A Plea for Honesty about the Canon of the Bible

history Theology / Biblical Studies

Please stop saying that Protestants engaged in a novelty by tossing out seven books of the Bible that until then Christians had always treated as part of it. That is neither true nor fair.

Recently a friend of mine posed the question of whether or not it might be acceptable for any reason to add to the sixty-six books of the Bible. As you will likely be aware, the canon (i.e. the list of books that belong to the Bible) used by Protestants contains sixty-six books, but the canon used by Catholics contains seventy-three books. It didn’t take long for a Catholic friend of my friend to arrive on the scene and to reject the presupposition that the Bible contains sixty-six books:

“Should there ever be a reason to remove 7 books from Sacred Scripture? 73 was set in 367, re-affirmed in 382, 387, 397, 405 and 497 and one last time in 1546. Even the first KJV had ‘em all. It just started to get a little too inconvenient for some.”

You might think it unfair of me to just grab a feisty comment from a layperson like this. Really – having seven extra books started getting “inconvenient”? Inconvenient? As though Protestants came along and decided, “You know, 73 is just getting itchy. For no reason, let’s make it 66.” But I picked a layperson’s comment because it’s the laypeople I want to reach. Among the Catholic hoi polio there is this general belief that “they,” that is, the Protestants, “chopped seven books out of the Bible for no reason.” Inconvenience? It’s hard to see what is more convenient about 66 books than 73. It’s a sort of ill-defined rumour: They took books out of the Bible and there was just no reason, and it’s bad. I realise that Catholic biblical scholars and Catholics who have taken it upon themselves to study the matter in some depth will know more about it than that (and they will likely be more charitable to Protestants than the person who made this remark), but the fact is that most Catholics who know that many Christians do not share their canon (their list of books that belong to the Bible) actually have no idea why.

Here I’m going to simply demonstrate that there is an historical foundation within Christianity – indeed, within catholic Christianity – for the Canon that Protestants use. Contrary to popular myths that thrive within Catholicism (within Catholic apologetics, not wider Catholic scholarship, I should stress, in fairness to my Catholic friends) and they did not, upon arrival at the time of the Reformation, engage in the novelty of discarding seven books of the Bible. The discussion only concerns the number of books in the Old Testament, as Protestants and Catholics have always agreed about the New Testament. For future reference, the protocanon or the protocanonical books are the books that Protestants include in the canon of the Old Testament. These are the books of the Hebrew Scripture. The books that Catholics include but Protestants do not are called the deuterocanonical books (a term that literally means belonging to a second canon). These books are included in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Nearly all English Bibles present the books of the Old Testament in the order in which they appear in the Septuagint.

The Hebrew Scripture is grouped into three parts: Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings). Using the first letter of each of these Hebrew words and inserting vowels to get a word, the result is TaNaKh, which is the Hebrew name for the whole Scripture. The Hebrew canon in its respective groups is as follows:

Law

Prophets

Writings

Early prophets Latter prophets Minor prophets
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
1&2Samuel
1&2 Kings
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Ezekiel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi
Psalms
Proverbs
Job
Song of Songs
Ruth
Lamentations
Ecclesiastes
Esther
Daniel
Ezra-Nehemiah
1&2 Chronicles

One last introductory comment: You might, having read this, think that I’m being somewhat biased. “Glenn, you’re only including the evidence that supports your view!” That’s true. But remember, I’m not trying to convince you to accept my view of the canon. I’m only trying to show you that it is a view with roots that go all the way back. I’m just trying to make sure you realise that when somebody says that when the Catholic Church formally defined its canon of Scripture in the 16th century, it was not simply re-affirming what Christians had always thought. Some may have used that canon. All I am doing here is telling the other side of the story: Not everybody did, and you may be surprised to see who didn’t.

Having set out the basics, let’s move on to the historical evidence for the protocanon.

New Testament Evidence

Lack of New Testament quotation of the Deuterocanonical Books

It is difficult to make a strong case that a New Testament writer held only to the protocanon just because they only quoted from the protocanon. It is true that Jesus and the Apostles, as far as we know, never quoted from the deuterocanonical books. But they also never quoted from Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Judges, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations or Nahum. Should we exclude those books from the Bible? And at times they did quote from pagan poets and from other sources (for example, when Paul said that “we see through a glass darkly,” he was very likely quoting Plato’s Phaedrus).

But that does not mean that there is no significance in the fact that the deuterocanonical books are never quoted in the New Testament. These are books that were not included in the Hebrew Scripture, but which were included in the Septuagint. It is not as though the omission of all of them in New Testament quotations is the same as the omission of, say, Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was part of the body of Hebrew Scripture, and many other books from that body are quoted. But the deuterocanonical books are left untouched, which suggests an acceptance of the Hebrew canon, namely the protocanon. So while not an overpowering piece of evidence by any means, it is still evidence to which we may justifiably appeal in support (but not definitive proof) of the protocanon.

The first and last martyrs of the Hebrew Scripture

In a much discussed saying of Jesus, he appears to identify the first and last martyrs of the Scripture:

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.

Luke 11:49–51

The first righteous person to be murdered in the Bible is Abel, in the first book of the Bible (although it is interesting to see him referred to here as a “prophet”). And who is the last prophet killed? Here’s the rub: In the last book of the Hebrew canon, i.e. the protocanon, it is Zechariah, in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles. In the Septuagint, the last prophet slain was the prophet Urijah, in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:20-23).

True enough, when we look at the death of the man named Zechariah in the last book of the Bible, in 2 Chronicles 24:21, we see that he was indeed killed in the temple: “by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD.” So it looks like a knock down argument: Jesus thought that the Scripture began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles, which are the first and last books of the Hebrew canon. So Jesus endorsed the Hebrew canon, not the Septuagint. For what it’s worth, I think this is correct and would be content to let this particular argument end there.

The fly in the ointment, however, presents itself when we look at Matthew’s version of this saying in Matthew 23:35.

… so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

The issue here is that the “Zechariah” who was murdered in the Temple was not the son of Barachiah. He was the son of Jehoiada. Zechariah the son of Barachiah was the man after whom the book of Zechariah was named, and there is no reference in Scripture or any other source to indicate that he was murdered in the temple. What is Matthew doing? Some Catholic apologists have claimed that this shows that actually Jesus was treating the book of Zechariah as appearing later than 2 Chronicles, thereby endorsing the Septuagint canon. But this doesn’t quite take the evidence seriously: Zechariah (of the book of Barachiah) wasn’t murdered, at least not according to the Old Testament Scripture.

Another claim – again, made within the context of Catholic apologetics – is to plead that maybe 2 Chronicles wasn’t the last book in the Hebrew Scripture in Jesus’ day. Maybe the order was fluid, and there was no particular book that would have been recognised by all as the last book. But this claim is simply not going to do the job that the apologist wants it to. It is true that some variety existed in the ordering of the books of the Hebrew Bible. One source that makes this explicit is Bava Batra in the Babylonian Talmud, 14b. There, Ezekiel and then Isaiah follow the book of Jeremiah. But even here, the books of Chronicles are listed as the last in the writings, the final section of the Hebrew Scripture. So while there was some variation in the order of books, there was not total chaos. These were minor changes to a generally accepted order, and there is no explicit listing of the books of the Hebrew Bible anywhere that fails to place the books of Chronicles at the end.

The account of Zechariah’s murder parallels the account of the murder of Abel in a way that strongly confirms the intended identity of Zechariah because of how both of them tie into Jesus’ point that their innocent blood will be visited on “this generation” (a reference to the coming judgement on Jerusalem. In Genesis 4:10 when Cain has murdered Abel, God tells him, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” The blood of the innocent victim cries out for justice. Now look at the death of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24:22: “when he was dying, he said, ‘May the LORD see and avenge!’ ” The theme in both of them is a plea for justice against the murderer, which connects ominously to Jesus’ warning that their righteous blood will be visited on the generation to whom he was speaking. Justice for the righteous martyrs was coming. The accounts to which Jesus was referring rhetorically drive his point home.

So how do we account for Matthew’s record of Jesus saying that this Zechariah was the son of Barachiah? On the face of it, it just looks like a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Matthew used the name of the wrong Old Testament figure. In Matthew 27:9, Matthew quotes an Old Testament prophecy and claimed that it came from Jeremiah, when in fact it came from Zechariah (again, getting Zechariah wrong!). Gleason Archer, rather weakly in my view, tries to defend the inerrancy of the reference to Barachiah in Matthew 23:35 by saying, that since there were numerous people called Zechariah, it is not “surprising if two of them happened to suffer a similar fate.”1 Really? It’s not surprising that of maybe a couple of dozen people, two of them were prophets who were murdered in the temple? Just how common a fate are we supposed to think this is? But the problem of knowledge simply re-presents itself: Is there any evidence anywhere prior to this saying in Matthew’s Gospel that there was another Zechariah who died this way? There is not. This is a fairly contrived move to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy.

One possibility, and not one that is well-attested by the evidence, is that originally Matthew’s Gospel did not include the reference to Barachiah but it was added later. The ESV suggests this explanation by adding a footnote: “Some manuscripts omit the son of Barachiah.” But as any critical edition of the Greek New Testament will indicate, there is no clear manuscript evidence for an alternative reading without the reference to Barachiah, so it is not clear what manuscript this footnote refers to. In the late second century, both Irenaeus (in Against Heresies, chapter 14) and Tatian (in the Diatessaron ) quote this saying in Matthew as referring to Barachiah. Any insertion then would have been very early indeed, and as Jonathan Went muses, “why add a mistake?” He suggests one reason:

Perhaps later copyists not realising the Jewish canonic order of books wrongly presumed the reference was to the chronologically later Zechariah and corrected an original Jehoida, but we have no evidence of this or of variant manuscripts, other than Jerome’s hint above, only of Luke’s omission.2

The reference to “Jerome’s hint” refers to Jerome’s comment in his commentary on Matthew 23. There he notes that the correct person is actually Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, and he notes a tradition of thus reading the account in Matthew:

Since, then, we should also retain [the name of] Zechariah and the place of the killing is in agreement, we need to ask why he is called the son of Barachiah, and not of Jehoiada. Barachiah means “blessed of the Lord” in our language, and the justice of the priest Jehoiada is shown in the Hebrew language. In the gospel that that Nazarenes use, in place of “son of Barachiah” we have it written “son of Jehoiada.”3

But the fact is that we do not know of any source earlier than the second century that contains this verse. The earliest sources that we have include the reference to Zechariah, son of Barachiah, and it looks like some relatively early traditions sought to correct this (and it is even possible that Luke omitted the name from his source material because he knew it was incorrect), because it’s evident that the intended person here is Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, the last martyred prophet in Scripture given that 2 Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible.

Melito of Sardis (died in c. 180)

The first attempt to explicitly define the canon of Scripture comes to us from Melito, a bishop in Sardis.

Christian teachers in the early church quoted from both canonical and non-canonical books, just as Christian teachers do today. But the first attempt to explicitly define the canon of Scripture comes to us from Melito, a bishop in Sardis (a place near Smyrna, in what is now Turkey). Melito’s effort, as well as his canon, is covered in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, chapter 26. Beginning at paragraph 12, here is Eusebius’ account:

But in the Extracts made by him the same writer [Melito] gives at the beginning of the introduction a catalogue of the acknowledged books of the Old Testament, which it is necessary to quote at this point. He writes as follows:

“Melito to his brother Onesimus, greeting: Since thou hast often, in thy zeal for the word, expressed a wish to have extracts made from the Law and the Prophets concerning the Saviour and concerning our entire faith, and hast also desired to have an accurate statement of the ancient book, as regards their number and their order, I have endeavoured to perform the task, knowing thy zeal for the faith, and thy desire to gain information in regard to the word, and knowing that thou, in thy yearning after God, esteemest these things above all else, struggling to attain eternal salvation. Accordingly when I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and send them to thee as written below.

Their names are as follows: Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books.” Such are the words of Melito.

Some explanatory notes: “Jesus nave” was a term used for the book of Joshua, son of Nun. The four books of Kings consisted of 1 and 2 Samuel along with 1 and 2 Kings. “Wisdom also” is generally regarded as an explanatory comment on “the Proverbs of Solomon,” which was known as Wisdom. “Esdras” is a name that translates “Ezra.” You might also notice that the book of Nehemiah is missing. Actually, it’s not. Nehemiah was originally part of the book of Ezra (something widely known in Melitus’ time), which is included here.

What Melito listed then is the protocanon, minus the book of Esther. Not one of the deuterocanonical books are listed. This was in the mid to late second century.

Origen (died in 254)

It is true that the Alexandrian Father Origen was never canonised by the Catholic Church, due to his controversial views about universal salvation and the subordination of the Son to the Father. But he was an immensely influential Church Father nonetheless, and he also set out a canon of Scripture. This too is recorded in Eusebius’ history, book 6, chapter 25. Origen lists the books along with the first Hebrew word in each. Here is Eusebius’ account.

When expounding the first Psalm, he [Origen] gives a catalogue of the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament as follows:

“It should be stated that the canonical books, as the Hebrews have handed them down, are twenty-two; corresponding with the number of their letters.” Farther on he says: “The twenty-two books of the Hebrews are the following: That which is called by us Genesis, but by the Hebrews, from the beginning of the book, Bresith, which means, ‘In the beginning’; Exodus, Welesmoth, that is, ‘These are the names’; Leviticus, Wikra, ‘And he called‘; Numbers, Ammesphekodeim; Deuteronomy, Eleaddebareim, ‘These are the words’; Jesus, the son of Nave, Josoue ben Noun; Judges and Ruth, among them in one book, Saphateim; the First and Second of Kings, among them one, Samouel, that is, ‘The called of God’; the Third and Fourth of Kings in one, Wammelch David, that is, ‘The kingdom of David’; of the Chronicles, the First and Second in one, Dabreïamein, that is, ‘Records of days’; Esdras, First and Second in one, Ezra, that is, ‘An assistant’; the book of Psalms, Spharthelleim; the Proverbs of Solomon, Meloth; Ecclesiastes, Koelth; the Song of Songs (not, as some suppose, Songs of Songs), Sir Hassirim; Isaiah, Jessia; Jeremiah, with Lamentations and the epistle in one, Jeremia; Daniel, Daniel; Ezekiel, Jezekiel; Job, Job; Esther, Esther. And besides these there are the Maccabees, which are entitled Sarbeth Sabanaiel.” He gives these in the above-mentioned work.

Notice too that Origen mentions the books of Maccabees but does not include them with the Hebrew Scripture, which only includes twenty-two books (the books that Origen calls “canonical books”).

To the explanations already given for Melito’s canon (explanations that also apply here), note the following additional explanations that apply here: “The Epistle,” or the “Letter of Jeremiah” was sometimes included with the book of Lamentations as one unit. Esdras “first and second” refers to Ezra and Nehemiah. Notice too that Origen mentions the books of Maccabees but does not include them with the Hebrew Scripture, which only includes twenty-two books (the books that Origen calls “canonical books”). Instead, Origen lists the books of Maccabees “besides these,” indicating that they were certainly used, but not treated as having the same status as the others in the list.

Notice also that although Eusebius quotes Origen as saying that there are twenty-two books, he only quotes him as listing twenty-one (according to Origen’s method of counting). The book of the twelve Minor Prophets (counted by many as one book) is missing. However, in Ruffinus’ translation of Origen, the book of the minor prophets is included, indicating that this may have been an accidental omission on Eusebius’ part.4 Using Origen’s method of counting books, and taking the liberty of adding the Minor Prophets, following Rufinus, here is Origen’s list of twenty-two books that belong to the Old Testament canon:

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges-Ruth
  8. Samuel
  9. Kings
  10. Chronicles
  11. Ezra-Nehemiah
  12. Psalms
  13. Proverbs
  14. Ecclesiastes
  15. Song of Songs
  16. Isaiah
  17. Jeremiah-Lamentations (with the epistle)
  18. Daniel
  19. Ezekiel
  20. Job
  21. Esther
  22. The twelve minor prophets

The canon of Trent clearly did not reflect that canon in use at the time of Origen, for his was the protocanon, the same as that used by Protestants today.

This, as you may have noticed, is the protocanon, the Old Testament canon used by Protestants today. When Catholic apologists say that the Catholic Church, in the sixteenth century, was simply defining the canon according to the canon that had consistently been used and re-affirmed by successive generations of Christians until that time, they are mistaken. The canon of Trent clearly did not reflect that canon in use at the time of Origen, for his was the protocanon, the same as that used by Protestants today.

Athanasius the Great (died in 373)

In AD 367, Athanasius the Great (one of the most important figures in the formation of Christian orthodoxy) provided an explicit list of the canonical books in his 39th Festal Letter. His canon is follows:

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 being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second 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, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

A few observations:

As in previous canons, Samuel is grouped together with Kings, and Nehemiah is not listed separately, but should be assumed to be present and included in Ezra. Also notice that Athanasius includes “Jeremiah with Baruch” together. This is ambiguous. Baruch was “with” Jeremiah because he was Jeremiah’s scribe. It is not clear that this is a reference to the book of 1 Baruch, although it might have been.

In his next sentence, Athanasius moved on to the New Testament and to his summary comment about the role of Scripture:

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.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.

Were a Protestant to say this to a Catholic apologist today, they would be met with the reply that this was “sola scriptura,” an error invented at the time of the Reformation.

Catholics and Protestants agree about the canon of the New Testament. It is interesting, however, to see Athanasius claiming that “in these alone” is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Were a Protestant to say this to a Catholic apologist today, they would be met with the reply that this was “sola scriptura,” an error invented at the time of the Reformation.

In the next breath, Athanasius goes on to point out that he knew of other books that are not part of the canon, as follows:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; 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.

Note the works that Athanasius lists as not belonging to the canon but which are helpful nonetheless: The Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ben Sirah, or Ecclesiasticus), Esther, Judith and Tobit. All of these are included in the seven books that Catholics regard as canonical. You might think it strange that Esther is listed here, but in fact there is more than one version of Esther: The Hebrew version is used in the Jewish and Protestant Scripture, and the Greek version with different content (additions that are present in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew version), included in the Catholic Canon. Athanasius also lists the teaching of the Apostles (usually called the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas books that were not canonical but widely used for teaching purposes. Although he lists them, Athanasius claims that it is the canonical books alone that the doctrine of godliness is proclaimed.

And finally, referring back to these two sets of books (firstly the canonical books of the Bible and then to the books that he said were not included in the Canon), Athanasius said, “But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.” By “apocryphal writings” invented by heretics, Athanasius is most likely referring to pseudepigraphal books (i.e. books written under one person’s name but written by another) written in the name of Apostles but never being used by orthodox Christians, e.g. the Gospel of Peter. Interestingly, a number of the books regarded as Canonical by the Catholic Church did not even make it into Athanasius list of non-canonical books (most notably 1 and 2 Maccabees).

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the canon listed by Athanasius with the canons of Protestants and Catholics, respectively. To make the comparison easier, I have taken the following liberties: 1) I have used the names 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel even though Athanasius did not use those names. 2) I have separated Nehemiah from Ezra. 3) I have re-ordered the order of Athanasius’ canon to match the order used in the majority of English Bibles, to make a side-by-side comparison easier on the eye.

Athanasius’ Old Testament Protestant Old Testament Catholic Old Testament
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
[Esther is not included]
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Isaiah
Jeremiah (with Baruch)
Lamentations and the letter of Jeremiah
Ezekiel
Daniel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi
Total count: 38 (Although Lamentations includes what may be regarded as an extra book, so perhaps 39, and arguably the reference to Jeremiah “with Baruch” might be a reference to the book of Baruch, bringing the total to 40.)
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Ezekiel
Daniel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi
Total count: 39
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Josue
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
1 Esdras
2 Esdras
Tobit
Judith
Esther (Greek version)
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Wisdom
Ecclesiasticus
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Baruch
Ezekiel
Daniel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zacharias
Malachi
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees
Total count: 46

The canon listed by Athanasius is virtually identical to that used by Protestants (although it is not quite as close as that of Origen).

The canon listed by Athanasius is virtually identical to that used by Protestants (although it is not quite as close as that of Origen). There are just two differences: Firstly, Athanasius did not include Esther, which is included in the Protestant Canon. Recall that he listed it as a non-canonical book, although he was likely referring to the Greek version, which is different from the one used by protestants. Secondly, Athanasius includes the letter of Jeremiah with the book of Lamentations, but Protestants do not include this in their canon. Some may argue that “Jeremiah with Baruch” means to refer to two books, but nowhere else does Athanasius list two separate books in this way, and Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe, so I am treating this as one book: The book of Jeremiah.

It is perfectly clear that the canon as Athanasius conceived of it in 367 was not the Catholic canon finally defined by the Council of Trent in 1546. I am aware of Catholic apologists who argue that Athanasius rejected the “Protestant Canon” (which is a misnomer, since we are talking about the Hebrew protocanon, which pre-dates the Reformation by many centuries), on the grounds that he includes the letter of Jeremiah and perhaps 1 Baruch, while excluding Esther. This, however, simply misses the point. It is quite obvious that Athanasius did not endorse the canon that Protestants use. But it is even clearer that he did not use the canon defined in the sixteenth century by the Catholic Church. All I am demonstrating is that when the Church of Rome defined its canon in the sixteenth century, it was not simply re-affirming what Christians had always used. What is more, Athanasius’ canon was almost the same as the one used by Protestants today.

Jerome (died in 420)

Lastly let’s look at Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate. The final version of Jerome’s Latin Bible included the deuterocanonical books between its covers, so you might assume that he regarded them as canonical books. But this is not so.

If you read the Wikipedia article on the Vulgate, in particular the section on the prologues, the reader can easily detect the hand of a Catholic editor: “A recurring theme of the Old Testament prologues is Jerome’s preference for the Hebraica veritas (i.e., Hebrew truth) to the Septuagint, a preference which he defended from his detractors.” But this states the matter far too gently, as other contributors point out. For it was not merely the case that Jerome “preferred” the Hebrew canon (i.e. the protocanon). Jerome’s position was far stronger than one of preference, but was a claim about canonicity. In his prologue to Kings (which include 1 and 2 Samuel along with 1 and 2 Kings), called the “Helmeted Introduction” or galeatum principium, Jerome repeats the view held by the other writers referred to here, that there are twenty-two books in the canon of the Old Testament (some of them being groupings that contain more than one book, as noted above). Jerome says:

The first book is called among them Bresith, which we call Genesis; the second, Hellesmoth, which is named Exodus; the third, Vaiecra, that is Leviticus; the fourth Vaiedabber, which we call Numbers; the fifth, Addebarim, which is designated Deuteronomy. These are the five books of Moses, which they appropropriately call Thorat, that is, the Law.

The second order is made of the Prophets, and begins with Jesus son of Nave, which is called among them Joshua benNum. Then they append Sopthim, that is the book of Judges; and they attach Ruth to the same, because the history narrated happened in the days of the Judges. Samuel follows third, which we call First and Second Kingdoms. Fourth is Malachim, that is Kings, which book contains Third and Fourth Kingdoms; and it is much better to say Malachim, that is Kings, rather than Malachoth, that is Kingdoms, for it does not describe the kingdoms of many nations, but only that of the Israelite people which contains twelve tribes. Fifth is Isaiah, sixth Jeremiah, seventh Ezekiel, eighth the book of the Twelve Prophets, which is called Thareasra among them.

The third order holds the Hagiographa, and begins with Job, the first book, the second by David, which is also one book of Psalms comprising five sections. The third is Solomon, having three books: Proverbs, which they call Parables, that is Masaloth, and Ecclesiastes, that is Accoeleth, and The Song of Songs, which they denote with the title Sirassirim. Sixth is Daniel, seventh Dabreiamin, that is Words of the Days, which we may call more clearly a chronicle (Gk here: χρονικον) of all of Divine history, which book is written among us as First and Second Paralipomenon; eighth is Ezra, which is also in the same manner among Greeks and Latins divided into two books; ninth is Esther.

And thus there are likewise twenty-two books in the Old (Testament), that is five of Moses, eight of the Prophets, nine of the Hagiographa. Although some may write Ruth and Cinoth among the Hagiographa, and think of counting these books among their number, and then by this to have twenty-four books of the Old Law, which the Apoclypse of John introduces with the number of twenty-four elders worshipping the Lamb and offering their crowns, prostrated on their faces, and crying out with unwearying voice: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God almighty, Who was and Who is, and Who will be.”

This prologue to the Scriptures may be appropriate as a helmeted introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so we may be able to know whatever is outside of these is set aside among the apocrypha. Therefore, Wisdom, which is commonly ascribed to Solomon, and the book of Jesus son of Sirach, and Judith and Tobias, and The Shepherd are not in the canon. I have found the First Book of the Maccabees (is) Hebrew, the Second is Greek, which may also be proven by their styles.

Jerome is explicit that whatever is not among the Hebrew books listed here isnot in the canon.

Jerome is explicit that whatever is not among the Hebrew books listed here is not in the canon – and he goes out of his way to name some of the very books that the Council of Trent later declared to be canonical: The Wisdom of Solomon, Jesus Ben Sirah (aka Sirach), Judith, Tobit and 1 and 2 Maccabees, along with the Shepherd or Hermas – a book that neither Catholics nor Protestants today regard as canonical.

Alternative Witnesses

Am I being selective? Yes. Remember that my objective is simply to show that in fact there is a very clear historical precedent for the canon used by Protestants. They did not arrive on the scene at the Reformation and simply decide, out of the blue, to chop out seven books of the Bible that until then, everybody had used.

Can you find canon lists that included the deuterocanonical books? Yes, in fact you can. Many point to the council of Rome (382) as the first time the canon was officially declared, and the list produced there does include the deuterocanonical books. However, this was not an ecumenical council but a local council. This was a decision made at a local level, and it is quite clear that it was not representative of “the” Catholic position at the time, as evidenced by the likes of St Athanasius and especially Jerome, who wrote later. What is more, the canon provided by the Council of Rome is known via a document called the Decretum Gelasianum (the decretal of Gelasius, who lived in the 5th and 6th century). However the document’s record of the Council of Rome has little historical value, as it depicts the council as quoting from Augustine’s, comments in the fifth century – something it clearly could not have done. Just how much of the account is reliable is questionable. There were other local councils that affirmed the deuterocanonical books as well: The Council of Hippo (393) and the Third Council of Carthage (397). However, the first purported ecumenical council to define the canon as including the deuterocanonical books was the Council of Florence, which did not take place until 1440 – and this council was not really “ecumenical” in any meaningful sense as it occurred long after the schism between East and West. It would be ludicrous to claim that by 1440 the council of Florence was mere codifying what Catholics had always believed about the Bible, in light of the clear examples to the contrary. Indeed, by the time the Council of Florence had met, John Wycliffe had already translated the Bible into the common tongue. Although he included the deuterocanonical books to be read, his own words express his view that they are not part of Scripture. After listing the canon that would later be used by protestants, he wrote, “whatever book is in the Old Testament besides these twenty-five shall be set among the apocrypha, that is, without authority or belief.”

Of course, the Catholic may well believe that the historical precedent described here is not important. After all, he may believe, the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to declare what the canon is, and that is that. I don’t share that view at all of course, but that isn’t the point here. Even if a Catholic holds that view of the authority of the Catholic Church, the point here is simply a historical one: You may respond by saying that regardless of what Christians thought over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to declare the canon. But you may not claim that when Protestants used the protocanon, they were engaging in novelty, or “removing” books from a canon that all the church had used all along. This is false.

Summary

  • In approximately 170, Bishop Melito of Sardis set out for the first time a complete canon of the Old Testament. It contained only the protocanon as used by Protestants – but excluded the book of Esther.
  • In the early third century, Origen provided a canon that was identical to the protocanon, declaring that no other books were included. He even names some of the Deuterocanonical books in order to point out that although they were read, they are not canonical.
  • In 367, Athanasius wrote his Festal letter in which he excludes most of the deuterocanonical books, agreeing almost entirely with the canon used by Protestants (but excluding Esther, including a longer version of Lamentations, and possibly including Baruch as an extra book).
  • In 391, Jerome listed the books of the canon, including only the protocanon as used by Protestants. He also names some books of the deuterocanon, but only for the sake of specifically claiming that they do not belong to the canon.
  • The first ecumenical council to declare the canon as including the deuterocanonical books was the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century, at a time where dissent from Rome and the rejection of the deuterocanonical books as canonical, a tradition at least as old as the second century, was being heard among those to whom Rome was now reacting.

You may disagree with those (namely, Protestants) who maintain that there are sixty-six books in the Bible and who use the protocanon of the Old Testament. But you may not say that in doing so they are adopting a novelty that began with the Reformation.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Gleason L Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 338. []
  2. Jonathan Went, Which Zechariah?, <http://www.studylight.org/ls/ds/index.cgi?a=428> []
  3. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Fathers of the Church, vol. 117, trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 267. []
  4. Moses Stuart, Critical History and Defence of the Old Testament Canon (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1845), 260. []
{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Blair Mulholland February 18, 2014, 9:41 pm

    [Mod note: Link removed. Please check the blog policy, and raise any concerns/queries in private.]

    Ultimately, the argument comes back to whether sola scriptura is true, or whether it is an innovation/heresy. Defining the canon is less important if one relies on the Holy Tradition of the Church as one’s authority, since the importance of the books becomes about how useful they are in expounding that Tradition as a primary source of the revealed Logos. So in reality, it’s not about whether Protestants “took away” books, or whether the Latin church “added” them. It starts from whether you think the Church was “originally” based around a certain set of writings subsequent to the deaths of the original witnesses, or whether you instead accept the Church as a living and enduring Body of Christ which testifies to Him over the course of history. If you believe the former, then of course you are going to want to discern the discrete set of writings involved, whereas if you believe the latter, it’s lower on your list of priorities – you are following a Church and participating in its Life, not (just) adhering to a set of books.

    If assuming that the early Church was sola scriptura is problematic, going further to define that scriptura is most difficult indeed. None of the Ecumenical Councils do so, and many Saints had different lists. The Armenian church, and the Ethiopian church, neither of which were under Roman rule, both had (and still have) different canons broader than the 66. Even Athanasius’s canon, the one closest to the Protestant, excludes Esther, but includes Baruch. Furthermore, even though Athanasius separates the books into separate lists and addends a “deuterocanon” for the purpose of “reading”, he elsewhere in Against the Heathen quotes Wisdom 14:12 as “Scripture”! So Athanasius is no genuine help to finding an exclusive “sola” canon, and there really is no precedent in the history of the Church available for us which would allow us to call the “cull” to 66 “sola” books anything other than a “novelty”. Because anything other than a novelty would have been done before, and there is no evidence anywhere that it was. Numerous Church Fathers cited the deuterocanonical books extensively, and there are numerous allusions to them in NT scripture itself.

    I should only add that you should not assume (and there is no real reason for doing so) that Jesus cited Zechariah because he was the last person killed in a canon of books. That’s a somewhat circular argument you make. You note that Barachiah may have been a later addition to manuscripts, and there is actually a tradition in Orthodoxy that Jesus was here referring to the murder of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. If this is true, then this murder would have occured within living memory of the hearers, and fit the context of what Jesus said. If instead Jesus was referring to the Prophet Zechariah of the OT book of the same name, then it is silly to argue from silence in saying that this Zechariah was not murdered.

  • Glenn February 18, 2014, 10:03 pm

    Hi Blair.

    “Ultimately, the argument comes back to whether sola scriptura is true, or whether it is an innovation/heresy.”

    No, that is not at all what this issue comes down to. Not at all.

    The issue here (i.e. in this particular blog post) is exactly this: “When Protestants at the time of the Reformation used the protocanon and did not accept the deuterocanon, were they engaging in a novelty?” This is the claim about Protestants that I have set out to tackle here. You might think that a different issue is more important than the issue I have raised – and of course I’m not combating that claim here. But this is the specific question that I have decided to answer here. And this question can be given a complete, accurate and satisfying answer without any reference to the doctrine of sola scriptura. That answer is: No.

    The answer is “no” even if the church has all the authority that you say she does. The answer is “no” even if sola scriptura is a damnable heresy. And the answer is “no” even the the Reformation was a colossal mistake.

    I realise that Athanasius cited the other books. But we should, I think, take him simply at his own word when it comes to his views on the difference between the protocanon and the other books, noting that he claimed the former to be the canon. If we won’t let him tell us that he thought there was a difference, then what good is it to read him at all? As for whether or not the evidence from his own written words are any use at all in determining his thoughts on the canon (and taking into account the differences that I have already acknowledged between his canon and the Protestant Canon), I will let others judge. I take the modest view that he can speak for himself, and has done so. It is very clear that he did not share the view of the Council of Trent on the Canon.

    Also – as I noted, of course people quoted the deuterocanon. But that does not establish canonicity. People today quote many, many inspirational books. I have been careful to use examples that deliberately set out to explicitly define the canon, so that my evidence would not be subject to the sort of disputability and vagueness that this sort of argument is subject to. Whatever else they quoted at times, whoever else they regard as having any measure of inspiration, however fluid their use of the term “scripture,” they were explicit about the canon – and that was the point here. Due to the often emotive nature of ecclesiological disputes, I have made this very, very strictly about the explicit evidence and nothing else.

    Also, I don’t think that “circular argument” means quite what you think it does, but I’ll leave that. I am not aware of any good evidence that Jesus would have known about the example of the killing in the temple that you cite or indeed any suitably early evidence that this even occurred. Being an Eastern orthodox tradition does not mean that it is true. To my knowledge, there is not even any evidence that John the Baptist’s grandfather was named Berechiah. But we must presume that Jesus knew about the killing of Zechariah in the last book of the Hebrew canon, and the killing of Abel in the first book of the Hebrew canon. The elegance of referring to the first and the last book in this manner is itself an argument that this is what was intended.

  • Kyle February 19, 2014, 11:09 pm

    “However, the first purported ecumenical council to define the canon as including the deuterocanonical books was the Council of Florence, which did not take place until 1440 – and this council was not really “ecumenical” in any meaningful sense as it occurred long after the schism between East and West.”

    This is what the Catholic critics of Protestants really need to get a firm grasp on. For centuries there were prominent – big name – theologians who were declaring the protocanon to be the canon, with a couple of local councils saying otherwise. So there were two living traditions for a very long time. And not until after Christians – Christians who used the protocanon – started to dissent from Rome did the Council of Florence come along, declare itself to be an ecumenical council (when actually it was just a Roman Catholic council), and define the canon in opposition to its dissenters.

    People need to see that for what it is. The Protestants were not the innovators here. There was nothing new about it, and it was an ancient Christian tradition, which had always looked to the ancient source. The Catholic Church can set up its own councils and make declarations as much as they like, but theirs was always just one tradition on the canon of Scripture, exalted by them to the place of the truth.

    PS: I have searched for ancient evidence in favor of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that Blair referred to about John the Baptist’s father being murdered in the temple and having a father name Berechiah. I have not been able to discover any ancient evidence for this tradition (nor is it plausible on its face.)

    ————
    Sorry – I meant to add this to my last comment (feel free to edit and join): We cannot assume that the word “Scripture” means “canonical.” A number of early sources who did not regard the deuterocanon as Scripture – and who were clear about it – still used the word “scripture.” But today we tend to only call something Scripture if it is in the canon. So there mere fact that a Father used the word “scripture” should not causes us to say “See? They DID think it was canonical!” That would be anachronistic, because they did not speak as we do now.

  • Vicky N Fontenot June 5, 2014, 12:39 am

    God ~ in Christ will complete in himself that ‘Word’ which he gave or has given whether sixty… or seventy… whatever you are able to remember or know. That we are kept in his name ~ ‘consubstantial’ in this the name whether Lord …. Christ … Father …. Son …. Holy Ghost or Spirit according to you knowledge ~ wisdom, faith and reasoning of belief, God honest truth, thanks and praise

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