The Development of the Canon of Scripture
The main purpose of this paper is to show the reader that the Church developed a fixed Canon of Sacred Scripture mainly for liturgical and worship purposes. Indeed, Drs. Brant Pitre and John Bergsma say that “[t]he Canon defines the books approved for the Church's worship; the Bible is the Church's liturgical book.”1 The books read and discussed in the Liturgy had to be authoritative in order to be used at a liturgical celebration. In dealing with the Canon of Scripture, our main focus will be the Old Testament's Canon since it is the most debated and contested by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike. We will begin by examining the divisions of the Canon. From there, we will examine the Old Testament Canon and its use in the Gospels and New Testament. A discussion of which books were considered canonical by the Fathers of the Church will follow. In conclusion, we will examine the principles of biblical inspiration, biblical inerrancy, and the authority of the Magisterium.
The Old Testament Canon can be divided into four different sections. The Pentateuch, Historical books, Wisdom books, and the Prophets. The Pentateuch consists of: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pentateuch is also known as the Torah or Law for Judaism. The Historical books include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and 1-2 Maccabees. The Wisdom books are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach also known as Ecclesiasticus. Finally, there are the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The list cited above is the current Canonical list of Old Testament books that the Catholic Church has. The Jewish people did not have a fixed canon before or during the time of Jesus. We are told, however, by the Jewish historian Josephus and other ancient sources that the Jewish people had a twenty-two or twenty-four book canon. Jaroslav Pelikan points out that Christianity did not develop its canon from thin air, but since it saw itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, it merely borrowed from the Jewish canon: “What the Christian tradition had done was to take over the Jewish Scriptures as its own, so that Justin could say to Trypho that the passages about Christ 'are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours but ours.'”2 The question then arises as to how the Church formed this Canon of Scripture? And when did she do it?
Let us begin with examining the Scriptures that the New Testament authors, and indeed Jesus Himself considered to be truthful or authoritative. The focus of our discussion will be on the Old Testament Canon.
The Gospel writers and Jesus Himself quote and reference many of the books of the Old Testament. The book of Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. The “Law” and “Prophets” are mentioned a few times as well. As we saw above, the “Law” refers to the books of Moses or the Pentateuch. The “Prophets” refers to the prophetical books mentioned above. Unfortunately, Josephus does not specify which books of the prophets are accepted by the Jews and therefore we do not know exactly what was meant by the “Prophets.” In the Gospels, Jesus does not quote from the books of Proverbs, Esther, and Judges. Does this mean these books are not canonical?
Jesus never gave nor left His apostles a fixed Canon. We know of many books which Jesus quoted; however, it is not the complete list that we have currently. Some may see this as a way of arguing that only what Jesus quoted in the NT is canonical. It must be stated that the Gospels, do not give us a complete history of Jesus. St. John's Gospel even tells us that there was much more that Jesus said and did: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”3 Thus, we cannot use the Gospels as the sole source of the biblical Canon since some Old Testament books are not even alluded to in the New Testament.
Many scholars have noted that just because someone quotes a book in the New Testament, that does not mean it has an authoritative quality. McDonald points out that St Paul “...quotes Epimenides and the opening lines from Aratus's Phaenomena before the Aeropagus on Mars Hill (Acts 17:8)”4 It is also true that 1 Enoch is quoted in Jude 14. Does this mean that these sources are authoritative even though 1 Enoch is considered apocryphal, and the Greek philosophers are not considered as Scripture? We will examine these later when we discuss the doctrine of inspiration.
Let us now turn to the Fathers of the Church to examine if there is a consensus as to which books were considered canonical. According to McDonald, the Eastern Church Fathers were in favor of a twenty-two or twenty-four book Canon of the Old Testament which was also that of the Jewish people. This makes sense because the Eastern Church was closer to Jerusalem and would lean more towards the Hebrew Bible. McDonald does say, however, that the Eastern Fathers “...did not usually object to reading many of the deuterocanonical books in their churches.”5 St. Athanasius for instance, did not think Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Esther, Judith, and Tobit were canonical but that they could still be used for instruction of the catechumens.
The Western Fathers had similar lists of authoritative books but differed in that they often included many apocryphal writings. For instance, St. Jerome said that the Wisdom of Solomon, Esther, Tobit, and Judith were canonical but though that Sirach was apocryphal. He also considered the apocryphal Didache and Shepherd of Hermas to be authoritative as well. McDonald says:
When a particular writing was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative, it was elevated to the status of Scripture, even if the writing was not yet called “Scripture” and even if the status was only temporary. For example, the noncanonical writings Eldad and Modad, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius were initially given this status in the church, but in time that practice ceased. There was limited discussion or agreement in the early church on such matters, and in the first two centuries only selective agreement on books acknowledged as Scripture took place.6
Thus, it is clear to see that at the time of Jesus and during the first few centuries, the Church had no fixed Canon, indeed many of the Fathers argued over which books were considered authoritative. In conclusion then, in the first three centuries of Christianity's existence, there was not a consensus among the Eastern and Western Fathers of the Church. In order for there to be a consensus, a council would have to be formed to solve the problem. Pitre and Bergsma do point out, however, that in the early centuries of the Church “...a number of the early Church Fathers and councils were called to discuss and proclaim decisions regarding the canonical status of the different biblical and non-biblical books.”7
One of these councils, the Council of Rome held in 382 AD and led by Pope Damasus I, gives us the earliest complete and official list of the Old Testament books:
At the beginning, the order of the Old Testament. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Kings, four books; Chronicles, two books; 150 Psalms, three books of Solomon; Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, likewise, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus. Likewise, the order of the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, one book, along with the Qinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Likewise, the order of the histories. Job, Tobit, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Judith, and of the Maccabees, two books.8
Here we see that the Council of Rome finalized and fixed the Canon of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, the history behind how the Church made these decisions is somewhat mysterious. The books that were considered canonical were believed to be (and are) a part of Divine Revelation. God revealed Himself and His law through Sacred Scripture. There are, however, some criteria used to determine whether or not a book was considered canonical or not.
One of these criteria was that of the book's use in liturgical functions as Pitre and Bergsma point out that “[c]anonicity was not a literary reality as much as it was a liturgical reality. For the early councils and Church Fathers, canonical books were those which were authorized by legitimate apostolic authority to be read publicly in worship. Non-canonical texts were, by contrast not approved for public proclamation.”9
Another criterion is that of the doctrine of biblical inspiration. As Ramage says “[t]he light of inspiration is precisely what makes revelation possible since man cannot apprehend objects which exceed the capacity of his unaided natural reason.”10 Thus, inspiration is necessary for Revelation. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, gives us the best definition of the doctrine:
The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.11
Although Vatican II formally defined the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, the Church has held these doctrines to be true for all its history. St. John Henry Newman put it best in his essay on Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation: “...Scripture is inspired, not only in faith and morals, but in all its parts which bear on faith, including matters of fact.”12
Here it must be said that there is dual authorship among the books of the Bible. All of them have God as the primary author but also have a human author who God inspired to write these things down. The human author, however, was unaware of his inspiration. In order to better understand this idea of dual authorship, Pitre says that Vatican II uses an “incarnational analogy.”13 Jesus Christ was and is both wholly God and wholly man. So to, the Bible is authored wholly by God and wholly by man.
Following the rules for the doctrine of biblical inspiration, we can now answer the question of how we justify the use of non-canonical sources used in the New Testament? The inspired author of The Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke, recognizes the truth of the statements made by the Greek philosophers. The same goes for St. Jude's use of 1 Enoch. The books by the Greeks and 1 Enoch are not in and of themselves inspired by God. The human authors who are inspired by God simply recognize the truth of their statements.
Another criterion is that of biblical inerrancy. Once again, Dei Verbum offers us a concise statement on inerrancy:
Since therefore, all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert, must be held as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture teach truth-which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred writings-firmly, faithfully, and without error.14
The doctrine of inerrancy asserts then that the entire Bible is without error in matters of faith, morals, and history. From this, we can see why the Church would only want authoritative Scriptures being read at liturgical celebrations for the sanctification and salvation of those who heard them.
How does the Church have the authority to make such decisions? By what authority can the Church say which books are inspired and inerrant? Pitre and Bergsma point out that,
Jesus taught the apostles by word and example which books were part of authoritative Jewish Scripture, and they, in turn, passed down the tradition, along with the authority to “bind and loose”, to their successors, the bishops of the Church, who began to address the canon question explicitly in the second half of the fourth century, when circumstances were favorable to the clarification of Church doctrine. Their decisions about the canon concerned which books were suitable to read in public worship...In other words, the bishops and Fathers of the fourth-century councils discerned the limits of the canon on the basis of tradition, especially liturgical tradition, and under the guidance of the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome.15
Thus, many of the decisions of the Canon were made based upon the liturgical tradition, that is, those books considered authoritative and used at liturgical functions. In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine even says that it is unified churches that have the authority to decide which books are canonical and which are not:
Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of Catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the Catholic churches to those which some do not receive.16
It is also important to note that the Church does not and cannot make a book inspired. The books were inspired at the time of their composition. The Church simply discerned which books were inspired and recognizes them as such. This is the role of the Magisterium. The Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. defines the Magisterium as: “The Church's teaching authority vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter.”17 Here it should be noted that the Church does not make a book inspired. Pitre and Bergsma point out that “[t]he Scriptures do not require the approval of the Church to become inspired; they were inspired by God during their composition.”18 Simply put, the Church recognizes that certain books are inspired and others are not.
Another issue arises as to why the apocryphal books were not considered canonical. Here we must also define what we mean by the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are ancient sources that the Church recognizes as not being inspired by God but that can contain some historical truth, in a sense they must be read and studied with a “grain of salt.” Some of the more popular apocryphal books include 1 Enoch, the book of Jubilees, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Gospel of Thomas. One may ask why 1 Enoch, the Gospel of Thomas, and others did not make it into the canon? In treating some of the apocryphal books, Pitre says that many of these were “...almost immediately rejected by ancient church fathers as forgeries and fakes.”19 Once again, the Church would have prayed about and discerned about which books were inspired and determined that the apocryphal literature was not. No religion other than the Catholic Church has been given this authority and can make such proclamations.
In conclusion, we have examined how the Canon developed in the early Church. Its development truly began when Constantine legalized Christianity, that is when Christianity had the freedom to develop the Canon without the fear of persecution. As we have seen, there was little agreement among the early Church as to which books were canonical. One of the major contributing factors to the development of the Canon was lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning the law of prayer is the law of belief. Our examination has also shown us that whatever Scriptures were held to be authoritative in the liturgical celebrations were eventually canonized and fixed by the Magisterium of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.
1 Brant Pitre and John Bergsma, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 24.
2 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 19.
3 John 20:30
4 Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 191.
5 Ibid, 200.
6 Ibid, 24.
7 Pitre and Bergsma, 16.
8 Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2012), 70.
9 Pitre and Bergsma, 24.
10 Matthew J. Ramage, Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 118.
11 As Quoted in: Brant Pitre, “The Mystery of God's Word: Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the Interpretation of Scripture.” Letter and Spirit 6 (2010): 48.
12 John Henry Newman. Eds. J. Derek Holmes and Robert Murray, S.J. On the Inspiration of Scripture (Washington D.C.: Corpus Books, 1967), 110.
13 Pitre, The Mystery 51.
14 Ibid, 52.
15 Pitre and Bergsma, 32.
17 John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary (Bardstown, Kentucky: Eternal Life, 2008), 329.
18 Pitre and Bergsma, 26-27.
19 Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (New York, NY: Image, 2016), 62.