Formation of the New Testament Canon - Lesson 9

Eusebius' Four Categories of Books

In this lesson, you'll develop a deep understanding of Eusebius' four-fold division and its contribution to comprehending the core and fringe of early Christianity's canon. The division consists of accepted, disputed, rejected, and heretical books. Accepted books, twenty-one out of twenty-seven, were well-known, documented, and never questioned. Disputed books like 2nd Peter, Jude, James, 2nd & 3rd John, and Revelation were controversial due to their size and infrequent use, and sometimes suspected of forgery. The Book of Revelation, initially recognized but later disputed, will be discussed. The canon formation had minimal questioning, especially regarding the four Gospels, emphasizing the establishment of the core from Christianity's inception.

Michael J Kruger
Formation of the New Testament Canon
Lesson 9
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Eusebius' Four Categories of Books


A. Accepted (21 of the 27)

B. Disputed (eventually canonical)

C. Rejected (beneficial but not canonical)

D. Heretical (Fathers willing to condemn certain books)


A. Most of the disputed books are small (and therefore not widely read)

B. 2 Peter was thought to be a forgery

C. Revelation


A. Not much dispute, especially over the four gospels

B. Core of the canon was there from the start

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Class Resources
  • Through this lesson, you are gaining an in-depth understanding of the challenges and debates surrounding the canonicity of the Bible, learning about its misconceptions, and exploring the various definitions and theories that underline its recognition and authority.
  • You'll gain insight into the community, historical-critical, and Roman Catholic models of determining a book's canonicity, and grapple with debates surrounding 'self-authenticating authority' and the role of the Council of Trent in formalizing the Canon.
  • You gain an understanding of the historically-determined model and how it differs from the community-determined model, learning that the historical context of a book is pivotal in determining its canonicity. You explore two sub-categories of this model, reflecting on the problem of preconceived worldviews influencing canon selection and questioning the origins of canon authenticity criteria. The lesson prompts you to consider the lack of neutrality in historical investigations due to interpretive bias.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you gain a profound understanding of the Self-Authenticating Model, where the canon is authenticated by its own contents, ultimately providing its authority and maintaining the principles of Sola Scriptura. This model involves a proper epistemic environment, divine qualities, apostolic origins, and the Holy Spirit's operations. You also learn to address potential criticisms and differentiate this model from others, such as the Mormon argument. Finally, you come to perceive canon formation as a dynamic process rather than a fixed event.
  • From this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the concept of 'defeaters' and their role in questioning our knowledge of the Bible. You will learn about the attributes that indicate a book is from God and how these are susceptible to 'defeaters'. You will be introduced to the divine quality of 'unity and harmony' and the challenges posed by 'defeaters' that question this unity. You will also understand the harmony between the Old and New Testaments, including the shared narrative structure and symbolism. Lastly, this lesson will help you recognize the importance of personal perception in understanding the Bible's divine qualities.
  • You'll grasp the significance of the covenant concept in the New Testament, understand the Apostles' roles as agents of the New Covenant, recognize their authoritative teachings in both oral and written forms, and appreciate the reasons behind the shift from oral teachings to written documents.
  • Gaining knowledge from this lesson, you understand the concept of Canonical Core and Corporate Reception, noting the early establishment and widespread agreement on most New Testament books, learn about disputed canonical status of some texts, and differentiate between orthodox and canonical books.
  • In this lesson, you explore the formation of the early Christian canon, examining patristic citations, the role of Christian manuscripts, and the adoption of the codex, which shaped the Christian textual culture and pointed towards an early formation of the canon.
  • This lesson provides an in-depth understanding of the four-fold division of the canon in early Christianity and the content and reasons for the disputed books, underlining the fact that the core of the canon was firmly established from Christianity's inception.
  • You will learn about Eusebius's four-fold division of the canon, the content and context of disputed books, and the stability of the foundational canon in early Christianity.

This course explores the complexities and debates related to the recognition, authority, and understanding of the biblical canon, including modern controversies fueled by discoveries of apocryphal materials and the influence of fictional works like the Da Vinci Code. It emphasizes the critical differentiation between a book becoming canonical and its recognition as such, introduces various canonical models, offers insights into the concept of a "proper epistemic environment," probes the development of the early Christian canon, and provides a comprehensive analysis of Eusebius' four-fold division - all with the aim of deepening the understanding of the biblical canon's formation, its diverse interpretations, and ongoing debates.

Recommended Books

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

I. How Does the Four-Fold Division Help in Understanding of the Core and the Fringe of the Canon?

In order to understand the state of the canon and early Christianity, Eusebius, an early 4th-century historian proved to be really helpful. He has a whole lengthy discussion on Canon and thus lays out four categories of books in his time. I found this breakdown really helpful to dispel a number of myths and misunderstandings about the canon. The first category is concerned with the accepted books. These are the ones that were well-known and well-documented from the beginning and no one really doubted them. This included twenty-one of the twenty-seven books, then it has a second category which he calls the disputed books. By this, he means that these have been doubted by some; there has been some controversy about these books. It doesn’t mean that they are not canonical and from what we can tell about Eusebius, these disputed books ultimately proved to be canonical but they did have a difficult time in being accepted as canon. These were the remaining five or six books such as 2nd Peter, James, Jude, 2nd & 3rd John, etc. So when you take the accepted books and the disputed books and put them together, you end up with twenty-seven books exactly. What is interested about these first two categories, they confirm the historical evidence that we have already mentioned; there was a core and then there was a periphery. And Eusebius seems to acknowledge this same thing. No one really ever doubted this core and this periphery took some time. Then there was a third category that Eusebius called the rejected books. This sounds a little harsh to us, rejected; you think that he must have hated those books, but rejected only means, rejected in terms of their canonical status. They are not rejected in terms of their usefulness. One such example would be the Shepherd of Hermas, which Eusebius would have liked and found it to orthodox and positive and useful, but not canon. The fourth category would be those heretical books which have had doctrine that were highly problematic, probably a forgery, and there were a number of books that fall into that category. The Gospel of Peter would be included amongst these and others.

We look at these four categories as a whole and they remind us of a number of important trues. First of all, the first two categories show us the core and non-core book, that kind of principle. Then there is the category of orthodox books that were not canonical, which we talked about earlier. We see that early Christians used lots of different beneficial books that were non-canonical. The last category is also helpful because it tells us that when it came to some books, the church fathers were relentless in their condemnation of it. They weren’t at all undecided about those books. They found them unworthy of any reading in the church and were willing to call them heretical. So that four-fold structure can still guide us today when we think about these books; there is the core, the disputed books, there are the orthodox books and then there are heretical books. I think that structure is important for any understanding of early Christianity.

II. What was the Content of the Disputed Books?

The disputed books as I said were 2nd Peter, Jude, James, 2nd & 3rd John and even Revelation. It is somewhat difficult to know the reason or the reasons in every case. I think one observation that many scholars have made, which is very helpful; you will notice that most of these books are very small. They are very tiny books. Why would these tiny books be more subject to dispute? I think they were not used so frequently as the other books. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Jude? Or when was the last time you read 3rd John, probably, hardly ever. But you don’t think that they are not Scripture, but in the early church, you need to realize that as the canon was being recognized, the books that were used less often were simply subject to more doubt. People hadn’t heard about that book. They had never read that book; they didn’t even know that the book existed. So you realize that part of the reason for dispute was practical, they were simply small books which got used less. There were probably other factors in play; 2nd Peter was under dispute because it was thought by some to be a forgery. It proved not to be, at least in the mind of the church. But we know that there was some forgery going on in the 2nd century and later, again, the Gospel of Peter was one of these. There was also the Apocalypse of Peter, the Preaching of Peter, and the Acts of Peter; there is a whole litany of apocryphal works associated with Peter. So when 2nd Peter came along, some people might have thought to have been extra couscous, not quite yet being sure whether it was authentic or not.

Then there is the Book of Revelation which has its own uniqueness. I don’t even know that I like putting Revelation in the disputed category. One of the things that makes Revelation so unique, it actually has the opposite pattern that most of the disputed books have. The reception of the disputed books started off very slow and gradually reached a consensus over time. Revelation started off rapidly as very widely recognized book and received as apostolic and genuine. People loved it, they know it and used it and then in the 3rd century it takes a tumble. We know of Dionysus of Alexander who thought it was the product of the heretic Cerinthus and so people got upset with Revelation, but then by the 4th century, it started to be accepted again. In the end, it was recognized to be fully authentic.

III. There Wasn’t That Much being questioned.

As to things being questions, there wasn’t a lot. For example, if you look at the four Gospels which one would think to be a typical thing to be questioned all the time; there was really never any dispute over the four Gospels. You have a deep and widespread consensus of the four Gospels. They were so accepted that if anyone had suggested any doubt, it would have seemed nonsensical to most early Christians. The Gospels were handled down from the beginning, from earlier on. So I think what you find in the early church is that the core of the canon was there from the start of Christianity.