By Fr. Raymond Taouk




1.    Etimology :

·      in Genere : Canon, kanw,n, designated originally the reed used as ruler to draw straight lines or to measure distances. It became metaphorically the rule or norm of conduct in ethics, the canon or model in literature. In the NT, the word is applied to indicate the limits of activity (II Cor x 13-15).

·      Application to the SS. :  St. Athanasius (ca 350 AD) is the first to use the terms canon and canonized about the SS. The Biblical Canon designates the collection of books which the CC recognized as sacred and which she declared to be inspired. Thus they are the partial and remote rule of faith and morals.[1]


2.    Canonicity, inspiration, authenticity

·      Inspiration means that it has God for author, canonical means that its inspiration is recognised by the CC (wo changing the intrinsic nature of the book). These 2 notions are connected yet not identical : every canonical book is inspired, but we might suppose that some inspired books (lost epistles of St. Paul) are not canonical.

·      A book is authentic when it is really authored by the one designated by tradition.[2]

3.    Kinds of canonical books.

·      The canonical books are called proto-canonical if their inspiration has never been seriously denied; deutero-canonical are those books where inspiration has been put into doubt and accepted universally later on.

·      The 7 deutero-can. O.T. books are : Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Baruch, I + II Machabees (& fragments of Esther x, xvi; Dan iii, xiii-xiv).

·      The 7 deutero-can.N.T. books are : Hebrews, James, II Peter; II + III John, Jude, Apocalypse (+ fragments, Mk xvi 9-20; Lk xxii 43-44.; Jn v 4; viii 1-11).

·      Are called apocryphal any non-inspired book. For Protestants however, ‘apocryphal’ signify the deutero-canonical books.


History of the Old Testament Canon


            No Jewish document BC gives us a complete catalogue of the inspired books of the O.T., yet much evidence exists of authentic collections. Jews and Protestants acknowledge only the proto-canonical books of the O.T. whereas Catholics and the Oriental Churches accept also the deutero-can. books and fragments of the O.T.



I. The O.T. Canon of the Jews


1) historical phases of the o.t. canon


1.    The first indication of the Sacred books comes from Moses, who had the book of the Law — the entire Pentateuch, or Torah — placed in the ark of the covenant (Deut xxxi, 26). The Bible mentions later on collections like the Psalms (II Par xxix 30) or the Proverbs (Prov xxv 1). Daniel speaks of the writings he had read during the captivity among which were the prophecies of Jeremias (Dan ix 2). Thus, there existed a collection of sacred books recognised as such by the Jews prior to the return from exile.[3]  Esdras (return from Babyl. captivity) had a major role in the formation of the Jewish canon. ‘Nehemias gathered into a library numerous books concerning Israel’ (II Macc ii 13).


2.    In the II cent. B.C., the canon comprised at least all of the proto-canon. books of the O.T.; it was divided into three classes : the Law, the prophets and the ‘other writings of the Fathers’ (= hagiographa)[4]. Judas Machabee collected all the books dispersed during the war (II Mac ii 14).


3.    The existence of a canon of the SS is insinuated in the N.T.[5]  Most of the proto-can. O.T. books are cited in the N.T.[6]  The O.T. is generally quoted in the N.T. according to the version of the Septuagint whereby the apostles admitted the authority of this version and recognised the inspiration of the deutero-can. books[7].


4.    The Historian Flavius Josephus gives us for the first time the nbr of the canonical books[8]. In the time of O.L. it comprised 25 books, distributed into 3 classes, considered as inspired, and  next to them there were venerable books which were not certainly canonical (i.e. the deutero-canonical), the canon was closed with Esdras.


5.    In the beginning of our Christian era, it seems that the canon has not yet been definitely fixed since a) there are still discussions upon the canonical character of certain books[9]; b) the Jewish Hellenised community even in Jerusalem used the Septuagint text which held also the Deutero-canonical books wo distinction from the proto-can.


6.    After the fall of Jerusalem by Titus (70 A.D.)  the Pharisees were the leaders and tried to unify the Canon, although the praxis in the synagogues remained still far from uniform. Some accepted Baruch and Jeremias, The Talmud quotes often the Ecclesiasticus, and I Macc., There exist midrashim of Tobias and Judith.




2) the criteria of inspiration for the jews


1.    From what has been said, it seems as if the Jewish Canon has been gradually reduced. The Jews of the Diaspora had broader ideas than the Palestinians Jews, but received from them the relgs direction. Thus if they considered the deutero-canon. books as inspired and translated them into Greek, that was because these same books had been firstly received as such in Palestine.[10]

2.    The Deuterocanonical books were excluded by the Pharisees probably only in the 1st cent., perhaps at the synod of Jamnia. These narrow-minded rabbis subjected all the Bible books to a re-examination, inventing 4 criteria of inspiration:

·      conformity of a book with the Law. (Ezechiel was questioned bec. of its difficulties w. the Torah).

·      age : any book written after Esdras was not received.

·      language, Hebrew. Thus II Macc., Wisdom were rejected bec. written in Greek; Tobias and fragments of Daniel and Esther in Aramaic.

·      place, written in Palestine. Daniel and Esther, Baruch and Jeremias  were rejected.



ii. the old testament canon of the christians


1.    The New Testament  itself

·      has allusions to the Deutero-canonical books (see p.21, ftn 5).

·      The authors used the Septuagint version and therefore admitted the divine origin of the deutero-canonical books. Had the apostles distinguished between the deutero and the proto-canonical books, they should have warned at least their neophytes, but there is no such thing. Could they be wrong?  No, since it is a matter of books which determine our faith, where the Church infallibility is engaged.


2.    The Church Fathers till the IIId cent., are few but unanimous in accepting the deutero-canonical bks. The primitive Church believed in the canonicity of all the books, and the apocryphal books are totally ignored.[11] In the catacombs, painters represent equally scenes from both series of books (3 children in furnace, Daniel in lions’den), whereas until the Vth cent. the iconography never used the apocryphal books.


3.    From the IVth cent., there are some hesitations. Some Fathers among the greatest cite the deutero-can. wo putting them on a par with the proto-canon. : they were considered as ecclesiastical books written for edification.[12]




·      it is easy to explain why these Fathers had some hesitations :

·      they all belonged to the Churches of Egypt or Palestine, whereas the Western Frs and those of Antioch recognised the equal value of the Bible books. Later Westerners followed St Jerome.

·      in their discussion with the Jews, they could bring out only the proto-canonical books.

·      the multiplication of the apocryphal books in the IVth and Vth cent. made everyone suspicious.

·      However, the great majority of the Fathers and eccl. writers favour the deutero-can. bks, and so do the local councils. The council of Hippo (393) and III and IVth of Carthage (397; 419) place all the deutero-canonical books in the canon. Innocent I mentions them also in 405.


4.    The Council of Florence (1411) is the first ecumenical council to give decrees on the canon. Yet, Cajetan tried to interpret the decree of Florence in the sense of St. Jerome.


5.    Whereas the Reformers of the XVIth cent. distinguished the 2 series, putting the deutero-can. as apocryphal (at the end of the German version), the Council of Trent defined solemnly the canonicity of all the books of the Vulgate anathematizing those who would not receive all these books ‘pro sacris et canonicis’.[13] Since then, the Protestants are more opposed than ever to the canonicity of the deutero-can.


6.    Conclusion. East and West agreed on 3 principles re. the Canon :

·      1) the Church alone has to settle the SS Canon;

·      2) books not read in the churches are outside it;

·      3) the 2d canon is inspired (since the whole Church has always taken the Septuagint for an authentic version of the O.T. approved by the Ap.). The authority of St. Jerome, doctor Scripturae, is great only in so far as he represents the universal teaching but needs not be accepted in his private views, like the denial of the 2d canon universally accepted![14]




1.    The Apostles.

·      Our Lord re. the O.T. attributed often to Himself the legislative power over the Law (Mt v 21-22; 27-28 etc...), and gave the same power to the Apostles through the coming of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost. Thus the faithful gave the writings of the apostles a normative or legislative character.

·      The churches tried very soon to collect all the apostolic writings.[15]  However, these were mostly letters written for specific circumstances and purpose, which explain why their diffusion was slow and their origin difficult to recognize.


2.    The Apostolic Fathers, immediate successors of the Ap. frequently quoted them.[16] At the bgg of the IId cent. AD, 22 or 23 of the 27 NT books were known.[17]


3.    From the 2nd century  onwards,


·      a catalog of the books in usage in the Roman Church is preserved, the ‘canon of Muratori’ which distinguishes 4 categories, the first being that of the books universally read in the Church. In it are mentioned most of the NT books[18]. Thus, according to the sentiment of serious exegets, tow. the end of the II cent. the Canon of the Roman Church was identical to ours. The ‘Canon of Muratori’ is precious because it gives the criteria of acceptation by the universal Church, its apostolicity.

·      a similar catalog existed in Africa : St. Cyprian and Tertullian mention most of the canonical writings (except II Pe, III Jo; Heb. is attributed to St. Barnabas by Tertullian). In Gaul, St. Ireneus cites also most apostolic writings (except Phile, III Jo, Jude). These writers were fighting agst Marcion (134-170) who denied the O.T. writings and many NT books.

·      Ccls : if at the end of the II cent. there are doubts re. the canonicity of certain writings, esp. II Pe and Heb, we cannot conclude that this corresponds to a real situation in the Churches (i.e. traditional teaching).


4.    in the 3rd century, Origen offers a complete canon identical to ours. From then on, the agreement becomes general among the religious writers. Yet bec. of its obscurity and the passages favourable to millenarism, the Apocalypse, previously accepted, became suspect to some Oriental Fathers.


5.    After the III cent. the N.T. canon is complete in the West. The Orientals slowly accept even the few contested books (Apoc, II Pe, Jude, II & III Jo).


6.    The decrees of the Council of Florence only  confirms the previous tradition. The Ccl of Trent defines solemnly the canonicity of the books of the O.T. and N.T. as they were read in the CC and in the ancient Vulgata. From this definition, one cannot without falling into heresy deny the canonicity and the inspiration of the deuterocanonical books. Vat I proclaimed it again.



The Apocryphal Books of the Bible



I. notions


1.    The apocryphs (avpo,krufoj, secrete) contained a secret or esoteric doctrine accessible only to the initiated. In the Church the apocryphs were excluded from the canon, i.e. they are non canonical books.

2.    The  purpose for writing apocryphal books was diverse :

·      O.T. apocryphs were generally of the apocalyptic style announcing the imminent liberation of the Jews.

·      The N.T. apocryphs were placed under the illustrious patronage of some saint to propagate a heretical doctrine.

·      Other N.T. apocryphs seem to aim only at satisfying the curiosity of the reader with fantastic narrations to fill up the Biblical history.

3.    Utility of studying the apocryphs

·      in apologetics, these writings must be studied to show the falsity of Church enemies like Voltaire who pretended that they were more ancient than the true Gospels.[19]

·      they reveal the history of the dogmatic development of the Jews of the O.T. and of the 1st Cent. A.D. Some of these books were held in great esteem (III & IV Esdras; the Roman liturgy makes use of some of the apocryphal texts).

4.    Number : a great quantity of the apocryphs have been lost, due to the severe policy of the Church. We mention the most important ones.


ii. O.T. apocryphal books


1.    Prayer of Manasses (cf. II Paral xxxiii 11-13).

2.    III bk of Esdras dates from II cent. B.C. It had been accepted for a time, but is not found in the Hebrew Bible.

3.    IV Esdras is apocalyptic in style (used in lit. Introït of Mass of Tu. of Pent.). Despite great beauties, this books is disfigured by dogmatic errors.

4.    III Macc. preserved by the Septuagint was unknown to the West. Written in A.D., it narrates the persecution which the Jews from Alexandria suffered from Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-203 B.C.).

5.    IV Macc. teaches that ‘reason directed by piety has a sovereign power over the passions’, deals in abstracto and in concreto with examples in Jewish history.

6.    The Psalms of Solomon (18 in #) written in Palestine soon after the death of Pompeius (48 BC) and breathe the most ardent messianic spirit, the same against which O.L would have to fight.

7.    The Book of Henoch (IId cent BC) imbued with a severe moral doctrine, deals with the end of the world, the coming of the Messias, the sin and fall of the angels, astronomy.[20]

8.    Others of minor importance : Bks of Jubilees, the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs, the Apocalypse of Moses, the Assumption of Moses, the Assumption of Isaias, the Apoc. of Baruch.




iii. N.T. apocryphs.


They follow the models of the canonical books, their value is unequal, some are puerile, others clearly heretical.


1.    complete Gospels

·      the Gospel according to the Hebrews has 2 different versions, one the gospel of the Nazareans which is similar to the Ist Gospel with additions wo interest, the second the gospel of the Ebionites, tendentious.

·      the Gospel of Peter from 125 AD, is orthodox, although it was used by the Docetists.


2.    Incomplete gospels of the childhood

·      Protoevangelium Jacobi, from the IId cent., very puerile though orthodox : it tells in 25 ch. the miraculous conception of BVM, her presentation and life in the temple, the betrothal w. St. Joseph, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the doubts of Joseph, the birth of Jesus, visit of the magi, the death of Zachary, and ends at the massacre of the H. Innocents. From this gospel stem 2 others : that of the pseudo-Matthew, and the book of the birth of the Virgin Mary. Also in the same vein is the ‘Liber de nativitate Salvatoris et de Maria vel obstetrice’.

·      Gospel accdg to Thomas was rejected for its gnosticism. In its present state, there is no gnostic error anymore, but ‘it is a puerile and stms even shocking narration, of miracles attributed to Jesus between his fifth and twelfth year’, the Saviour appears often as a misbehaving child.


3.    Gospels of the Passion, principally the g. of Nicodemus (IV cent.), contains the ‘acts of Pilate’ and ‘the Descent of Christ to hell’.


4.    The Acts depart from the canon. Acts which dealt w. St Peter and St Paul, hence a profusion of acts re. the other apostles to satisfy the popular curiosity. Their abuse of the marvellous, their system of composition, assimilate them to novels which are contemporaneous with the expansion of Christianity. The ‘Kerygma of St. Peter’, the ‘Acts of St. Peter’.


5.    Epistles

·      the doctrine of Addai (Acts of  Judas Thaddeus in Edessa) contains a letter of Abgar to Jesus and the reply of the Saviour.

·      the letter of St Paul to the Laodiceans (IV cent.), bad compilation of the other ep. of St. Paul.

·      15 letters exchanged between Seneca and St Paul where the impropriety of the language together with the poverty of the ideas are clear enough prove of its falsity.


6.    Apocalypses

·      of St. Peter deals with the Last Judgement, the happiness of the elect and the punishment of the reprobate.

·      of St Paul, allegedly narrates what St Paul has seen in the third heaven (II Cor xii 2).




[1]Cf. Rufinus, 400 A.D.

[2] In case of an anonymous book, if it has been composed in the epoch assigned by tradition.

[3]Fr. Cornely remarks : all the pre-exilic historical books begin with a copula (‘and’...) as if it indicated that they follow each other and form a single collection.

[4]Jesus, son of Sirach analyses all the proto-can. bks of the O.T. except Esther and Dan (Eccli xlvi-xlix), Daniel is cited by I Macc ii 59.

[5]Jn v 39 where O.L. uses the SS as the decisive argument. Allusion is made to the 3 division Mt v 17; Lk xvi 31; xxiv 44).

[6] Ruth, Esther, Cant of Cant, Ecclesiastes, Abdias, Nahum, I Esdras are the only ones not mentioned in the N.T.

[7]The N.T. has some clear allusions, if not formal citations, to deuterocan. O.T. books of Wisdom, Ecclus, II Macc.

[8]Contra Apion 1, 8.

[9]Disc. of Shammaï want to exclude Esther and Cant of Cant for being too profane, Ezech. as too obscure and opposed to the Law, Prov. and Eccle. as self contradictory. Those of Hillel maintained them.

[10]Historically speaking, there is little probability that the Jews of the Diaspora would have enlarged the catalogue of the s. books received from Palestine, the other position is by far the most likely.

[11] x : allusion ;


[12]This is the view point of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Greg. Nazianzum, St. Athanasius and St. Jerome, who accepted only the Palestinian canon. Interestingly enough, the CC followed a course opposed to the opinions of St. Jerome, to show the triUmph of tradition even over the major authority of its members.

[13] ‘Si quis autem libros ipsos integros cum omnibus suis partibus, prout in Ecclesia catholica legi consueverunt et in veteri Vulgata latina editione habentur, pro sacris et canonicis non susceperit, A.S.’  (Dz 784).

[14] Reuss, a German Protestant critic says ‘unless she rejected her own past, the CC could not decide otherwise than in act she did’ re. decision of the C.T. The Reformers headed by Luther in 1519, who had excluded Macc and the rest from their Bible-canon, were at a loss how to determine what books ought to be admitted. For the O.T. they fell back on the Synagogue and its Palestinian recension which, contrary to Origen’s axiom, was substituting the Jewish for the Christian rule of Scripture. The Anglican 6th Art. invokes tradition and decides the Canon by it; Luther, with the new rule of faith, private judgment, changed and dissolved all traditions.

[15]II Pet iii 16 mentions ‘all the epistles of St. Paul’ which he compares to the writings of the O.T. He seems to indicate the forming of a collection. St Paul recommended the reading of his letters even to churches to which they were not destined (the conclusion II Cor. seems to show a liturgical usage of the epistle).

[16]in their writings we find citations of all the books of the N.T. except II & III Jo, Jude, Phile.



[18]including probably II and III Jn, except Hebrews, Apocalypsis, I & II Pe, James. Yet, if the author is St. Hippolytus as serious exegets believe, we know that he accepted and used all of them except the very short ones Phile, Jud, II & III Jn.

[19] Even the impious Renan is obliged to confess the grandeur of the 4 Gospels : “It would be insulting the Christian literature to pretend to put on the same level these empty and apocryphal compositions and the master pieces of Mark, Luke and Matthew. The apocryphal gospels are ... based on the canonical gospels. The author only takes these gospels as a theme from which he never departs, and only tries to complete and expand... As to the detail, it is impossible to conceive anything more petty, more weak. It is the verbiage of the old wife tale, the tone basely familiar of the literature of the nannies... The true Jesus surpasses them and frightens them.”  And Cornely Compendium p. 56 : “qui unquam apocrypha superstita legerit non potest non videre illa omnia esse effrenatae et luxuriantis mentis humanae foetus, nec quidquam habere divinae illius simplicitatis simul et sublimitatis, quibus libri genuini nostri sunt insignes.”

[20] ‘This is the work of a laborious imagination which endeavours to adorn and develop the ancient biblical narrations according to the well known systems of the rabbinical haggada’ Lietzmann.