Why We Trust Our Bible - Lesson 20

CANON: Eusebius' Four Categories of Books

Eusebius described four types of books: accepted, disputed, rejected, and heretical. The early church was careful in what they accepted as authoritative, and there really was not that much of a question.

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Why We Trust Our Bible
Lesson 20
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CANON: 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
  • In Part 1, Dr. Darrell Bock addresses the historical Jesus debate, some scholars actually question whether Jesus even lived. How can we show that he did live using sources other than the Bible and the writing of the early Church Fathers?

    We apologize for the poor quality of the recording. We lost the main video feed, but felt the content was too important to omit. We will re-record the seminar when we are able.

  • In Part 2, Dr. Darrell Bock adresses how some liberal scholars argue that because the stories of Jesus were first told by word of mouth, and since memory is faulty, that we cannot trust the gospel witness to Jesus. Dr. Bock discusses three views of orality and why the "informal controlled" model of the Bedouins best parallels the gospels and argues for the authenticity of their accounts. He also shows why the supposed "time gap" between Jesus living and the writing of ;the accounts is only a few years due to the witness of Paul, and not decades as some propose.

    We apologize for the poor quality of the recording. We lost the main video feed, but felt the content was too important to omit. We will re-record the seminar when we are able.

  • In Part 3, Dr. Darrell Bock addresses when the authenticity of the gospels is questioned due to faulty human memory. Some people claim that since we do not know for sure who wrote the gospels, we cannot trust their message. Others argue that there is nothing special about presenting Jesus as a common miracle worker. In this session, Dr. Bock answers each of these charges.

    We apologize for the poor quality of the recording. We lost the main video feed, but felt the content was too important to omit.

  • How scholarship has created a series of rules they use to judge the authenticity of a gospel passage. Dr. Bock critiques those rules and shows how they still can argue for the authenticity of the core events of the gospel message.

  • Two key events in the gospels, Jesus' trial and the resurrection. Using the rules of scholarship, he shows that even by those standards these events are authentic.

  • Dr. Craig Blomberg begins by introducing the issue of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, focusing on Dan Brown and some of the other recent "discoveries." He will cover 12 truths agreed upon except by the most liberal theologians. In this lesson he talks about the authorship and dating of the gospels.

  • Would the gospel writers have wanted to preserve accurate history? Why are there four Gospels, with all the similarities and differences?

  • Blomberg addresses seven questions during a Q&A session.

  • In his series of reasons, in this lesson Blomberg answers 7 – 9.

  • Blomberg addresses the issues of the non-Christian testimony to Jesus, archaeology, and the testimony of other early Christian Writers. He concludes with a powerful discussion of three ways to believe, and what the relationship is between faith and reason.

  • In this final talk, Blomberg addresses the final nine questions from the audience.

  • Are books in the canon because they are authoritative, or they are authoritative because they are in the canon? The Davinci Code and the common assertions about Constantine are historical fabrications. “Canon” can mean three different things. Has God given us a structure to know which books should be in the canon? Can you prove, or is the point to have sound reasons for what you believe?

  • A canonical worldview is a set of beliefs as to what the canon is and how someone “knows” if a book is canonical or not.  There are three models. According to the community model, a book becomes canonical upon its reception by the community.

  • In the historical model of canonicity, a book becomes canonical when it is examined historically, looking at issues such as authorship and reception. This model suffers  by the absence of an absolute criteria by which you can make this decision.

  • The self-authenticating model of the canon claims that the Bible is itself its own ultimate authority. All beliefs of ultimate authority are circular, otherwise the criteria for deciding would be greater than the ultimate authority itself. The real question is whether or not God has provided a means by which Christians can know what books are truly canonical. The self-authenticating model encompasses the other two, incorporating the best of each model.

  • A “defeater” is an idea that undermines your confidence in knowing something. Are there defeaters for our understanding of the canon? The New Testament books have unity with prior revelation and with each other, and in fact the New Testament completes the Old Testament in surprising ways.

  • Kruger shows that Covenants in the Old Testament needed written documents, and a new covenant required new documents. Writing was not an afterthought. The apostles saw themselves as agents of the New Covenant and saw their writings as having authority. They would have been surprised to be told that it wasn't until Irenaeus that people throught their writing was authoritative. They had to write to accomplish their apostolic ministry within their lifetime.

  • Even if a few of the books took a while to be accepted, there was a core canon of 22 books very quickly. Even the Muratorian Fragment, while including two non-canonical books, recognizes that they are different and may be listing them as such. Just because the early church read non-canonical books does not mean there was not a canon.

  • The early church was a culture of textuality; they liked and publicly read books. The frequency of ancient manuscripts shows us which books were the most popular and were therefore understood to be canonical. The church preferred the new codex format because they could group books together, especially the gospels. We can also tell that the manuscripts were written in order to be publicly read, which means the church knew which books were authoritative.

  • Eusebius described four types of books: accepted, disputed, rejected, and heretical. The early church was careful in what they accepted as authoritative, and there really was not that much of a question.

  • Answers to common questions about the canon, now that these question are targeted to the lay level. 

  • In Part 1, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses the challenges to the believability of the Bible brought by the issues related to the Greek manuscripts, and especially the influence of Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman.

  • In Part 2, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses discussion of the historical process that led to manuscripts and variants, with some examples of variants.

  • In Part 3, Dr. Daniel Wallace responds to three basic challenges by Bart Ehrman: the "black hole"; the quality of the copies; the effect of Constantine on the manuscripts.​

  • In Part 4, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses how now that we understand why there are variants in the manuscripts, how does the art and science of textual criticism help us determine which variants are most likely to be original?

  • In Part 5, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses a brief overview of why the King James Bible is different from all modern translations, and issues of the Greek texts behind it.

  • In Part 6, Dr. Daniel Wallace focuses in on variants, how many there are, how many significant variants are there, and how good of a job has textual criticism done.

The uniqueness and authority of the Bible are always under attack. Professors and writers are claiming that Jesus never existed, Jesus never claimed to be God, the early church changed the basic preaching of Jesus, books were left out of the Bible, the copies of the Bible that have come down through the centuries are hopelessly corrupt, and how can you trust your translation where there are so many? This class walks you through the process of how we received our Bible and why we can trust it.

Dr. Blomberg discusses the reliability of the Bible. Dr. Kruger discusses the process of formation of the New Testament Canon. Dr. Wallaces discusses issues relating to manuscripts and textual criticism. Dr. Mounce discusses the philosophies and process of translation. Dr. Piper discusses the content, cohesiveness, scope and power of the Bible.

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: Eusebius' Four Categories of Books


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.