Canon of Scripture (Summary)

Although the word “canon” came to be used of ecclesiastical pronouncements, it has a wider connotation when applied to Scripture. It was used in the sense of rule of faith and in the sense of a catalogue or list. Both these usages occur before the first decision was made on the subject of Scripture by a church council (at Laodicea in a.d. 363). This at once focuses attention on an important feature in the history of the canon, i.e., the fact that the content of the canon was determined by general usage, not by an authoritarian pronouncement.

The Christian Church took over the OT Scriptures in the Septuagint version, but there is no evidence that the Apocrypha,* which formed part of the Septuagint, was regarded as part of Scripture. Indeed Melito* in the second century thought it necessary to send to Palestine to discover the content of the Hebrew Bible because it was assumed that this and not the Greek canon should be used in the Christian Church. By the time of Jesus there seems to have been general agreement on the contents of the OT canon, despite the fact there was later discussion on a few of the books. The Jewish elders at Jamnia during the period a.d. 70-100 were in general agreement on canonicity, but discussed whether Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, or Ezekiel “soiled the hands” of those who used them. Both Josephus and 2 Esdras assume the same position in their acceptance of all the books. It should be noted that the OT canon of the Roman Church is wider than that of the Protestant churches because of the former's inclusion of the Apocrypha, which is regarded as of equal inspiration to the OT itself.

The acceptance of the Hebrew canon of Scripture as authoritative by the early church exercised an important influence on the formation of the NT canon. Following the regular reading of the OT in Christian worship after a pattern similar to the Jews', there was at once the need to relate also the teaching of Jesus and of the apostles. During the most formative period of the NT there is little evidence of the precise procedure in Christian worship, but it is certain the teaching of Jesus would have commanded equal respect to the OT. Moreover, literature giving authoritatively the teaching of the apostles would soon have been valued, particularly after the decease of the apostles themselves. In spite of the lack of specific information about church life in the later part of the first century, there is enough to show that considerable respect had emerged for the Gospels, Acts, and Pauline epistles by the early part of the second century. This does not mean that there was an official line on the NT canon, but rather a developing agreement on the use of these books. The concerted testimony of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and the Didache shows the importance attached to these books, although direct citation of them is slight and there is no discussion of their canonicity. It is in fact significant that the earliest canon of the NT was from a heterodox source, Marcion,* who excluded everything except ten Pauline epistles and the gospel of Luke, the latter in a mutilated form. There is no doubt that the emergence of heretical groups claiming secret books to be authoritative promoted vigilance on the part of the orthodox church toward its authorized books.

By the close of the second century there was general acceptance of all the NT books except James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, which were only partially accepted. It was during the third and fourth centuries that the position of the canon became clarified, although it must not be supposed that lack of use necessarily implied doubt. Nevertheless, Origen mentions the hesitation of some churches over the two Johannine epistles and over 2 Peter, although he himself appears to regard them as Scripture. He questioned the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, although he clearly accepted its canonicity. The same attitude is seen in Dionysius, who rejected the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse, but accepted the book as Scripture. The church in the East seems to have arrived at the full canon of the NT as it now exists at an earlier date than the Western Church. The canon is set out in detail in Athanasius's Easter Letter (a.d. 367) and contains the twenty-seven books to the exclusion of all others, although certain other books, such as Hermas's Shepherd and the Didache are allowed for private reading. A similar list was confirmed at the Synod of Carthage in a.d. 397.

In the Western Church there was greater tardiness, and it was not until the time of Jerome* and Augustine* that certain of the NT books were accepted, no doubt mainly under their influence. Those books over which there had been hesitation were Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude. In the case of Hebrews and Jude, there is earlier evidence of acceptance at the close of the second century, after which they appear to have fallen into disuse for a period. Augustine at first considered Hebrews as Pauline, but in his later works he cited it anonymously. All of the NT books except 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and the Apocalypse were included in the Peshitta, the Bible of the Syriac- speaking church, but these omitted books were included within the next century (the Philoxenian version produced in a.d. 508 included them).

During the Reformation, discussion over the NT canon opened again. Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin, among others, discussed the authenticity of certain of the books. Luther* is most notable for creating what was almost a deuterocanon. He placed Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse at the end of his Bible to signify that they were of less value than the rest. But the Reformers were subjective and largely uncritical in their comments.

During the era of critical inquiry, many of the books of Scripture have been considered nonauthentic, but the position of these books within the canon has never been seriously discussed. It has been implicitly assumed that even nonauthentic or pseudonymous works can be regarded as canonical, but such a view finds no support from early Christian testimony.

H.E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament (2nd ed., 1904); H.B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (rev. R.R. Otley, 1914); W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (1934); W.O.E. Oesterley, An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha (1935); J. Knox, Marcion and the New Testament (1942); J.N. Sanders, The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (1943); A. Souter, The Text and Canon of the New Testament (2nd ed., 1954); B.M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (1957); E.J. Young, “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible (ed. C.F.H. Henry, 1958).