Development of the Canon of Scripture in the 2nd to 5th Centuries

In the early history of the Church some books of scripture took longer to be recognised than others.  The following lists of canons are from several significant writers and they show how the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament were regarded.

Origen (185-254 AD)

In a letter to Origen, Africanus gives reasons why he believed the book of Susanna is spurious and a modern (to him) forgery.  Origen replies and shows why he believes it is genuine scripture and answers each of Africanus’ objections.  After having disposed of Africanus’ personal references to his acceptance of Susanna, and before disproving the claims made against the book itself, Origen rhetorically asks if God would have allowed the Church to use spurious writings as their scriptures for all this time (LXX including the Deuterocanonicals) and then have to beg uncorrupted writings from the Jews: “And, forsooth, when we notice such things, we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery!  Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things? (page 387).  Origen also shows that the Church received the deuterocanonical books of Tobias and Judith as scripture (page 391).

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his “Church History”, gives Origen’s list of the Hebrew canon, which included the two Maccabees and Baruch chap 6 (“Jeremiah, with Lamentations and the epistle in one”).  However the translator and editor says “….it must be regarded as certain that Origen did not reckon the books of the Maccabees as a part of the Hebrew canon, and on the other hand, that he did reckon those books, as well as others (if not all) of the books given in the LXX, as inspired Scripture.  This latter fact is proved by his use of these books indiscriminately with those of the Hebrew canon as sources for dogmatic proof texts, and also by his express citation of at least some of them as Scripture.  We must conclude therefore, that Origen did not adopt the Hebrew canon as his own, but that he states it as clearly as he does in this place, in order to bring concretely before the minds of his readers the differences between the canon of the Jews and the canon of the Christians, who looked upon the LXX as the more authoritative form of the Old Testament (“The Church History of Eusebius” Book VI, chap. XXV  “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, Second Series, Vol 1, p 272, and editor’s note on p 273).

Origen says “… the book which is called the Wisdom of Solomon, a work which is certainly not esteemed authoritative by all” in the Church (“De Principiis” Book IV chap 1; Ante-Nicene Fathers vol 4, p 379), and thus shows us that the canon was still developing; hence the distinguishing terms “protocanonical” for those books received by all at once, and “deuterocanonical” (DC) for those books which took longer to be accepted by all.  There were other books in circulation around the churches, such as “Shepherd of Hermas”, which we today do not regard as scripture but which in the early period were regarded as such by some in the churches.

As for the books of the New Testament that Origen regarded as canonical, Eusebius records that he had the same canon as we do today but acknowledged some books which would be called “deuterocanonical” because they took longer to be recognised.  Of these he writes “And Peter……has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful.  Why need we speak of him who reclined upon the bosom of Jesus, John, who has left us one Gospel…..and he wrote also the Apocalypse.……has left also an epistle of very few lines; perhaps also a second and third; but not all consider them genuine”

Of Origen’s view of Hebrews, Eusebius quotes him as writing “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the Apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher.  Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this.  For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.  But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows”.  Origen also says that some thought Clement wrote it, others thought it was Luke.

I’ve given all this information to demonstrate that the canon of both Old and New Testaments took some time to be recognised and accepted by the whole Church.  Some books took longer than others, and these are the deuterocanonical books.  The Law of Moses in the Old Testament and the Four Gospels in the New Testament were recognised by all from the beginning; these are “protocanonical”.  It’s notable that James, Philemon, and Jude are omitted from the NT canon (“The Church History of Eusebius” Book VI, chap. XXV “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, Second Series, Vol 1, p 272 -273, and editor’s note on p 273).

 Eusebius (260-340 AD)

Eusebius also records what books were regarded by the churches as canonical in his own time.  He mentions the protocanonical Four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, 1 John, 1 Peter and the Apocalypse.  He says of them “These then belong among the accepted writings.  Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognised by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John……and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books”  (“The Church History of Eusebius” Book III, chap. XXV  “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, Second Series, Vol 1, p 155-156.

Athanasius (296-373 AD)

Athanasius was “urged” by “true brethren to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine”.  He then lists 22 books of the Hebrew canon, and, like Origen, includes “Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle (Baruch chap 6), one book”, and he omits Esther.  The book of Esther has an interesting history but that is irrelevant to our purposes here.

Then he adds “But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.  The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called The Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd.  But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings.  But they are an invention of heretics….”.  He doesn’t mention Maccabees anywhere.

It is clear that the Fathers did not regard “the apocrypha” in the same way Protestants do.  Their apocrypha were the books of heretics such as “Gospel of Thomas”, “Epistle of Barnabas”, “Acts of Peter” etc.  What Protestants regard as “apocrypha” were classed as “ecclesiastical” books by some churches (see under next heading “Rufinus”) and were profitable for Christians to read, as Athanasius writes here.

In his NT canon he includes all the deuterocanonical books, i.e. Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. 

All the above information under “Athanasius” from “Letters of Athanasius”, Letter XXXIX, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, Second Series, Vol 4, p 552.

Rufinus (345-411 AD)

In his “Apology”, Rufinus castigates Jerome, who, in his Vulgate translation of the bible, makes “havoc of the divine record handed down to the Churches by the Apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit.  For what can we call it but havoc, when some parts of it are transformed, and this is called the correction of an error.  For instance, the whole of the history of Susanna, which gave a lesson of chastity to the churches of God, has by him been cut out, thrown aside, and dismissed.  The hymn of the three children, which is regularly sung on festivals in the Church of God, he has wholly erased from the place where it stood.  But why should I enumerate these cases when their number cannot be estimated?”  He continues in his defence of the LXX: “….this version must certainly be of more authority with us than a translation made by a single man (i.e. Jerome)……Did Peter the Apostle of Christ deceive the Church and deliver to them books which were false and contained in them nothing of truth?  Are we to believe that he knew that the Jews possessed what was true, and yet determined that the Christians should have what was false…Was Paul illiterate? we ask; he who was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, touching the law a Pharisee, brought up at the feet of Gamaliel?  Could not he, when he was at Rome, have supplied any deficiencies of Peter?  Is it conceivable that they, who prescribed to their disciples that they should give attention to reading, did not give them the correct and true reading?  These men who bid us not attend to Jewish fables and genealogies, which minister questioning rather than edification; and who, again, bid us beware of, and especially watch, those of the circumcision; is it conceivable that they could not foresee through the Spirit that a time would come, after nearly four hundred years, when the church would find out that the Apostles had  not delivered to them the truth of the Old Testament, and would send an embassy to those whom the apostles spoke of as the circumcision, begging and beseeching them to dole out to them some small portion of the truth which was in their possession: and that the Church would through this embassy confess that she had been for all these four hundred years in error……?” (“The Apology of Rufinus” Book II, 33-34, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” Second Series Vol 3, p 475-476, Hendrickson Pub.)

Rufinus continues at length in his scathing denunciation of Jerome, showing by his rhetorical questioning that it is impossible that the Church got it wrong in their use of the LXX as their Old Testament and that for Jerome or anyone else to use the Hebrew text as the basis for a bible translation was unthinkable.

He later enumerates the Old Testament canon accepted by the Church of his time, which is the same as the Hebrew canon and included Esther; apparently the Eastern Church took longer to finalise their canon, which now includes the OT deuterocanonicals; in fact they accept more books than does the Western Church.  In his account of the NT canon, it is the same as ours today and included the disputed books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation. 

Concerning the deuterocanonical books (our apocrypha) of the Old Testament he writes “But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not ‘Canonical’ but Ecclesiastical’: that is to say, Wisdom, called the Wisdom of Solomon, and another Wisdom, called the Wisdom of the Son of Syrach (sic), which last-mentioned the Latins called by the general title Ecclesiasticus, designating not the author of the book, but the character of the writing.  To the same class belong the Book of Tobit, the Book of Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees.  In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Pastor of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways, or the Judgment of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine.  The other writings they have named ‘Apocrypha’.  These they would not have read in the Churches.  These are the traditions which the Fathers have handed down to us, which, as I said, I have thought it opportune to set forth in this place, for the instruction of those who are being taught the first elements of the Church and of the Faith, that they may know from what fountains of the Word of God their draughts must be taken” (“The Apology of Rufinus” Book II, 36-38, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” Second Series Vol 3, p 558, Hendrickson Pub.).

It is interesting to observe that, while these books are “not to be appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine”, the Fathers of the early Church used them just as they used all the other scriptures.

Augustine (354-430 AD)

In “The City of God”, Augustine tells us that it was universally believed in the Church that King Ptolemy of Egypt requested the High Priest of the Jews in Alexandria to “give him the Scriptures, which he had heard by report that they were truly divine, and therefore greatly desired to have in that most noble library he had made.  When the High Priest had sent them to him in Hebrew, he afterwards demanded interpreters of him, and there were given him seventy-two, out of each of the twelve tribes six men, most learned in both languages, to wit, the Hebrew and Greek; and their translation is now by custom called the Septuagint”.

He then discusses the universal belief that the Septuagint was overseen by God: “It is reported, indeed, that there was an agreement in their words so wonderful, stupendous, and plainly divine, that when they had sat at this work, each one apart (i.e. each man in a separate cell)….., they differed from each other in no word which had the same meaning and force, or, in the order of the words; but, as if the translators had been one, because in very deed the one Spirit had been in them all”  (“The City of God” Book XVIII chap. 42 & 43, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” , First Series, Vol. 2, p 385-386).

In “On Christian Doctrine” Augustine states his belief in the superiority of the Greek scriptures in both Old and New Testaments; over the Hebrew in the Old and the Latin in the New.  He writes “Now among translations themselves the Italian (Itala) is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression.  And to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions, among which the authority of the Septuagint is pre-eminent as far as the Old Testament is concerned……As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research” (“On Christian Doctrine” Book II chap 22, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” , First Series, Vol. 2, p 542).

So now let us see what he says about the state of the canon of scripture itself.  Augustine states that by his time the canon was fixed, and he enumerates the books in both Old and New Testaments.

 “Finally, let our authors, among whom the canon of the sacred books is fixed and bounded, be far from disagreeing in any respect.  It is not without good reason, then, that not merely a few people in the schools and gymnasia in captious disputations, but so many and great people, both learned and unlearned, in countries and cities, have believed that God spoke to them or by them, i.e. the canonical writers, when they wrote these books” (“The City of God” Book XVIII chap. 41, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” , First Series, Vol. 2, p 384).

As to the canon itself he begins by stipulating some criteria by which “the skilful interpreter of the sacred writings” will be guided by: “Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic [i.e. universal] churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have 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 catholic churches to those which some do not receive.  Among those, again, which are not received by all he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority.  If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.

13.  Now the whole canon of Scripture on which we say this judgment is to be exercised, is contained in the following books: – Five books of Moses, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; one book of Joshua the son of Nun; one of Judges; one short book called Ruth, which seems rather to belong to the beginning of Kings; next, four books of Kings (i.e. 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings), and two of Chronicles – these last two not following one another, but running parallel, so to speak, and going over the same ground.  The books now mentioned are history, which contains a connected narrative of the times, and follows the order of the events.  There are other books which seem to follow no regular order, and are connected neither with the order of the preceding books nor with one another, such as Job, and Tobias, and Esther, and Judith, and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Ezra (i.e. Ezra and Nehemiah), which last look more like a sequel to the continuous regular history which terminates with the books of Kings and Chronicles.  Next are the Prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David; and three books of Solomon, viz., Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.  For two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach.  Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative.  The remainder are the books which are strictly called the Prophets: twelve separate books of the prophets which are connected with one another, and having never been disjointed, are reckoned as one book; the names of these are as follows: – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; then there the four greater prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel.  The authority of the Old Testament is contained within the limits of these forty-four books.  That of the New Testament, again, is contained within the following: – Four books of the Gospel, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John; fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul – one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two of Peter; three of John; one of Jude; and one of James; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; and one of the Revelation of John”  (“On Christian Doctrine” Book II chap 8, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”  First Series, Vol. 2, p 538).

This was the canon defined formally at the Council of Rome in 383, the Council of Hippo in 393 and the Council of Carthage in 397. 


The following is an excerpt from St Francis de Sales’ invaluable book “The Catholic Controversy”.  It is taken from “ARTICLE 1: HOLY SCRIPTURE: FIRST RULE OF FAITH.  That The Pretended Reformers Have Violated Holy Scripture, The First Rule Of Our Faith: Chapter III. What are the Sacred Books of the Word of God” (pages 91-95)

The Council of Trent gives these books as sacred, divine and canonical: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Josue (Joshua), Judges, Ruth, the four Books of Kings (1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings), two of Paralipomenon (1&2 Chronicles), two of Esdras (a first, and a second which is called Nehemias) (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah), Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, one hundred and fifty Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Isaias, Jeremias with Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, Osee (Hosea), Joel, Amos, Abdias (Obadiah), Jonas, Micheas (Micah), Nahum, Habacuc, Sophonias (Zephaniah), Aggeus (Haggai), Zacharias, Malachy, two of Machabees, first and second: of the New Testament, four Gospels, – S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, S. John, – the Acts of the Apostles by S. Luke, fourteen epistles of S. Paul, – to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews, – two of S. Peter, three of S. John, one of S. James, one of S. Jude, and the Apocalypse.  The same books were received at the Council of Florence (1431 – 1449 AD), and long before that, at the third Council of Carthage about twelve hundred years ago (397 AD).

These books are divided into two ranks.  For of some, both of the Old and of the New Testament, it was never doubted but that they were sacred and canonical [and are thus called ‘protocanonical’]: others there are about whose authority the ancient Fathers doubted for a time [and are thus called ‘deuterocanonical’], but afterwards they were placed with those of the first rank.

Those of the first rank in the Old Testament are: the five of Moses, Josue, Judges, Ruth, four of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, two of Esdras and Nehemias, Job, one hundred and fifty Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, the four greater Prophets, the twelve lesser Prophets.  These were formed into the canon by the great synod at which Esdras was present, and to which he was scribe; and no one ever doubted of their authority without being at once considered a heretic, as our learned Genebrard fully proves in his Chronology.  The second rank contains the following: Esther, Baruch, a part of Daniel (the history of Susanna, the Canticle of the Three Children, and the history of the death of the dragon in the fourteenth chapter of), Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Machabees 1 and 2.  And as to these there is a great probability in the opinion of the same Doctor Genebrard that in the meeting which was held at Jerusalem to send the seventy-two interpreters into Egypt, these books, which were not in existence when Esdras made the first canon, were placed on the canon, at least tacitly, because they were sent with the others to be translated, except the Machabees, which were received in another meeting afterwards, wherein the preceding were again approved.  But however the case may be, as the second canon was not made so authentically as the first, this placing on the canon could not procure them an entire and unquestionable authority among the Jews, nor make them equal with the books of the first rank.

Coming to the books of the New Testament, I say that in the same way there are some of the first rank, which have always been acknowledged and received as sacred and canonical.  These are S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, S. John, all the Epistles of S. Paul except that to the Hebrews, one of S. Peter, one of S. John [St Francis has omitted Acts – perhaps it is an oversight, or else he includes it with Luke’s gospel].  Those of the second rank are the Epistle to the Hebrews, that of S. James, the second of S. Peter, the second and third of S. John, that of S. Jude, the 16th chapter of S. Mark, as S. Jerome says, and S. Luke’s history of the bloody sweat of Our Lord in the garden of Olives, according to the same S. Jerome; in the eighth chapter of S. John there has been a doubt concerning the history of the woman taken in adultery, or at least some suspect that it has been doubted, and concerning verse seven of the last chapter of S. John’s First EpistleThese are, as far as we know, the books and parts of books concerning which it appears there was anciently some doubt.  And these were not of undoubted authority in the Church at first, but as time went on they were at length recognised as the sacred work of the Holy Spirit, and not all at once but at different times.  And first, besides those of the first rank, whether of the new or of the Old Testament, about the year 364 there were received at the Council of Laodicea [Canon lx] (which was afterwards approved in the sixth general Council*), the book of Esther, the Epistle of S. James, the Second of S. Peter, the Second and Third of S. John, that of S. Jude, and the Epistle to the Hebrews as the fourteenth of S. Paul.  Then some time afterwards at the third Council of Carthage (at which S. Augustine assisted, and which was confirmed in the sixth general Council ‘in Trullo’), besides those of the second rank just mentioned, there were received into the canon, as of full authority, Tobias, Judith, First and Second Machabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and the Apocalypse.  But of all those of the second rank, the book of Judith was first received and acknowledged as divine, in the first General Council of Nice, as S. Jerome witnesses in his preface to this book.  Such is the way in which the two ranks were brought together into one, and ever made of equal authority in the Church of God, but progressively and with succession, as a beautiful morning rising, which little by little lights up our hemisphere.

This was drawn up in the Council of Carthage, that same ancient list of the canonical books which has ever since been in the Catholic Church, and which was confirmed in the sixth general Council, at the great Council of Florence 160 years ago for the union of the Armenians by the whole Church both Greek and Latin, in our age by the Council of Trent, and which was followed by S. Augustine.  Before the Council of Carthage they were not all received as canonical by any decree of the general Church.  I had almost forgotten to say that you must not therefore make a difficulty against what I have just laid down because Baruch is not quoted by name in the Council of Carthage.  For since Baruch was secretary of Jeremias, the book of Baruch was recognised by the ancients as an accessory or appendix of Jeremias, being comprised under this; as that excellent theologian Bellarmine proves in his ‘Controversies’.  But it is enough for me to have said thus: my brief outline is not obliged to dwell on every particular.  In a word, all these books, whether of first or second rank, with all the parts, are equally certain, sacred and canonical, and are received in the Catholic Church”

“*i.e. in Canon ii of the Council ‘in Trullo’ (or Quinisext), which is called by the Greeks the sixth General Council, as being a continuation or supplement of it.  Such canons of this Council as were not opposed to previous decrees were approved by Rome…..”