Lecture 20: Eusebius' Four Categories of Books
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.