Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Biblical canon

A Biblical canon is an exclusive list of books written during the formative period of the Jewish or Christian faiths; the leaders of these communities believed these books to be inspired by God or to express the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people (although there may have been secondary considerations as well).

There are differences between different Christian traditions, as well as between Christians and Jews, over which books meet the standards for canonization. The different criteria for, and the process of, canonization for each community dictates what members of that community consider to be "the Bible."

Table of contents
1 See Bible and Tanakh
2 Jewish canon
3 Samaritan canon
4 Christian canon
5 New Testament
6 Old Testament
7 Not in the above-mentioned canons
8 Selected biblically contemporary or influenced works till the 2nd century
9 Modern or Mediaeval 'Pseudepigrapha'
10 External links
11 References

See Bible and Tanakh

for a comparison

At this time, all of the below canons are considered to be "closed"; that is, most adherents of the various groups do not think that additional books can be added to the Bible. By contrast, an "open" canon would be a list books which is considered to be open to additional books, should they meet the other criteria. Each of the canons described below was considered open for a time before being closed. Generally, the closure of the canon reflects a belief from the faith community that the formative period of the religion has ended, and that texts from that period can be collected into an authoritative body of work. Certain sects (such as the Latter-day Saints) which accept the Bible as part of their formally adopted sacred literature may also include other works in the totality of their canon, but they generally do not consider those other works to be part of the Bible. See Sacred text for examples.

The relationship between the closing of the canon and beliefs about the nature of revelation may be subject to different interpretations. Some believe that the closing of the canon signals the end of a period of divine revelation; others believe that revelation continues even after the canon is closed, either through individuals or through the leadership of a divinely sanctioned religious institution. Among those who believe that revelation continues after the canon is closed, there is further debate about what kinds of revelation is possible, and whether the revelation can add to established theology.

Jewish canon

Evidence suggests that the process of canonization of the Hebrew Bible occurred between 200 BC and AD 200. The first suggestion of a Jewish Canon comes in the 2nd century BC. 2 Maccabees 2:13 describes Nehemiah (around 400 BCE) 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." (Maccabees also suggests that Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Israel.) Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabee likewise collected sacred books. They do not, however, 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.

Additional evidence of a collection of sacred scripture similar to portions of the Hebrew Bible comes from Sirach (dating from from 180 BCE), which includes a list of names of men, in the same order as is found in the Torah and the Prophets, and which includes the names of some men mentioned in the Writings. Based on this list of names, some scholars have conjectured that the author, Jesus ben Sirach had access to, and considered authoritative, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve minor prophets. His list excludes names from Ruth, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, and Job, suggesting that he either did not have access to these books, or did not consider them authoritative. In the prologue to the Greek translation of ben Sirach's work, his grandson mentions both the Torah and the Prophets, as well as a third group of books which is not yet named as Writings. Based on this evidence, some scholars have suggested that by the second century BCE the books of the Torah and Prophets were considered canonical, but that the books of the Writings were not.

The Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, probably in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, provided a standard text for the non-Hebrew-speaking world. In this text the Torah and Prophets are established as canonical, but again, Writings have not yet been canonized (some editions of the Septuagint include, for instance I-IV Maccabees or the 151st Psalm, while others do not include them).

Scrolls discovered at caves near Qumran refer to the Torah and Prophets, and suggest that these portions of the Bible had already been canonized before 68 CE. A scroll that contains all or parts of 41 Biblical psalms, although not in the same order as in the current Book of Psalms, and which includes eight texts not found in the Book of Psalms, suggests that the Book of Psalms had not yet been canonized.

In the first century CE, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria discussed sacred books, but made no mention of a tripartite division of the Bible. Similarly, the Christian Bible refers to the Torah and the Prophets, but not to the Writings. Josephus, however, refers to sacred scriptures divided into three parts: the five books of the Torah; thirteen books of the Prophets, and four other books of hymns and wisdom. The 22 books mentioned by Josephus does not correspond to the number of books in the Canon. Some scholars have suggested that he considered Ruth part of Judges, and Lamentations part of Jeremiah. Other scholars suggest that at the time Josephus wrote, such books as Esther and Ecclesiastes, were not yet considered canonical.

Significantly, Josephus characterizes the 22 books as canonical because they were divinely inspired; he mentions other historical books that were not divinely inspired and that therefore do not belong in the canon.

The Jewish canon was ultimately established by the Pharisees, who dominated Judaism after 70 CE. The Mishnah, compiled by the second century CE, describes some of the debate that occurred prior to the closing of the canon (specifically, concerning the Writings). Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to the debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Megillat Taanit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that are not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim, which suggests that the book of Esther was not at that time considered canonical.

The first reference to a 24 book Jewish canon is found in 2 Esdras 14, which was probably written in the first half of the second century CE. This text characterizes the 24 books as books to be read by all; it also mentions 70 books that are holy but esoteric.

The Pharisees also debated the status of these extra-canonical books; Rabbi Akiba felt that those who read them would not share in the afterlife (Sanhedrin 10:1).

Samaritan canon

A small community in Palestine continues to include only the Torah and the book of Joshua in their canon.

Christian canon

New Testament

When Christianity began, it had no well-defined set of scriptures outside of the
Septuagint and relied on the oral tradition of what Jesus Christ had said and done, as reported by the apostles and other followers. Even after the Gospels were written and began circulating, some Christians preferred the oral Gospel as told by people they trusted (e.g. Papias, c. 125).

By the end of the 1st century, the letters of Paul were collected and circulated, and they were known to Clement of Rome (c. 95), Ignatius of Antioch (died 117), and Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 115).

The first person to propose a definitive, exclusive canon of Christian scriptures was Marcion of Sinope, c. 150. He accepted only the Gospel of Luke, and ten of Paul's epistles. He rejected the entire Old Testament, the other three Gospels, the book of Acts and the epistles of Peter and John. From the books he did accept, he removed any passages that connected Christianity with Judaism. This was because Marcion believed that the God of the Jews who gave them the Law was an entirely different god than the Supreme God who sent Jesus Christ and inspired the New Testament scriptures. By editing the books he accepted, he thought he was removing judaizing corruptions and recovering the 'original' inspired words of the text. Marcion's canon and theology were soundly rejected as heretical; however, he forced the Church to consider which texts were scriptural and why. Marcion spread his beliefs widely; they became known as Marcionism, a form of Gnostic Christianity.

The Diatessaron was a one volume harmony of the four Gospels, translated and compiled by Tatian into Syriac c. 173. In Syriac speaking churches, it effectively served as the only New Testament scripture until Paul's epistles were added during the third century. Some authorities believe that the book of Acts was also used in Syrian churches alongside the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron was eventually replaced in the 5th century by the Peshitta, which contains a translation of the separate books of the New Testament, except for 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185) vigorously defended the notion that there were exactly four Gospels, no more and no less, as a touchstone of orthodoxy. He pointed out that it was illogical to reject Acts of the Apostles but accept the Gospel of Luke, as both were from the same author. This was crucial to refuting Marcion's anti-judaism, as Acts gives honor to James, Peter and Paul alike. At the time, Jewish Christians tended to honor James (a prominent Christian in Jerusalem described in the New Testament as an "apostle" and "pillar", and by Eusebius and other church historians as the first Bishop of Jerusalem) but not Paul, while Gentiles tended to honor Paul more than James.

The earliest known listing of canonical books is the Muratorian fragment, usually dated at 170 (based on an internal reference to Pope Pius I) but possibly as late as the early 4th century. This partial canon lists four gospels and the Pauline epistles, as well as two books of apocalypse, one of John another of Peter (the latter of which it notes is not often read in the churches).

The canon of the New Testament began to be more firmly established in the later 4th century.

One of the first synods met together to judge which books were to be read aloud in churches was the Synod of Laodicea, held about 363 CE. The decrees issued by the thirty or so clerics attending were called 'canons' Canon 59 decreed that only canonical books should be read, but no list was appended in the Latin and Syriac manuscripts recording the decrees. The list of canonical books sometimes attributed to the Synod of Laodicea is a later addition, most scholars agree.

The third Synod of Carthage, in 397 CE ratified the canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa, 393 CE, the acts of which have been lost.This synod marks the beginning of a more widely recognized canon. The inclusion of some books in the New Testament was debated: Epistle to Hebrews, James, 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. Grounds for debate included the question of authorship of these books; suitability for use; and how widely they were actually being used. 2 Peter is the most weakly attested of all the books in the Christian canon. One concern regarding the book of Revelation at that time is that it was already being interpreted in a wide variety of controversial ways. Virtually all Christians have accepted and continue to accept the same 27 books as the New Testament, except for those Syriac-speaking Christians who continue to use the Peshitta.

Old Testament

Eastern Orthodox OT canon

Christians tended to use the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Jewish scriptures, and had more books in circulation. In the New Testament, most but not all Old Testament quotations seem to follow the Septuagint. In the Old Testament, the deuterocanonical books included are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, I-II Maccabees, and Sirach (a.k.a. Eclesiasticus), as well as parts of Esther and Daniel written originally in Greek. Some manuscripts of the Septuagint also include III-IV Maccabees and 151 Psalms instead of just 150, and consequently some Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions include these as well.

Roman Catholic OT canon

When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, producing the Vulgate bible, he argued for the "Veritas Hebraica", or the acceptance of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. At the insistence of the Pope, however, he added translations for the doubtful books. Over the years, the feeling in favor of this group of "doubtful" books grew, until at the Council of Florence (1451), this list was defined as canonical. The Council of Florence, however, was not binding on the whole Church. The Catholic Church finally settled the question of the Canon in the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed the Canon of the Council of Florence. The Old Testament books that had been in doubt were termed "deuterocanonical", not indicating a lesser degree of inspiration, but a later time of final approval.

Protestant OT canon

The Protestant churches however rejected these books (though how strongly they are rejected varies from one Protestant group to another). At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther eliminated the "doubtful" books from his Old Testament, terming them "Apocrypha". He also argued unsuccessfully for the elimination of certain New Testament books. Among these was the Letter of James, which he called the "Epistle of Straw". As a result Catholics and Protestants continue to use different canons, which differ in respect to the Old Testament: the Protestant Old Testament is identical to the Jewish canon, while the Catholic Old Testament contains in addition 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, additions to Daniel and Esther, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), and the Wisdom of Solomon. There is some evidence that the first decision to omit these books entirely from the Bible was made by Protestant laity rather than clergy. Bibles dating from shortly after the Reformation have been found whose tables of contents included the entire Roman Catholic canon, but which did not actually contain the disputed books, leading some historians to think that the workers at the printing presses took it upon themselves to omit them.

Not in the above-mentioned canons

Furthermore, there are many books similar in style to the books of the Bible and dating from the same period, which are accepted by neither Protestants nor Catholics. Catholics call these books Apocrypha, while Protestants call them "Pseudepigrapha", reserving the term Apocrypha for the Catholic Deuterocanon. These books include 3 and 4 Maccabees (though many Orthodox include these), and 1 and 2 Esdras. A few Oriental Orthodox churches use some of these books: e.g. the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's canon includes Jubilees, 1 Enoch, the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement and the Acts of Paul.

See Books of the Bible for a listing.

Selected biblically contemporary or influenced works till the 2nd century

Modern or Mediaeval 'Pseudepigrapha'

External links


Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version. 1992. A classical historian dispassionately discusses the formation of the canons.