The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Traced from the latest Version of the English Bible through the Latin and Greek to the original writers

Chapter 3

The Canon of the Greek New Testament


The convictions and testimony, as well as the epoch-making version of Jerome, are explicitly confirmed by the witness both of the fathers and the councils of his age. The great and learned names of Augustine and Rufinus stand as representative among the former, and the Councils of Carthage and Hippo among the latter. The deliverance of the former Council (A. D. 397) on this subject is in these terms. After ordering that nothing shall be read in the church under the name of Divine Scriptures—"praeter Scripturas canonicas"—they proceed to specify those of the New Testament in the most deliberate and formal manner—"Sunt autem canonicæ Scriptwæ":

Of the Gospels Four Books.
Of the Acts One Book.
Of Paul's Epistles Thirteen Books.
To the Hebrews One Book.
Of Peter's Epistles Two Books.
Of John's Epistles Three Books.
Of Jaines' Epistle One Book.
Of Jude's Epistle One Book.
Of the Apocalypse of John One Book.


Twenty-seven Books.


Now, it is conceded on all sides by modern historians, and notably by Professor Harnack, that the basis of the opinions of Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine on the canon of the New Testament, as well as the declaration of the Councils cited, was the writings of that prince of Greek fathers, St. Athanasius, who reflected the well-nigh universal opinion of the orthodox Greek fathers by at least as early as the middle of the fourth century. This is as far back as the completed canon of the New Testament can be traced. But it is also as far back as we can clearly trace the opinion or declaration of the undivided Church upon this subject. Prior to this century of distinct ecumenical consciousness, opinion had been provincial and individual, namely, Eastern, Western, Assyrian, African, Antiochian, Alexandrian, Roman, dominated by such men as Eusebius, Origen, and Irenaeus, not to overlook the direct and constructive influence of such names as Marcion and Tatian.

Now, it must be conceded that in order to estimate accurately the varying opinions and prejudices of the various parties and leaders of the two long centuries lying between the formal recognition and the original writings of the New Testament books, great patience and perseverance of judgment must be exercised; but the path once so obscure is becoming ever more plain, and it can be traced to-day with a confidence not hitherto known.

Taking into account the fact that, of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, twenty-one, or seven ninths, are letters and fifteen, or five ninths, are addressed either to individuals or local church societies; taking into account the fact that until the first half of the fourth century there cannot be said to have been any such thing as a great ecumenical church, and hence neither occasion nor opportunity for the definite or final settlement of a canon at all; taking into account the fact that the scattered, non-resisting, and utterly defenseless societies of Christians were subjected throughout the second and third centuries to a series of searching and relentless persecutions, several of which were especially directed toward the complete annihilation of the few precious scrolls and copies of brief letters which they possessed, and that their enemies had at their command all of the machinery—social, civil, and religious—of the Roman empire; I say, taking all of these things into consideration, the wonder is, not that any of the sacred writings of the Christians perished, but, on the other hand, that any of those writings were preserved, and that immediately upon the cessation of the age of persecution they were circulated and recognized so widely throughout the Church both east and west, that within the compass of a single generation the canon was settled for all time.

Threading, then, our way back through the mazes of Christian literary history from the great ecumenical councils to the apostolic age, we find that twenty of the twenty-seven books, or approximately nine tenths of the bulk of the New Testament, have been undisputed as to canonicity from the very days of their publication or writing. These twenty books are the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen epistles of St. Paul, the First Epistle of St. Peter, and the First Epistle of St. John.

Not to go into any lengthy review of the evidence for this statement, I will simply name the chief patristic witnesses, as well as the chief catalogues or lists which contain these books : Of the Fathers all are witnessed to by Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius; all but Philemon by Irenseus, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian; all but First John by Hippolytus; the Syriac Version (about 150 A. D.) witnesses to all twenty, and the Muratorian fragment (about 170 A. D.) to all save First Peter. '

The remaining seven books are Hebrews, James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation. These are known as the third section of the New Testament canon, the Gospels and Pauline epistles with Acts comprising the First and Second, and are often compared with the third section of the Old Testament canon, called the Hagiographa, as contrasted with the Pentateuch and Prophets respectively. Of these seven books, four are exceedingly brief, namely, Second Peter, Second and Third John, and Jude, comprising a fraction equal to one fifty-fifth of the entire New Testament; moreover, two of these four, namely, Second and Third John, are not only very brief, but besides being addressed to unknown individuals, are, comparatively speaking, of but slight intrinsic value to the Church at large. Let us, however, review the evidence for the canonicity of these seven books separately and somewhat in detail, condensing freely from Westcott, Gregory, and Harnack.

1. For that of the Hebrews we have the Council of Carthage (397), of Laodicea (366), the Peshitto Version, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, Innocent, and Isidore of Seville—indeed, so full is the testimony that Dr. Harnack places the Hebrews with the twenty undisputed books. It appears, moreover, upon careful examination that the doubts relative to this book had no real relation to canonicity, but only to its authorship, which is not an essential circumstance, since many books of Scripture are anonymous and the authorship of some others entirely uncertain.

2. For the Epistle of James we have the favorable testimony of the Canon Muratori, as well as the Peshitto Version, of the Councils of Carthage and Laodicea and of Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Nicephorus, Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, Innocent, and Isidore, among the Fathers. Why, then, was this epistle ever considered as at all doubtful respecting its canonicity? For two reasons: (1) Because of a certain doubt as to which of three Jameses it might be traceable, and (2) because of a certain impression in a very narrow circle of a doctrinal diversity between it and Paul's writings as to justification by faith. It is safe to say, however, that no reputable critic would consider either of these grounds tenable as against the canonicity of this epistle.

3. The testimony in favor of Second Peter and of Jude is exactly the same in both as that in favor of the Epistle of James with the exception of the fact that neither stands in the Peshitto Version, and Jude alone, not Second Peter, in Canon Muratori. This, however, probably arises from the fact that in the Syrian churches, as well as in some other districts, suspicion arose because of a remarkable resemblance between these two letters, not in sentiment or substance merely, but in minute forms of expression, so that the one might seem to have been copied from the other; hence arose the false assumption that but one could be canonical, and, as division naturally resulted on the question as to which of the two that might be, the upshot was that both fell into the category of the doubtful, although the opinion finally arrived at, in the fourth century, was, as we have seen, that each should hold its place in the canon; and, despite the ill-conceived conception of Luther, such has remained the Church's decision until to-day.

4. Second and Third John, although so little quoted in the early post-apostolic age because of their very brevity, private reference, and lack of general interest, nevertheless were but little disputed and are abundantly supported in respect of their canonicity by those to whom appeal can alone be made. In their favor stands the Councils of Laodicea and Carthage, possibly the Canon Muratori, John of Damascus, Cyril of Jerusalem (for Second John), Epiphanius, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Leontius, Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, Innocent, and Isidore. Lastly, Harnack concedes, and proves, indeed, that they were written by the same author as First John and the Gospel of John, although he calls him the presbyter only.

5. Finally, we have the Apocalypse. Now, the very fact that this book is an apocalypse puts it in a category sui generis. It cannot be disputed that at the middle of the fourth century it was received as of undoubted canonicity. Again, it cannot be denied that during the very earliest postapostolic age, that is, during the second century, it held the same position; indeed, of all the seven books just passed in review, that of Revelation may be said to stand, as far as canonicity goes, upon superior ground. It is found in the Canon Muratori, in the list of the Council of Carthage, in Epiphanius, Origen, Athanasius, Leontius, Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, Innocent, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville, and Professor Harnack says it should stand with the other Johannine writings as canonical. It is now widely held that the chief reason for any apparent doubt as to the canonicity of Revelation, during the third century, arose from the fact that during that time Chiliastic doctrines of the grossest forms prevailed, especially in the Eastern Church, and as the Apocalypse was utilized to support these doctrines, and many of the Fathers were unequal in ability of interpretation to the leaders of the heretical school, they fell to discrediting and in some instances denying outright its canonicity. In the following century, however, the Chiliastic errors were overcome, and "the Apocalypse has shone forth with all its ancient but mysterious splendor."

Let us now review, in a few words, the present state of the subject in hand.

We observe first, that from the middle of the fourth century the canon of the New Testament has comprised but twenty-seven well-known books.

Second, that neither before nor since that date were any other writings accepted as canonical by the Church universal.

Third, that because of either (1) the very nature of the documents themselves, being strictly private and so not widely circulated, or (2) because of disputed authorship, and so, in some regions, being temporarily rejected because of violent partisan prejudice, or (3) because of their falling for a time into disrepute on account of the abuses to which they were subjected by an unscrupulous dogmatism, certain of the books, never more than seven, all told, and really hardly more than four, or at most five, and those the very briefest and most nearly ephemeral, were temporarily disputed, only to be finally accepted as undoubtedly canonical, upon an absolute equality with the other twenty.

Fourth, that said final acceptance on the part both of the majority of the Fathers, who seriously examined into the question while the data were abundant, and of the great ecumenical councils, is a real guarantee that their decisions were based on good and sufficient evidence, and that henceforth the onus probendi rests upon the shoulders of him who chooses to reject these decisions.