Fencing the Canon: The Where & Why of the Bible's Boundary Lines

September 01, 2015

Fencing the Canon: The Where & Why of the Bible's Boundary Lines


The emergence of a canon of Scripture followed very similar lines in Judaism and Christianity. First, the prophetic/apostolic proclamation is turned into writing. Secondly, the written words are recognised as divinely inspired. Thirdly, these writings inspire secondary writings, whose authority is more controversial, so that decisions must be made about the boundaries of Scripture. A key question is whether the theological value of a book, when interpreted against the norm of the Scriptures, should make up for its lack of prophetic provenance. Can a Spirit-filled community bestow authority upon a book by an interpretation that enables the Word of God to shine from its pages?

  1. The Jewish Bible

The Hebrew Scriptures known to Jesus and the apostles were divided into three sections. The Law and the Prophets are tightly organised, carefully edited into groups of books, and mutually explanatory. The Writings are a looser collection, containing a mix of genres, and each book is to be understood against the backdrop of Law and Prophets. This collection was stable by the mid-2nd century BC, though with some variation in order, especially within the Writings.

After around 300 BC, two things began to happen, both related to the rise of Hellenism. The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, book by book, starting with the Law. This was an urgent need, as the majority of Jews living outside Palestine spoke only Greek. The character of this translation—the Septuagint, or LXX[i]—varied markedly from book to book, and it underwent many revisions over the next 3 or 4 centuries.

The second new development was the emergence of a body of Jewish literature inspired by the canonical Scriptures. These new works of history, wisdom and poetry, including much of the Apocrypha of the Protestant Church, had a particular connection to the city of Alexandria, the intellectual capital of world Judaism. They were hugely popular, and in some cases were treated as inspired, but they were not regarded by Jews as Scripture: the Alexandrian canon was identical to the Palestinian one. The Alexandrian Philo, for example, never quotes from any of the Greek extra-biblical literature.

The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus in Palestine were not opposed to the translation of the Bible into Greek. However, they were not willing to leave the canon undefined, and worked hard to clarify the boundaries of Scripture. This was necessary in the face of rival forms of Judaism, such as the Samaritan sect, and radical apocalyptic sects, all of which drew different boundaries around Scripture. The overriding criterion used by orthodox Jews was antiquity: to count as Holy Scripture a book must be of prophetic origin. The era in which the prophetic Spirit was held to be active ran from Moses to Ezra. Any book produced after that time was automatically ruled out, irrespective of its merits. As the Jewish historian Josephus wrote, ‘after Artaxerxes everything has been recorded in detail. But these writings have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them because the exact succession of the prophets ceased.’ Josephus’s canon was virtually identical to the Protestant Old Testament (OT) canon of today.

This view of the Hebrew canon was clearly shared by Jesus and the apostles, who quote from all but five of its books, but almost never refer to the wider Jewish literature, and never as Scripture. Moreover, the New Testament (NT) as a whole refers simply to ‘the Scriptures’ without defining them; there was clearly no argument between Jews and Jewish Christians on this matter. To count as Scripture a book must be written by the direct inspiration of the prophetic Spirit, and it must be recognised as such by the people of God as a whole, not merely some fringe groups.

  1. The New Testament

From proclamation to enscripturation

Against this background the primitive Church emerges as another Jewish sect, convinced that the Spirit of prophecy was once more active in the world (Acts 2), inspiring texts which they recognised to be Holy Scripture (cf. 2 Pet 3:16). As with the Hebrew canon, the basic criterion for recognition was that the authors had personally received the word of God. Unlike the prophets, however, the apostles received the Word incarnate, seeing and touching as well as hearing (1 Jn 1:1-3), and their written words were the direct, Spirit-mediated result of this encounter.

Recognising the inspiration of the NT involved a test that was not as prominent in contemporary Jewish discussions, perhaps because it is most important in cases of recent revelation: the apostolic testimony must be ‘according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3-4). In a famous account, Papias (d. 130) tells of the aged bishop Polycarp of Smyrna relating the stories of Jesus, proud that he could recall the living testimony of those who had known the apostles. And Polycarp adds that this testimony was given ‘according to the Scriptures’.

As time went by, however, a third criterion for canonicity became increasingly important: universal recognition.

The Growing NT Canon

Before the 4th century when codices (bound books) became widespread, books were produced as individual scrolls, so you could not define a canon by binding a collection between one set of covers. A new scroll would arrive in a town from its place of origin, be read out loud, and copied locally, perhaps multiple times. Some NT writings spread quickly, such as Paul’s letters, due no doubt in the first place to Paul’s own extensive travelling. Others spread slowly, such as Hebrews, virtually unknown in the West before the 3rd or 4th century, and Revelation, relatively unknown in the East during this period.

Image: Valentin De Boulogne (Public Domain) via Wikipedia Commons

In the 2nd century a NT nucleus was already ubiquitous: the 4 Gospels, Acts, the 13 Pauline letters, 1 Peter and 1 John. The remaining books were not yet in general circulation, and different regions had different collections, often including later books such as the letters of Clement and Barnabas. Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, accepted all these books, as well as 2-3 John, 2 Peter and Jude, but acknowledged that all these were ‘disputed’.

It may seem odd to us that the Church tolerated this level of ambiguity, but the exegetical practices of the day made things easier. The apostolic message about Christ could be used as a guide to ensure the proper ‘spiritual reading’ of religious texts. This in effect meant that the precise form of words in a manuscript, or the precise level of authority of a book, did not have to be settled in order for it to bear authoritative testimony to Christ.

The rise of the Gnostic heresy after AD 135, with its creation of new scriptures to support the claim of ‘secret apostolic traditions’, spurred the Church to fence the canon. Discussion of canonicity continued alongside debates about Christology, until by the late 4th century the Eastern and Western Churches formally recognised 27 books that had long been generally accepted as both old—originating in the apostolic era—and orthodox in their Christology.

A few later Christian writings continued to be used liturgically at this time. For example, Athanasius in 367 listed the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas as books ‘to be read’, but not ‘canonised’. Biblical manuscripts from the 4th-5th centuries still contained books like Barnabas and Clement, but they were included for ecclesiastical (liturgical) purposes, not for establishing doctrine. However, in view of their post-apostolic origins these books eventually fell out of use.

The same two tiers of books—canonical and ecclesiastical (what Protestants call apocryphal today)—could be found in Christian OT manuscripts of the period, but debates about the boundaries of the OT were not so easily settled.

  1. The Church’s Old Testament

For the primitive Church, still rooted in Judaism, the boundaries of the OT canon were clear. However, as the Church lost contact with its Jewish origins it also lost touch with the Hebrew roots of its Greek Old Testament, the LXX. Jewish religious books included both canonical and apocryphal compositions, and Christians read them all enthusiastically. Yet there was no such thing as an ‘LXX canon’: every LXX manuscript has a different collection of apocryphal books.

Most theologians in the East, including Melito (d. 190), Origen (d. 254) and others, were well aware of the boundaries of the Hebrew canon. In the 4th century only one or two books, such as Esther and Baruch, were still fluid. Eastern manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus do contain a modest selection of ecclesiastical (apocryphal) books, but this reflects the fact that they are Church Bibles, created for liturgy rather than as normative canons of Scripture.

            Meanwhile, in the Western Church, the situation was much less clear. Their OT was a Latin translation of the LXX, and at such a distance from the Hebrew originals, awareness of the boundaries of the Hebrew canon was much rarer. Augustine, whose Greek was rudimentary, depended on amateur Latin translations of bad Greek manuscripts, which often barely made sense, and he relied greatly on the above-mentioned practice of ‘spiritual reading’ to secure Christian interpretations from the OT. It is perhaps not surprising that Augustine made little or no distinction between canonical and apocryphal OT books.


  1. The parting of the ways

It was not until the great scholar Jerome (347-420) moved to Palestine and learned Hebrew that anyone from the Christian West became acquainted with the Bible underlying the Church’s LXX. Jerome realised that many books labelled ‘Old Testament’ were not original to the Hebrew canon at all, and urged his African contemporary, Augustine, not to count them as canonical Scripture. But by that time it was too late: centuries of usage had hallowed the apocryphal books in the affections of African Christians, and the Church consented to confer the authority of canonicity upon them. A major factor in the high view taken by Christians towards the Apocrypha was the practice of binding canonical and ecclesiastical books together and failing to distinguish between them in church.

            As a result the East and West went separate ways. In the East, the 39th Easter Letter of Bishop Athanasius in 367 listed only the books of the Hebrew Bible in the canonical OT; but for the Western Church, three important African councils, in 393, 397 and 413, authorised the Apocrypha as Holy Scripture. 


Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus to make a fresh Latin translation of the OT from the Hebrew. In his prefaces Jerome points out that the books not in the Hebrew canon were later and less authoritative than the canonical Hebrew books, but at the Council of Trent (1546) the Roman Catholic Church officially declared Jerome’s Vulgate, including its Apocrypha, to be the one authoritative canon of Scripture. As a result the Catholic canon is divided into the ‘protocanonical’ and ‘deuterocanonical’ books, the latter being just as authoritative, though added later to the canon.

            The decree of Trent on Scripture was prompted by the Protestant Reformers’ decision to return to the smaller OT canon of Jesus, the Apostles and the Eastern Church. This was not a complete innovation: a number of medieval scholars had raised questions about the Apocrypha, including Gregory the Great, Hugh of St Victor, and Nicholas of Lyra. The first English Bible—translated from the Vulgate by John Wyclif in the 14th century—included the Apocrypha but in the preface made a sharp distinction between it and the Hebrew canon. The Protestant Apocrypha includes both the deterocanonical and the apocryphal books of the Vulgate.

            While the Presbyterian Church, following the Westminster Confession, denies the Apocrypha any special place, the Church of England (among others) followed Athanasius and Jerome in declaring that 14 Apocryphal books should be ‘read for example of life and instruction of manners’, but not ‘to establish any doctrine’. Apocryphal texts are therefore used in liturgies and included in the lectionaries of Cranmer’s Prayer Books. When objections were raised to this practice at the Savoy Conference of 1661, on the grounds of the sufficiency of Scripture, the Bishops replied that the same objection could be raised against sermons, and lamented that all sermons did not give as useful instruction as the chapters selected from the Apocrypha!

Since the days of Athanasius the status of the Apocrypha has gradually risen in the Greek Orthodox Church, and centuries of internal debate were laid to rest in 1672, when the Synod of Jerusalem defined the present canon of the Church and condemned advocates of a shorter canon.


The situation that prevailed in Judaism between 300 BC and AD 100 was broadly echoed in Christianity between AD 100 and 400: an original body of sacred literature generated secondary writings, many of which were hugely popular. Some of these secondary writings even functioned as canonical Scripture in localised areas, but none of them were able to command universal recognition until the 4th century, when the Western Church canonised a number of apocryphal books on the grounds of a long tradition of use in the Church as sacred Scripture.

There is a case for the authority of the Apocrypha. If a biblical book of doubtful text, or of doubtful authenticity, can nevertheless be read ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’, then its ultimate purpose—to reveal Jesus as the Christ, the eternal Son of God—can be used to draw out its true meaning, and it can bear authoritative testimony to the Christ. In other words, while canonical books contain intrinsic authority deriving from their prophetic origins, there is also the possibility of an extrinsic authority conferred by the normative reading of the Church.

For Protestants, however, only half of this argument stands, because a book whose author is neither prophetic nor apostolic does not carry with it the stamp of divine authorship. Extrinsic authority is not divine authority. And yet, a wholesale rejection of the Apocrypha is unwarranted. The Apocrypha defines the self-understanding of Jesus’ contemporaries; it gives us direct access to the theological world of Jews whose living tradition goes back into the OT period; and it provides some of the earliest commentary and meditation on Scripture in existence. It should not be made into a normative ‘bridge’ by which we get from the OT to its Christian meaning, but it can help us to understand Christ better by seeing him through Jewish eyes.

If the Apocrypha continues to deserve liturgical airtime, why not the Shepherd of Hermas and its like? The theological answer to this is that just as Jesus Christ was the last and definitive word from God (Heb 1:1-3), so the apostolic generation provided the last and definitive testimony to that Word (1 Jn 1:1-3). The oldest canon list we have—the Muratorian Fragment, from around AD 170—is quite clear on this in its comment on Hermas: ‘it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after [their] time’. I take it that we should receive these later works neither as Scripture nor Apocrypha, but as invaluable historical documents of early orthodox Christianity.

We end where we began: by thinking about the relationship between the Word of God and Scripture. The Apocrypha is not Holy Scripture, because its words are not the words of God through his prophets. History shows us that failing to distinguish between the way we use Scripture and Apocrypha in church is unwise. And yet it may still be a vehicle for the word of God, in just the same way a sermon may—whenever it proclaims the good news which would one day find its perfect expression in the person of Jesus Christ.

Further reading

Essays by Roger Beckwith (‘Formation of the Hebrew Bible’) and E. Earle Ellis (‘The Old Testament Canon in the Early Church’) in Mikra, edited by Martin Mulder, 1988.

  1. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 5th edition, 1991.

Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, 2012.

Bruce Metzger, introduction to the New Oxford Annotate

[i] So-called because of the tradition that approximately 70 translators produced the Greek Pentateuch circa 250 BC.

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