Did the Council of Carthage Have One Book Too Many?

In one of the comments on my earlier post, “Answering Nine Protestant Arguments About the Bible,” a reader named Drew asks is the Council of Carthage considered as canonical the apocryphal book sometimes called “Greek Esdras” (also known, confusingly enough as 1 Esdras, 3 Esdras, and Esdras A).  The reason there are so many different confusing names is that the Early Church Fathers referred to four different Books as “Esdras” or “Ezra.” These are:

  1. The Book of Ezra
  2. The Book of Nehemiah; 
  3. “Greek Esdras”: Basically, the Book of Ezra with about four chapters added.  
  4. “Latin Esdras”: Sometimes called the Apocalypse of Ezra, it’s a set of prophesies.  

Catholics and Protestants agree that #1 and #2 are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that #3 and #4 aren’t.  What we can’t seem to agree upon is what to call those four.  Jerome called these 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, and 4 Esdras.  Simple enough.  But the Septuagint treated Ezra and Nehemiah as one Book, called “Esdras B,” and called Greek Esdras “Esdras A.”  Modern Bibles make it even worse: they often call the first two Books “Ezra” and “Nehemiah,” and when Greek and Latin Esdras as included, they’re listed as 1 and 2 Esdras.  So “1 and 2 Esdras” could refer to the two canonical Books, or the two apocryphal books, depending on who’s writing.  It’s a mess.  I’m avoiding the numbering and lettering completely, and calling them Ezra, Nehemiah, Greek Esdras, and Latin Esdras.

Basically, Drew’s question is, “What the Council of Carthage said that the ‘two books of Ezra’ were canonical, did they mean Ezra and Nehemiah, or Ezra-Nehemiah and Greek Esdras?”  Here’s what he writes:

Evening, all. I’m a Protestant being dragged (at times) and walking whistling (at other times) towards Catholicism, and this post provides some nice responses to commonly raised objections, so I appreciate it (whistle, whistle). I do, however, have a question about the canon of Scripture approved by the Council of Carthage in its 24th canon. Named among the OT books are “two books of Ezra.” In the Vulgate (later, agreed upon version, I suppose), this is 1 and 2 Esdras which correspond to Ezra and Nehemiah in modern Bibles, two books accepted by all. In the Masoretic text, these two canonical books are a single book, Ezra, and that’s the only Ezra-related book included. However, in the Septuagint, Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book so-called Esdras B. Included in some versions of the Septuagint was also Esdras A which corresponds to the non-canonical (for Protestants and Catholics but canonical for a number of Eastern traditions) book of Esdras A (Septuagint) a.k.a. 3 Esdras (Vulgate) a.k.a. 1 Esdras (Protestant reckoning).

So, what did the Fathers at Carthage have in mind when they approved two books of Esdras? If they meant Septuagint Esdras B (good) and Esdras A (bad), then I think we’ve hit a tough spot, considering that the Council of Trent affirmed “the first book of Esdras, and the second which is entitled Nehemias” in Session 4 and not the writing contained in Esdras A. Now, I recognize that the Carthaginian canon 24 isn’t super clear about their point of reference. They could have conceivably had the Vulgate in mind since the council was held in 419 and the Vulgate composed by the end of the fourth century, but Vulgate manuscripts from those early centuries are absent or inconsistent, or so I read, and the OT contents continued to be in flux for a good while after Jerome’s work, finally being closed at Trent. If my “facts” are off, please let me know. Following these funny names down historical rabbit holes sometimes leaves me a little lost. 
Is this one of those give ’em the benefit of the doubt situations? It’s tough for me, really, since Trent possibly disagreeing with Carthage/Roman approval has some serious implications. I’d appreciate whatever information you can offer. Thanks a million.

This is a very good question, and took a while to find the answers for.  In case you’re ever asked this, or ever wonder it yourself, here’s what I found.

First of all, Hugh Pope, O.P., in The Third Book of Esdras and the Tridentine Canon, Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. VIII (1907), available here, starting at page 218, already answered this.  Pope’s basic point is that we know that (a) Jerome rejected Greek Esdras, and that (b) Jerome and Augustine debated the proper status of the Deuterocanon. Yet we never see St. Augustine, the great defender of the Council of Carthage, defending Greek Esdras — this suggests, but doesn’t prove, that he didn’t think it was canonical, either.

That argument is good, but I think there’s a way to bolster it. After all, the question Drew’s raising is essentially: did the Council of Carthage recognize Ezra and Nehemiah as one Book or two?  If they thought Ezra and Nehemiah were one Book, then the reference to the “two Books of Ezra” must mean Ezra, Nehemiah, and something else.  That’s trouble.  But if they thought Ezra and Nehemiah were two Books, then the reference to the “two Books of Ezra” obviously meant these two.

That’s a helpful test, because it makes the answer much clearer. If you look at the way that the early Christians, and particularly those early Christians who used the Greek version, spoke of it, it’s clear that they did, in fact, understand Ezra and Nehemiah to be two separate Books put together.

To take the clearest example, Eusebius, in describing the canon used by Origen, said that it included “Esdras, First and Second in one, Ezra, that is, ‘An assistant.’” From his description, there’s no question that Eusebius is referring to Ezra and Nehemiah, grouped together in what the Septuagint called “Esdras B.” and Origen just called Ezra.  And we can tell from his testimony a few important things:

  • The two Books were called First and Second Esdras; 
  • The two Books were sometimes grouped together as one; 
  • Despite being grouped together, Christians were still aware that they were really two separate Books. 

(As an aside, many Jewish and early Christian canons lumped the Twelve Minor Prophets together as one Book, but everyone knew that they had separate authors).  Now, Origen lived from about 182-253 A.D., and Eusebius lived from 263-339, both well before the Third Council of Carthage in 397. So it’s not as if this is some development centuries after Carthage. It was common knowledge well before.

To take more examples, Athanasiuscanon (367 A.D.) notes “Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book.” And Cyril of Jerusalem: “the first and second of Esdras are counted one.” And even the dubious Canon LX of the Council of Laodicea numbers the two Books of Esdras as a single Book.

So I think that there’s a wealth of evidence from prior to the Council of Carthage that the early Christians realized that Ezra and Nehemiah (which they called “First and Second Esdras”) were two separate Books, despite being generally grouped as one. Given that, when Carthage refers to First and Second Esdras, it seems plain that they mean the same thing as Eusebius — those canonical Books we now call Ezra and Nehemiah.

Of course, this conclusion not only comports with the other Patristic evidence, but it avoids the pratfalls of the opposite conclusion, that the Church could create a canon and then somehow just forget about one of the canonical Books without anyone noticing.  That conclusion, even if it were grammatically possible based upon the wording of the Council of Carthage, frankly seems unrealistic.


  1. Garsh, Joe.

    I’m blushing from the publicity. And lest I appear too clever to your happy readers, let’s give credit where it’s due. The question was not mine, originally. I was recently weaving my way through some posts on the canon on Beggars All Reformation and Apologetics and found the question in the context of a debate between William Webster and Gary Michuta. Here’s the link:


    I hadn’t browsed through all of the material of the debate but had filed it away for further research when I saw what you had written on the canon. Opportunity strikes! Now, had I been willing to expend a little elbow grease on this topic at the time, I would have seen that John Betts handily addresses the question in much the same way that you do and backs it up with a tidal wave of other information:



    (I’ll forgive their kitschy web design.)

    Thanks for your thoughtful answer, too. It saved me some time and got me working on the issue rather than letting it fester. I do wonder about how the situation unfolded at Trent and why there were the votes of “non-canonical” and “pass” that are detailed in the Beggars All post and, apparently, by Michuta. I haven’t read his book.

    And the issue being brought up (ad nauseam) in the Called to Communion thread on the canon over Cardinal Cajetan and an alleged band of influential Catholics objecting to Deuterocanon inclusion leading up to Trent is interesting, too. Perhaps this is why Trent felt it necessary to re-declare the canon (I say re-declare assuming that Hippo/Carthage were accepted as the infallibly-defined canon, though regional councils). Or perhaps the canon wasn’t considered globally-infallibly-defined until Trent. Betts speaks on Trent some in the second link to good effect, I think, but he doesn’t address the Cajetan issue. Maybe your discussion on CTC will get around to him, so I won’t ask you more about it here.

    Regardless, Esdras is an interesting question, and I thank you and John Betts, wherever he is out there in the world of D&D-themed websites, for your work on it.

    I like breathing in the clean air of brotherly discussion that your site provides, but don’t make me out to be famously insightful. It’d be bad for my too-puffed-up head. Carry on, and so shall I.

    Peace and hope.


  2. Drew,

    Hope I didn’t embarrass you too much! Your latest question is:

    “I do wonder about how the situation unfolded at Trent and why there were the votes of “non-canonical” and “pass” that are detailed in the Beggars All post and, apparently, by Michuta. I haven’t read his book. “

    Unless I’m terribly mistaken, Carrie at Beggars All was being a bit loose with the truth. She refers to the “underwhelming canon vote” at Trent, but the canon was approved unanimously. What wasn’t approved unanimously, and in fact, passed with only a 24-15 vote (with 16 abstaining) was attaching an anathema to the denial of the Catholic canon.

    In other words, should the Church declare that the proper canon of Scripture is something which must be accepted on peril of damnation? On the one hand, getting the Books of the Bible correct is very important. But on the other hand, an anathema isn’t something to toss around lightly. Frankly, I’m not sure how I would have voted, if I were in that position.

    So the question wasn’t on whether this Bible was the correct one, but on how severe the consequences of denying that Bible were. To pretend that debate signaled an uncertainty at Trent at which Books were in the Bible is either dishonest or ignorant. And Carrie doesn’t seem ignorant on this point — in the comments on part IV, she concedes that this is what the debate was really about: http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2008/01/underwhelming-trent-vote-part-4.html

    I’ve found that while some of the anti-Catholic attacks on Beggars All are thoughtful and serious points worthy of consideration and refutation, other attacks are lazy or desperate. There’s a desire to cling to any weapon, not matter how feeble, if it can be used to assault the Catholic Church.

    After all, does it really tarnish the Catholic Church’s reputation that She was slow to issue an anathema? Because Carrie isn’t complaining that they ultimately issued the anathema, but that they did it on a 44% plurality. Of course, had the Council Fathers overwhelmingly voted to attach an anathema, they’d be criticized by Beggars All for that, too. Just read how they describe Trent’s treatment of the subject of justification, and you’ll see what I mean.

    I’m reminded of something G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy about the rabid foes of Christianity. After hearing their many and contradictory reasons for hating Christianity, he concluded:

    “It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”

    God bless, and I hope you find your way into the One Church worthy of such constant spiritual bombardment,


  3. Joe,

    Nay, I was not embarrassed, but I did want to be forthright. I’ve had to learn to suit up and wield my grain-of-salt dispenser liberally in these and many other matters along my way, but that’s only been in the process of practicing youthful credulity, getting confused, and scratching my poor excuse for a beard. And the Chesterton quote, as well as Newman’s similar historical statements, ring Roman, surely, yet many from all parties would do well to practice a little more brotherly love. From what I’ve seen, that’s faithfully pursued here, which is why I say the air is so fresh.

    Your erudite elucidation of the Tridentine vote is appreciated, too. Unanimous approval is a pretty strong statement, I guess. Do you know where I can look at other voting results (since, if everything is unanimous, nothing is, you know)?

    I’m looking into Cardinal Cajetan stuff and may write a comment on it at CTC soon enough, fyi.

    Have a good weekend.


  4. Drew,

    Thanks, and you have a great weekend yourself. Unfortunately, I don’t know where one can find the acts of the Council in English. Gary Michuta quotes from (and provides PDF excerpts from) some of the relevant [Latin] texts here (http://www.handsonapologetics.com/44percent.htm), but beyond that, I’m not sure.

    Anyone else have any clue where to get the acts of the Council of Trent (not the canons, but the acts describing each vote)?

    In Christ,


  5. As a Reformed Evangelical Protestant with degrees in philosophy who has just stumbled on this, I find your argument wafer-thin.

    You conclude that your rationalization ‘comports with other Patristic evidence’, but at best it’s an argument by narrative, and you think your reading of the events and records available is a good one. But the problem is obvious. You’re framing the narrative precisely to lead to your current beliefs. It’s crushingly circular.

    And that was the best option. The other is simply a fallacy of arguing from negative consequences: “it avoids the pratfalls of the opposite conclusion, that the Church could create a canon and then somehow just forget about one of the canonical Books without anyone noticing.”

    In translation you’re saying, “I’m taking for granted Catholicism is true – it can’t be as Protestants say because that would make Catholicism false.” Your conclusion isn’t argued for, it’s the premise. It’s horrific intellectual dishonesty. Petitio principii from start to finish.

    1. Stephen,

      This is a four year old post, but I’ll bite: How is the argument circular? How is it a rationalization?

      The question in the post was what the Council of Carthage meant by the ‘two books of Ezra.’ I gave evidence showing that when other near-contemporary sources used this, they meant Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a point that I think a good many Reformed scholars would actually concede, since “Greek Esdras” wasn’t widely received as canonical in the West. Even Calvin College’s CCEL concedes this point (see footnote 1770 here).

      Merry Christmas,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *