THE CANON OF HOLY SCRIPTURE

It may come as a surprise to many, but one of the most important truths derived from Sacred Tradition that is not in the Bible is the list of books that comprise the Bible. This list – technically known as the canon of Holy Scripture – is nowhere found in any of the books of the Bible. So, how do we know which books, out of the many books proliferating in the Roman Empire, were inspired and which were not? Without the canon we would not know what books belong to the Bible. It was not until the fourth century A.D. that an official list was determined by the Catholic Church based on her own experience and use of the sacred books. Using her Sacred Tradition the Church collected and compiled these books under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Old Testament Books

 

There is a set of books in the Old Testament that both the Jewish Rabbis and all of Christendom have always regarded as "inspired" and, therefore, part of Holy Scripture. These are called the protocanonical books, and they consist of the 39 books of the Old Hebrew Bible. There had not been any dispute regarding the status of these books as canonical, or inspired. However, there is another set of books, known as the deuterocanonical books, that did not enjoy the same unanimous acceptance even among the Church Fathers (See table below.) To be sure, the Fathers of the Church had a high regard for these books, but some of them - including St. Jerome! - were not quick to regard them as "inspired." (Note: In addition to the deuterocanonical books, there were additions made to some of the Hebrew books, such as Baruch Chapter 6, Daniel 3:24-90, Daniel 13 and Daniel 14. These, too, which were not in the original Hebrew Bible, were disputed by other religious groups, particularly the Jews and the Protestants.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The disagreement among the Church Fathers regarding the canonical status of some of the books, particularly the deuterocanonical books, continued till up to almost the end of the fourth century when the Church finally settled the issue by accepting the disputed deuterocanonical books as inspired. See the Decree of Pope St. Damasus I (A.D. 382) in Denzinger, #84. His decision was repeated by the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, and ratified by later Ecumenical Councils including the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are good reasons why the Church accepted the deuterocanonical books as inspired. First, because these books were already part of the Greek Old Testament Bible, the Septuagint, which the Jews were using before and during the time of Christ. In fact, some NT (New Testament) texts allude to passages found only in the deuterocanonical books. For example, Matt 27:42-43 sounds like an echo of Wis 2:18-20. John 10:22-23 shows Christ and His Apostles walking to the Temple for the Hanukkah (the Feast of the Re-dedication of the Temple), a feast established in 1 Mach 4:36-59 and 2 Mach 10:1-8. Likewise, St. Paul in 1 Cor 10:9-10 alludes to Jdt 8:24-25.  To be sure, these allusions in the NT to the deuterocanonical books do not prove the canonical status of the disputed books, because there were also allusions to other books (such as the book of Enoch quoted by St. Jude) that the Catholic Church did not regard as "inspired." However, they show that these books were not new, but were already in the Old Testament scriptures and were familiar to the Jews during the time of Christ and the Apostles.

 

Second, the Septuagint, which contained the deuterocanonicals, was the Old Testament that the early Church Fathers used in conversing with the Gentiles. The following quotations are a few examples from the Fathers: 

  • Pope St. Clement of Rome (d. ca A.D. 97), First Letter to the Corinthians, Ch. 27: "Let His faith therefore be stirred up again within us, and let us consider that all things are near unto Him. By the word of His might He established all things, and by His word He can overthrow them. Who shall say unto Him, What have you done? Or, Who shall resist the power of His strength? (Wis 12:12)"

  • St. Polycarp (A.D. 69 - 155), Epistle to the Philippians, Ch. 10: "Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, (1 Peter 2:17) and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one. When you can do good, defer it not, because alms delivers from death. (Tobit 4:11, Tobit 12:9) Be all of you subject one to another (1 Peter 5:5) having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles, (1 Peter 2:12) that you may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed! (Isaiah 52:5) Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct."

  • St. Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 200 - 258), Epistle 55, #5 (last sentence): "So Daniel, too, when he was required to worship the idol Bel, which the people and the king then worshipped, in asserting the honour of his God, broke forth with full faith and freedom, saying, I worship nothing but the Lord my God, who created the heaven and the earth (Dan 14:4)."

Notice that St. Clement quoted from the Book of Wisdom, while St. Polycarp quoted from Tobias, which are both deuterocanonical books. St. Cyprian in turn quoted from an added text in Daniel 14, which was also a disputed text. More examples can be given, but it is not necessary. The given examples illustrate that the deuterocanonical books were already regarded as sacred by at least some of the Fathers even before the Church made her formal declaration that they were inspired.

The New Testament Books

 

The canon of the New Testament was determined in the same way by the Magisterium through a Church Council. During the first three centuries of the Christian era there were many gospels that rivaled those that we have today. Many of these books also carried the name of an Apostle in their title, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. (See a listing of some of the well-known apocryphal books on this page.) These books purported to be "inspired," but were actually of purely human origin. Along with these, however, were books known to the early Christians as authentic or of apostolic origin, and were therefore highly revered and frequently read and used in Church services. These were the gospels from the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the epistles of St. Paul. In particular St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 125 - 200), a follower of St. Polycarp who, in turn, was a disciple of St. John the Apostle, called out the four gospels:

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” Against Heresies, Book III, Ch. 1, par. 1. 

 

In Book III, Chapter 11, paragraph 8 of Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus also said - against those who were promoting several other gospels - that there were four, and only four, authentic gospels. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In spite of this, there was still a lot of confusion regarding the final status of the books. How many inspired books were there in all? Which ones were they? Was the Epistle to the Hebrews authentic? What about 2 Peter? There were many questions. Some of the Fathers, such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 296 - 373), had a perception of which books were inspired: 

"Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John." Letter 39, par, 5.

 

St. Athanasius actually named all 27 books of the New Testament canon! But the Church still had to make the final decision on the status of the books. The Decree of Pope St. Damasus I in A.D. 382 and the decision of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 helped much to resolve the canonical status of the New Testament books as well as the Old Testament books. The final canon was then ratified in subsequent Ecumenical Councils.

Notice here the role played by the Church Magisterium in determining which books shall be regarded as part of the Bible. The Church - not the Fathers - was the one that made the final determination. Although the Fathers might declare which books they thought belonged to the canon, the promise of infallibility was not given to the them but to the Church. The Church, looking at her Sacred Tradition, her own experience and use of the sacred books,  was the one that infallibly recognized with the help of the Holy Spirit which books belonged to the canon. 

 

The defined list of inspired books comprising Holy Scripture is important because without it, there would be books but no Bible. The canon, or the set of books that comprise the Bible, is itself not in the Bible, but is determined by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the canon is as much a part of Divine Revelation as the Bible itself is - and it came from Sacred Tradition!

Pope St. Damasus I receiving the Vulgate

from St. Jerome

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

Ordained a priest in A.D. 379, St. Jerome lived the next three years in Constantinople.  In A.D. 382 he returned to Rome and became secretary to Pope St. Damasus I, who requested him to revise the Old Latin version of the Bible. He then translated most of Scripture into common Latin (aka "vulgar Latin"), which is why his translation came to be known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate became the most widely used Latin translation in the West from the early Middle Ages until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

St. Matthew

A painting by Titian

Image source link: WikiArt.org

St. Luke

A painting by Titian

Image source link: WikiArt.org

St. Mark

A painting by Titian

Image source link: WikiArt.org

St. John the Evangelist

A painting by Titian

Image source link: WikiArt.org

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