What Was in the “Canon” of the First Four Centuries?

I recently read the following:

“The Roman Catholic Bible includes a group of writings called the Apocrypha. Josephus does not include the Apocrypha in his description of the canon of the Old Testament. Neither did the Christian church during the first four centuries of its life.” In fact, many church fathers, including Jerome, the great scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate, spoke out against the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the Old Testament.” (Emphasis mine)

This is terribly overstated if not dead wrong.

Consider this from J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines:

“It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism. . . . It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha, or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. . . . In the first two centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. . . The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary.” (53-54)

Kelly notes that it was “[t]owards the close of the second century, when as a result of controversy with the Jews it became known that they were now repudiating the deutero-canonical books, hesitations began to creep in. . .” (54)

Lee Martin McDonald concurs:

“. . . the biblical canon of the early Christian community was still in a fluid state during the time of Jesus’ ministry and later, when most of the canonical literature was produced.” (The Biblical Canon, 197)

He continues:

“The Apostolic Fathers, the closest Christian writings to the time of the NT, quote, refer, or allude to 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras, and 1 Enoch—but not to the canonical books of Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Obadiah, Micah, or Haggai.” He appends a footnote here stating, “Athanasius’s Thirty-ninth Festal Letter lists for the first time the twenty-seven books of our NT and also gives a larger OT canon than Protestants accept, i.e., he adds Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah. One wonders why Protestants generally ignore his OT canon but assume the validity of his NT canon!” (221n94)

Craig Allert writes,

“It is probable that the Christian church did not inherit a closed canon of Hebrew Scriptures. Further, given the fact that church fathers from the first to the fourth centuries cite noncanonical documents ‘as Scripture,’ we have ample reason to question the idea that this is a reference to the Old Testament canon—to Hebrew Scriptures, yes; to Old Testament canon, no.” (A High View of Scripture, 152)

As for Jerome, McDonald observes that “Jerome’s earlier preference for the Jewish biblical canon was a minority position in the church in his time that did not prevail until later in the Protestant OT canon.” (The Biblical Canon.  Emphasis his. 221)

Just to be clear–all the writers I’ve quoted above are Protestant.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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19 Responses to What Was in the “Canon” of the First Four Centuries?

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    First, there is a distinction that must be made. Just because a person quotes the various books of the Apocrypha does not make it Scripture. Even Jude quotes from the Assumption of Moses, but that does not make it Scripture.

    Second, Jesus Himself delineated the extent of the OT with His comments in Luke 24: 25-27, “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ (Messiah) have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.'” It is obvious that Jesus Himself is limiting the OT Canon to Genesis – II Chronicles (Hebrew Tanakh).

    Third, Jesus Himself again limits the extent of the OT Canon to Genesis – II Chronicles (Tanakh) in Luke 24:44-45, “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.'” Thenhe opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

    Fourth, even the OT has references to sources that are used for material found in Kings and Chronicles. Does that make those sources Scripture? No.

    Fifth, certain doctrines are found in the Apocrypha, e.g. Purgatory, are found in the Apocrypha that does not correspond to “sound doctrine.” The Apocrypha is good for understanding the Intertestamental period, but are not good for “sound doctrine.”

    Sixth, it was not until the Council of Trent that the Apocrypha was codified as “Scripture” amongst Roman Catholicism. It is still used by the “High” Church of Anglicanism.

    Sixth, Paul’s reference in II Timothy 3:15-16 was to the Tanakh, Genesis -II Chronicles.

    Finally, I would also refer to one to Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, 2012. Published by Crossway, pp. 136-137, 152-154.

    I could go on, but I think you get the point. As a Baptist preacher, The Bible, as revealed in Genesis through Malachi and Matthew through Revelation, is the sole authority for all that it teaches, not just for faith and practice, with priority given to the New Testament.

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    • Louis says:

      Rev Williams,
      Thank you for your comment. I offer just a couple of notes. I agree with your first point completely. But I do find it interesting that when we Protestants are trying to prove the Apocrypha is not part of Scripture we note that it is never quoted in the NT. However, when something like Enoch is quoted in the NT we are the first to point out that a mere citation does not prove it is Scripture. This is like having our canonical cake and eating it too.
      As for your second and third points I’m not sure we can establish with any real certainty what the precise contents were of the tripartate division Jesus appeals to. To assume it was the same as the present Hebrew canon is a point to be proved.
      Your fourth point is similar to the first.
      As for your fifth point my post was not trying to establish that the Apocrypha was Scripture. My point was much more basic–merely that the canon of the early church was much more fluid than what my original quote was asserting.
      Your sixth point is true but does not affect my post. Also, that Paul was refering simply to Gen-II Chron in II Tim. 3:15-16 must be demonstrated. I’m not sure it is quite that easy.
      I’ve seem Kruger’s book but was not aware he dealt with the Old Testament canon. I’ll give it a look and appreciate your citation of it.
      The basic thrust of my point was simply that the quote that headed my post was grossly overstated and needed some nuancing.

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  2. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Thank you for your reply.

    I should note that most of what you stated is also taken up by Dr. Kruger who has just been named President of Reformed Theological Seminary where he still teaches.

    Furthermore, I forgot where, but if I remember correctly, Josephus also stated the Hebrew canon at the time of his writings; I think Philo also (?).

    Finally, most of the quotes of scholars above are determine to put a date on the final selection of a Canon both OT and NT in the 4th Century AD; even Papias, Irenaeus, et al, have place the use of the gospels and the majority of the NT books early in the 2nd Century. I do find that Clement of Alexandria and the others mentioned still made a distinction of what was Scripture and what was not.

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  3. RAnn says:

    Rev. Williams, I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Are you saying that the books other than the Tanakh are not scripture? If not, on what do you base your acceptance of some books and not others?

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  4. Dwight Spivey says:

    This is a fascinating post, and I appreciate the comments immensely, as well. I do have a question regarding the following from Rev. Williams:

    “The Bible, as revealed in Genesis through Malachi and Matthew through Revelation, is the sole authority for all that it teaches”

    What scriptural citations might you give to support this statement?

    Thanks again for the informative post and responses.

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  5. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear RAnn,

    You said, “Are you saying that the books other than the Tanakh are not scripture? If not, on what do you base your acceptance of some books and not others?”

    Yes. As the comments above state regarding the Old Testament, the Tanakh, Genesis – II Chronicles is what is to be Scripture. For the New Testament, Matthew – Revelation is Scripture.

    Furthermore, Luke 24:44 is clearly revealing a Tripartite canon as that of Law, Prophets and Writings. This paralleled in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 4Q397 14-21; 4Q398 14-17 I 3-4.

    Finally, there are some books mentioned in the OT that are sources from the historyj that are clearly not a part of the OT Canon, e.g. :book of the Wars of the Lord (Num. 21:14); book of Jasher (Josh. 10:13); book of the Acts of Solomon (I kings 11:41); book of Samuel the see; book of Nathan the prophet, book of Gad the seer (I Chron. 29:29 and 15 plus other passages).

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  6. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Dwight,

    II Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-2a.

    Frequently, most doctrinal statements regarding the authority of Scripture say, “The Bible is the sole authority for ‘faith and practice.’ ” The problem with this statement is that the Bible teaches about the following as actually happening: Creation, Creation of Male and Female, Garden of Eden, The Sin of Adam, Noahic Flood, Tower of Babel, The Exodus, etc. Too many in Christianity do not actually believe the Bible regarding the events mentioned. Thus, if the Bible is the sole authority of ‘faith and practice.’ then one could agree with the statement without agreeing with the whole of the Bible in its entirety. Some the things taught in the Bible is not according to “our experience.” I would not expect it to be, e.g. Numbers 22:13ff “Balaam and the Talking Donkey.”

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  7. Dwight Spivey says:

    Thank you for your reply, Rev. Williams!
    I’ve taken the liberty of copying and pasting the passages you referenced so that other readers of these posts don’t have to track them down:

    II Timothy 3:16 –

    ESV – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

    NIV – All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

    KJV – All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

    Hebrews 1:1-2

    ESV – Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

    NIV – In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

    KJV – God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

    Which translation might you be using for those passages? I’ve looked through several, and I’ve yet to find one that either implies or directly states that “The Bible, as revealed in Genesis through Malachi and Matthew through Revelation, is the sole authority for all that it teaches.” I completely say a hearty “Amen!” to both passages in each translation, but I’m having difficulty finding support for your statement in them.

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  8. studsterkel says:

    Offtopic: I’ve always found it interesting that Protestants will cite to Jerome and his opinion regarding the Canon as supporting the position that the deuteron-canonical do not belong in the OT. However, Protestants certainly don’t look to Jerome regarding his faith regarding the Eucharist, Baptism, the Authority of the Papacy, or really anything else.

    There is also focus on the “Council of Jamnia”, a supposed POST-Ascension council of…non-Christian Jews. My question is, since when did any Christian look to non-Christian opinion as to what is authoritative for Christians?

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  9. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Dwight,

    I am making a doctrinal statement to clarify what is implied by Scripture from the two texts I referenced. True, some will include the Apocrypha, but when all of the texts especially Luke 24:44 are taken together, then that pretty much limits the OT to what Christ and the early church used as Scripture. The Apostolic Fathers (2nd Century AD) were more eclectic in some ways than the Jesus and the Apostles.

    Furthermore, the Second London Confession, Chapter 1, Paragraph 2 (see link that follows: http://www.1689.com/confession.html#Ch. 1, lists all the Scripture and the books that apply.

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  10. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Studsterkel,

    You will notice that I did not Jerome; although I could have used him, but didn’t since the quotes of Jesus and the Apostles were sufficient. In fact, I referenced those closest to the 1st Century AD, Papias, Irenaeus, etc. Furthermore, it must be remembered that not everything that the Church Fathers is correct since “a broken clock is right twice a day.”

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  11. Dwight Spivey says:

    Hi Rev. Williams,
    Thank you for your reply, but I think I may not be clear in my question or intent.
    I’m not concerned with the Apocrypha/deuterocanonical books. What I’m wondering is where in the verses you cited is it implied (since it certainly isn’t stated) that “the Bible … is the sole authority for all that it teaches.” I purposely omitted the other part (“as revealed in Genesis through Malachi and Matthew through Revelation”), since it’s not specifically what I’m questioning.
    I appreciate you taking the time to dialog, by the way.

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  12. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Dwight,

    I see what your question is now. My apologies. As it is said, “Ask the wrong question and get the wrong answer.”

    The implied is not explicitly stated. I am just clarifying by what is meant when I say, “The Bible …” Thus, I defined the Bible for purposes of doctrine and discussion. Any book outside of that definition is to be considered not Scripture. Therefore, the Apocrypha, OT Pseudapigrapha, NT Pseudepigrapha, Quran, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenant, prophecies of Ellen White, NWT, etc. do not qualify. Movements based on those books are heretical.

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  13. Dwight Spivey says:

    Hi Rev. Williams,
    Thanks for replying!
    I’ve provided direct quotations from several Biblical translations of the verses you cited, but I’ve yet to see how any of them imply that “the Bible … is the sole authority for all that it teaches.” (I think we’ve established they don’t explicitly state it.)

    II Timothy 3:16 simply says that scripture is directly from God and is good for teaching the faith, correcting wrong ideas, etc.

    Hebrews 1:1-2 does nothing more than tell us that back in the days of the Old Testament God spoke to us through the prophets, but now He has spoken to us through His Son.

    Please expound on how either of these verses implies “the Bible … is the sole authority for all that it teaches.”

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    • Louis says:

      Hi Dwight,
      I’m enjoying this conversation quite a bit. Thank you for taking time to discuss it. I’m curious how you would respond to someone like Kenneth Richard Samples who wrote the following in response to the objection against sola scriptura that the Scripture itself does not teach this principle. He said, “The doctrine of sola scriptura need not be taught formally and explicitly. It may be implicit in Scripture and inferred logically. Scripture explicitly states its inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:15-17, and its sufficiency is implied there as well. This passage contains the essence of sola scriptura, revealing that Scripture is able to make a person wise unto salvation. And it includes the inherent ability to make a person complete in belief and practice.” (Modern Reformation, vol 19, number 6, Nov/Dec 2010). In this same issue of Modern Reformation another writer states that God can reveal himself through explicit truth and implicit truth or as the Westminster Confession says by “good and necessary consequence.” He goes on to quote James Bannerman as saying that a “good” consequence “must be truly contained in the inspired statements from which they profess to be taken” and a “necessary” consequence must be “unavoidably forced upon the mind, upon an honest and intelligent application of it to the Scripture page.” (p. 15) I agree with truth being implicit in Scripture (I think the Trinity is a good example here) but the definition of “necessary consequence” is quite strong and I think someone would be hard pressed to show something to be “unavoidably forced upon the mind.” That’s pretty strong language. I would appreciate your thoughts on this line of reasoning.

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  14. Dwight Spivey says:

    Hi Louis! Thanks for jumping in!
    A company makes decisions about its future based on implications made in reports, such as poor forecasts for growth. A family makes a decision to go to the movies or the beach based on implications from the weather report (it may rain or it may not). One does not base the sole rule of their soul-saving faith on an implied truth.
    Does Scripture imply that Jesus is the Messiah?
    Does it imply that there is no other way to the Father but by His Son?
    Something so vitally essential – the sole rule and authority of one’s faith – is not something that God would imply, in my estimation. What if the reader simply doesn’t pick up on the implication?
    Also, in order for something to be implied, there must be someone to infer the implication. Are we to trust their inference? If not, whose inference are we to trust on this matter?
    Who inferred that the letters of 2 Timothy or Hebrews are indeed part of canonical Scripture? I’m assuming that someone must have inferred such, since the canon of the Bible is not explicitly stated in Scripture, and it certainly is not implied, so far as I’m aware.

    In 2 Timothy, when the Holy Scriptures are mentioned in verse 15, was the author referring to the canonical Old and New Testament when he wrote the letter? From what we can gather, 2 Timothy was written somewhere in the middle of the 1st century, and nearly half of the New Testament had yet to be written. This would indicate that the folks he was writing the letter to already had a set of Holy Scriptures that “thoroughly equipped” them “for every good work.” These Holy Scriptures could not have been the Bible as we know it today, otherwise the author of 2 Timothy would have been speaking to Christians decades into the future, instead of the folks he sent the letter to. If the Holy Scriptures referred to in 2 Timothy 3:15 were indeed sufficient (as Mr. Samples states) for believers at that point in time, doesn’t that render the other books of the Bible yet to be written pointless, or at best just mere filler?

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    • Louis says:

      Dwight,
      You said “something so vitally essential–the sole rule and authority of one’s faith–is not something that God would imply.” If this is true what/where does God say explicitly is our rule of faith? Secondly, I think we would agree the Trinity is an essential element of our faith yet that is not explicitly expressed in Scriptures but must be inferred from the teaching of various passages. I think you are right that 2 Tim. must refer to the writings of the Old and New Testament at the time of the writing of 2 Tim. but we do not know precisely which books Paul or his readers would have understood this to mean. Some would be fairly obvious (Torah, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many of the prophets) but I’m not sure which NT books they would have considered Scripture other than perhaps the Gospels. On your final point John Frame makes a distinction between general sufficiency and particular sufficiency which you find read more about here.

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  15. Dwight Spivey says:

    Hi Louis,
    Sorry for the lengthy delay in replying; 4 kids demand my attention more than the Web, I’m afraid. 🙂
    I don’t believe that God did establish a “sole” rule of faith, unless you take that to mean Him. I do know that Jesus established a Church, but He did not command His followers to write anything, but rather to “therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20). Please understand, I’m a firm believer in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, and I completely agree that it is God’s Word and we are to follow it as though we were listening to Christ Himself. However, I do not believe the Bible is the sole rule of our faith, as Christ gave us His Church way before He gave us the Bible in its entirety. You see, we can have the Church without the Bible, but we cannot have the Bible without the Church. And how could I make such a statement? Because we actually did have the Church without the Bible for decades after Christ’s ascension. As a matter of fact, we had the Church without one iota of the New Testament for quite possibly a decade or more.
    Regarding the Trinity, going back to Matt. 28 (18-19), we read “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'” Agreed, the word “Trinity” is not to be found in Scripture, but when Christ gives direct instruction to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” that’s a bit more than an inference of a Triune God to me.
    I quickly zipped through your post on Frame’s ideas, and I don’t think I can disagree with them. However, the one potential problem with it is that if the Bible is the sole rule of faith, then the differences between general and particular sufficiency should be spelled out somewhere in Scripture, right? Please let me know if I just took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. 🙂

    Take care,

    Dwight

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  16. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Dwight,

    I do hope this is getting us off on a tangent.

    First, It is quite clear that Christ set apart Apostles to do His Work after His Ascension as is evident in Acts 1:8ff.

    Second, regarding what you said to Louis paragraph two,

    “I do not believe the Bible is the sole rule of our faith, as Christ gave us His Church way before He gave us the Bible in its entirety. You see, we can have the Church without the Bible, but we cannot have the Bible without the Church. And how could I make such a statement? Because we actually did have the Church without the Bible for decades after Christ’s ascension. As a matter of fact, we had the Church without one iota of the New Testament for quite possibly a decade or more.”

    I would say that you need to review the following passages found throughout the NT:

    Mt. 16:19, (although Peter is addressed in vs. 18, SOI “you” is plural here referring to all the disciples of Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi, the apostles; cf. also 18:18; John 20:21-23).

    John 14:26, where the Christ speaks of the Holy Spirit “teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance.” This applies to not only the oral preaching of the gospel and practice, but also the written aspects. Matthew and John were Apostles, Mark wrote what Peter said, Luke investigate actual eyewitnesses (MARTYR; AUTOPSH).

    I Timothy 5:18, Paul in defense of financial support of Pastors (Elders) especially those who labor in the preaching of the Word and of doctrines (teachings) quotes from Scripture in Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:7. You will notice that two things occur with the quote from Luke. 1) Luke is called Scripture. 2) Luke is apparently already written by the time of I Timothy (ca. 60-64 AD).

    II Peter 3:15-16, Peter is reminding his readers that Paul had also written to them, and also calls what Paul wrote Scripture.

    Jude 3, Jude remarks about “the faith once (hapax) delivered to the saints.” This is quite clearly referring to specific doctrines regarding the faith, believes commonly shared.

    Furthermore, a number of scholars have mentioned that it was not until the Fourth Century AD that the Church began to determine what was Scripture with regards to the NT Canon. I would highly recommend that you obtain and read , Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, Wheaton: Pubished by Crossway, 2012. Also visit is blog: Canon Revisited at http://www.michaeljkurger.com on several posts regarding this issues that have been raised during this post by Louis and the comments.

    For further interaction, I can be contacted at bjwvmw@com-pair.net.

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