Karaites, do not accept the oral Law as it is codified in the Talmud and only consider the Tanakh to be authoritative.
Ethiopian Jews—also known as Beta Israel (Ge'ez: ቤተ እስራኤል—Bēta 'Isrā'ēl)—possess a canon of scripture that is distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. Mäṣḥafä Kedus (Holy Scriptures) is the name for the religious literature of these Jews, which is written primarily in Ge'ez. Their holiest book, the Orit, consists of the Pentateuch, as well as Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. The rest of the Ethiopian Jewish canon is considered to be of secondary importance. It consists of the remainder of the Hebrew canon—with the possible exception of the Book of Lamentations—and various deuterocanonical books. These include Sirach, Judith, Tobit, 1 and 2 Esdras, 1 and 4 Baruch, the three books of Meqabyan, Jubilees, Enoch, the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Isaac, and the Testament of Jacob. The latter three patriarchal testaments are distinct to this scriptural tradition.
A third tier of religious writings that are important to Ethiopian Jews, but are not considered to be part of the canon, include the following: Nagara Muse (The Conversation of Moses), Mota Aaron (Death of Aaron), Mota Muse (Death of Moses), Te'ezaza Sanbat (Precepts of Sabbath), Arde'et (Students), the Apocalypse of Gorgorios, Mäṣḥafä Sa'atat (Book of Hours), Abba Elias (Father Elija), Mäṣḥafä Mäla'əkt (Book of Angels), Mäṣḥafä Kahan (Book of Priests), Dərsanä Abrəham Wäsara Bägabs (Homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt), Gadla Sosna (The Acts of Susanna), and Baqadāmi Gabra Egzi'abḥēr (In the Beginning God Created).
In addition to these, Zëna Ayhud (the Ethiopic version of Josippon) and the sayings of various fālasfā (philosophers) are sources that are not necessarily considered holy, but nonetheless have great influence.
Another version of the Torah, in the Samaritan alphabet, also exists. This text is associated with the Samaritans (Hebrew: שומרונים; Arabic: السامريون), 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 BC."
The Samaritan Pentateuch's relationship to the Masoretic Text is still disputed. Some differences are minor, such as the ages of different people mentioned in genealogy, while others are major, such as a commandment to be monogamous, which only appears in the Samaritan version. More importantly, the Samaritan text also diverges from the Masoretic in stating that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Gerizim—not Mount Sinai—and that it is upon this mountain (Gerizim) that sacrifices to God should be made—not in Jerusalem. Scholars nonetheless consult the Samaritan version when trying to determine the meaning of text of the original Pentateuch, as well as to trace the development of text-families. Some scrolls among the Dead Sea scrolls have been identified as proto-Samaritan Pentateuch text-type. Comparisons have also been made between the Samaritan Torah and the Septuagint version.
Samaritans consider the Torah to be inspired scripture, but do not accept any other parts of the Bible—probably a position also held by the Sadducees. They did not expand their canon by adding any Samaritan compositions. There is a Samaritan Book of Joshua; however, this is a popular chronicle written in Arabic and is not considered to be scripture. Other non-canonical Samaritan religious texts include the Memar Markah (Teaching of Markah) and the Defter (Prayerbook)—both from the 4th century or later.
The people of the remnants of the Samaritans in modern-day Israel/Palestine retain their version of the Torah as fully and authoritatively canonical. They regard themselves as the true "guardians of the Law." This assertion is only re-enforced by the claim of the Samaritan community in Nablus (an area traditionally associated with the ancient city of Shechem) to possess the oldest existing copy of the Torah—one that they believe to have been penned by Abisha, a grandson of Aaron.
Earliest Christian communities
The Early Church used the Old Testament, namely the Septuagint (LXX) among Greek speakers, with a canon perhaps as found in the Bryennios List or Melito's canon. The Apostles did not otherwise leave a defined set of new scriptures; instead, the New Testament developed over time.
Writings attributed to the apostles circulated among the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating in collected forms by the end of the 1st century AD. Justin Martyr, in the early 2nd century, mentions the "memoirs of the Apostles," which Christians (Greek: Χριστιανός) called "gospels," and which were considered to be authoritatively equal to the Old Testament.
Marcion of Sinope was the first Christian leader in recorded history (though later considered heretical) to propose and delineate a uniquely Christian canon (ca. AD 140). This included 10 epistles from St. Paul, as well as a version of the Gospel of Luke, which today is known as the Gospel of Marcion. In so doing, he established a particular way of looking at religious texts that persists in Christian thought today.
After Marcion, Christians began to divide texts into those that aligned well with the "canon" (measuring stick) of accepted theological thought and those that promoted heresy. This played a major role in finalizing the structure of the collection of works called the Bible. It has been proposed that the initial impetus for the proto-orthodox Christian project of canonization flowed from opposition to the canonization of Marcion.
A four-gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was asserted by Irenaeus in the following quote: "It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four-quarters of the earth in which we live, and four universal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the 'pillar and ground' of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh… Therefore the gospels are in accord with these things… For the living creatures are quadriform and the gospel is quadriform… These things being so, all who destroy the form of the gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious; those [I mean] who represent the aspects of the gospel as being either more in number than as aforesaid, or, on the other hand, fewer."
By the early 3rd century, Christian theologians like Origen of Alexandria may have been using—or at least were familiar with—the same 27 books found in modern New Testament editions, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of some of the writings (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 3rd century.
Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4), an early scholar involved in the codification of the Biblical canon, had a thorough education both in Christian theology and in pagan philosophy, but was posthumously condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 since some of his teachings were considered to be heresy. Origen's canon included all of the books in the current New Testament canon except for four books: James, 2nd Peter, and the 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." This was one of the first major attempts at the compilation of certain books and letters as authoritative and inspired teaching for the Early Church at the time, although it is unclear whether Origen intended for his list to be authoritative itself.
In his Easter letter of 367, Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria gave a list of exactly the same books that would become the New Testament–27 book–proto-canon, and used the phrase "being canonized" (kanonizomena) in regard to them. Athanasius also included the Book of Baruch, as well as the Letter of Jeremiah, in his Old Testament canon. However, from this canon, he omitted the Book of Esther.
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 Sergius I (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. Similarly, the New Testament canons of the Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches all have minor differences. The Revelation of John is said to be 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 first council that accepted the present Catholic canon (the Canon of Trent) may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393). A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the 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 6th-century compilation. Likewise, Damasus' commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.
In a letter (c. 405) to Exsuperius of Toulouse, a Gallic bishop, Pope Innocent I mentioned the sacred books that were already received in the canon. 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 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and by the 5th 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 New Testament canon.
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—though these ideas are not isolated to Protestant theology, but extend to or are derived from other Christian traditions:
- Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon 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 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
- 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 to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) 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 scriptura 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. In addition, Luther moved the books that later are called the Deuterocanonicals into a section he called the Apocrypha.
Canons of various Christian traditions
Final dogmatic articulations of the canons were made at 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 Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Eastern Orthodox. Other traditions, while also having closed canons, may not be able to point to the exact years in which their respective canons were considered to be complete. The following tables reflect the current state of various Christian canons.
All of the major Christian traditions accept the books of the Hebrew protocanon in its entirety as divinely inspired and authoritative. Furthermore, all of these traditions, with the exception of the Protestants, add to this number various deuterocanonical books. However, in some Protestant Bibles—especially the English King James Bible and the Lutheran Bible—many of these deuterocanonical books are retained as part of the tradition in a section called the "Apocrypha."
Some books listed here, like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs for the Armenian Apostolic Church, may have once been a vital part of a Biblical tradition, may even still hold a place of honor, but are no longer considered to be part of the Bible. Other books, like the Prayer of Manasseh for the Roman Catholic Church, may have been included in manuscripts, but never really attained a high level of importance within that particular tradition. The levels of traditional prominence for others, like Psalms 152–155 and the Psalms of Solomon of the Syriac churches, remain unclear.
In so far as the Orthodox Tewahedo canon is concerned, some points of clarity should be made. First, the books of Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Baruch, as well as the Letter of Jeremiah and 4 Baruch, are all considered canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Churches. However, it is not always clear as to how these writings are arranged or divided. In some lists, they may simply fall under the title "Jeremiah," while in others, they are divided various ways into separate books. Moreover, the book of Proverbs is divided into two books—Messale (Prov. 1–24) and Tägsas (Prov. 25–31).
Additionally, while the books of Jubilees and Enoch are fairly well-known among western scholars, 1, 2, and 3 Meqabyan are not. The three books of Meqabyan are often called the "Ethiopian Maccabees," but are completely different in content from the books of Maccabees that are known and/or have been canonized in other traditions. Finally, the Book of Joseph ben Gurion, or Pseudo-Josephus, is a history of the Jewish people thought to be based upon the writings of Josephus. The Ethiopic version (Zëna Ayhud) has eight parts and is included in the Orthodox Tewahedo broader canon.
Among the various Christian denominations, the New Testament canon is a generally agreed-upon list of 27 books. However, the way in which those books are arranged may vary from tradition to tradition. For instance, in the Lutheran, Slavonic, Orthodox Tewahedo, Syriac, and Armenian traditions, the New Testament is ordered differently from what is considered to be the standard arrangement. Protestant Bibles in Russia and Ethiopia usually follow the local Orthodox order for the New Testament. The Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East both adhere to the Peshitta liturgical tradition, which historically excludes five books of the New Testament Antilegomena: 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. However, those books are included in certain Bibles of the modern Syriac traditions.
Other New Testament works that are generally considered apocryphal nonetheless appear in some Bibles and manuscripts. For instance, the Epistle to the Laodiceans was included in numerous Latin Vulgate manuscripts, in the eighteen German Bibles prior to Luther's translation, and also a number of early English Bibles, such as Gundulf's Bible and John Wycliffe's English translation—even as recently as 1728, William Whiston considered this epistle to be genuinely Pauline. Likewise, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians was once considered to be part of the Armenian Orthodox Bible, but is no longer printed in modern editions. Within the Syriac Orthodox tradition, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians also has a history of significance. Both Aphrahat and Ephraem of Syria held it in high regard and treated it as if it were canonical. However, it was left-out of the Peshitta and ultimately excluded from the canon altogether.
The Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas, and other writings attributed to the Apostolic Fathers, were once considered scriptural by various early Church fathers. They are still being honored in some traditions, though they are no longer considered to be canonical. However, certain canonical books within the Orthodox Tewahedo traditions find their origin in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers as well as the Ancient Church Orders. The Orthodox Tewahedo churches recognize these eight additional New Testament books in its broader canon. They are as follows: the four books of Sinodos, the two books of the Covenant, Ethiopic Clement, and the Ethiopic Didascalia.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) consists of several books that constitute its open scriptural canon, and include the following:
The Pearl of Great Price contains five sections: "Selections from the Book of Moses", "The Book of Abraham", "Joseph Smith—Matthew", "Joseph Smith—History" and "The Articles of Faith". The Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew are portions of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew (respectively) from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. (The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is also known as the Inspired Version of the Bible.)
The manuscripts of the unfinished Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) state that "the Song of Solomon is not inspired scripture." However, it is still printed in every version of the King James Bible published by the church.
The Standard Works are printed and distributed by the LDS church in a single binding called a "Quadruple Combination" or a set of two books, with the Bible in one binding, and the other three books in a second binding called a "Triple Combination". Current editions of the Standard Works include a bible dictionary, photographs, maps and gazetteer, topical guide, index, footnotes, cross references, excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and other study aids.
Other Latter Day Saint sects
Canons of various Latter Day Saint denominations diverge from the LDS Standard Works. Some accept only portions of the Standard Works. For instance, the Bickertonite sect does not consider the Pearl of Great Price or Doctrines and Covenants to be scriptural. Rather, they believe that the New Testament scriptures contain a true description of the church as established by Jesus Christ, and that both the King James Bible and Book of Mormon are the inspired word of God. Some denominations accept earlier versions of the Standard Works or work to develop corrected translations. Others have purportedly received additional revelation.
The Community of Christ points to Jesus Christ as the living Word of God, and it affirms the Bible, along with the Book of Mormon, as well as its own regularly appended version of Doctrines and Covenants as scripture for the church. While it publishes a version of the Joseph Smith Translation—which includes material from the Book of Moses—the Community of Christ also accepts the use of other translations of the Bible, such as the standard King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version.
Like the aforementioned Bickertonites, the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) rejects the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, as well as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, preferring to use only the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon as doctrinal standards. The Book of Commandments is accepted as being superior to the Doctrine and Covenants as a compendium of Joseph Smith's early revelations, but is not accorded the same status as the Bible or Book of Mormon.
The Word of the Lord and The Word of the Lord Brought to Mankind by an Angel are two related books considered to be scriptural by certain (Fettingite) factions that separated from the Temple Lot church. Both books contain revelations allegedly given to former Church of Christ (Temple Lot) Apostle Otto Fetting by an angelic being who claimed to be John the Baptist. The latter title (120 messages) contains the entirety of the former's material (30 msgs.) with additional revelations (90 msgs.) purportedly given to William A. Draves by this same being, after Fetting's death. Neither are accepted by the larger Temple Lot body of believers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) considers the Bible (when correctly translated), the Book of Mormon, and editions of the Doctrine and Covenants published prior to Joseph Smith's death (which contained the Lectures on Faith) to be inspired scripture. They also hold the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible to be inspired, but do not believe modern publications of the text are accurate. Other portions of The Pearl of Great Price, however, are not considered to be scriptural—though are not necessarily fully rejected either. The Book of Jasher was consistently used by both Joseph Smith and James Strang, but as with other Latter Day Saint denominations and sects, there is no official stance on its authenticity, and it is not considered canonical.
An additional work called The Book of the Law of the Lord is also accepted as inspired scripture by the Strangites. They likewise hold as scriptural several prophecies, visions, revelations, and translations printed by James Strang, and published in the Revelations of James J. Strang. Among other things, this text contains his purported "Letter of Appointment" from Joseph Smith and his translation of the Voree plates.
The Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite) accepts the following as scripture: the Inspired Version of the Bible (including the Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew), the Book of Mormon, and the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (including the Lectures on Faith). However, the revelation on tithing (section 107 in the 1844 edition; 119 in modern LDS editions) is emphatically rejected by members of this church, as it is not believed to be given by Joseph Smith. The Book of Abraham is rejected as scripture, as are the other portions of the Pearl of Great Price that do not appear in the Inspired Version of the Bible.
Many Latter Day Saint denominations have also either adopted the Articles of Faith or at least view them as a statement of basic theology. (They are considered scriptural by the larger LDS church and are included in The Pearl of Great Price.) At times, the Articles have been adapted to fit the respective belief systems of various faith communities.