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 Christians and Jews, as well as between different Christian traditions, 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."
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 of 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.
Canonic texts in Jewish and Christian traditions
Traditionally more open to discussion and editorial interpretation is the concept of a canonic text, that is, a single, authoritative text for each of the books in the canon, one which depends on editorial selections from among manuscript traditions that had been independent of one another. Significant separate manuscript traditions in the canonic Hebrew Bible are represented in the Septuagint translation's variants from the Masoretic text that was established through the Masoretes' scholarly collation of varying manuscripts, and in the independent manuscript traditions that are represented by the Dead Sea scrolls. Additional, otherwise unrecorded texts for Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus lie behind the Book of Jubilees. These, and the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, emphasize that even canonic Hebrew texts did not possess any single hard and fast "authorized" manuscript tradition, in the first centuries BCE. New Testament Greek and Latin texts presented enough significant differences that a manuscript tradition arose of presenting "diglot" texts, with Greek and Latin on facing pages. Jerome's Vulgate was a successful attempt at establishing a canonic text, one that passed without challenge until the humanist textual inquiries of the 15th and 16th centuries.
See also: Tanakh
The Jews recognize the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible as the Tanakh. (These twenty-four books correspond in content to the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament.)
Evidence suggests that the process of canonization of the Tanakh occurred between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The first suggestion of a Jewish Canon comes in the 2nd century BCE. The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, 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" (2 Macc 2:13). (The book also suggests that Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Israel.) Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus 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 the book of Sirach (dating from 180 BCE and also not included in the Jewish canon), which includes a list of names of great men in the same order as is found in the Torah and the Nevi'im (Prophets), and which includes the names of some men mentioned in the Ketuvim (Writings). Based on this list of names, some scholars have conjectured that the author, Yeshua ben Sira (Jesus son of 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 Nevi'im, as well as a third group of books which is not yet named as Ketuvim (the prologue simply identifies "the rest of the books"). Based on this evidence, some scholars have suggested that by the 2nd century BCE the books of the Torah and Nevi'im were considered canonical, but that the books of the Ketuvim 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, and was used by the Apostles and early Christians. In this text the Torah and Nevi'im are established as canonical, but again, Ketuvim have not yet been definitively 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 Nevi'im 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. Josephus, however, refers to sacred scriptures divided into three parts: the five books of the Torah; thirteen books of the Nevi'im, and four other books of hymns and wisdom. The number of 22 books mentioned by Josephus does not correspond to the number of books in the current 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 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; in the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Akiva declared that those who read them would not share in the afterlife (Sanhedrin 10:1).
The Mishnah, compiled by the second century CE, describes some of the debate over the status of some books of Ketuvim, and in particular whether or not they render the hands "impure". Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to the debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Megillat Taanit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that are not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim. Based on these, and a few similar references, Heinrich Graetz concluded in 1871 that there had been a "synod" at "Jamnia" (or Yavne in Hebrew) which had decided Jewish canon sometime in the late 1st century. This became the prevailing scholarly consensus for much of the 20th century. However, from the 1960s onwards, based on the work of J.P. Lewis, S.Z. Leiman, and others, this view came increasingly into question. In particular, later scholars noted that none of the sources actually mentioned books that had been withdrawn from a canon, and questioned the whole premise that the discussions were about canonicity at all, asserting that they were actually dealing with other concerns entirely. Today there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set.
The small community of the remnants of the Samaritans in Palestine includes only their version of the Torah and the book of Joshua in their canon. This grouping is sometimes referred to as the Hexateuch. The Samaritan community possesses a copy of the Torah that they believe to have been penned by Aaron himself.
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).
One of the first to propose a definitive, exclusive canon of Christian scriptures was Marcion of Sinope, c. 150. He accepted only portions of 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 all the 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 semi-official 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 end of the 4th century. This partial canon lists four gospels and the Pauline epistles, as well as two books of Revelation, 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 that set out to judge which books were to be read aloud in churches was the Synod of Laodicea, held about 363. 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, ratified the canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa, 393, 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 still 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 (note that the Canon of Rome had already rejected John the Apostle's authorship of 2 and 3 John, while retaining the 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. In addition, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church lists four books of Sinodos (church practices), two Books of Covenant, "Ethiopic Clement", and "Ethiopic Didascalia" within a broader New Testament canon, although their narrow canon is the same as that of other churches; see this webpage for much more detailed information on the Ethiopian Canon.
The books that were not accepted, but that are known to have existed in antiquity, are stylistically or in subject matter similar to the New Testament, and claim apostolic authorship, are generally termed New Testament apocrypha.
Though purporting to date from a council held at Rome under Pope Damasus I in 382, the so-called "Damasian list" appended to the pseudepigraphical Decretum Gelasianum is actually a valuable though non-papal list from the early 6th century. Denziger's recension (for the original text, see links at Decretum Gelasianum) gives:
"One book of the Gospels according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number, one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, one to the Hebrews. Also one book of the Apocalypse of John and one book of the Acts of the Apostles. Also the canonical epistles, seven in number: two epistles of the Apostle Peter, one epistle of the Apostle James, one epistle of the Apostle John, two epistles of another John, a priest, and one epistle of the Apostle Jude the Zealot. Here ends the canon of the New Testament."
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines, partially because of the early debate over their inclusion), but this was not generally accepted among his followers. However, these books are ordered last in German-language Lutheran Bibles to this day.
See also Judeo-Christian.
The Christian Old Testament corresponds in large part to the Jewish Tanakh. However, because of the use of the Septuagint among early Christians, many denominations accept more books as scriptural than were accepted by the Jews. A fuller discussion of the disputed books is found in the article on the Apocrypha, called the deuterocanon among those Christians who accept these books.
Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic OT canon
The Christians tended to use the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Jewish scriptures, which included several later books and preserved the books in a different order than the Tanakh. In the New Testament, most but not all Old Testament quotations seem to follow the Septuagint. Many of the books and partial books that were not received by the Jews as canonical have long been thought to have been written originally in Greek, although some scholars are finding evidence that at least parts of them may have been translated from Hebrew texts that are no longer extant. The Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches generally consider the Septuagint canon to be divinely inspired. Some manuscripts of the Septuagint also include III-IV Maccabees, one or more additional books of Ezra, and 151 Psalms instead of just 150, and consequently some Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic jurisdictions include these as well. IV Maccabees, which is sometimes felt to err in the direction of pagan Greek philosophy, is often put into an appendix rather than with the canonical books.
Roman Catholic OT canon
The Council of Rome of 382 provides the first complete canon of the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic tradition.
"The relation of the Old Testament begins: one book of Genesis, one book of Exodus, one book of Leviticus, one book of Numbers, one book of Deuteronomy, one book of Joshua, son of Nun, one book of Judges, one Ruth, four books of Kings [in modern Bibles these are the books of Samuel and the books of Kings], two books of Paralipomenon, one book of a hundred fifty Psalms, three books of Solomon: one book of Proverbs, one book of Ecclesiastes, one book of the Song of Songs, as well as one book of Wisdom and one book of Ecclesiasticus."
"The relation of the prophets follows: one book of Isaiah, one book of Jeremiah, together with the Qinoth, that is, his lamentations, one book of Ezekiel, one book of Daniel, one book of Hosea, one book of Amos, one book of Micah, one book of Joel, one book of Obadiah, one book of Jonah, one book of Nahum, one book of Habakkuk, one book of Zephaniah, one book of Haggai, one book of Zechariah, one book of Malachi."
"The relation of the histories follows: one book of Job, one book of Tobit, two books of Ezra, one book of Esther, one book of Judith, two books of the Maccabees."
The third Synod of Carthage, in 397 ratified the OT canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa in 393. This was identical with the Canon of the Council of Rome, but explicitly included the Book of Baruch, which may have been included in Jeremiah or Lamentations in the previous canon. This canon was endorsed by Pope Damasus I. 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 existing translations for what he considered doubtful books, but did not personally translate them anew. Over the years, the feeling in favor of this group of "doubtful" books grew, until at the ecumenical Council of Florence (1451), this list was defined as canonical in the profession of faith proposed for the Jacobite Orthodox Church. Because of its placement, the list was not considered binding for the Catholic church, and in light of Martin Luther's demands, the Catholic Church examined the question of the Canon again 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.
Beyond these books, some editions of the latin Vulgate include Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras (called 3 Esdras), 2 Esdras (called 4 Esdras), and the Epistle to the Laodiceans in an appendix, styled "Apogryphi".
Protestant OT canon
The Protestant churches however rejected those books not contained in the Jewish canon (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, that are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read". He also argued unsuccessfully for the relocation of Esther from the Canon to the Apocrypha, since without the deuterocanonical sections, it never mentions God. As a result Catholics and Protestants continue to use different canons, which differ in respect to the Old Testament. 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. However, Anglican and Lutheran Bibles usually still contained these books until the 20th century, while Calvinist Bibles did not. Several reasons are proposed for the omission of these books from the canon. One is the support for Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory and prayer for the dead found in 2 Maccabees. Luther himself said he was following Jerome's teaching about the "Veritas Hebraica".
Many modern Protestants point to four "Criteria for Canonicity" to determine which books should be included in the Old and New Testament:
- Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
- Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century).
- Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services).
- Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
It is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all books in the accepted canon, however, and some point to books that Protestants hold as apocryphal which would fulfill these requirements. In practice, Protestants hold to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament and the common Christian canon of the New Testament.
Ethiopian OT Canon
The Canon of the Tewahedo Church is looser than for most other traditional Christian groups. The Ethiopian "narrow" Old Testament Canon includes the books found in the Septuagint accepted by the Orthodox plus Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, and Psalm 151; but their three books of the Maccabees are quite different in content from those of the other Christian churches which include them. The order of the other books is somewhat different from other groups', as well. This Church also has a "broader canon" that includes more books. See this webpage for much more detailed information on the Ethiopian Canon.
Latter-day Saint Scripture
Latter Day Saint churches generally include the Old Testament and New Testament (without the Apocrypha) in their canon, but also include books that the Saints believe to be of ancient origin, even though they were first published in the 19th century in English. See Golden Plates for details. This usually includes the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price. Additionally, the Doctrine and Covenants is a continually expanding work written and published in modern times and considered canonical by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (by far the largest sect), though some LDS sects do not accept it.
The smaller Community of Christ accepts the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price as "divinely-inspired fiction", but do not accept the LDS Church's Doctrine and Covenants in which they have no involvement, instead publishing their own version of that book which differs considerably in content. They do, however, adhere to an edition of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
Judaism, and most other Christians do not accept these works as canon, and mostly regard them with ambivalence or rejection, regarding them instead to be original to the 19th century and not translations of ancient texts. Most LDS faiths respect the free practice of other religions as enshrined in their Articles of Faith, but insist that the LDS canon are not apocryphal nor forged.
See also Mormonism and Judaism and Mormonism and Christianity.
Books of the Bible for a side-by-side comparison of Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant canons.
Last updated: 08-10-2005 10:14:05