The Broad and Truncated Canons of the Old Testament

The Books called Apocrypha

The Books called Apocrypha

The Christian Church accepted the broader canon of the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) until the time of the Reformation. The Anglican Henry Wace, in his commentary on the King James Version, admits as much when he writes:

When the Reformers denied the inspired authority of the books of the Apocrypha, it was by no means their intention to exclude them from use either in public or in private reading. The Articles of the Church of England quote with approbation the ruling of St. Jerome, that though the Church does not use these books for establishment of doctrine, it reads them for example of life and instruction of manners.[1]

Having already truncated their canon, some Protestants look back to the ancient church for support, citing this or that authority who seemingly support their position. There were individuals who devised lists of books approved for use in the church, such as the listing called the “ruling of St. Jerome.” These lists are occasionally similar to the canon used by Protestants today, but these individual lists were not authoritative in the wider church. Even where the lists of Old Testament books matched those of the Protestant canon, these lists wouldn’t match the New Testament books — and vice versa. (We will provide more detail on this later). St. Jerome was not a bishop, and the ‘ruling of St. Jerome’ was not authoritative anywhere. St. Jerome ultimately accepted the ruling of his bishop, something noted by Martin Hengel: “Jerome himself, who was not only a great and combative scholar but also a smooth diplomat, largely abandoned any effort to defend the Hebrew original in the Apocrypha question.”[2]

St. Athanasius (c. 296-373) is widely cited as having provided the first complete listing of the 27 books of the New Testament. Matt Slick, the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), cites Festal Letter 39 (c. 367 A.D.) as proof that Athanasius condemns the Apocrypha.[3] This is only partially correct. First of all, St. Athanasius was speaking for his own diocese, not the entire Church. Second, there were many different lists being advanced for centuries afterwards.

While St. Athanasius did not approve of all the so-called Apocrypha, his festal letter approved several of them. For example, his list contains “the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book”; “Jeremiah with Baruch”; “Lamentations, and the epistle, one book”; Esther; and Daniel. Baruch is one of the so-called Apocrypha, as is the Epistle of Jeremiah. The versions of 2 Chronicles, Esther, and Daniel judged by St. Athanasius as genuine contain material Protestants judge to be Apocryphal.[4] In the unabridged King James Version, these are called “The Prayer of Manassas” (placed at the end of 2 Chronicles); “The rest of Esther” (material found throughout Esther in the Septuagint); “The History of Susanna” (comes before Daniel chapter 1); “The Song of the Three Holy Children” (comes in the middle of Daniel chap. 3); and “Bel and the Dragon” (comes after Daniel chap. 12). To be honest, if Protestants want to claim Festal Letter 39 of St. Athanasius as sealing the canon of the New Testament, they should also be prepared to accept all the Old Testament Apocrypha cited by Athanasius.

In his book The Divine Names, the author known today as Pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th to early 6th century) quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon, describing it as “introductory Scriptures.”[5] We might be tempted towards thinking this supports the general Protestant view. Paul Rorem and John Lamoreaux say the term “introductory Scripture” merely means that the Old Testament was an introduction to the New; in other words, the entire Old Testament could be termed “introductory Scripture.”[6] The question, then, is how extensive that introduction is.

Among early Protestants, there was substantial disagreement and confusion as to the extent of the Old Testament. For example, John Wycliffe’s Bible translation, first hand-printed in 1382 A.D., contains 48 Old Testament books, as opposed to the 39 contained in the Protestant Old Testament.[7]  We should note the Bibles printed following the Protestant Reformation also include what Protestants call the Apocrypha.[8] For example, Martin Luther’s German translation of 1522 contained the Apocrypha. The English Language Matthew-Tyndale Bible, published by John Rogers in 1537, contained the Apocrypha.[9] Both the Geneva Bible of 1560 and the original King James Version (KJV) of 1611 contained the Apocrypha. Unabridged editions of the KJV with the Apocrypha are still available today, although printed versions are rare in the United States.[10]

Abridged Bibles without the Apocrypha are an American invention. The Continental Congress approved and funded the printing of Bibles without the Apocrypha. Rev. Dr. Will Gafney writes:

Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible[11] is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.[12]

Modern Protestants use a truncated canon whose origins and history they are unaware of. Moreover, they misread the canonical history of the Old Testament. This does not mean Protestants cannot be saved, of course. What it does mean is that Protestants lack the fullness of the faith.


[1] (Wace 1811, xxxvi) The ruling of St. Jerome was his private theological opinion, was contrary to the practice of the wider Christian Church, and was not accepted as dogma anywhere.

[2] (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 49-50)

[3] (Slick 2014)

[4] The Masoretic text favored by many conservative Protestant scholars did not exist at this time. The favored text in the Church was the Septuagint (see chap. 4.)

[5] (Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite 1987, 81)

[6] (Rorem and Lamoreaux 1998, 48)

[7] The various eBooks and online sources like Bible Gateway only reproduce the part of Wycliffe’s translation that are acceptable to the Protestants. Wycliffe’s complete Old Testament contained the following books considered unacceptable after the Reformation: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon), Syrach (Sirach, a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus), Preier of Jeremiah (Epistle of Jeremiah), Baruk (Baruch), along with 1 Machabeis & 2 Machabeis (1st and 2nd Maccabees). John Wycliffe’s New Testament also contains Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans, a contested document found in no generally accepted version or translation. (Wycliffe 2008)

[8] When asked if The Online Bible ( would be providing a copy of the original King James Version with the Apocrypha,   Larry Pierce, (the founder) responded: “We have no intention of mixing Jewish fables with the infallible Word of God.” (Pierce 2014) Pierce is quoting Titus 1:14 here, equating Paul’s reference to ‘Jewish fables’ with the Apocrypha, an interpretation that cannot be found in the text. Pierce chooses to use an abridged version of the King James Version rather than provide it as it was originally printed. In an email to Pastor EJ Hill, Larry Pierce admitted to redacting and editing other people’s work when they do not agree with his theology (such as Thayer’s 1889 Greek-English Lexicon.) (Hill 2012)

[9] The Matthew-Tyndale Bible, generally known as the Matthew Bible, contains the following books not found in the Protestant Bible: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 3 Holy Children, Suzanna, Bel & the Dragon, Prayer of Mannesah, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. (Rogers and Coverdale 1537)

[10] An excellent resource is the Official King James version online which contains the American truncation of the King James Version, the Apocrypha, and the original 1611 version with the apocrypha.

[11] Bible.htm

[12] (Gafney 2013)


Gafney, W. C. (2013, March 17). Jesus’ Bible and the History Channel’s Bible. Retrieved December 7, 2014, from The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.:

Hengel, M. (2002). The Septuagint as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Hill, E. (2012). Did Larry Pierce abridge Thayer’s Lexicon? The Online Bible Forum. Winterbourne: Online Bible.

Pierce, L. (2014, May 5). “email conversation”. Online Bible Tech Support. Winterbourne: Online Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. (1987). Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. (C. Luibheid, Trans.) New York: Paulist Press.

Rogers, J., & Coverdale, M. (1537). 1537 Matthew’s Bible. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from

Rorem, P., & Lamoreaux, J. C. (1998). John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus: Annotating the Areopagite. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Slick, M. (2014, November 1). Apocrypha. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from CARM:

Wace, H. (1811). Holy Bible According to the Authorized Version (A.D. 1611). (Vol. 1). (H. Wace, Ed.) London: John Murray.


The Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism

Herod's Rebuilt Second Temple

Herod’s Rebuilt Second Temple

The idea of the canon as a list of authoritative books would have been strange to Jews of the Second Temple period. For them, the Temple was the center of their religion. Lester L. Grabbe, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull, England, writes:

It is natural that people often assume that Judaism in the Second Temple period was more or less like contemporary Judaism, in which people meet weekly or even more frequently in synagogues to pray, worship, and hear the Bible read. The written scripture and its reading and study are assumed to be the focus of Judaism at all times. …Yet the Judaism of pre-70 times was formally structured in a quite different way from the Judaism of later times. The main religious institution was the Jerusalem temple, and temple worship went back many centuries in Jewish and Israelite history. …The main activity in the temple was blood sacrifice.[1]

Lester L. Grabbe goes on to discuss the issue of the supposed canon during Second Temple Judaism.

When and how the present canon became finalized is still not known, despite a number of studies on the subject. Some Jewish groups seem to have accepted a different set of books as authoritative compared to other groups.[2]

Jaroslav Pelikan agrees with Grabbe, and writes:

Not only is the use of the word canon as a designation for an authoritative list of sacred books a rather late phenomenon within the history of the Jewish community, but even the idea of a fixed and final list came about only after a long evolution.[3]

Julio Trebolle Barrera notes the idea of a canon was foreign to the Jewish mind. He notes the word canon is a term connected to “New Testament studies,” and Jews did not use it until “the 4th cent. CE.” He writes:

To apply the term «canon» to the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is quite unsuitable. Hebrew has no term which corresponds to Greek «canon». Rabbinic discussions concerning the canonical or apocryphal character of certain biblical books such as Song of Songs and Qoheleth, turn on the expression «defiles the hands». The supposition is that books of which it is said that «they defile the hands» were considered as canonical, whereas books to which this expression was not applied were excluded from the biblical canon. However, the expression «defile the hands» may have no more significance than to refer to ritual purification to be performed after having used such books and before starting any other secular activity.[4]

Saying Hebrew has no term corresponding to the Greek word ‘canon’ is not precisely true. The Greek word ‘canon’ is itself a loan word from the Semitic languages. In Hebrew, the word is קָנֶה (qaneh) meaning ‘tube’ or ‘reed’. The Hebrew word qaneh is related to the Assyrian word qanu and the Arabic word qanah, meaning ‘hollow stick’ or ‘reed’. While the Greeks and Christians used the word canon in the sense of a rule or measuring stick, this idea comes from Greek philosophy.

The concept of canon as the rule of faith is a Christian idea that developed rather late. The Jews eventually used that idea for the Hebrew Scriptures, but such an idea was unknown in Jesus’ day. Jewish groups knew which books they considered to be Scripture, but there were different Jewish groups with competing ideas as to the extent of their scriptures. More importantly, the concept of canon was a gentile concept; as such it would likely not have been used by Jews to delimit their Scriptures to a specific set of books.

The Swiss Protestant theologian Robert Hanhart, writing in the introduction to Martin Hengel’s “The Septuagint as Christian Scripture”, notes that Jesus ben Sirach’s introduction to Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus) “assumes the three divisions transmitted by the Masoretes”, and draws a distinction between the material described by these divisions and that of his translation of his grandfather’s commentary on Scripture.[5] He concludes that Second Temple Judaism distinguished between canon and Apocrypha. By stating this, Robert Hanhart is reading the medieval Masoretic traditions back into the Second Temple period, two periods separated by nearly a millennium. Lutheran professor and theologian Emil Schürer differs with Robert Hanhart: “The most ancient testimony to the collocation of both collections with the Thorah [sic] is the prologue to the Book of Wisdom. …We cannot, however, determine from it that the third collection was then already concluded.”[6]

The disagreement between Robert Hanhart and Emil Schürer illustrates the manner in which scholars disagree regarding the boundaries of the Old Testament canon in the second temple period and reflects the wide range of perspectives among Jews of the second temple period. The Baptist Professor Jeff S. Anderson writes about the diversity existing within Second Temple Judaism.

What flourished in the Second Temple Period was not a single, fixed, “normative” Judaism, but a developing, evolving religion… No straight evolutionary line of the Jewish faith emerges. Consequently, it is preferable to speak of multiple Judaisms rather than a monolithic ideology that views one brand of Judaism as orthodox and the rest as “sects.” All Judaisms, consequently, competed for an audience and for the authority that accompanies broad-based acceptance.[7]

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310–320 – 403 CE) describes twelve specific sects of the Jews: the Samaritans, the Essenes, the Sebuaeans, the Gorothenes, the Dositheans, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Hemerobaptists, the Nasaraeans, the Ossaeans, and the Herodians.[8] The Jerusalem Talmud (c. 200 – 400 CE) quotes Rabbi Johanan as saying there were twenty-four heretical sects of Judaism in the time of Ezekiel.[9] With different Judaisms competing for acceptance, it is no wonder there was no consensus on the limits of the Hebrew Scriptures.[10] The great Protestant scholar of Second Temple Judaism, Martin Hengel, writes:

We cannot prove the existence of a genuine Jewish, pre-Christian collection of canonical value, unambiguously and clearly delimited, distinguishable through its greater scope from the canon of the Hebrew Bible in the realm of the historical books and wisdom writings and written in Greek. Nor, especially, can it be shown that such a ‘canon’ was already formed in pre-Christian Alexandria. One can only proceed from the fact that the five books of Moses’ Torah, the so-called Pentateuch, were translated into Greek under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246), at the latest toward the middle of the third century [BC].[11]

The picture of Second Temple Judaism is much more complex than is commonly thought. There was the temple cult centered in Jerusalem, and there was the law which Jews agreed was scripture. Most Jews accepted the Prophets as well. Beyond that, we know different branches of Judaism accepted a varying list of writings as authoritative, and possibly as scripture. The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not settled until well into the Christian era.


  1. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 536-538; 540-541)
  2. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 561-562)
  3. (Pelikan 2005, 39)
  4. (Barrera 1998, 148)
  5. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 2-3)
  6. (Schürer, A History of the Jewish People, Second Division, Volume 1 1890, 308)
  7. (Anderson 2002, 5-6)
  8. (Epiphanius of Salamis 2012, Book 1, Section 1, Parts 9-20)
  9. (Bowker 1973, 161) The Jerusalem Talmud was written well into the Christian era, in a period after many of the competing Judaisms had died out. Thus, the reference to them as ‘heretical sects.’
  10. The scholar April D. DeConick writes: “Judaism and Christianity are companion expressions of Second Temple Judaism, sibling religions that developed simultaneously within comparable historical contextures.” (DeConick 2006, 3)
  11. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 19)


  1. Anderson, J. S. (2002). The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to the Second Temple Period. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.
  2. Barrera, J. T. (1998). The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible; An Introduction to the History of the Text. (W. G. Watson, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  3. Bowker, J. (1973). Jesus and the Pharisees. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. DeConick, A. D. (2006). What is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism? Retrieved August 7, 2017, from Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism:
  5. Epiphanius of Salamis. (2012, April 25). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: A Treatise Against Eighty Sects in Three Books. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Masseiana Home Page:
  6. Grabbe, L. L. (2010). An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: T&T Clark.
  7. Pelikan, J. (2005). Whose Bible Is It: A Short History of the Scriptures (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: Penguin Group US.
  8. Schürer, E. (1890). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ (Vols. Second Division, Volume 1). (S. Taylor, & P. Christie, Trans.) Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Canon and Canonicity

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

The meaning of the Greek word canon (κανών) is problematic. Karel van der Toorn says the term itself is of “Christian coinage.”[1] The term canon means table, rule, or measuring stick. In early Christian usage, the term canon has reference to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. This concept is best captured by the apostle Paul when he says the scriptures are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17) This idea of canon as the regula fidei, the rule of faith, does not contain the idea of a list of authoritative writings.

When we think of the canon today, we generally think in terms of a list of inspired scriptures. However, the idea of canon as a list is a relatively recent development; the ancients used different term (pinakes or katalogos) for a catalogue of writings. Lee McDonald writes:

The word canon was not regularly used in reference to a closed collection of writings until David Ruhnken used it this way in 1768. In his treatise entitled Historia critica oratorum Graecorum, he employed the term canon for a selective list of literary writings. …In antiquity [the Greek word] pinakes is more commonly used of catalogues or lists.[2]

When modern theology conceives of canon as a list, it speaks solely of the text; when ancient theology conceives of canon as the rule of faith, it speaks of the revelation contained within the text. The two thoughts are not opposed to one another; a book becomes part of a list of scriptures texts because of the revelation contained therein. However, when we conceive of canon solely as a list, we wind up arguing over issues of canon and canonicity, rather than focusing on the revelation of Jesus Christ — which is, after all, the whole point of the Sacred Scriptures.

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

F. F. Bruce writes:

The Christian church started its existence with a book, but it was not to the book that it owed its existence. It shared the book with the Jewish people; indeed, the first members of the church were without exception Jews. The church owed its distinctive existence to a person — to Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, dead and buried , but ‘designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead ’ (Rom. 1: 4). This Jesus, it was believed, had been exalted by God to be universal Lord; he had sent his Spirit to be present with his followers, to unite them and animate them as his body on earth. The function of the book was to bear witness to him.[3]

Given that the function of Scripture is to bear witness to Him, it is curious that the idea of canon has shifted away from this idea to a mere listing of books. The discussion of the canon as a list of authoritative and inspired books, and canonicity as the process by which an individual text became part of that collection of books, has taken on increased urgency following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the gnostic writings contained in the Nag Hammadi library. Together these have fueled the imagination of biblical scholars, and have added detail to the background of our Sacred Scriptures — all of which have sparked a renewed interest in the subject of canon and canonicity.

The debates over canon and canonicity are taking place more among the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches than among the Christian communions of the east. Seemingly every Protestant introduction and commentary on the Scriptures covers the issues surrounding the canon. But in the 16th century theological conversation between the Protestants and the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity didn’t come up at all — in part because the Lutherans never mentioned their use of a different canon.[4] Instead, the Lutherans argued for the authority of Scripture, an issue then Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II accepted without comment. The discussion between the Lutherans and the Orthodox really focused on what was authoritative for faith and practice. The Lutherans kept bringing up Scripture as the authority, and the Patriarch accepted their position but included Holy Tradition as part of that discussion. In a sense, neither of them understood the other’s position, and so they simply talked past one another.[5]

As for the Eastern Orthodox position, consider the following. The two-volume Introduction to the Old Testament by the Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi[6], Professor of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, does not discuss the issues of canon and canonicity at all. This topic is also glossed over or ignored in most Eastern Orthodox dogmatics. By way of example, Dumitru Staniloae’s five-volume “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” discusses the nature of revelation, its relationship with the world at large, and its relation to the Church and Holy Tradition, but his books do not deal in any substantive manner with canonicity — at least not in a way the western Church would recognize. In Fr. John Breck’s book, entitled “Scripture in Tradition”, he avoids the subject of the canon altogether, instead focusing on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. How do we account for the difference between these approaches? What impact do these issues have upon the regula fidei, the faith once delivered to the saints?

While the use of canon as list is relatively modern, the issues regarding canon and canonicity have their roots in the Middle Ages. Fr. John Breck writes:

Scripture determines what constitutes genuine Tradition, yet Tradition gives birth to and determines the limits of Scripture. To many people’s minds, this way of envisioning the circular relationship between Scripture and Tradition appears untenable. The Protestant Reformers attempted to break this form of the hermeneutic circle by advancing the teaching known as sola scriptura [Scripture alone], holding that Scripture alone determines faith and morality… This was to a large extent in reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism which had separated Scripture and Tradition into separate domains, giving priority to the latter.[7]

When we debate the issues of canon and canonicity, it is helpful to discuss the Old Testament and the New Testament separately, because they each took very different paths in their development. As we know, the Old Testament is called “Scripture” by the New Testament authors, but there is little indication that the New Testament as we know it today was considered to be Scripture. There are two passages which may suggest some parts of the New Testament were considered Scripture (1 Tim:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), but as we will discuss in a later chapter, these are by no means conclusive. The apostle Paul did not refer to his writings as scripture, but instead categorized his teachings as “traditions”, and referred to his books as epistles (2 Th 2:15). Moreover, nowhere in the New Testament do we have a catalogue of canonical books, neither for the Old Testament books (which are explicitly called scripture) or for the writings of the New Testament.

The earliest evidence for the current list of Old Testament books comes from the period after the fall of Jerusalem, and is the first statement of what we now call the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. F. F. Bruce writes:

One of the clearest and earliest statements of these three divisions and their respective contents comes in a baraitha (a tradition from the period AD 70—200) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Baba Bathra. This tradition assigns inspired or authoritative authors to all twenty-four books, and discusses their order.[8]

Babylonian Talmud

Babylonian Talmud

The problems with this reference to the Babylonian Talmud begin with the dates. A tradition dating from after the fall of Jerusalem, and as late as the end of the 2nd century, can scarcely be used to describe the state of Judaism in the time of Christ. This is especially true when we know that Judaism was forced to change in response to the destruction of the temple and the rise of Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Judaism could no longer be the temple, but was focused instead on the Hebrew Scriptures. And the Scriptures themselves changed in response to the growth of Christianity as a rival sect, a sect that used the Septuagint as its own Sacred Scriptures. This change in the Hebrew Scriptures began in the mid-2nd century, as demonstrated by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.[9]

Another problem is that the baraitha (or Babylonian tradition) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud was not authoritative, but was one of many voices in an ongoing discussion. That this particular bairaitha was not authoritative is demonstrated by its failure to be included in the Mishnah, which was completed sometime between 200 – 220 A.D. Not only that, but the proposed three-fold division of the scriptures was not adopted by the Christian community, who devised their own ordering and division of books.[10]

The example from the Babylonian Talmud demonstrates something that needs to be kept in mind, which is this: we cannot derive the pre-Christian status of the Jewish canon from post-Christian sources, because these are all arguing a point of view — one that is largely informed by and in opposition to Christianity.

The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.

The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:

By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at [the first council of Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine.[11]

So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined.[12] Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament.[13]

Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable given the Protestant understanding of the canon, the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This guide led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. Many of us were taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.

There never was any formal agreement which settled the issues of canon and canonicity for the New Testament. This is why Martin Luther was able to consider eliminating books from the corpus of the New Testament — because in his day, the idea of canon as a list of books did not exist. Thus, when Martin Luther came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, he appealed to his peculiar regula fidei as his guide to determining which books should be in the canon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Luther was not allowed to alter the catalogue of the New Testament (although he was allowed to separate the “Apocrypha” from the rest of the Old Testament. The restrictions placed upon Luther’s alteration of the canon was likely done for practical reasons; by this time the canonical consensus was deeply ingrained, and the people would not have stood for it.

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church held their Concilium Tridentinum, or Council of Trent, and in their fourth session (8 April, 1546 A.D.) published their catalogue of the biblical books. This catalogue was not new, having previously been published by the Council of Florence in 1422 A.D., and contained our current 27 book canon of the New Testament. Since the Council of Trent was convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, it had dogmatic significance for Catholic and Protestant alike (in the sense that it hardened the dogmatic positions of each.) Thus, although the list of New Testament books remains the same for Catholics and Protestants alike; what differentiates them is the manner and context in which the texts are interpreted.


Breck, John. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Mastrantonis, George. Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tübingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession. Edited by N. M. Vaporis. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.


[1] (van der Toorn 2007, 233)

[2] (McDonald 2007, 51)

[3] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 27)

[4] In the late 17th century, a group of Lutheran theologians sent a Greek translation of their Augsburg confession to Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople. What followed is an intriguing correspondence which took place over a period of years. While this theological correspondence is well known among the Orthodox, surprisingly few Lutherans and Protestants know anything about it, and fewer still have read the actual texts. It is unclear what the Lutherans were trying to do. Some think the Lutherans were trying to convert the Ecumenical Patriarch (unlikely). Some think the Lutherans were trying to become part of the Orthodox Church (also unlikely). The text seems to indicate that the Lutherans merely wanted the Ecumenical Patriarch to accept that the Lutheran doctrine was consistent with that of the Orthodox Church; the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch is that it was not.

[5] (Mastrantonis 1982, passim)

[6] The Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi is a controversial and polarizing figure, so perhaps we should not read too much into his failure to deal with the issue of canonicity.

[7] (Breck 2001, 11)

[8] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 29-30)

[9] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, Chapters LXXI and LXXII)

[10] (McDonald 2007, 164-165)

[11] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 38)

[12] (McDonald 2007, 22)

[13] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 32)

Who has Ascended into Heaven (Joh 3:13)

The Prophet Baruch

The Prophet Baruch

Who hath gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? (Baruch 3:29)

And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. (Joh 3:13)[1]

Baruch is speaking here of Wisdom, which dwells in the heavens, and which is therefore unobtainable to humanity (in an ultimate sense, of course.) Wisdom is often personified in the Old Testament, and Christians understand Wisdom to be an adumbration of Christ — that is to say, Wisdom is an allegory of Christ. John is drawing our attention to the connection between the passage in Baruch, which then makes the allegorical connection between Wisdom and Christ plain. Thus while no one could ascend into heaven and bring Wisdom down to earth, the Son of God could come to earth, become one with us, and then ascend into heaven, thereby opening the pathway for us to attain Wisdom, which is Christ Himself.



[1] Scholars disagree as to whether Jesus answer to Nicodemus, which begins at verse ten, continues through to verse 21. Some hold that it does, while others believe that the majority of this passage is John’s commentary on Jesus’ words. The use of the conjunction “and” to begin sentences is consistent with the way Hebrew uses “and” to connect clauses, suggesting verse 10-21 may well be a single unbroken speech.

Are the Apocrypha Cited As Scripture?

Judah Maccabee as depicted in an 1860 illustrated Bible

Judah Maccabee as depicted in an 1860 illustrated Bible

Using Merril C. Tenny’s definition of a citation as being “almost exact verbally and which are definitely referred to a given author”, there are virtually no direct citations of the Old Testament Apocrypha in the New Testament.[1] Many quotations, but no citations. This is not really a problem, for the New Testament quotes and alludes to the Old Testament often, but cites rarely. The New Testament was written by people with such familiarity with the Old Testament scriptures that they evidently did not feel the need to give exact citations. Moreover, the writers of the New Testament were not preparing academic papers, and the Chicago Manual of Style did not exist. So they used quotations and allusions freely, assuming a degree of scriptural familiarity on the part of their readers.

Jude is one of two books that cites a source outside the Protestant canon.

It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (Jude 1:14-15)

This citation of the book of Enoch was one reason why the canonicity of Jude was a matter of dispute among the early church. In the fifth century, the Syriac Church settled on a 22 book canon that does not contain the book of Jude, along with other disputed books (II Peter, II & III John, and Revelation.)[2]This canon is still in use today among the Nestorians.

The books of James and Romans also cite a source outside the Protestant canon. The citation from James is particularly compelling.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

James cites as scripture a passage found in the first book of Maccabees. “Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?” (1 Macc 2:52) This is a direct quotation, which should put to rest the Protestant argument against their being no quotations from the Apocrypha that cite them as Scripture. The apostle Paul also cites the same passage from 1 Maccabees in his extended argument regarding Abraham’s faith. (Rom 4:13-22)

Game, set, match.


[1] (Tenney 1963, 301)

[2] (Lieuwen, The Emergence of the New Testament Canon 1995)


Lieuwen, Daniel F. “The Emergence of the New Testament Canon.” St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney (Dallas area) Texas. 1995. (accessed January 15, 2014).

Tenney, Merrill C. “The Old Testament and the Fourth Gospel.” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary), no. 120 (October 1963): 300-308.

Scribal Culture and the Old Testament

Reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria

Reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria

How are we to determine the development of the Old Testament canon, to say nothing of the development and preservation of the Scriptures themselves? The first difficulty is our tendency to view antiquity through the lens of the modern age, and to assume that people lived, thought, and acted much as we do. But this is a tremendous error, for the ancients were quite unlike us.

For one thing, the ancients did not have our fascination with the printed word, and in particular, with individual authorship. The ancients had a much different view of the individual than we do — not individual as a means of distinguishing one person from another, but rather as a person occupying a social role. Karel van der Toorn expands upon this line of thought.

We think of a human person as a unique individual distinct from all other human beings. This view is the outcome of a long historical process. Earlier cultures put much greater emphasis on the social role of the individual. In ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and Israel, the human person is understood as a character (personage) rather than as a personality (personne). The individual is indistinguishable from his or her social role and social status. (van der Toorn 2007, 46)

Since the ancients didn’t have our fascination with the individual, our concept of authorship doesn’t fit. The ancient author was unconcerned with issues that concern modern publishing, such as “authenticity, originality, and intellectual property.” Instead, the name attached to a document had to do with the authority of the document, rather than authorship in the modern sense. The actual author, in the modern sense, would have been an anonymous scribe. (van der Toorn 2007, 47)

The role of the scribe in antiquity was in part a function of that era’s widespread illiteracy, which was so bad that in at least one case a person was considered literate since he knew how to sign his name.  (Ehrman 2005, 38-39) With few people available who knew how to read, there could be no trade in books. Scrolls, therefore, were primarily a matter for governance and religion, and were kept in the palace and temple libraries. Karel van der Toorn writes:

Scribes wrote scrolls (rather than books) for the benefit of other scribes (rather than for private readers). A book market did not exist, nor were there public libraries; in fact, there was no reading public of any substance. Texts reached the people by being read out loud by someone from the literate elite. Writing and reciting were complementary facets of the scribal craft, and the Bible came into being through the agency of the scribes. In many respects, then, the Bible is the fruit of scribal culture. (van der Toorn 2007, 51)

Conditioned as we are by Hellenism, this scribal culture is foreign to us — so much so that we read our understandings into the scriptures, seeing in them the things that fit our mental model. We are like someone learning a foreign language, and whose brain cannot ‘hear’ the phonetics that don’t occur in their native tongue.

For example, there is a passage in Deuteronomy that provides regulations for the proclamation and behavior of the king once the people enter the land (Deut 17:14-20). This passage is peculiar, because it suggests that God was not opposed to Israel having a king. In fact, not having a king was normative for Israel during the period of the Judges (Jud18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The prophet Samuel was the last judge of Israel when the people asked for a king. And God said to Samuel: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam 8:7). What follows is a passage that details the behavior of the king — his taxation, and the manner of his rule — and provides this in greater detail than the passage in Deuteronomy.

Given this, we may well ask why the passage in Deuteronomy exists if Israel was not meant to have a king. This is not Moses allowing for divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. Instead, we have the Mosaic law explicitly permitting something which under Samuel was a considered to be a rejection of God. Now we can discuss this in light of God’s perfect will vs. his permissive will, but wouldn’t it be easier to suggest the passage in Deuteronomy is a later scribal addition? That perhaps the scribes took down Samuel’s words and added them to the text of Deuteronomy?

Shocking, I know, given our post-Hellenistic understanding of authorship as an individualistic, creative act. But in the scribal culture, books and authors didn’t exist as such. An author was the authority under which something was written, not the person who actually wrote.  Scribes collected, copied, edited, and maintained libraries of scrolls for use in the temple, and in government. It is reasonable to assume that once Israel had a king, certain rules and regulations for having a king were added to the law.[1]

For the ancients, an author was not necessarily someone who wrote, but rather someone who lent authority to the works that bore his name. Given this, the books of Moses should be understood as the books compiled and maintained under Moses’ authority, rather than the books Moses personally authored by his own hand. Just as the book of Jeremiah was transcribed by Baruch the son of Neriah, in like fashion Moses would likely have used an amanuensis to transcribe his thoughts. Given the scribal culture, it should be expected that the original Mosaic material was compiled and edited over the centuries, yet maintained the basic structure and authority of the original  —  if such a thing (an original in the modern sense of the term) could be said to have existed in the first place.


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[1] We should note that while Saul was king, he functioned more like a tribal leader. Under Saul, there was no government as such. The same can be said for David. It wasn’t until Solomon that a government existed, one in which the power of the king was delegated to government functionaries whose exercise of power was in accordance with the law.

Is the Bible the Word of God? (Updated)

The Gospel of John

The Word of God, or the Revelation of the Word of God?

Protestants and others sometimes refer to the bible as the “Word of God.” As a boy, I became used to using that term to refer to the text of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Holy Bible I take from my shelf, hold in my hands, and read — in what sense is the book itself the Word of God?

Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro says that for Islam, the Quran is the Word of God made text. The Quran, the Word made text of Islam, existed from eternity with God, but is separate from God. For Christians, by way of contrast, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Our Bible says the Word made flesh was from eternity with God, and was God. Within the triune Godhead are three persons in eternal and interpersonal communion — which communion the Word made flesh (the incarnate Son of God) shares with us. (Byantoro 2008) As evidence of the Christian view, John’s gospel is quite clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:1, 14).

The Old Testament has a strange relationship with the concept of the Word. In many cases the Word is most readily understood as a reference to the Mosaic law, the law of the Deuteronomic Covenant — being the covenant made with the Hebrew nation before they entered the land of promise. But as we know, for Christians the Old Testament is always interpreted in light of the Christ event, as Christ Himself taught Cleopas and the unnamed disciple[i] on the Emmaus Road:

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27). (d’Hyères 2006)

One of the best ways of understanding the use of the term “Word” in the Old Testament is to examine Ps 119, the psalm whose purpose is to (according to Matthew Henry) “magnify the Divine law, and make it honourable.” Of the ten ways of speaking about the “Divine revelation”, Henry notes that “Word” represents “the declaration of His mind.” (Henry 2014) John Calvin notes the connection between Ps 119’s use of the term “Word”, and the New Testament’s use of the term “Logos” when he writes: “The term here rendered word means the Λόγος, or Word of God, in its most divine sense; the announcement of God’s revealed will; his command; his oracle; at times, the special communication to the prophets.” Interestingly, Calvin says the ten terms for the divine revelation used in Ps 119 are basically synonymous; thus, whenever we read the terms law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, saying, and way, we can think of them as the Word, the Logos of God. This makes the meaning of “Word” quite important. (Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth n.d.)

Matthew Henry and John Calvin seem to view the Word in the Old Testament as different than the Word as expressed in John’s Gospel — as part of the Old Covenant rather than the new. And yet Jesus made it clear that we are to view the Old Testament in its Christological context. I contend this is the easiest and most logical way to view Ps 119, as a reference to Christ as the Logos, the divine self-revelation of God and the express image of the Father (Heb 1:3).

I remember one verse from this Psalm being drummed into us children, and which we were told was a reference to the Bible, the Word of God. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11). This was used as a means to motivate us towards memorizing Scripture, which is certainly commendable. However, this verse discloses something else — that the Word of God was to be hidden in our heart, our spiritual consciousness, and not our intellect. We may consider this verse through its New Testament counterpart: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Mat 12:35). So what is this “good treasure of the heart?” Interestingly, the commentaries of John Calvin skip over this verse, for reasons that are unclear. (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2 1999) However, the commentary by Blessed Theophylact makes no mention of the “good treasure of the heart” being the text of the Sacred Scriptures. Instead, as Blessed Theophylact notes in his comments on the parable of the hidden treasure (Mat 13:44), the treasure is “the preaching and knowledge of Christ.” (Blessed Theolphylact 1992)

There are examples in Ps 119 where the Word quickens or strengthens, where it is a source of mercy, of kindness, or of comfort — all of which is more suggestive of God Himself, rather than a text. But the most telling when the psalmist says the Word is eternal. “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps119:89). If the Word described here is a text, then we have arrived at a very Islamic interpretation of the Word made text, rather than the Word made flesh.

There are some places in the New Testament where it could be interpreted that the phrase “Word of God” refers to the inspired text. However, it is clear from the context, and from the other places where the phrase is used, that “Word of God” includes the content contained within the text, but is not the text itself.

This can be illustrated most clearly in the book of Hebrews. We read in chapter 11, the so-called “roll call of faith”: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” [emphasis added] (Heb 11:3). The Word of God in this passage is clearly a reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for as the apostle John wrote: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh 1:3).

Given that Hebrews uses the phrase “Word of God” to refer to the Christ, the Son of God, what do we make of the following passage, also from Hebrews, one which is often interpreted as referring to the Bible?

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do [emphasis added] (Heb 4:12-13).

If you stop with verse 12, then considering the “Word of God” to be scripture is reasonable. Once you move on to verse 13, which continues the thought, it is clear the author is not talking about a book, but a person — indeed, the person before whom all creatures are made manifest, and before whom all things are naked and open. The author goes on to say this person is He “with whom we have to do.” Thus, this entire passage is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. This revelation is made through the pages of Sacred Scripture, yet it is clear that it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the “Word of God”, not the actual peculiar combination of marks on paper — both in the Old and New Testaments.


Blessed Theolphylact. The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. Translated by Christopher Stade. House Springs: Chrysostom Press, 1992.

Byantoro, Daniel. “Christ the Word Become Flesh.” Christ the Eternal Kalimat. Ancient Faith Radio, August 30, 2008.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2. Translated by William Pringle. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999.

—. Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth. Translated by James Anderson. Vol. 4. 5 vols. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

d’Hyères, Sylvie Chabert. “WHO WAS CLEOPHAS’ COMPANION?” Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis: The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. January 2006. (accessed January 22, 2014).

Henry, Matthew. “Psalm 119 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Commentary.” Christ Notes: Bible Search & Bible Commentary. 2014. (accessed January 22, 2014).

[i] Tradition holds that this unnamed disciple was none other than Luke himself. Perhaps the best evidence of this, apart from the tradition, is that Luke is a careful historian, yet names only Cleopas as one of the two disciples. This could be considered a historian’s way of writing himself out of the story.