The Canon of Scripture defined in two early(ish) statements

A page from the biblical manuscript Codex Washingtonensis showing part of the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua (5th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A page from the biblical manuscript Codex Washingtonensis showing part of the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua (5th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the Christian historical questions about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation is when the New Testament became the New Testament. In other words, when did the 27 individual books get collected together into what we now know as ‘the New Testament’?

I will write about this in a subsequent post in the next week or two. Here, however, I would like to share two early(ish) Christian statements — one from the fourth century, one from the fifth century A.D. — both of which are important milestones in the emergence of our 27-book New Testament.

Caveat!

“If you were to ask, ‘When was the New Testament defined?’ it would be misleading simply to say, ‘The New Testament was defined in A.D. 367,’ or, ‘in A.D. 419.’”

One important thing to say, first, though: the two statements below are by no means the only steps in the process of the definition of the New Testament.

This means that, if you were to ask, “When was the New Testament defined?” it would be misleading simply to say, “The New Testament was defined in A.D. 367,” or, “in A.D. 419.” While both of those statements are true, they are not the whole picture — indeed far from it. The definition of the New Testament as the 27 books recognized today is much more a process than a single event. It is this process that I will attempt to explain concisely in a subsequent post.

Statement #1: Athanasius’ Easter Letter of A.D. 367

The first of our statements comes from the Easter Letter of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (and one of the towering theological figures of early Christianity), written to the churches within the See of Alexandria in A.D. 367. Its importance lies in the fact that it is our first list of recognized New Testament books to list exactly the twenty-seven books we regard as New Testament Scripture today.

Athanasius writes:

“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.”

Athanasius, Easter Letter, A.D. 367

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second[1] being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth[2] as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second[3] are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle,[4] one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

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.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’[5] And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’[6] [7]

Notes on Athanasius’ Easter Letter

Written in A.D. 367, the above list is our first list of the exact twenty-seven books of the New Testament which we consider the New Testament today (albeit in a different order to the customary order found in Western New Testaments).

It will be noticed that Athanasius adheres quite closely to the Jewish reckoning of the Old Testament in his listing. For example, he refers to 1 & 2 Samuel as one book; to 1 & 2 Kings as one book; to 1 & 2 Chronicles as one book — following the Jewish reckoning.

As would be expected if Athanasius is following the Jewish reckoning of the Old Testament, his list of inspired books is almost the same as that of the Protestant Old Testament — with only the additions of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch chapter 6) — albeit in a slightly different order to ours.

Statement #2: The Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), Canon XXIV

Canon XXIV of the Council of Carthage in North Africa, held in A.D. 419, also gives an authoritative decree on the books of the Bible. It says,

Canon XXIV

That nothing be read in church besides the Canonical Scripture.

Item: That besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.

 

“The New Testament:

The Gospels, four books.
The Acts of the Apostles, one book.
The Epistles of Paul, fourteen.
The Epistles of Peter the Apostle, two.
The Epistles of John the Apostle, three.
The Epistles of James the Apostle, one.
The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, one.
The Revelation of John, one book.”

Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), Canon XXIV

But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows:

Genesis.
Exodus.
Leviticus.
Numbers.
Deuteronomy.
Joshua the Son of Nun.
The Judges.
Ruth.
The Kings, four books.[8]
The Chronicles, two books.
Job.
The Psalter.
The Five books of Solomon.[9]
The Twelve Books of the Prophets.
Isaiah.
Jeremiah.[10]
Ezekiel.
Daniel.
Tobit.
Judith.
Esther.[11]
Ezra, two books.[12]
Maccabees, two books.

 

The New Testament.

The Gospels, four books.
The Acts of the Apostles, one book.
The Epistles of Paul, fourteen.[13]
The Epistles of Peter the Apostle, two.
The Epistles of John the Apostle, three.
The Epistles of James the Apostle, one.
The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, one.
The Revelation of John, one book.

Let this be sent to our brother and fellow bishop, Boniface, and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.[14]

Notes on the Council of Carthage’s Canon XXIV

“The three North African Councils, endorsed by the towering figure of Augustine, exerted an enormous influence over the eventual formation of the Canon of Scripture in the West. It was only in the sixteenth century, with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, that the longer canon was effectively challenged.”

Towards the end of the fourth century and at the beginning of the fifth, three separate North African Councils made pronouncements listing the inspired books of the Bible. These were the Synod of Hippo in 393; the Council of Carthage in 397; and the Council of Carthage in 419.[15] All three re-stated the same list of books, as given above.[16]

It will be noted that:

  • The New Testament listed above is identical in content to Athanasius’ list, albeit in a different order. The order of the books given above is identical to our Western New Testaments, excepting only that James is displaced to a different place.
  • The Old Testament books listed above are more than those listed by Athanasius; in fact, they agree exactly with the modern, Roman Catholic Canon of Scripture, which is longer than the Protestant Canon. The 393 synod was the first time a canon list was promulgated which exactly matches the modern Roman Catholic Canon.

The three Councils here mentioned, and endorsed by the towering figure of Augustine of Hippo, exerted an enormous influence over the eventual formation of the Canon of Scripture in the West. It was only in the sixteenth century, with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, that the longer canon was effectively challenged, and the books not found in the Hebrew — and about whose inspiration there had always been doubts expressed (see, e.g., Athanasius’ list above) — relegated to a separate section and termed ‘Apocrypha.’ (I have considered these differences at greater length here.)

*        *        *

In this post I have shared two of the ‘milestone’ theological statements in the eventual definition of the New Testament canon of 27 books which we use today.

It is important to re-state that these two statements are far from the whole story. The emergence of the canon of New Testament books was a process that was going on from the time they were written (between c. 45 and c. 95 A.D.), up to the time represented by these two statements — which stand really as the culmination of that process.

In a subsequent post, I will describe how that process took place, and show that (in a very real sense) the two statements given above were really just ratifying what the Christian Church had always accepted as the inspired and revealed word of God.

 

 

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[1] That is, our 1 & 2 Samuel.

[2] That is, our 1 & 2 Kings.

[3] i.e., Ezra and Nehemiah.

[4] Note: Baruch is a book in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, but not in the Protestant Old Testament. In Protestant Bibles it appears in the Apocrypha. The ‘epistle’ mentioned here is the so-called Letter of Jeremiah which occurs at the end of Baruch (as chapter 6).

[5] Matthew 22:29

[6] John 5:39

[7] From Athanasius’ thirty-ninth Easter Letter. See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI: p.552. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.xxv.html

[8] That is, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings.

[9] That is: Proverbs; Ecclesiastes; Song of Solomon; The Wisdom of Solomon; and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), this last being considered ‘of Solomon’ only in the sense that it’s in the tradition of Solomonic wisdom literature.

[10] This would include the biblical Lamentations, as well as Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah from the Apocrypha.

[11] This would include the ‘additions’ found in the Septuagint version of Esther, but not in the Hebrew.

[12] That is, Ezra and Nehemiah.

[13] This therefore includes Hebrews.

[14] From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. XIV: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI: pp.453-4. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xv.iv.iv.xxv.html. Note: I have slightly modernized the wording of this passage, as well as amending the spellings of the names of a few of the biblical books to bring them into harmony with the names familiar to Protestant English readers.

[15] https://etimasthe.com/2018/09/03/why-the-difference-between-the-old-testament-canon-in-different-christian-traditions/#Doubts; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synod_of_Hippo; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Councils_of_Carthage#Synod_of_397

[16] Ibid.

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