A Brief Introduction to the Canon and Ancient Versions of Scripture

by Michael Marlowe

Our Reception of the Bible

Most people today receive the writings arranged and bound together in their Bibles as Holy Scripture simply because that is what they find bound together under that title in a book they have purchased at the bookstore. Many Protestants are also aware of the fact that in choosing a Bible one must avoid the shelf labelled "Roman Catholic Bibles," because these are designed to promote Catholic beliefs and they also contain some books that we do not even receive as Scripture — the ones we refer to as belonging to the "Apocrypha." But why do we reject these books? Very few of us have even read them. In fact, many Christians have not read all of the books which they do consider to be Scripture. And so it is evident that most of us receive certain books and reject others not because we have personally evaluated them in any way, but because we trust that someone else has evaluated them and decided rightly concerning this matter, so that all scripture and nothing but scripture is between the covers of our Bibles. The question then becomes, who has made this decision, and are they really competent to decide for all of us?

When we go to the store we find Bibles which have been published by publishers, of course, such as Nelson and Zondervan, but most of the publishers are connected with Christian organizations which have commissioned these versions: Bible societies, church councils and associations, and so forth. These have arranged for certain books to be included or excluded, according to the traditions of their member churches. These traditions go back to the founding fathers of the denominations, and ultimately to the ancient Catholic Church.

Formation of the New Testament Canon

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Gradual and independent definition of the canon by elders. In the year 367 an influential bishop named Athanasius published a list of books to be read in the churches under his care, which included precisely those books we have in our Bibles (with this exception — he admitted Baruch and omitted Esther in the Old Testament). Other such lists had been published by others, as early as the year 170, although they did not all agree. How did the men who published these lists decide which books should be called Scripture? Scholars who have studied this matter closely have concluded that the lists of books are merely ratifications of the decisions of the majority of churches from earliest days. We are able to prove this by examining the surviving works of Irenaeus (born 130), who lived in days before anyone felt it was necessary to list the approved books. He quotes as Scripture all of the books and only the books that appear in the list published on another continent and sixty years later by Origen.

It is evident that the elders of each congregation had approved certain writings and rejected others as they became available, and it turned out, by the grace of God, that most of the churches were by the year 170 in agreement, having approved the same books independently. Prominent teachers were also influential in this process. About that time bishops began to prevail in the Church, as governors of groups of churches, and they simply ratified with these lists the results thus arrived at. The approved books were then called the "canon" of Scripture, "canon" being a Greek word meaning "rod" or "ruler." These books constituted the standard rule of faith for all the churches. We must not imagine that the canon was imposed by ecclesiastical authorities. The canon grew up by many independent decisions of elders who were responsible for their congregations alone.

The elders received apostolic writings as authoritative. Then we must ask, how did the elders of the churches decide which writings should be read in church as authoritative? The answer is simple: They received the writings of the apostles and their closest companions, and the writings endorsed by them. The entire Old Testament was received by the implicit endorsement of the apostles. The Gospel of Matthew was written by an apostle. The Gospel of Mark was written by the apostle Peter's closest disciple. The Gospel of Luke was written by the apostle Paul's close companion. The Gospel of John was written by an apostle. The Acts of the Apostles was written by Paul's close companion. Thirteen letters were received from Paul. The epistle to the Hebrews was received as from Paul. The epistle of James comes from the brother of the Lord, who exercised authority in Jerusalem with the apostles. The epistle of Jude was from another brother of the Lord. The two epistles of Peter are from an apostle. The three epistles of John are from an apostle, who also wrote the Revelation. We may ask, How did they know that these writings were not forgeries? The churches did not receive them from strangers. These documents were hand-delivered by friends of the apostles to elders who also knew the apostles personally. Forgeries would be obvious, especially if the writing promoted strange doctrines.

Minor disagreements in earliest days. Some disagreements arose along with the rise of heresies. The elders of the churches became wary, and even began to doubt some of the writings they had formerly received as copies from other churches. Writings which came under question were Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation of John. The reasons for doubt were various. The author of Hebrews does not identify himself. James was not an apostle, and his message seemed to contradict Paul's message. Jude was not an apostle, and he quotes books which the churches did not receive as Scripture. 2 Peter, it seems, was not widely distributed at first. The author of 2 and 3 John does not identify himself plainly. The author of the Revelation identifies himself as John, but does not say that he is the apostle John, and the style of the book is different from the Gospel of John. Nevertheless, the majority of churches received and used these books without questioning them, while vigorously rejecting all others.

Universal agreement in modern times. Today we have no good reason for doubting the canon of the New Testament. It would be wrong for me to suggest that everyone needs to investigate these matters and decide for himself which books he will receive as Scripture, without any respect for the decisions of the early churches. We are not in such a position to judge as the early church was, and we are bound to respect the well-nigh unanimous opinion of so many Christians of the past. As Paul says to the Corinthian innovators, "What! Was it from you that the word of God went forth? Or came it unto you alone?" Against such presumption he recommends that which is done "in all the churches of the saints." (14:33b-36). Recently some scholars have tried to promote strange doctrines by suggesting that some of our canonical writings are not genuine, and that other writings such as the Gospel of Thomas are equally valid "interpretations" of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. I have studied their arguments, and I can assure you that they are not worth listening to.

Reception of the Old Testament in Greek

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The Jewish use of versions. In the synagogue the Hebrew scripture itself was read from a scroll, followed by a translation into Aramaic or Greek given by the Methurgeman (translator). The translation was never read from a scroll, because the Jews were determined not to give any version such an illusion of authority; the translation had to be memorized or done extemporaneously. In the beginning the translations were not even written down. When they were eventually written down they were not made widely available, and were not "authorized" in any sense by the Rabbis.

The Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. About two hundred years before the birth of Christ a Greek translation of the Pentateuch was committed to writing in Alexandria, where many Jews only knew Greek. This version was later called the Septuagint because legend has it that the translation was done by seventy (Latin septuaginta) men. Gradually the other books of the Old Testament were also put in Greek. The Septuagint gives a fairly accurate translation of the Pentateuch, which was read most closely by the Jews, but for the prophetical books like Isaiah and Jeremiah the translation is often quite loose and even erroneous, and in need of correction.

Apostolic use of the Septuagint. The quotations of the Old Testament in the New show that the apostles often used the Septuagint, because it was generally known to those in the Church and usually adequate for their purposes. Some people in looking at these quotations have been troubled by the fact that they are sometimes not very accurate translations of the Hebrew. Did the apostles not know their business? Of course they did. They did not concern themselves with corrections when the translation served well enough for their purpose, but when it did not they quietly offered their own translation of the Hebrew. Then they usually offered a better translation. The apostles did not see fit to produce a complete version of the Old Testament in Greek for the use of the churches.

Extra books of the Septuagint, called the Apocrypha. It is inaccurate to talk about the Septuagint as a single book in apostolic days: the various writings existed as separate scrolls, and were not bound in a single volume until the middle of the second century, when the codex or physical "book" as we know it was invented. (1)  People did not have bookshelves, but cabinets or large cans full of these scrolls. The codex was adopted by Christians who wanted a more convenient way of referencing Scripture, and so the Greek Old Testament was one of the first collection of writings to be put in this form. When this was done, certain writings (called Apocryphal) which were highly regarded by the Greek-speaking Jews and often studied by them were bound in the same volume as the canonical books. The apostles never quote from these writings, and there is no reason to believe that they regarded them as Scripture, or would have approved of binding them with the other books in a codex.

Status of the Apocrypha in the early Church. Eventually the Septuagint came to be regarded as a kind of inspired paraphrase by teachers in the churches, mainly because the apostles had used it, and partly because they suspected that the Jews had deliberately corrupted the Hebrew text in anti-Christian ways since it was translated. Then the additional books traditionally included in complete copies of the Septuagint also came to be regarded as Scripture by some, especially in the West. This was a mistake, but it did little harm, because not much attention was paid to these books. At first the churches would not possess copies of the entire Septuagint, nor even all books of the Old Testament, but perhaps only separate codices of Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms; and they would gradually collect all the books. Copies of the entire Septuagint were very expensive.

Reception of the Bible in Latin

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The Old Latin version. Within two hundred years after the departure of the apostles there were many churches throughout the world in which the people did not understand Greek very well, and so new translations of both the Old and New Testaments were made into Syriac, Coptic, and Latin, for use in the churches. The Coptic and Latin versions were not translated directly from the Hebrew, but from the Greek Septuagint, and the Syriac was soon "corrected" from the Septuagint.

The Vulgate. In western Europe the variety of Latin translations and copies created confusion, and a notable scholar named Jerome was asked to look into the matter and to make a trustworthy translation. Jerome wisely revised the Latin versions from the Hebrew itself, and expressed his opinion, shared by many, that it was a mistake to receive the Apocryphal books just because they happened to be included in copies of the Septuagint. There was some resistance to Jerome's version, and to his exclusion of the Apocrypha. Latin translations of the Apocryphal books were added to it, and in that form it became the version commonly used in the churches for a thousand years. This version came to be called the Vulgate, or "common" Bible.

Protestant vs. Catholic views of the Vulgate. When the Protestant reformers wrote biblical commentaries in Latin, they gave Latin translations of the biblical text, but in these translations they often departed from the Vulgate version. Luther and Calvin knew Hebrew and Greek, and they did not believe that the Vulgate should be regarded as an authoritative version. They also were aware of how the Apocryphal books came to be in the Vulgate, and so they rejected them. The Roman Catholics, on the other hand, declared that the Vulgate was an authoritative version and not to be departed from. This idea of a uniquely authoritative version (which has recurred in our own times with the rise of the "King James Only" movement) has created many problems in Church history.


Protestant vs. Catholic views of the canon. Protestant teachings concerning the canon are in general based upon the same principle which is employed by Protestant theologians in all sorts of questions about doctrine and church order: the clearly ancient teachings and practices are to be preferred over the medieval. In questions that are not answered by Scripture itself, we inquire into the earliest available evidence for the teachings and practices of the churches, and have little regard for traditions that cannot be traced back to the generation that immediately followed the Apostles. (2) And so with respect to the canon, we are interested to know what the earliest available sources have to say. That is why the resolution of this question partly depends upon an examination of the ancient canon lists. When these lists are examined, we find that the earlier ones omit the Apocrypha, and that the later ones (beginning at the end of the fourth century in the West) include it. The Apocrypha began to be put on the same level as our canonical books at about the same time as many other innovations entered into the Church.

Implications for the text of Scripture. A word may be added here concerning the text of Scripture, which is in a sense a question of canon also. The canonical text for Protestants is the original autographic text, in Hebrew and Greek. Our investigation of this text, as Protestants, can only proceed on the same principle adhered to in the investigation of the canon. There can be no authoritative medieval version, as in Catholicism, and the manuscript tradition cannot all be put on one level. Instead, we are bound to inquire, What do the earliest sources support? The idea which has gained some currency among conservative Protestants lately, namely, that the traditional medieval text upon which the King James Version is based is to be regarded as authoritative simply because it became traditional, involves the adoption of an essentially Catholic view of tradition and authority, foreign to the spirit of Protestantism. This approach is inconsistent with the rejection of the Apocrypha, and of all other corruptions which arose in the middle ages.

Verbum Dei Manet in Æternum. The Word of God Abideth Forever

1. For a good brief discussion of this whole question see E. Earl Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), Chapter 1, "The Old Testament Canon in the Early Church." Ellis concludes that the churches did not receive or adopt a wider Septuagint canon until the fourth century.

2. As Tertullian wrote: Quo peraeque adversus universas haereses iam hinc praeiudicatum sit id esse, verum quodcunque primum, id esse adulterum quodcunque posterius. "For against all heresies equally let this now be our presumption: whatever is earliest is true, and whatever is later is corrupt." (Against Praxeas, chap. 2.)

AT RIGHT: Detail from the title page of an early printing of the Geneva Bible. The Latin motto Verbum Dei Manet in Æternum (The Word of God Abideth Forever) was commonly used by Protestants of the era to express their devotion to Scripture. In the iconography of this illustration, the placement of the motto on a clasped book identifies the "Word of God" with the printed Bibles of the era. A hand from the clouds signifies that the Bible was given by heaven.