An Orthodox view on

the Holy Scriptures



All Scripture is Inspired by God. . .

Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon

by Joel Kalvesmaki

The Origin of the Septuagint.

Is the Septuagint basically the same as our Old Testament?

The Role of the Septuagint in the New Testament.

What Is in the Septuagint?

Problems in the Apocrypha.

All Scripture is not Equal.

The Faith of the Septuagint.

Rethinking the Old Testament.

What can we Learn?


The Emergence

of the New Testament Canon.

Daniel F. Lieuwen





All Scripture is Inspired by God. . .

Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon

by Joel Kalvesmaki

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (II Tim 3:16).

What Scriptures did St. Paul have in mind when he wrote the above to St. Timothy? Was he referring to the 66 books making up the Bible Evangelicals read today? What exactly did Paul mean by "all?"

I was personally confident of the Protestant canon of the Old Testament, until I examined the evidence behind it. What I discovered I found uncomfortable. And yet it brought me into a deeper and richer relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian who finds theological correction difficult, then these essays will only annoy you. But if your heart aches to know and indwell the Christian faith, then this might be the start of something new and exciting in your relationship with God.

In this first of two essays we will look closer at the canon of Scriptures which the Apostles read and used and contrast that with popular assumptions many Evangelicals make today. In the second essay, "Do Not Add to His Words," we will concentrate on the canon of the New Testament and consider the authority in Christianity.

** ** **

In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul is not referring to the New Testament. This should be obvious since, after all, books such as Acts and Revelation had not yet been written. Even what had been written was still beginning the process of circulation in various churches, starting with those in the basin of the Aegean Sea. However, as Evangelicals, we generally want this passage to include the New Testament since it is one of the few verses that seem to directly support our teaching on the inspiration of the Bible.

Regardless, St. Paul undoubtedly had the Old Testament in mind as he wrote this passage. It was the Old Testament which was read in the synagogue and was instrumental in the "training in righteousness" of Sts. Paul, Timothy and many other Christians from the Church of the first century. But, more importantly, Sts. Paul and Timothy used the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament composed in the third century before Christ.

The Origin of the Septuagint.

"The what...?" As Evangelicals many of us have never heard of the LXX except in a passing reference from educated preachers or teachers. And those of us who have heard of the LXX rarely give it a second thought. But so important is the LXX for our faith that many aspects of the message of the New Testament cannot be sufficiently grasped without it.

The LXX was recognized as the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures and was read in the synagogues and churches of the Hellenistic world. Most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are based on the LXX, not the Hebrew. Of particular interest is Paulís use of the LXX since, as a student of Gamaliel, he would have had ample knowledge of the difference between the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Most scholars are skeptical of the fabulous details which developed around the story of the translation of the LXX, but the main historical facts have been accepted. This quotation, from an anonymous Christian of the second or third century, not only relates the story, but reflects the popular opinion of early Christians on the subject.

But if any one says that the writings of Moses and of the rest of the prophets were also written in the Greek character, let him read profane histories, and know that Ptolemy, king of Egypt, when he had built the library in Alexandria, and by gathering books from every quarter had filled it, then learnt that very ancient histories written in Hebrew happened to be carefully preserved; and wishing to know their contents, he sent for seventy wise men from Jerusalem, who were acquainted with both the Greek and Hebrew language, and appointed them to translate the books; and that in freedom from all disturbance they might the more speedily complete the translation, he ordered that there should be constructed, not in the city itself, but seven stadia off (where the Pharos was built), as many little cots as there were translators, so that each by himself might complete his own translation; and enjoined upon those officers who were appointed to this duty, to afford them all attendance, but to prevent communication with one another, in order that the accuracy of the translation might be discernible even by their agreement.

And when he ascertained that the seventy men had not only given the same meaning, but had employed the same words, and had failed in agreement with one another not even to the extent of one word, but had written the same things, and concerning the same things, he was struck with amazement, and believed that the translation had been written by divine power, and perceived that the men were worthy of all honor, as beloved of God; and with many gifts ordered them to return to their own country. And having, as was natural, marveled at the books, and concluded them to be divine, he consecrated them in that library. These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their countryís tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others. (Pseudo-Justin, Hor. Greeks 13)

Is the Septuagint basically the same as our Old Testament?

In our popular literature apologists claim that the LXX is very close to the Hebrew text we have today. This claim aims at validating modern Western translations of the Bible, which are based on the Hebrew text. Is this true? And how close is close?

It is difficult for one to really grasp the uniqueness of the LXX until studying the text and comparing it with modern translations. When I first started to read the LXX, many things surprised me. Working through the Pentateuch, I made note of the many significant differences between the Hebrew and the Greek. Godís curse on Cain is a case in point.


Hebrew (AV)

Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? Be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him.

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

Likewise, the genealogy from Adam to Noah in the LXX places the Deluge 2242 years after Creation. But our modern translations based on the Hebrew text indicate the time span to be 1656 years. This difference springs from the LXX stating that the birth of the first-born sons of various patriarchs happened later in their life than that reported by the Hebrew text.

The last ten chapters of Exodus and the entire book of Jeremiah contain a number of different passages where verses are either omitted, paraphrased, or completely rearranged. Sometimes the Hebrew has more text than the LXX and sometimes vice versa.

In I Kings 12-14, the events surrounding the life of King Jeroboam are arranged in a different order and include a story not reported in the Hebrew text of how he came to marry Ano, the eldest sister of the wife of Susakim, the current pharaoh.

These are four of the many differences between the LXX and the Hebrew. Having been led to believe the text was basically the same I was quite disappointed. For instance, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell calls the LXX "very close" to the Massoretic. How close is close? Had Mr. McDowell really read the LXX?

The Role of the Septuagint in the New Testament.

The role of the LXX in the New Testament and the early Church is a crucial help in understanding what Paul might have meant by "all Scripture." As previously mentioned, this is the version most often quoted in the New Testament. And in some cases the claims of the New Testament theologically depend on the peculiarities of the LXX.

For instance, Hebrews 10:5 quotes Psalm 40:6 as a messianic prophecy:

Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, "sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me."

The author has directly quoted from the LXX Psalter. A quick turn to our modern Bibles will confirm that the Hebrew text reads:

Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou hast opened.

If we follow this latter reading, the author of Hebrews has not only misquoted the passage, but has made it an important plank of his argument. Only the rendering of the LXX justifies this as a Messianic passage. Did the author of Hebrews get it wrong? Was it an inspired mistake?

In Acts 7:14 St. Stephen relates the story of the Israelite nation and refers to 75 people who traveled from Canaan to Egypt in the emigration of Jacobís family. This is not what Genesis 46 states in our Bibles, where it catalogues 70 sojourners. But the LXX lists 75 people, confirming St. Stephenís account, with the differences accounted for by the grand- and great-grandchildren of Joseph (Gen 46:20-22).

Most importantly, it is only in the LXX that Isaiahís prophecy of the Virgin Birth makes its bold appearance (Is 7:14). The Hebrew text uses the word "woman" ("marah") instead of "virgin" ("parthenos"). In their earliest confrontations with Christians, the Jews objected most strongly to this verse being used to support of Jesusí Messiahship. The Jews claimed that Isaiah was prophesying of King Hezekiah and he knew nothing of a miraculous virgin birth. The Septuagint, they said, had been tampered with. The early Christians responded by claiming that it was not they, but the Jews who had cut passages out of the Hebrew text out of envy. (Justin Martyr, Trypho, 71-73)

If we agree with the ancient Jews that the LXX translation was a faulty translation, then why is this inferior text part of Holy, Inspired Scripture? If we follow the usage of the New Testament, could it not be said that the LXX was considered trustworthy and even preferred by the Apostles? This is not out of harmony with the testimony of the Early Church in the Greek speaking world, which, as partly evidenced by the earlier patristic quotation, regarded it as a sound and inspired translation.

As a Bible believing Christian, facing this dilemma was not easy. I felt that by trying to honestly grapple with textual issues, I was questioning the authority of Godís Word. This is not at all what I intended. I simply wanted integrity in my Christian faith. With time, as I struggled through some of these facts, I realized I needed to come to Scripture on its own terms, not on my expectations as a twentieth century Westerner. This desire for integrity aided me as I swallowed hard and proceeded to study the canon of the Old Testament.

What Is in the Septuagint?

All Scripture is inspired and, in both St. Paul and St. Timothyís mind, that meant the LXX. So much is clear. But the LXX included the books we know today as the Apocrypha.

The earliest copies of the Greek Bible we possess, such as the Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Siniaticus (4-5th centuries) include the Apocrypha. And it is not placed in a separate section in the back of the codex but is rather interspersed by book according to literature type ó the historical books with Kings and Chronicles, the wisdom literature with Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, and so forth.

These books were used by the Hellenic Jewish communities and certain Palestinian Jewish groups such as the Essenes. The Apocrypha retained respect in various Jewish communities until around thirty years after Paulís death when the Pharisees, in the council of Jamnia, and discussed a number of issues, among which was the Jewish canon. Although the influence of this council is disputed, what is clear is that in its aftermath the Apocrypha was decidedly rejected by the Pharisees, who then proceeded to dominate Judaism.

It seems unusual that most Evangelical Christians today embrace Jamnia as defining their canon. After all, the men at this council were not Christians. Rather they were vehemently opposed to Christ and the Apostles and intended to expunge it from Jewish life. The early Christians paid no heed to the council of Jamnia and continued to use the Apocrypha, and with good reason. Read, for instance, what is written in the book of Wisdom:

Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the Lord. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, Because his life is not like other menís, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father.

Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wisdom 2:12-20)

Is such a powerful Messianic passage, written before Christ, merely a coincidence? Or could the Apocrypha be inspired Scripture?

The Apocrypha Cannot be Inspired Because...

What? The Apocrypha inspired? Never! As Evangelicals we have been raised with the understanding that there are only 39 books of the Old Testament, unique and unlike any other. No Christian could seriously believe in the Apocrypha! This attitude is competently demonstrated by Geisler and Nix who, in their book From God to Us, give reasons why the Apocrypha cannot be accepted. Because... of the testimony of Jesus and the New Testament writers.

It is true there is no direct quotation in the New Testament from the Apocrypha. But, before smugly moving on, we should recognize that there are allusions to and use of the Apocrypha.

For instance, when the Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge him on the issue of the Resurrection (Mt 22:23-33), they refer to seven brothers among them who, in turn, married the same woman, dying before having children. This story is neither ludicrous nor an invention. Rather, it is a speculative question probably based on the situation of Sarah in Tobit (Tob 3:7-17). She found herself facing perpetual virginity as seven marriages had resulted in death, each husband dying on the night of their marriage. "In the resurrection therefore whose wife of the seven shall she be?" asked the Sadducees regarding Sarahís plight.

Jesusí parable of the widow and the uncaring judge (Lk 18:1-8) is a variation of a set of proverbs found in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclus 35:13-15).

St. Paul makes numerous allusions to the wisdom and power of God which have powerful affinity with the Book of Wisdom, the theology of which is strongly Christian. One fine example of this is found in Romans:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mean, because all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

This understanding of the Fall does not depend solely on the passage in Genesis, which does not directly blame the existence of sin today on Adamís transgression. It is there, but St. Paulís exegesis of this passage is informed by Wisdom:

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it. (Wis 2:24)

It is true that the authors do not call these books inspired. But what books do the NT authors declare to be inspired? The argument can work both ways. There are seventeen books the New Testament does not quote ó Joshua, Judges, Ezekiel, Ezra/Nehemiah and Chronicles to name but a few. Are these then dubious? The nearest citation to the Chronicles is, with a stretch of details, a reference by Jesus to the killing of a certain Zechariah (Mt 23:35, Lk 11:51). Does an indirect reference like this really establish that the Chronicles are inspired? In fact, the Bible doesnít specifically call any book inspired, aside from the passage we are looking at in II Timothy. Should we?

Possibly we need to accept that when the NT cites a book or refers to a prophet of Jehovah the authors automatically assume spiritual authority in the writing, on the part of both themselves and their audience.

The testimony of early Christian synods.

The purpose of local synods, before the advent of the ecumenical councils, was to decide regional disputes, not to establish the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Formulating a canon of Scripture was never up for discussion. However, if it had been, the Apocryphal books would have certainly received a warm response. Here are excerpts from the acts of two early local synods.

...Holy Scripture meets and warns us, saying...."And fear not the words of a sinful man, for his glory shall be dung and worms. Today he is lifted up, and tomorrow he shall not be found, because he is turned into his earth, and his thought shall perish (I Mac 2:62-63)." Cyprian, Ep. 14, 2nd council of Carthage, AD 252, (ANF V:339)

Quietus of Baruch said: We who live by faith ought to obey with careful observance those things which before have been foretold for our instruction. For it is written in Solomon: "He that is baptized from the dead, (and again toucheth the dead,) what availeth his washing (Ecclus 34:25)?" 7th council of Carthage, AD 256, (ANF V:568)

The testimony of the great Fathers of the early church.

Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius are specifically cited by Geisler and Nix as speaking against the Apocrypha. This is quite an interesting allegation because anyone familiar with the writings of these, and other Church Fathers, will know that precisely the opposite is true. [Webmaster Note: Actually, Origen was condemned as a heretic by the Holy Fathers of the Fifth Ćcumenical Synod. This does not mean that he did not have many good things to say. Mr. Kalvesmakiís points still hold. I am merely correcting his statement that he is a Father of the Church.]

Origen, in his commentaries on the Gospels of St. John and St. Matthew, cites Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Daniel and Esdras I. Other Fathers before Origen, such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus all quote from the Apocrypha. It is difficult to find a Father who does not quote the Apocrypha as Scripture.

St. Athanasius, in his festal letter of 367, lists the books of the Old Testament and includes in his canon those parts of the Apocrypha associated with Jeremiah and Daniel, while excluding the whole of Esther. He also commends other books of the Apocrypha as suitable for the instruction of new Christians, although he does not rate them as Scripture. St. Athanasiusí intent in writing the letter was to exclude the apocryphal and spurious gospels of the second century and later, not the writings we know today as the Apocrypha.

Origen, the third century scholar and theologian who knew both Hebrew and Greek, is worth quoting on this subject:

[W]hen we notice [canonical differences between the Hebrew & LXX], we are [urged] to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews.... Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died...? In all these cases consider whether it would not be well to remember the words, "Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set." (Ep Afr 4,5)

The testimony of Luther & the Reformers

It is true that the Reformers generally subscribed to the Hebrew canon. And yet even then they were not hostile towards the Apocrypha. Luther included them in his translation of the Bible as being helpful to read. The original translation of the King James Version included the Apocrypha and was included in subsequent printings until the 19th century. According to the Book of Common Prayer it was them that "the [English] Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine..." (Art 6). What a long way we have come, where these books have fallen from honor to derision!

The innovation of the council of Trent

Although the council of Trent was late, it did not mark a change in the canon, but rather reflected the use of Scripture since the time of the Apostles. Generally we do not need to clarify that which is not under dispute. Up to then Rome had no need to define her canon. No church in the world, from Armenia to Ethiopia to Rome, had questioned the Apocrypha. Only Protestants, preferring their own wisdom to that of the rest of Christendom, prompted the canon to be defined.

The testimony of Philo, Josephus and the Council of Jamnia

As mentioned before, the testimony, or lack thereof, of these Jewish scholars carried little weight with Christians in the early centuries. Should it be any different for us? Were the sons of the Pharisees spiritually fit to establish the canon? In trying to redirect authority for the canon from the Greek to the Hebraic world, Geisler and Nix state:

"Palestine was the home of the Jewish canon, not Alexandria, Egypt. The great Greek learning center in Egypt was no authority in determining which books belonged in the Jewish Old Testament." (Geisler & Nix, 96)

Certainly Alexandria was not the "home" of the Jewish canon, but does the Old Testament belong to Jews or Christians? The question for us does not revolve around what was in the Jewish Old Testament but the Christian one! Who are the competent authorities on that question? If we respect the Jewish decision on the canon, should we then reconsider our position regarding the Messiah, the Sabbath and the Law?

St. Jeromeís testimony

The opinions of one man do not form the mind of the Church. St. Augustine, his contemporary, begged to differ with him, as did previous and later Fathers.

...of the testimony of Reformation-period Roman Catholic scholars

Geisler and Nix cite Cardinals Cajetan and Ximenes as distinguishing the Apocrypha, in an effort to show that Rome was divided on the subject. This may result from our age-long misunderstanding of Catholicism. Through history Catholics have recognized differences within the Old Testament, not just of the Apocrypha, but of the Histories, Prophets and the Law. The Roman Catholic Church still recognizes that distinction by calling the apocryphal books deuterocanonical (second canon). Catholics distinguish, but do not separate, the Apocrypha, which perfectly accommodates the thought of the above Catholic Doctors.

Problems in the Apocrypha.

There are passages of the Apocrypha which many Evangelicals find disturbing or problematic. And yet, if we are honest, those passages have their counterparts in the Old Testament.

For instance, much has been made of what, on the first reading, seems to be an occultic use of animal parts in the book of Tobit. But before rejecting this story, pause for a moment. Think of how Jacob bred his flock (Gen 30:25-43). Doesnít it seem that he used folk magic and dowsing techniques? If this story had not been included in the canon and we read it for the first time today, wouldnít we react just as awkwardly? Donít Jacobís actions seem to smack of God-sanctioned occultic practices just as much as Tobitís? Possibly our reaction against these kind of stories emanates not from their content but from being raised in a secular culture and worldview that scoffs the miraculous and God working through the physical.

There are unusual things waiting for new readers of the Apocrypha. Yet there is much that is already familiar to us as it is genuinely Christian. Some Evangelicals find that, after reading these books, they return to familiar Scriptures and discover a new depth and authenticity to them. Others begin to realize that the Old Testament canon is not a black and white issue.

All Scripture is not Equal.

Such a statement may come as a shock. If anything sounds like an attack on Scripture, this does.

Some background is necessary. In pre-Christian synagogue worship, when Scripture was read, the congregation responded differently to various sections of the Old Testament. The historical books "ranked" lowest, and above that came the Psalter and the Prophets. But when the Law was read, everyone in the synagogue stood. Here, for them, was the core of Godís revelation and, above all other books, the Law of Moses merited full attention.

The same happened in early Christianity after the Apostles died. But instead of the Law, it was the Gospels which compelled the faithful to stand in respect. The teaching and words of Jesus, the New and Spiritual Law, were seen as the pinnacle of the revelation of Scripture. The early Christiansí hermeneutic of the rest of the Bible began and ended with the words of Christ. The Gospels were the core of their canon. St. Paul was understood in the light of Jesus, not vice versa.

Is this ordering of Scripture so strange? We do it ourselves, although we do not readily admit it. If we consider all the sermons we have heard, cataloguing the references used, we will find that some books typically merit more thought and discourse than others. In many Protestant churches Romans and Galatians are focused upon while II Peter, James & Jude are not. In the Old Testament, the Psalms are read more frequently than Numbers. If any church or tradition really sought to cover Scripture equally they would have to slate four times more sermons on the Old Testament than on the New!

The Faith of the Septuagint.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has been most faithful to the Apostlesí Old Testament. They retain the LXX and generally base their translations of the Old Testament on it. Without needing objective proof for the veracity of this translation, they have simply held to what the Apostles gave them. Their approach to the canon has not been philosophical or deductive, but spiritual, trusting that God established and is now watching over the Church which He established.

In the West we have always laughed at this kind of childish faith, preferring that which is more concrete and objective. Yet there has been terrible vindication of Eastern simplicity this century. The Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the general reliability of the LXX. As the various passages of the Bible have been translated and published, scholars have realized that previous dismissal of the LXX has been premature. Passages from the Law and historical books have uncovered evidence for a separate Hebrew textual recension which underlies the translation of the LXX. More times than not the ancient manuscripts of Qumran agree with the Greek against the Massoretic Text.

It seems now that, to scholars engaged on this work in the future, Qumran has offered a new basis for a confidence in the LXX in at least the historical books, which should allow them to accept the better readings of that version almost as readily as if they were found in the Hebrew MT. In other words, each reading must in future be judged on its merits, not on any preconceived notion of the superiority of the Hebrew version, simply because it is Hebrew. (Allegro, 81)

Qumranic scholars have not submitted absolute vindication of one textual tradition over another but they have reopened the question of translation of the Old Testament. The answer to the direction of future translations, now, could be pivotally determined by theologians rather than textual scholars. Allegro, and others, argue for an eclectic translation of the Old Testament which would provoke all and satisfy none. However, in the future, we may find ourselves asking not, "Which version seems best?" but, "Which version best reflects Christ?" For the answer to the latter the LXX has been long in waiting.

Rethinking the Old Testament.

Most Evangelical arguments for the Old Testament canon are, at best, ad hoc. Our leaders and teachers paint a simple, pristine picture of the transmission of Scripture, as if the canon was all but leather-bound and cross-referenced. "This canon is true because it is self-evident, internally consistent and all sensible early testimony agrees with us," goes the typical argument. And when, in opening the record of history, we find this to be not the case, we add a long string of Ďbutís and Ďexceptís. This does not go very far. With such an approach to the Scriptures, trying to take them out of their place in history, is it any wonder why so many Bible-believing Christians have lost their faith to Liberals, who are willing to deal more thoroughly with the historical record?

What can we Learn?

We Evangelicals need a strong dose of theological humility. When we examine history it does not always match our expectations or our experience. We preach often on the importance of confessing our personal sins and errors, but rarely apply this principle to our corporate spiritual walk with other churches and other communions. Does humility only apply to the individual, or also to entire bodies?

Some of us, myself included, have denied the name Christian to churches which have beliefs and practices which are closer to the Fathers who helped give us the canon. Possibly it is time to begin to treat with respect those churches which have retained the Apocrypha simply in their effort to be faithful to what the Apostles handed to them.

Silence and quietness is in order. As Evangelicals we often act from excessive and ignorant zeal. Might it not be time to stop, pause, and learn? It would do us no harm to prayerfully read the Fathers, some of whom were closer to Jesus and the Apostles in time, language, culture and doctrine.

Possibly we need to listen to what the Catholics and Orthodox say to us before we judge them. Most of what we learn about these ancient bodies come from Protestant sources. We should trust them to tell their own story.

As Jesus says, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you." (Gospel of Thomas 5)

What? Jesus never said that!

How do you know? Who says the Gospel of Thomas should not be in the New Testament? We will look at the answer to this, and examine the canon of the New Testament in our next essay, "Do Not Add to His Words."


John Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reappraisal. 1956 (London: Penguin, 1980, 2nd ed.)

The Book of Common Prayer. (London: University Press, Cambridge)

Lancelot C. L. Brenton, ed. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. 1851. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992)

Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix., From God to Us: How we Got our Bible, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974)

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha, (Chicago: University of Chicago 1939)

Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. Ante-Nicene Fathers. 1885. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994)

All Bible quotations, except Apocryphal, which come from the New American Bible, are taken from the New American Standard Bible. A suggested reading list and note on the author is found at the conclusion of the second essay. May 1996

The Emergence

of the New Testament Canon.

Daniel F. Lieuwen

All Christians agree that Scripture is the heart of the Christian tradition. However, what they mean by this affirmation often differs. To shed light on how this affirmation ought to be understood, this paper will trace the history of the New Testament canon from the apostolic church to the present. The goal is to show how we know that the Church properly identified all and only those books that belong in Sacred Scripture and to consider the implications of the process of identification.

When the church began, there were no New Testament books. Old Testament texts alone were used as Scripture. The first book written was probably I Thessalonians (c. 51; or possibly Galations which may be c. 50-there is some controversy over the dating of Galatians). The last books were probably John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelations toward the end of the first century.(1) The books were written to deal with concrete problems in the church-immoral behavior, bad theology, and the need for spiritual "meat."

Thus, the church existed for roughly twenty years with no New Testament books, only the oral form of the teaching of the apostles. Even after a book was written, it was not immediately widely available. Some books like II Peter were read almost exclusively in their target area, a situation which continued for a long time, leading to their (temporary or permanent) rejection from the canon due to doubts about their apostolic origins. Thus, for instance, II Peter was rejected for centuries by many, and it is rejected by Nestorians to this day.(2) Even if not universally accepted, a book was highly regarded by its recipients and those churchís in the surrounding areas. This led to local canonicity, a book being used in public worship in a particular region. Twenty-seven of these books came in time to have universal canonicity, but others (e.g. Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, I Clement, Gospel of the Hebrews) were rejected for inclusion in the New Testament canon, even though they often retained a reputation for being profitable Christian reading.(3)

Although the New Testament books we have today were written in the first century, it took time for them to be accepted as universally authoritative. Initially, only the life and sayings of Christ were considered of equal authority with the Old Testament scriptures. For instance, Hegessipus in the first half of the second century accepted only "the Law, the Prophets, and the Lord" as norms "to which a right faith must conform"(4) The Didascalia Apostolurum which appears to have been written in the first half of the third century in Northern Syria similarly states the authoritative norms are "the sacred scriptures and the gospel of God" (which it also refers to as "the Law, the book of the Kings and of the Prophets, and the Gospel" and the "Law, Prophet, and Gospel").(5)

Moreover, the "Gospel" spoken of was often the Oral Gospel and not exclusively the four Gospels we have in our current Bible. There were also many apocryphal gospels written between the late first and early third centuries. Some of them appear to accurately preserve some of Christís sayings and were long used in Christian circles (for instance, Eusebius (c. 325) writes that the Gospel of the Hebrews was still in use although not widely accepted); others were written to support some heretical sect.(6) While use was made of the four Gospels,

in the first one and a half centuries of the Churchís history, there was no single Gospel writing which is directly made known, named, or in any way given prominence by quotation. Written and oral traditions run side by side or cross, enrich or distort one another without distinction or even the possibility of distinction between them.(7)

The reason for this is that the authority of Christís words came from Christ having spoken them and not from the words appearing in a sacred text in a fixed form. As a result, sayings from apocryphal sources and the Oral Gospel appear alongside quotes from the four Gospels of our present New Testament.(8) Many early Christians, in fact, had a preference for oral tradition. For instance, Papias in the first half of the second century, said that he inquired of followers of the apostles what the apostles had said and what "Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice." However, he does mention the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Matthew by name.(9) Early Christian preference for oral tradition had rabbinic parallels-for instance Philo though oral tradition was superior to scripture. In Semitic thought, the idea persisted for a long time. As late as the thirteenth century, Arab historian Abu-el-Quasim ibn ĎAskir said, "My friend strive zealously and without ceasing to get hold of [traditions]. Do not take them from written records, so they may not be touched by the disease of textual corruption."(10)

St. Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200), Bishop of Lyons and a great fighter against heresy, was the one of last writers to use the Oral Gospel as an independent source. He initially fought heresy using only the Old Testament and the churchís Oral tradition. However, later, in response to needs arising from fighting Gnosticism and Marcionism, he came to use the books of New Testament extensively.(11)

Besides the Oral Gospels, the Diatessaron served as an alternate Gospel. The Diatessaron was a harmony of the four gospels, written c. 150-160 by Tatian. It circulated widely in Syriac-speaking churches-it was their standard text of the gospels until it was superseded by the Peshitta in the fifth century. The Diatessaronís use shows that the four gospels were considered important authorities, but not exclusive authorities. The Diatessaron by itself constituted as the New Testament scriptures for the Syrian churches until the fourteen Pauline epistles were added in the third century.(12)

Thus, we see that for a considerable period of time, many Christians (particularly those in Syria and those from a Jewish background) accepted only the Gospel alongside the Old Testament as Scripture. Further, many accepted it in the form of the Oral Gospel or of both the Oral and written Gospel (where the written Gospel might contain either more or fewer books than are currently accepted).

The Pauline letters achieved acceptance in a fixed form considerably earlier; they were circulating as a body of writing "well before AD 90."(13) In fact, recent research makes it quite likely that p46, an early collection of Pauline letters should be dated in the late first century.(14) The letters were known and circulated among both orthodox and heretics as a collection from the early second century. The collection probably contained ten Pauline letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, and Philemon.(15)

The first person to attempt to define the canon precisely was the heretic Marcion. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament, the Creator God, was contemptible, a very different God from the God of the New Testament. He believed the Christian Gospel was a Gospel of Love to the exclusion of Law. He rejected the Old Testament as a result. His message was quite popular-it was the chief rival to Orthodox Christianity in the latter half of the second century.(16) He accepted only the Lukan gospel and ten Pauline letters, which he probably chose based on the standard circulating collection.(17) He felt St. Paul alone understood Christ-he was certain that the disciples completely misunderstood their Master. Marcionís motivation for accepting only St. Lukeís gospel is complex; he took St. Paulís reference to "his gospel" or "the gospel" to refer to a particular book at St. Paulís disposal and set out to find it. The Oral Gospel was out of the question as the sayings could not be confirmed and hence were dubious-he wanted documents which might have preserved the truth in a pure form. (Incidentally, he is the only critic of the Oral Gospel, or any written Gospel, known in the early church.) St. Matthew, while the most popular Gospel, was out of the question as too "judaising"; St. Mark was not widely used. St. John was a mixture of things he liked and didnít like-and there were questions on its age and authenticity. From Marcionís perspective, St. Lukeís Gospel had the fewest problems; further, St. Luke was associated with St. Paul.(18)

However, Marcion was not satisfied with accepting the eleven books of his canon in the form he received them. He was convinced that they had been interpolated with "judaising" material. He set out to reconstruct the original, uncorrupted text, free from all distortions.(19) His mind was too narrow and his ideology too rigid to conceive that there were multiple perspectives on the same truths in St. Paul, that Godís Law and Grace while contrasted were not put into opposition-although Godís Law and manís laws were. He eliminated all but one perspective from his Gospel and Epistles. This perspective, however, was not St. Paulís, but Marcionís. However, it should be noted that he only subtracted, he never added to the texts he received.(20) (His canon and a number of other canons are summarized in tabular form in the appendix.)

Before Marcion, the question we are addressing in this paper as to how we can be confident that all and only those books that belong in the New Testament in fact are in the New Testament had not begun to be formulated. Marcion formulated part of the question in his attempt to determine a collection of authoritative books. His answer was very wrong, but he forced the church to consider the question of what books should be included in the canon as Marcionís was clearly too small. It left out too much of the Christian message.

In responce to Marcionís canon, the expansion phase of the New Testament canon began. The books in his canon in unmutilated form were at the core of both the final canon and most approximations of it on the path to the final canon. The church insisted on a catholic scripture-one that encompassed Jewish and Gentile Christianity and that faithfully reflected the apostolic teachings. (Marcion had accepted only a small strand of Gentile Christianity and added in much that was his own.) The book of Acts is absolutely crucial to a catholic New Testament because it honored Ss. Peter, Paul, and James. Some Jewish Christians revered St. James and hated St. Paulís memory. Some heretics like Marcion rejected all that was Jewish. However, this polarization is impossible for those who take Acts seriously.(21)

St. Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), the preeminent apologist of the early church and a vigorous opponent of Gnosticism including Marcionism,(22) was unwilling to accept Marcionís truncated canon. He "quoted freely from" the four canonical gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles including Hebrews, and I Peter.(23) However, he does not speak of a canon-for instance he was apparently unacquainted with treating the four church gospels as a unit.(24)

St. Irenaeus, who was previously mentioned in connection with the Oral Gospel, produced the first known catholic canon. He was the first to adopt Marcionís notion of a new scripture. He used this idea to fight heresies, including Marcionís. He recognized the four gospel canon as an already established entity and championed it as "an indispensable and recognized collection against all deviations of heretics."(25) Thus, sometime in the last half of the second century, the four church gospels began to be viewed as a single unit. He defended the four gospels by letting the various heresies that accepted only one of the gospels testify on behalf of the gospel they adhered to (the Ebionites, Docetists, Marcionites, and Valentinians for the gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John respectively.) He refused to accept new gospels, arguing from symbology the appropriateness of having four gospels. He defended Acts by pointing out that it is illogical to accept St. Lukeís gospel and reject Acts (as the Marcionites did). The Pauline letters needed no defense as even the heretics acknowledged them as authoritative.(26) He cited most of them, in fact he cited from every New Testament book except Philemon and III John.(27) (Given that both are extremely short, this does not indicate one way or the other what he thought of their canonicity.) While citing both Revelations and the Shepherd, he did not cite them as canonical books, although he considered them important.(28)

St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) made use of an open canon. He seemed "practically unconcerned about canonicity. To him, inspiration is what mattered."(29) In addition to books that did not make it into the final New Testament canon but which had local canonicity (Barnabas, Didache, I Clement, Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd, the Gospel according to the Hebrews), he also used the Gospel of the Egyptians, Preaching of Peter, Traditions of Matthias, Sibylline Oracles, and the Oral Gospel.(30) He did, however, prefer the four church gospels to all others, although he supplemented them freely with apocryphal gospels. He was the first to treat non-Pauline letters of the apostles (other than I Peter) as scripture-he accepted I Peter, I and II John, and Jude as scripture.(31)

The expansion phase considerable enlarged the accepted canon. It reached near final form in many quarters by around 200, containing the four gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles. The main books disputed after that time were: Revelations, Hebrews, Philemon, and the Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I and II and III John, and Jude).(32) For instance, the Old Latin translation of the New Testament (c. 200) contained the present day canon other than II Peter, James, and Hebrews.(33)

The Muratorian Canon written c. 200 by a private theologian states that the New Testament canon consists of the following: the four gospels (the beginning of the document is mutilated, but it speaks of "the third book of the gospel: according to Luke," which almost certainly implies the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark were included), Acts, the thirteen Pauline epistles, two letters of John (probably I and II John), Jude, and Revelation-as well as the Revelation of Peter ("which some of our people will not have to be read in the church," but which "may be read") and the Wisdom of Solomon.(34) However, it rejected the Shepherd for public reading in church because it was "written by Hermas in the city of Rome quite recently, in our own times, when his brother Pius occupied the bishopís chair in the city of Rome." (Pius was bishop of Rome during part of the reign of Antoninus Pius whose reign ran from 138-161.) It was, however, considered good private reading.(35) The reasoning is that the work was post-apostolic and hence that it could not possibly be canonical. (The history backing up the reasoning is open to debate, dates as early as 90 and as late as 157 are plausible.(36))

The expansion phase was forced to come to an end by the Montanist heresy, an apocalyptic movement that demanded incredible moral and ascetic rigor of its adherents and was convinced that it was Spirit-inspired prophets and not clerics who should lead the church. Montanists claimed that they were completing Christís unfinished work, that rejecting their three prophets was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Just as Marcion forced the church to think about what books ought to be in the canon of New Testament scripture, the Montanists forced the church to think about what should be excluded from the canon.(37) The attitude that the canon is closed can be found in a quote in Eusebius written "more than thirteen years" after the last of the three Montanist "prophets" died. The writer explains that he was hesitant for a time to write against Montanism ó not from inability to refute falsehood and witness to the truth, but a precaution against the danger that some people might think I was adding another paragraph or clause to the wording of the New Covenant of the Gospel, to which nothing can be added, from which nothing can be taken away, by anyone who has determined to live by the Gospel itself.(38)

Scripture came to be seen as a fixed collection of authoritative books, and it was believed to be presumptuous to add to the collection.(39)

While the ideas of a canon became more clear, only the core described previously was certain. Revelation in particular was attacked by many because Montanism had made apocalyptic material suspect. Gaius of Rome, an early third century churchman, attacked the inclusion of the Gospel of St. John, Hebrews, and Revelation on anti-Montanist grounds (he ascribed St. Johnís Gospel and Revelation to Cerinthus, a Gnostic heretic who was a contemporary of St. John).(40) In general, however, apocalyptic material, while treated with caution, was not considered as suspect in the West as in the East. The Shepherd was dropped from the Western canon; the Revelation of Peter and the Revelation of John were both challenged. However, in the East (the Greek speaking parts of the world and Egypt), there was nearly universal refusal to allow apocalyptic writings into the canon until Western influence began to sway the Eastern Christians in the fourth century. Moreover, Hebrews was rejected in the West because it was used by the Montanists to justify their harsh penetential system and because the West was not certain of its authorship. Hebrews was not accepted in the West until the fourth century under the influence of St. Athanasius.(41)

Origen (c. 185-c. 254), the most influential Biblical commentator of the first three centuries of Christianity, categorized books into three categories: those acknowledged by all the churches, the disputed books which some churches accepted, and the spurious books. The acknowledged books were the four gospels, Acts, the thirteen Pauline epistle, I Peter, I John, and Revelation. The disputed books were II Peter, II John, III John, James, and Jude.(42) He may have considered Barnabas, Didache, and the Shepherd canonical as well-he used the word "scripture" for them. Both Bruce and von Campenhausen indicate that Origen did view them as canonical (although, Origen became more cautious about both Revelation and the Shepherd in later life), while Davis states that even though Origen used the word "scripture" for them, Origen "did not consider them canonical."(43) Origen personally came to consider Hebrews as canonical, stating

In the epistle entitle To the Hebrews the diction does not exhibit the characteristic roughness of speech or phraseology admitted by the Apostle himself, the construction of the sentences is closer to Greek usage, as anyone capable of recognizing differences of style would agree. On the other hand the matter of the epistle is wonderful, and quite equal to the Apostleís acknowledged writings: the truth of this would be admitted by anyone who has read the Apostle carefully ... If I were asked my personal opinion, I would say that the matter is the Apostleís but the phraseology and construction are those of someone who remembered the Apostleís teaching and wrote his own interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as Paulís, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive Church had every justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became Bishop of Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and Acts.(44)

Origenís views were important in making Hebrews widely accepted throughout the East; it had previously been accepted as Pauline and canonical only in Egypt. In time, Eastern acceptance led the West to accept Hebrews as scripture.(45)

For instance, Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church (c. 325) that Paul

was obviously and unmistakeably the author of fourteen epistles, but we must not shut our eyes to the fact that some authorities have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, pointing out that the Roman Church denies it is the work of Paul.(46)

Eusebiusí view of the canon was very similar to Origenís, both for the canonís bounds and for the method of specifying the bounds-the main difference being Eusebiusí outright rejection of Barnabas, Didache, and the Shepherd. Eusebius followed Origenís classification of alleged New Testament books, stating

It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of gospels, followed by the Acts of the Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paulís epistles, and after them we must recognize the epistle called I John; likewise I Peter. To these may be added, if it is though proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I shall set out when the time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet familiar to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and II Peter, and those called II and III John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.

Among Spurious Books must be placed the ĎActsí of Paul, the ĎShepherdí, and the ĎRevelation of Peterí; also the alleged ĎEpistle of Barnabasí, and the ĎTeaching of the Apostlesí [Didache], together with the Revelation of John, if this seems the right place for it; as I said before, some reject it, others included it among the Recognized Books. Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the ĎGospel of Hebrewsí, a book which has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the teaching of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer to his writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as forgeries of heretics. It follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale.(47)

The final form of the canon was nearly at hand. Emperor Constantineís order for fifty copies of scripture may have been important in the process. While their exact contents are not certain, some surmise that these copies may have contained the 27 books of the final New testament canon.(48) The canons of the council of Laodicia (c. 363) accepted all the books of the final canon except Revelation.(49) The first list of canonical books of the New Testament that exactly matches our own, having neither more nor fewer books, was contained in St. Athanasiusí Easter Letter of 367 which states that

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.(50)

In addition to the books of the canon, he mentions that other books are profitable for instruction,

that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles [Didache], and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read.(51)

The ancient distrust of the Western Church for Hebrews continued. It was probably St. Athanasiusí influence during his stay in Rome (he fled there in 339) which helped convince many influential Western churchmen to accept Hebrews as canonical, although not necessarily Pauline. A diversity of opinion as to its authorship continued, but it was eventually accepted.(52)

The final acceptance of exactly this set of 27 books by everyone except the Nestorians (who accept five fewer) and the Ethiopians (who accept more) took some time particularly for Hebrews (because the Roman church was unsure of its authorship), Revelations (because it was easily misused by those with apocalyptic fantasies), and Jude (because it quoted from the apocryphal book of Enoch). While II Peter previously was the most disputed book,(53) by this point, it was less controversial to the Christian mainstream. For instance, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) and St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-389) accepted all 27 books except Revelation. On the other hand, in 405, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter which affirms a 26 book canon that excluded Hebrews.(54) Clearly, it took some time to achieve universal acceptance among the Orthodox for Hebrews in the West, and Revelation in the East.

The Western Council of Hippo (393) was probably the first council to specify the limits of the canon, and it accepted the 27 book canon, allowing only them to be read in church under the name of canonical writings. It "permitted, however, that the passions of martyrs, be read when their [martyrdomsí] anniversaries are celebrated."(55)

Some accepted larger canons as well. St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-415) accepted all 27 books but also accepted the Wisdom books of Solomon and Ben Sirach. The late fourth century Codex Sinaiticus included Barnabas and the Shepherd "at the end but with no indication of secondary status." The early fifth century Codex Alexandrinus made "no demarcation between I and II Clement" and the rest of the New Testament. St. Jerome (c. 342-420), the translator of the Vulgate and one of the greatest scholars of the early church, seemed to believe that Barnabas and the Shepherd were worthy of inclusion. However, he recognized that they were not in the accepted canon, and he did not believe that anyone had the authority to add them. He also noted that many still rejected Jude because of its quotation from Enoch.(56)

The canon of the Syriac-speaking churches in the third century included the Diatessaron and the fourteen Pauline epistles. In the early fifth century, the Peshitta became the official text of Syriac-speaking churches. It replaced the Diatessaron with the four gospels. It contained the 22 books of our New Testament other than II Peter, II John, III John, Jude, and Revelation. (The Peshitta is traditionally held to be the work of Rabulla, bishop of Edessa from 412-435. However, it probably built on work of the previous century.) The Nestorian church still uses this 22 book canon. In 508, the Jacobite branch of the Syriac church came to accept the standard 27 book canon.(57)

The longest Biblical canon belongs to the Ethiopian church. Their Old Testament contains the Septuagintal books, Jubilees, the Ethiopic Enoch, IV Edras, the Rest of the Words of Baruch, the Ascension of Isaiah, and other books. Their New Testament includes the Shepherd and other books. Some manuscripts of the Ethiopian New Testament include the Epistle of Eusebius to Carpianus and the Eusebian Canons which were written by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340).(58)

Thus, we see that producing the final form of the New Testament canon took a considerable period of time. It took still longer to produce near universal agreement. However, to this day, there exist ancient churches which have either never accepted certain books or which accept more than 27 books. The canon in its present form was not a self-evident fact, but the result of a prolonged struggle-we reap the fruits of other menís labors.

The reasons for formalizing the canon included determining which books should be used liturgically and in theological and moral reasoning, heretical stimuli (e.g. Marcionism, Montanism), the "missionary stimulus" which required determining which books to translate, and the need to know which books must be preserved at all costs in persecution. There were a number of principles used in formalizing the canon. Apostolic authority (which required that the book have been written by an apostle, by someone associated with an apostle-for instance St. Mark and St Luke, or by a member of the Lordís family) was a crucial principle in determining canonicity. A corollary was that the book had to be from the apostolic age. It had to conform to Orthodoxy as opposed to Docetism and Gnosticism. Regular use of a book liturgically was also an important principle-and the book must have been widely accepted for a long time and in many places. Note that liturgical use both provided a powerful motivation to produce the canon (since knowing what books ought be used in public worship was critical) and was itself an important determinant in setting the bounds of the canon.(59)

The complexity of the process demonstrates that we can know that all and only those books that belonged in the canon are in fact in the canon only because we know that God is faithful, that He will give us all that is necessary for salvation, that He promised to protect His Church so that the gates of hell will be impotent to prevail against her. If, however, we accept that He led the Church aright in the matter of preserving the apostolic teachings, it seems logical that He must have preserved His bride from errors in other matters as well. The myth of the Church abandoning its Masterís precepts shortly after the apostolic age or after the beginning of the Constantinian era must be abandoned by those who wish to affirm the New Testament scripture for those scriptures were recognized by that church.

Many practices that are deplored by Protestants were common before the beginning of the fourth century, a time when many if not most Christians rejected inclusion of at least some of the following books in the canon: Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, and Revelations; while others accepted additional books like Barnabas and the Shepherd. For instance, the practice of praying for the dead comes to Christianity from Judaism. This practice is testified to in II Macabees 13:42-45 (RSV) which tells how Judas Maccabeus (d. 161 B.C.; 60) and his men

turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed [by their dead comrades] might be wholly blotted out... In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sins.

II Timothy 1: 16-18 may also be a prayer for a departed believer; I Corinthians 15: 29 speaks not merely of prayer for the dead, but even of baptism on their behalf. Many inscriptions in the catacombs contain prayers for the souls of the departed-for instance an inscription for "the dear and well-loved Sirica" concludes with the prayer "Lord Jesus, remember our daughter." The inscription for Agape pleads, "I beg you to pray when you come here and to entreat Father and Son in all your prayers. Do not fail to remember dear Agape so that God Almighty may keep Agape safe forever."(61) The early liturgies typically commemorated the dead. The writings of Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), St. Cyprian (d. 258), and others demonstrate that private prayers for the dead were also common. While the fourth century heretic Aerius denied the "efficacy and legitimacy" of such prayers, his views on this and other matters were rejected.(62)

Similarly, requesting the prayers of the departed was also common. For instance, the catacombs contain inscriptions like "Atticus, sleep in peace, carefree in your security, and pray earnestly for our sinful selves," and "Holy Xystus, have Aurelius Repentinus in mind during your prayers." Inscriptions like "Paul and Peter, pray for Victor" appear frequently.(63)

The tangible expressions of Godís grace through the relics of the saints is attested to in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, II King 13: 21 (RSV) states,

And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.

The woman with the issue of blood was healed by touching Christís garment and not his person (Matthew 9: 21). Also, Acts 19: 11-12 (RSV) states that

And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

This knowledge that Godís grace is associated in a special way with objects from holy persons led the early church to pay great respect to the relics of the martyrs. Thus, in The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18: 2, 3, we read that after St. Polycarp (traditionally c. 69-c. 155)(64) was killed and his body burned, his congregation

later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and finer than gold, and deposited them in a suitable place. And there, in so far as it is possible, the Lord will grant that we come together with joy and gladness and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom both in memory of those who have contended in former times and for the exercise and training of those who will do so in the future.(65)

Here, we see both the honoring of relics and the celebration of saintsí days.

These practices, though an integral part of the faith of the early Christian martyrs are tragically a source of divisions among Orthodox and Protestants. It is not because they differ on the central role of scripture in the life of faith. Both Protestants and Orthodox affirm that

everything in the Church is judged by the Bible... Nothing in the Church may contradict it. Everything in the Church must be biblical; for the Church, in order to be the Church, must be wholly expressive of the Bible; or more accurately, it must be wholly faithful and expressive of that reality to which the Bible is itself the scriptural witness.(66)

The point of disagreement is, then, not on scriptureís role, but on the proper method of interpreting scripture. The differences comes not because one group studies scripture more carefully and respects it more. Commendable as such diligence is, careful and respectful study, while indispensable, is insufficient to discover the truths of the Christian faith if one comes to the Bible with the wrong set of assumptions. Most Orthodox and Protestant believers must admit that the Jehovahís Witnesses study scripture more carefully than they do-the Jehovahís Witnesses may even respect it more. However, like all of us, the Jehovahís Witnesses come to scripture with a set of presuppositions-this cannot be avoided since

complete objectivity is impossible, even in perceiving the physical environment. What one knows already, oneís presuppositions and expectations will not only have a tremendous effect on what one sees and how one interprets but may even determine what one sees.(67)

The Jehovahís Witnesses provide a sobering warning that oneís devotion to scripture is not enough-the presuppositions of their tradition prevent them from seeing scripture clearly despite their devotion to it. It is also clear, for instance, that the presuppositions of an early Christian who grew up in a Judaism that was used to praying for the dead will be quite different from those of a twentieth century Protestant who grew up in a culture that has deplored prayer for the dead for over four-hundred years. Both would read the New Testament as justifying their status quo, but the status quo being justified would be quite different. However, it makes more sense to assume that the interpretations of the early church are correct; being closer to the founding of the faith, they share more of the presuppositions of Christ and the apostles, both in terms of general cultural assumptions and in terms of oral tradition.(68) Only scripture is ultimately authoritative for the defense of doctrine, but only with tradition can we obtain the correct presuppositions so that we can interpret scripture aright. Personal interpretation leads only to the chaos of literally tens of thousands of denominations-established because each founder, having his own personal presuppositions, taught a somewhat different gospel.

In avoiding the pitfall of incorrect interpretation, then, good intentions are insufficient. Wisdom, accurate information, and the leading of the Spirit are all required-if one is missing any of them, one will almost certainly go astray. However, an accurate reading of history tells us that the Church existed about twenty years with no New Testament books; roughly 150 years before most of the books of the final New Testament canon were known and accepted by some important churchmen-and then, they accepted some additional books and did not know or knew and rejected some of the 27 books; almost 340 years before the first list that exactly matches the final canon was produced; and almost 480 years before the present canon was accepted by the last major group to resist (other than the Nestorians who reject five books to this day). Clearly, it was possible for people to be Christians with something less than total clarity about the contents of the New Testament. They were able to be Christians because they belonged to the Church which existed before the New Testament existed and has frequently been forced to make do with no written copies in whole areas due to persecution or poverty. The Church preserved and preserves the teaching of Christ and of His apostles, and not only the words on the pages of sacred scripture, but also the correct set of presuppositions, the authentic tradition which is required to interpret scripture correctly. Scripture is only properly interpreted in the context of the Church. If oneís presuppositions are leading one to conclusions that differ from those of the early Church, one needs to change oneís presuppositions. The simplest and safest way to do this is to learn and obey the tradition of the Church.


"Books that Almost Made It," Christian History, 43 (1994), p. 30-31.

Cha[dwick], H[enry]. "Christianity Before the Schism of 1054," Encyclopedia Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingston, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1974.

D[avis], H. G[rady]. "Biblical Literature," Encyclopedia Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.

Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Geisler, Norman and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody, 1986.

Harris, R. Laird, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971.

Hopko, Thomas. "The Bible in the Orthodox Church."Ď St. Vladamirís Theological Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1-2, 1970, pp. 66-99.

Louth, Andrew. "Whoís Who in Eusebius" in The History of the Church from Constantine to Christ. New York: Penguin, 1989.

May, Herbert and Bruce Metzger, The New Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford Press, 1977.

Meyendorff, John. "Does Christian Tradition Have a Future." St. Vladamirís Theological Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1982, pp. 139-154.

Milburn, Robert. Early Christian Art and Architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.

Sanford, Mary. "An Orthodox View of Biblical Criticism." Sourozh, 26 (November 1986), pp. 25-32.

Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd series), 14 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Sparks, Jack. The Apostolic Fathers. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1978.

Thiede, Carsten Peter. "A Testament is Born," Christian History, 43 (1994), pp. 24-29.

von Campenhausen, Hans. The Formation of the Christian Bible. trans. J. A. Baker. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.

V[ццbus], A[rthur]. ďEastern Christianity, Independent Churches of,Ē Encyclopedia Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.

End Notes


F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1974), pp. 134, 300, 544, 1365. Herbert May and Bruce Metzger, ed., The New Oxford Study Bible (New York: Oxford Press, 1977), pp. 1286, 1433, 1484, 1489, 1490, 1493. Note that I am rejecting these sourcesí second century date for II Peter. It is traditionally ascribed to St. Peter, and possible citations from it exist in I Clement and Barnabas, both of which were written in the first century-see scripture index in Jack Sparks, ed., The Apostolic Fathers (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1978), p. 328, particularly to the similarities to II Peter 3: 4, 8 in those books.


Carsten Peter Thiede, "A Testament is Born," Christian History, 43 (1994), 28. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 215.


Norman Geisler and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1986), p. 313.


Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Canon, trans. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 167.


von Campenhausen, p. 167. Cross and Livingston, p. 401.


Cross and Livingston, p. 7. Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin, 1989), p. 88.


von Campenhausen, p. 121.


Ibid, p. 121.


Eusebius, pp. 102-104.


von Campenhausen, p. 130.


von Campenhausen, pp. 185, 202. Cross and Livingston, p. 713. The books he used will be discussed later in the paper.


Cross and Livingston, pp. 400, 1067. Davis. von Campenhausen, p. 203 states that Acts, too, was included in the third century Syrian canon.


H[enry] Cha[dwick], "Christianity Before the Schism of 1054," Encyclopedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed.


Thiede, p. 27. The standard dating was previously c. 200.


Bruce, pp. 130-131.


Cross and Livingston, p. 870.


von Campenhausen, p. 153. Bruce, p. 148.


von Campenhausen, pp. 151, 152, 155, 156, 159, 160.


A mission repeated in our day by those on a "quest for a historical Jesus" and those infatuated with higher criticism.


Bruce, p. 152. von Campenhausen, p. 161.


Bruce, p. 152.


Cross and Livingston, p. 770. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 77.


H. G[rady] D[avis], "Biblical Literature," Encyclopedia Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 ed.


von Campenhausen, p. 171.


Ibid, pp. 172, 186.


Ibid, pp. 189, 196, 201.


Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), I, 599-602. These pages contain an index to scriptural references in St. Irenaeus. The index showed more books being cited than some of my secondary sources (e.g. Davis) indicated.


von Campenhausen, p. 219.


Davis. Cross and Livingston, p. 303.


Bruce, p. 190.


von Campenhausen, p. 213, 294.


Ibid, p. 327.


R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), p. 217.


Davis. von Campenhausen, p. 244. Bruce, pp. 159-161. A translation of the Muratorian Canon appears in Roberts and Donaldson, V, 603, 604.


Bruce, pp. 161, 166. van Campenhausen, p. 259.


"Books that Almost Made It," Christian History, 43 (1994), 30.


Henry Chadwick, 1993, pp. 52, 53. Andrew Louth, "Whoís Who in Eusebius" in The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (New York: Penguin, 1989), pp. 396, 397.


Eusebius, p. 160, 163.


von Campenhausen, p. 230.


von Campenhausen, p. 238. Louth, p. 369. Eusebius, p. 91.


von Campenhausen, pp. 232, 233, 235, 237. Bruce, p. 221.


Bruce, pp. 192, 193. Davis. Cross and Livingston, p. 1008.


von Campenhausen, p. 320. Bruce, p. 194. Davis.


Eusebius, p. 202.


von Campenhausen, pp. 232, 233.


Eusebius, p. 66.


Ibid, p. 88.


Bruce, pp. 203, 205. Geisler and Nix, p. 282.


Bruce, p. 210.


Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd series), (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), IV, 552.


Ibid, p. 552. The "[Didache]" interpolation is mine, while "[merely]" appeared in the translation. Note that while the vast majority of Christians agree on the books of the New Testament canon, there is great disagreement to this day on the bounds of the Old Testament.


Bruce, p. 221. Cross and Livingston, p. 101.


Geisler and Nix, p. 299. It was disputed because of doubts that is was a genuine writing of St. Peter due to stylistic differences between I and II Peter.


Norman Geisler and William Nix, p. 104. Bruce, pp. 211, 212, 234. Cross and Livingston, pp. 369, 599.


Bruce, p. 232.


Bruce, p. 213, 214, 227. Cross and Livingston, p. 309, 310, 464, 731. Davis.


Cross and Livingston, p. 1067. Bruce, p. 215. Davis.


A[rthur] V[ццbus], ďEastern Christianity, Independent Churches of,Ē Encyclopedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed. Cross and Livingston, pp. 475, 481.


Geisler and Nix, p. 277. Bruce, pp. 256-269. von Campenhausen, p. 331.


Cross and Livingston, p. 763.


Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 36, 37.


Cross and Livingston, pp. 367, 381, 1352.


Milburn, p. 38


Cross and Livingston, p. 1107. Some following Eusebius place his death in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and his birth a corresponding amount later. His birth year is estimated using his trial statement that he had served Christ for 86 years.


Sparks, p. 148.


Thomas Hopko,"The Bible in the Orthodox Church," St. Vladamirís Theological Quarterly, Vol 14, No. 1-2 (1970), 66, 67.


Mary Sanford, "An Orthodox View of Biblical Criticism," Sourozh, 26 (November 1986), 30. Emphasis in the original.


"the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" II Thessalonians 2:15 (RSV)


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