What Qualifies as Scripture? The Decisions and the Disputes

Why are only selected writings included in our Bibles?  And why are certain writings still disputed in Christianity? To clear things up, let’s first talk about “canon.” “Canon,” from the Latin “standard” or “rule.” can refer to church law, but it also refers to the authorized list of writings, the rule of what writings are considered in a class by themselves, These are writings which are confirmed as especially inspired. The finalization of the canon was a complex and convoluted process of debate that took three centuries, being completed, as far as it goes, in the 4th century CE.

To clarify the issue what was to be included in the authorized list of writings, let’s define more exactly what is meant by “canon.”  For the sake for the sake of clarity. let’s use the categories of the western theologian Rufinius of Aquileia (340-410 CE), a friend of Jerome the translator of the Latin Vulgate.

  1. “Canonical”: these were books that were to be read in corporate worship.  Thus Cyril of Jerusalem advised the catechumens who were to be baptized to read and follow only those “divinely-inspired scriptures” that were read “openly in the Church.” “Stick with these,” he said, “so as not to be confused by contradictory teachings.” Cyril was referring primarily to the Jewish scriptures, the Tanach (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings), whether in Hebrew or translated in the Greek Septuagint.
  2. Not “canonical” but “ecclesiastical.” There were works that were approved to be read in worship and study but not to be used for endorsement of doctrine.
  3. “Apocrypha.” Note that in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, this term does not apply this term to the Deuterocanonical writings. “Apocrypha” refers to those writings that are suspicious, if not spurious.  They are not acceptable for either corporate worship or private study.  At first, these were not the Deuterocanonical writings. It was the Protestants that applied the term to the writings that we have listed, as we will see.

Now I must muddy the waters. The church fathers were not agreed on the distinction between categories one and two, “canonical” and “ecclesiastical.”  The issue was over the writings of the “Deuterocanonical” scriptures.  These writings were part of the Greek translation of the Tanach, the Jewish scriptures called the Septuagint (LXX).  This translation of the Hebrew scriptures was made in the era just before the 1st century for the Greek-speaking Jews who were scattered in the diaspora throughout the Mediterranean.

Now the status of the Septuagint translation of the Tanach was not disputed in the formation of the canon. In fat, the New Testament writers most often quoted from the Septuagint Old Testament, not the Hebrew text.

However, along with the Tanach, the Septuagint included other scriptures, most originally written in Greek. Thus, most church fathers in the East, as well as the West, quoted from these works along with the Tanach as scripture, making no distinction in their authority or use.  Among these were Irenaeus (130-202 CE), Hippolytus (170-235 CE) and John Chrysostom (349-407 CE).

On the other hand, Nicholas of Lyra (270-345 or 352 CE), John of Damascus (c.675-749 CE, and Hugh of St. Victor (c.1096-1141 CE), saw a qualitative distinction between these two the canonical books and the ecclesiastical books. Most notably, though a heretic, the most erudite biblical scholar in history, Origin (c. 184-c.253), recognized the distinction. But he said that the Deuterocanonical books should be accepted along with the canonical writings because of tradition. (I must add that the value of these writings as models of piety and faithfulness and as supplements to religious and ethical teachings was not in question until the development of Protestantism.)

Having said this, we can go on to say that compiling the final list of what would become the New Testament into the completed canon was a complex and convoluted process of debate lasting three centuries and not finished for 350 years until the 4th century AD.

Now let me provide some details of the process.  Though what I will say is controversial in some circles, I will condense the consensus of Orthodox scholars in the Orthodox Study Bible.  According to the these Orthodox scholars, the books of the New Testament were written between 50-51 AD (1 Thessalonians: Orthodox Study Bible) and 81-96 AD (Revelation: Orthodox Study Bible). Scholars believe that these early writings were circulated and then collected during the 1st and early 2nd century.  At the core were the letters of Paul, then the 4 Gospels, and then other texts.  The churches recognized these writings as in a class by themselves and used them in worship and teaching.

However, it was a wealthy shipowner named Marcion who provoked church leaders to identify those writings that had special and approved status. Marcin was the son of the Bishop of Pontus on the southern coast of the Black Sea in Asia Minor.  But on his own authority, he selected a list of writing that were to have official sanction.  Note that he did it to promote his own theology, a belief system centering on the novel idea that the god of the Tanakh was not the same as the God of Jesus and the church. Thus, Marcion rejected the Tanakh and many of the sacred writings in circulation.

In response, church leaders refused to deviate from the Gospel teaching that all that Jesus was and did fulfilled the divine promise of the Tanakh.  With that firmly in mind, they began to  propose their own competing lists.  Centuries of deliberation followed. Yet the bulk of the canon was in place very early in the process. Up for grabs were only several writing. For example, around the end of the 2nd century, (170-180 CE), the “Muratorium Canon” listed 22 or 23 of the 27 books (Kruger 2013) and included the core of the Pauline Epistles and the 4 Gospels.

Finally, the canon was completed in middle and late 4th century with the festal letter of Athanasius in 367 CE in the East and the definitive decision of the Council of Carthage in the West in 397 CE. This long-debated list, then, is what we called the “canon” of scripture.  The concept means that the writings listed have special inspiration and authority. Moreover, that list is comprehensive, complete… and closed. That is, no other writings are to be added to it, nor subtracted from it.

What about the Deuterocanonical books? In the 16th century, the Council of Trent confirmed the writings from the Septuagint list as canonical. In 1566, Pope Sixtus coined the term “Deuterocanonical” to apply to the books of the canon that were not mentioned in the Hebrew list.  And at the end of the 16th century, a new edition of the Vulgate (1592 CE) demoted three minor writings to an Appendix.

Now we can describe how the Deuterocanonical scriptures were hidden.  And yes, it has to do with Martin Luther. Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German.  But his translation was both superior to the others and widely popular.  Amid controversies over elements that Catholics found in the Deuterocanonical writings, such purgatory, prayers for the dead, veneration of angels and saints, and the treasury of merits, Luther took advantage of the Rufinius’ distinctions. In Luther’s Bible of 1534 the “Apocrypha” was first published as a separate section between the Old and New Testament  (Bruce 1996, Kindle 1478-86). In his preface, Luther called these writing, “Books not equal to the Holy Scriptures, yet useful and good to read” (Schaff 1910). Note that the Reformer did not entirely remove the writing but reclassified them.  (By the way, he did move the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to the back [Marlowe N/A-a] with the comment that the did not measure up to the “true and certain chief books of the New Testament” (Montgomery 1974).

Subsequent editions of the Bible in Protestant circles followed suit. The Apocrypha was half-hidden– available but detached from the “true and certain” writings.  The Geneva Bible 1599) and the King James Bible (1611) not only included them but had cross-references to them.  A Dutch version put them at the back with a warning against them (Dutch).

Gradually anti-Catholic prejudice and the advantage of a less bulky version resulted in the removal of the Apocrypha altogether, though for a time the cross-references remained (Michuta N/A).  In the 1800’s the English Bible Society flooded the market with Bibles without Apocrypha. Finally, in 1885, the Revised Stand Version without the disputed books replaced the King James Bible (Michuta N/A).

In summary from Luther’s German Bible through the King James and Revised Standard Versions, the authorization the Hellenist writing was more by publication than by official churchly endorsement.