Cannonical Books
By Tradition

Western

Roman

Eastern

Orthodox

Slavonic

Georgian

Oriental Orthodox

Coptic

Armenian

Syrian

Tewahedo

Ethiopian

Other

Nestorian

Non Christian

Jewish

Bete Israel

Samaritan

 

A comparison is at:

Old Testament Chart 

The word "canon" comes from Greek κανών; "kanon" meaning a measuring rod.  The term "canon" was used first by Athanasius in 367 a.d. in his 39th Festal Epistle to refer to the collection of authoritative and inspired writings.  For this discussion, canon refers to the books that are considered to be part of the Bible by various groups that identify themselves as Christian.  The clever observer will note that I have included the "monophysite" and "Nestorian" Churches. My purpose here is not to debate Christology but to look at different canons.  I have also listed the Samaritan and Jewish Canons here because they do not fit anywhere else in the site at this point.  They both are important witnesses to the Bible text.

The fact that the books contained in Christian Bible differ among Christian groups comes as a surprise to many.  It has caused some to scoff at the notion of the inspiration of the Bible and the unity of the Christian message.  Many think that it would be a helpful apologetic if there were complete agreement.  The fact that there is general agreement is an argument against those who claim that the whole of the Christian message was contrived in the back rooms of cathedrals by some priesthood or other.  The differences show that those in the backrooms arrived at different conclusions as to what should be included in the Bible (and other theological matters) but the outline of the story is the same.

Why there would be different cannons of scripture is largely an accident of history.  Much as many would like to think that there was, at one time, one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in unity of governance, that seems not to have ever been the case.  The early Christian movements were separated by distance, language and the politics of the day. For the first nearly 300 years of Christianity it was more often than not illegal.  To be sure there were meetings and exchanges, even the Ecumenical Councils (after Christianity became legal) but that failed to produce that sort of unity.  Although they did for a large part produce unity of message. Our divisions in Christianity today are more likely to do with varying traditions and finer points of theology rather than empires.  There are theological debates between Christian groups to be sure, but much of what was settled at the first 3 councils forms the basis for what is considered Christian orthodoxy by all Christian groups.

It is interesting to note that the major differences between the Christian canons are actually in the Old Testament.  There are those, especially Roman Catholics, who say that the canon was finalized at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) but the canon issue at that time was to affirm the use of the deutero-canonical books (see the Apocrypha page) in response to the reformation rather than determining the whole of the canon.

Many claim that the Jews at the time of Christ did not have a formal canon. If this is true it is not surprising that the Christian inheritance would not be consistent.  We see that even today the Ethiopian Jews (Bete Israel) have a larger cannon than does the rest of Jewry.  Another fact that would seem to militate for this position is that the Sadducees of Jesus day did not believe in the resurrection largely because it was not explicitly taught, so they said, in the Torah.  There does seem to be some controversy over whether they accepted the prophets and the later writers as scripture at all or merely as commentary on scripture.  It seems that if they accepted them, it would not have been on the same level of authority. Even today the Jews focus on the books of Moses although they read the prophets and later writers.

Another side discussion has to do with other books that are refeenced by Biblical writers but arre not found in the Bible or even extant today. It is hard to say anything certain about things that are missing, but in most cases these references point to other material that may be of interest to the reader but is beyond scope of the Bible story.

Although we protestants do not like to admit it, sola scriptura, you know, we do rely on the witness of tradition especially in discussions about the canon. In Protestant circles it is common to say that the canon was discovered and not made, as Bruce Metzger notes:

"The canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents do not derive their authority from being selected; each one of them were authoritative before anyone gathered them together. (Metzger in Geisler 2004: p. 368)"

While the bulk of this page focuses on the New Testament canon we need to make some comment on the additional book you will encounter on the other pages. According to Kelly (p. 54) "for the first two centuries... the church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these... books... without question as scripture...   Towards the close of the second century, when as a result of controversy with the Jews, it became known that [the Jews] were united in repudiation of them hesitations begin to creep in."  

The need for a New Testament canon was really brought on by heretics who forced a written definition of orthodox Christian teaching. In fact one of the first canon lists we have was prepared by the heretic Marcion.  Marcion went on to establish an alternative church and so he needed his own written definition.  Since Marcion was excommunicated in 115 it seems likely that his canon was based on the current habbits of the Church.

As the church was formalizing the collection books of the New Testament into a consistent written form, these general rules were followed as the later New Testament canons emerged:

  • It had to be written or sponsored by an apostle.
  • It had to have orthodox content.
  • It had to be publicly used by a prominent church or a majority of churches.

These are rules that seem to have come about in retrospect as it can get sketchy applying them to the some of New Testament books (like Hebrews) that are in the canon. It is clear, however, that they do not apply to those books that are not.

From a human perspective, the consensus developed early as can be seen in the following table. By the end of the 1st century, the letters of Paul were collected and circulated, and they were known to Clement of Rome (c. 95), Ignatius of Antioch (died 117), and Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 115).  The following table shows which books each of these Fathers cited. For a book to make it into a table of this sort it had to be cited in the writings of these men that have survived to us today.  There is much of these men's work that has not come down to us.

New Testament Book Cited by:

Clement of Rome (c. 95)

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 - 115)

Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155)

Matthew

Matthew

Matthew

Mark

Mark

Mark

Luke

Luke

Luke

 

John

John

 

Acts

Acts

Romans

Romans

Romans

I Corinthians

I Corinthians

I Corinthians

 

II Corinthians

II Corinthians

 

Galatians

Galatians

Ephesians

Ephesians

Ephesians

 

Philippians

Philippians

 

Colossians

Colossians

 

I Thessalonians

 
   

II Thessalonians

I Timothy

I Timothy

I Timothy

 

II Timothy

II Timothy

Titus

Titus

 
 

Philemon

 

Hebrews

Hebrews

Hebrews

James

James

 

I Peter

I Peter

I Peter

 

II Peter

 
 

I John

I John

 

 

 

 

III John

 
 

 

 
 

Revelation

 

Note that only II John and Jude are missing from this table.
(Based on Table 9.1 from Geisler 2004)

 

Even if there was no formal canon in the first 200 years of Christianity there seems at least to have been a common habit.  At the time of the reformation Luther challenged books like James, Jude and Revelation on the basis of his own notions of salvation by grace, perhaps, or possibly because of Origen and Eusebius.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185) makes a rather interesting argument for there being exactly four Gospels, no more and no less, as a touchstone of orthodoxy. He also points out that it was illogical to reject Acts of the Apostles but accept the Gospel of Luke, as both were from the same author.

Pulling this all together in a handy table is common and this example is similar to many others.  In it we will neglect Marcion's list which was around 150, also a letter from Athanasius dated 367 in which he names the 66 books of the canon as well as other local councils and synods who took up the issue.

Approximate dating of early lists of New Testament Books:

AD 200AD 250AD 300AD 400
Muratorian Fragment Origen's Collection Eusebius's Collection Council of Carthage

Four Gospels
Acts

Four Gospels
Acts
Four Gospels
Acts
Four Gospels
Acts

Paul's Letters:
Romans,
I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians,
Philippians,
Colossians,
I & II Thess.,
I & II Timothy,
Titus,
Philemon

Paul's Letters:
Romans,
I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians,
Philippians,
Colossians,
I & II Thess.,
I & II Timothy,
Titus,
Philemon

Paul's Letters:
Romans,
I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians,
Philippians,
Colossians,
I & II Thess.,
I & II Timothy,
Titus,
Philemon

Paul's Letters:
Romans,
I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians,
Philippians,
Colossians,
I & II Thess.,
I & II Timothy,
Titus,
Philemon,
Hebrews

General Letters: James,

I & II John,
Jude

General Letters:
I Peter,
I John  
General Letters:
I Peter
I John  
General Letters: James,
I & II Peter,
I, II, & III John

Revelation of John
Revelation of Peter

Revelation of John Revelation of John Revelation of John
Wisdom of Solomon      
for private study:
Shepherd of Hermas
Disputed:
Hebrews, James, II Peter, II & III John, Jude, Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Teaching of Twelve (Didache), Gospel of the Hebrews
Disputed:
Hebrews, James, II Peter, II & III John, Jude
 
 
    Purposely excluded: Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Teaching of Twelve (Didache), Gospel of the Hebrews, Revelation of Peter, Acts of Peter  
Note that the Wisdom of Solomon, contained in our present day Old Testament Apocrypha, is listed in the New Testament in the Muratorian Fragment.

 

Discussion continues to this day in some circles and there are those who suggest that the Gnostic scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas should be included.  There is no traditional support for this position. The Gnostic material really is a totally different discussion but we note here that Gnostic material is hardly lost or suppressed as it is readily available today.  A quick read through some of it makes it clear that it is from a vastly different perspective. Although many of the books bear the name of an Apostle there is little doubt that its origin is much later.

Bible Origin Links

http://www.ntcanon.org/

http://netministries.org/Bbasics/BBNOrig.htm 

http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Books-of-the-Bible 

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/07/22/10-basic-facts-about-the-nt-canon-that-every-christian-should-memorize/


 Carthage

Notes on this council are here because the numbering of the ecumenical councils is not consistent across traditions.  Additionally this one impacts the acceptance of the cannon of scripture rather than the creed.  It also is interesting as to how it addresses Boniface (the 42nd pope who ruled from 418-42 according to the Roman tradition) as "our brother and fellow-bishop' rather than Pope or Holy Father.

The above table contains the Canon approved by the third synod at Carthage (397).  The first council that accepted the present New Testament canon was the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393); however, the acts of the council are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the third Synod of Carthage.

Canon 24. Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures. Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: [then follows a list of Old Testament books]. The [books of the] New Testament: the Gospels, four books; the Acts of the Apostles, one book; the Epistles of Paul, thirteen; of the same to the Hebrews; one Epistle; of Peter, two; of John, apostle, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Revelation of John. Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the transmarine Church shall be consulted. On the anniversaries of martyrs, their acts shall also be read.

Note that Hebrews is listed separately from the other 13 epistles of Paul. (The authorship of Hebrews disputed to this day.)

In 419 another Synod held at Carthage gave the concluding words in the following form:

... Fourteen Epistles of Paul ..... the Revelation of John, one book. Let this be sent to our brother and fellow-bishop, Boniface [of Rome], and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things that we have received from our fathers to be read in church.

For most the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews remains uncertain and you will see notes to that affect in study Bibles. 

http://www.ntcanon.org/Carthage.canon.shtml 12/3/10