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Canon: A Moving Target?

The term "canon" comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning "reed" or measuring rod.

In our modern debates about the Bible, we have tended to quickly assume that we agree on which books belong in the Bible. We no longer have the luxury of that assumption. Books such as Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have raised anew an issue that we thought was settled, by claiming that decisions about the Biblical canon were top-down decrees that were imposed upon the early church. Such claims force us to go back and reexamine how we arrived at our conclusions that these books, and no others, comprise the inspired Word of God.

The Forming of the Canon

Some people have the mistaken impression that the New Testament canon was decided by a church council in the late 300’s A.D., and the Old Testament canon was decided by a council of rabbis in 100 A.D. Church councils did not determine the canon but acknowledged the books that by common acceptance had already become the canon.

The term “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning “reed” or measuring rod. When we speak of the Biblical canon, we are speaking of a standard by which we measure which writings are inspired by God and which are not.

A canon of holy writings can be formulated in one of two ways. One way is simply by observing which books are treated as authoritative in popular usage. The other way is to write up an official list of authoritative books. In the cases of both Old and New Testaments, official lists came last, after a long period of wide selection by popular usage. Simply put, the people of God chose the canon gradually over time.

Let’s take a look first at the formation of the New Testament canon, and then look at the Old Testament canon. As we look at these, we’ll see what sorts of books failed to be affirmed by the people of God. Some were passed over, not because of inferior content, but simply because they were too late, or for other reasons were not judged to come from a recognized authoritative source. Others were rejected because their content was inconsistent with other books that were accepted as authoritative.

The New Testament Canon

According to McDonald1 and most New Testament scholars, the four criteria that played a role in the development of the New Testament canon were apostolicity, antiquity, orthodoxy, and usage. Did a book come from an apostle, or from someone connected to the apostles, such as Mark, Luke, or the author of Hebrews? If a book was judged to have been written too late to have come from an apostolic authority, it was judged to be of devotional value, but not authoritative. Such was the verdict over time for 1 Clement, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas: not heretical, but not apostolic.

As for usage and orthodoxy, how do we know if what was popular was also orthodox? The only way we know is through the decisions of the earliest believers, who were in a reliable position to know what Jesus and his apostles really said and did. Early believers looked for books that gave them their best access to Jesus while the memory of the apostolic age was still alive. We are dependent today on the guidance of believers who lived in 80–100 A.D. and recognized certain books as genuinely apostolic. We trust that they did their job faithfully.

Pseudonymity was a unique issue for Christians, because it impacted apostolicity. It did not matter who wrote a Greco-Roman religious text. Nor does it matter who wrote any of the Buddhist texts, because all that matters is that they contain Buddhism. For Christians, however, the issue of whether a text is apostolic in its origins is foundational. We need to know whether a text is an authorized word from Jesus. This was crucial for the early church since it was barraged with false claims of words from Jesus that led to a false theology.

Evidence indicates that a canon began to form as early as 100 A.D., as our four Gospels began to circulate together,2 as well as a collection of Paul’s letters, which may have been put together by Luke.3 By the second half of the second century A.D., Justin Martyr (150 A.D.), Celsus (175 A.D.), and the Syriac Gospel harmony known as the Diatesseron (180 A.D.) all bear witness to four recognized Gospels. Papias (100 A.D.) knows three Gospels plus 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, but makes no mention of Luke or Paul, probably because the writings we possess from him are highly fragmentary.

The first snapshot of a list of canonical New Testament writings is the so-called Muratorian Canon. Although some have claimed that this list actually comes from the fourth century A.D. from the East,4 I agree with both Ferguson and Metzger that it dates to the second half of the second century (170 A.D.?) and that it comes from the West.5 Although the name of the author is not preserved in the fragment, Hippolytus is suggested as a possible author. This early list affirms all of our New Testament books with the exception of Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John, plus it includes the book of Wisdom (from the Old Testament Apocrypha!), and the Apocalypse of Peter (although it says that some will not allow it to be read in church). This list states that the recently written Shepherd of Hermas is helpful for Christians but is not Scripture. It also rejects some late second-century heretical works with the rationale that “gall ought not to be mixed with honey.”

The rest of the evidence for the de facto canon at this time comes from usage. Irenaeus (180 A.D.) cites all of our New Testament books except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude, plus he cites the Shepherd of Hermas as Scripture. Tertullian (200 A.D.) affirms our entire New Testament except Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Clement of Alexandria (200 A.D.) uses all but James, 2 Peter, and 3 John, plus he also quotes the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. Clement quotes from the Gospels to the Hebrews and the Egyptians, but he only recognizes our four Gospels as Scripture.

Note how little evidence we have for the use of 2 Peter and James. The Shepherd of Hermas (150 A.D., or possibly earlier) uses ―double-minded,‖ a term found nowhere in Greek other than James, 55 times. 1 Clement (90 A.D.) may allude to 2 Peter 1:17 and 3:4, and Barnabas (130 A.D.) and Justin Martyr seem to allude to 2 Peter 3:8. Both James and 2 Peter seem to have fallen out of favor early on, possibly because they were rooted in the Jewish rather than Pauline branch of the church. These books then appear to have gone through a rediscovery in the late third century A.D. While the church subjected them to critical examination using standards comparable to ours, the church must have had access to authenticating information that we do not have, for the church ultimately accepted both books as genuine apostolic writings.

At the close of the second century A.D., we can say that the developing New Testament canon is closed but not settled. There is a solid core of agreed-upon books, but the limits are fluid, due to books on the periphery that are in dispute. Books like the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Judas are firmly and unanimously rejected, and no new books are being sought. But if the New Testament canon had been permanently fixed at this point, some of our present canon would have been excluded, and some other books might have been included.

Origen (early third century A.D.) divides the New Testament writings into undisputed, disputed, and false. In his middle category are 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. He does not mention James, and he does not tell us how many letters of Paul he accepts. He accepts Hebrews, but he makes the famous comment that “God only knows” who wrote it.

During Diocletian’s persecution (early 300’s A.D.), the Romans sought to burn the Christians’ holy books. However, the church itself was not totally agreed as to which books were covered by that command. Constantine’s reversal of this command with a command to produce 50 official copies of Scripture forces the issue of canon to be officially decided by the church.

Yet even here, the decision was not made immediately. As we examine fourth century codices of Scripture that appear to be official full-length editions of the New Testament, we find variations in their contents. Codex Aleph (Sinaiticus) contains our canonical books, plus Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and possibly others (the manuscript breaks off). Codex A contains these two additions, plus the Psalms of Solomon. Codex B contains 1 and 2 Clement, but Timothy, Titus, and Revelation are missing (although again, the manuscript is missing pages at the end). Codex D lacks Thessalonians, Philippians, and Hebrews, but has Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Syriac Peshitta omits 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.

The church historian Eusebius (ca. 330 A.D.) delineates four categories of books in his approach to the New Testament canon: undisputed (homologoumena),
disputed (antilegomena), spurious (notha), and downright heretical. Eusebius does not recognize any non-Pauline letters as undisputed, plus he observes that Revelation is in dispute, yet he does not himself reject any of the books he identifies as disputed.

In a festal letter to his churches, Athanasius (367 A.D.) lists our exact New Testament canon. He is the first to use the word “canonize” (kanonizo). Jerome, Augustine, and the Synod of Carthage (397 A.D.) all agree with Athanasius’ list. By the end of the fourth century A.D., the New Testament canon is settled as we have it today.

The Old Testament Canon

The same cannot be said for the Old Testament canon! Here, both Judaism and the Christian church played a role in the identification of God’s word, and the process ended up producing two canons within the Christian church: the Hebrew canon, and an Apocrypha (“Hidden Books”) consisting of Jewish books that were left out of the Hebrew canon. As in the case of the rise of the New Testament canon, de facto usage led the way, and lists came later.

The Pentateuch appears to have been canonized by 400 B.C. The Prophets appear to have been canonized by 200 B.C., if not at the same time as the Pentateuch. Likewise, the Psalms appear to have been packaged together in five books with titles no later than 400 B.C.6 By 200 B.C., Judaism begins to use the standard expression “the Law and the Prophets.” Josephus states that books written after Artaxerxes were not inspired because of the failure of prophetic succession (Against Apion 41).

The question is which books were considered to be part of the Prophets. By the first century A.D., Judaism was beginning to speak of three categories of Scripture: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Kethuvim), a category that today includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. When were these books deemed to be authoritative? Was the entire Old Testament canon as we know it fixed when the Prophets (including the Kethuvim) were added to the Law, or was the rest of the canon (i.e. the Kethuvim) not finalized until the close of the first century A.D.?

According to today’s Jewish classification, the Prophets include the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel-Kings. But during the time when the Jews only spoke of “the Law and the Prophets” as their canon, did the Prophets also include all the books now known as “the Writings”? One might include them under the understanding that any writer of inspired Scripture is a prophet, whether they are writing first-person oracles from God, history, or poetry. David, Solomon, Ezra, and the writer(s) of Joshua-Kings become prophets. In 4 Maccabees 18:10–19, the “Law and the Prophets” includes Daniel and the Psalms.

The issue of when the canon was finalized impacts the question of which books were part of the canon for Jesus and his apostles. If the status of the Writings was still in question, all we have to go on is Jesus’ formula in Luke 24:44 where he refers to “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” (Similarly, 4QMMT from Qumran refers to “Moses, the Prophets, and David.”)

Second Maccabees 2:13–15 says that the holy books were stored in the Temple, and were re-collected by Judas Maccabeus after Antiochus IV burned them. Josephus confirms that the canonical books were stored in the Temple. After the Temple is destroyed, Josephus is the first to make a written list of those books.

There appears to have been surprising agreement on which books belonged in the Hebrew canon. As much as Qumran and the rabbis argued with each other, there was absolutely no fight between them as to which books were Scripture. Qumran had a lot of books like Jubilees and Enoch that were extremely popular among them, but these books were never treated as Scripture. Only Esther and Obadiah were not found at Qumran (Obadiah being probably too short). The rabbis at the Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. discussed whether Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon were holy (literally, they “render the hands unclean” – m. Yadayim 3:5).

The chief issue over what books to include in the canon arises when the Old Testament is translated into Greek to form the Septuagint. At this point, a number of books are added that are only extant in Greek (Sirach alone has been found partly in Hebrew), plus some Greek additions to Esther. There is no consistent list of these added books; they vary between the various major manuscripts. Furthermore, while they are sometimes referred to as the Alexandrian canon (as opposed to the “Palestinian canon”) because they were translated into Greek in Egypt, neither Jews nor the New Testament quote these added books as Scripture.

In 190 A.D., Melito gives the first Christian list of Old Testament Scriptures. His list is identical to the Palestinian canon. Yet much of the early church regarded the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew version as their authoritative Bible. Jerome, the scholar who translated the Latin Vulgate around 400 A.D., argued for the Hebrew text and Hebrew canon as the Word of God rather than the Greek. Augustine, who lived around the same time, said that the church should follow the lead of the majority of bishops, which would mean accepting the Greek text and canon as the Word of God. Augustine claimed that the Septuagint was Jesus’ Bible, while Jerome claimed that Jesus’ canon was the Hebrew canon.

Clearly no council of rabbis or bishops dictated which books belong in Israel’s collection of authoritative Scriptures. The library of sacred books in the Temple was formed over time, informed by a gradual consensus of God’s people. And the canon of Jesus and his apostles becomes the authority for ours.

Reopening the Canon?

Should we consider reopening the Biblical canon debate today? As I teach my class on “The Truth About the Early Church” to laypeople, I find that when they read the Infancy Gospels and the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, and Mary for themselves, they categorically reject these books because they see a totally different Jesus in these books than the one they know from the Gospels that they trust.

We might compare reopening the canon to the question of adding into our Bibles words of Jesus that are not recorded in our Gospels. Some of these sound bites, found in places like the Gospel of Thomas and quotes by Jerome and Clement of Alexandria, might be authentic, but practically none of them give us any compelling teaching or action of Jesus to add to what we already have. For instance, I could see Jesus saying that the Pharisees are like the dog in the manger that won’t eat or let the oxen eat (Thomas 102), or “It is impossible for a man to mount two horses or to stretch two bows” (Thomas 47), but neither of these adds anything vital or indispensible to our picture of Jesus.

The most recent attempt to re-open the canon is the recently released New New Testament produced by a group of scholars including former PC(USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow. The group adds ten texts to our present New Testament, including the Gospels of Thomas and Mary, the [Gnostic] Gospel of Truth, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Odes of Solomon.

One passionate advocate for the re-opening of the New Testament canon is the Jesus Seminar scholar Robert Funk, who proclaims in his essay “The Once and Future New Testament”7 that the limits of the current New Testament are “entirely arbitrary.” The reason Funk gives for this urgent new need is that modern humanity can no longer believe what the present canon has given us.

Funk’s de facto operational canon consists of Darwin, Einstein, and Biblical criticism, all three of which he argues have undermined the present canon to where it is no longer useful, and he attributes a downright embarrassing degree of inerrancy to these “new” authorities. His supporting arguments are in essence “because I said so.”

Theologian James D. G. Dunn exemplifies the spirit of the PC(USA) second ordination vow when he writes: It is not possible to hold to Jesus the center without also holding to the New Testament witness to the center. For so far as the Jesus of first-century history and faith is concerned, we are always like Zacchaeus, standing behind the crowd of first-century disciples, dependent on what those in the crowd nearest to us report of this Jesus whom we too would see. It is not possible to hear Jesus of Nazareth except in the words of his followers. It is not possible to encounter the Jesus of history except in the words of the New Testament.8

Dunn concludes: The New Testament is canonical not because it contains a ragbag of writings documenting the diverse developments of the first century, not because it contains a cross section of first-century “party manifestos,” but because the interlocking character of so many of its component parts holds the whole together in the unity of a diversity which acknowledges a common loyalty.9


The canonical Bible was not the result of a political human power struggle. Rather, God guided the people of God to recognize and affirm the writings where God has truly spoken, in order to give us an authoritative measuring rod to distinguish truth from error.


Rev. Dr. Tom Hobson is chair of the Biblical Studies Department at Morthland College, IL and a member of the presbytery of SE IL. He has authored, What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? (WIPF & Stock, 2011).


1. Lee McDonald, “Identifying Scripture and Canon in the Early Church: The Critical Question,” in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 423–434.

2. In addition to P75, which is believed to be the second half of a four-gospel codex, T. C. Skeat (“The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels,” New Testament Studies 43 [1997]:1–34) proposes that P4, P64, and P67 all come from a single fourgospel codex.

3. Lewis Foster, “The Earliest Collection of Paul’s Epistles,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 10 (1967): 4455.

4. Albert C. Sundberg, “Canon Muratori: A Fourth-Century List,” Harvard Theological Review 66 (1973): 1–41.

5. Everett Ferguson, “Canon Muratori: Date and Provenance,” Studia Patristica 17/2 (1982): 677–83; Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 191– 201. Lack of Hebrews and James would make this canon highly unusual in the fourth century East, but it fits a second-century setting in the West.

6. See Matitiahu Tzevat, A Study of the Language of the Biblical Psalms (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1955), 64. Tzevat demonstrates that the language of the titles has changed by the time of Chronicles.

7. Robert W. Funk, “The Once and Future New Testament,” in The Canon Debate (ed. Lee Martin MacDonald and James A. Sanders: Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 541–57.

8. James D. G. Dunn, “Has the Canon a Continuing Function?,” in MacDonald and Sanders, The Canon Debate, 572.

9. Dunn, “Canon” 579.


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