Did the Protestant Bible Exist Before the Reformation?

I. The Challenge: Find an Early Church Protestant Bible.

Finding an Early Church Father who agrees 100% with Protestantism is an unfair burden. After all, there are probably some Fathers who disagree with things now defined in Catholicism if you read their writings carefully enough. But here’s a burden which should be considered fair: find a Protestant Bible. Find a single Early Church Father who says, “here is the canon which we use,” and lists the precise books which Protestants have in their Bibles today. After all, for either solo Scriptura or sola Scriptura, you must first agree on which Bible. If no Early Church Father read the Bible used today by Protestants, none of their quotes praising the reading of Scripture are applicable to proving a “Protestant Bible only” position.
So I decided to go to the source. Or more specifically, Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) wrote a book called Canon of the Old and New Testaments Ascertained, or The Bible Complete without the Apocrypha and Unwritten Traditions. Now I know what you’re wondering: how could the a set of books, like the Bible, contain unwritten Traditions? I can only speculate. Illustrations? Maybe he was tired of seeing things like statues of Moses with horns. Just kidding: the whole bit about “the Apocrypha and Unwritten Traditions” is to let his audience know, “I hate everything Catholicism stands for!” And his book sure does. In it, he makes some bold statements about the Early Church Fathers and the canon. He notes that the oldest canon we have is that of Melito of Sardis, but that we only know his canon from Eusebius’ Church History. Regarding Melito’s canon, Alexander writes, “the very same books were, in his day, received into the Canon, as are now found in our Hebrew Bibles.” So he’s claiming: Melito’s canon is a 100% match to the Protestant canon. And then he writes:

Very soon after Melito, Origen furnishes us with a catalogue of the books of the Old Testament, which perfectly accords with our Canon, except that he omits the Minor Prophets; which omission must have been a mere slip of the pen, in him or his copyist, as it is certain that he received this as a book of Holy Scripture: and the number of the books of the Old Testament, given by him in this very place, cannot be completed without reckoning the twelve Minor Prophets as one.

After Origen, we have catalogues in succession, not only by men of the first authority in the church, but by councils, consisting of numerous bishops, all which are perfectly the same as our own. It will be sufficient merely to refer to these sources of information. Catalogues of the books of the Old Testament have been given by Athanasius; by Cyril; by Augustine; by Jerome; by Rufin; by the council of Laodicea, in their LX. Canon; and by the council of Carthage. And when it is considered, that all these catalogues exactly correspond with our present Canon of the. Hebrew Bible, the evidence, I think, must appear complete to every impartial mind, that the Canon of the Old Testament is settled upon the clearest historical grounds.

Wow. Certainly, if Archibald Alexander is telling the truth, it must appear complete to every impartial mind, that the Canon of the Old Testament is settled upon the clearest historical grounds. So according to him, all of the canons in bold above will agree with the Protestant canon 100%. That’s the standard he sets for himself, and it’s the only sensible one. After all, the difference between the Catholic and Protestant canon is only 7 books (plus longer versions of Daniel and Esther, which you can’t really tell one way or another from a list of books).
So I decided to retroactively submit Archibald’s book to what might be termed the “Early Church Protestant Canon Challenge”: that is, he claims 9 sources who will provide exactly what I’m looking for: A full and exact Protestant Canon. Actually, he claims just a Protestant Old Testament, but at least it’s a starting place (as we’ll see, he can’t even deliver on this much more limited promise – sorry to spoil the surprise).

II. What the Early Church Fathers Actually Believed.

Before we begin, a lot of the lists group books together to attempt to make the canon a perfect 22 books. They do this in strange ways, like putting “the twelve minor prophets” as one book, even though it’s twelve books with different authors, or grouping Judges and Ruth as one (strange) book, or putting part of Baruch with Lamentations at the end of Jeremiah, and calling it one book. Jerome explains the reasons why he thinks this is an important standard in his prologue to the Books of the Kings here. It’s a pious attempt, but ultimately, it’s discarded by the Church (and isn’t revived by Protestants), because there are just too many books to try and find a way to reduce or group them down to 22.

A. Melito (d. 180 A.D.):
The only existent copy of Melito’s letter is from Book 4, Chapter 26 of Eusebius’ Church History – it’s section 14 here. In it, he excludes Esther from the canon, and includes the Book of Wisdom also. The Protestant claim that Melito is repeating the same book twice by different names seems contrary to the delineation that Bishop Melito drew: specifically listing them as “Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also,” seems to refute any attempt to reduce this to a single book. Here’s a Protestant sola Scripturist who argues that Wisdom actually was in Meltio’s canon, on the basis of the text. In either case, without Esther, this isn’t a complete Protestant Old Testament, and Bp. Melito doesn’t include a New Testament canon.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 1

B. Origen:
We also know of his canonical list through Eusebius’ Church Historyit’s here. In it, he also lists “Jeremiah, with Lamentations and the Epistle in one,” as canonical. The Epistle in question is the Epistle of Jeremy, now the last chapter of Baruch. At the time, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and this epistle were lumped into one by those who wanted to keep the Old Testament canon at 22 books. We’ll see this “Epistle” mentioned again in Athanasius’ and Cyril’s lists. At the very end of the list, Origen writes, “And besides these there are the Maccabees, which are entitled Sarbeth Sabanaiel.” It’s a cryptic sentence. He seems to think that 1st and 2nd Maccabees are canonical, but there’s no way to include them in the 22-book structure he’s trying to meet. So does he list them to say, “in addition to the 22, these are canonical”? Or “these are specifically outside the canonical list”? I think it’s the former, but it’s hard to tell. If he’s refuting the two books of Maccabees, why include the Hebrew name (since he says he’s giving the Hebrew books). And why list only those two books, instead of all of the other books thought to be canonical which he doesn’t like? So I think Origen is confused by how to fit these two pieces (“Maccabees is canonical” and “there are 22 books”) together. In either case, Origen’s explicit acceptance of the Deuterocanonical Baruch 6 means his canon includes part of the DC, and it not an exact Protestant canon.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 2

C. Athanasius:
You can find his canon here, at #4-5, and 7. He counts as one canonical book “Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle.” He also omits Esther, and in fact (in #7), lists the book along with most of the DC as a non-canonical book used for new member of the Church. So he didn’t even forget Esther. He explicitly addressed her as non-canonical.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 3

D. Cyril of Jerusalem:
His list is here, #34-36. In it, he says that the LXX is divinely inspired, recounting the popular Legend of the Seventy Two Translators. The LXX, you’ll note, contains the full Deuterocanon. Then he gives his list, and like Origen, counts the book of Jeremiah as “one, including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle.” Plus, his New Testament list omits Revelation. To be fair, Alexander only claimed it was a perfect Old Testament canon. Of course, since it’s not, he’s still wrong (again).
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 4

E. Augustine:
Augustine’s list is here, #13. I knew that Archibald Alexander was wrong when I noticed Augustine on the list. He was the fervent defender of the Deuterocanon against the translators Jerome and Rufinus. Augustine presents, in the link above, the full and exact Catholic canon, althoug he doesn’t list Lamentations or Baruch. But we already know that they were often grouped as part of the Book of Jeremiah from the authors above. And in fact, Augustine quotes from Baruch by calling it Jeremiah, which is pretty explicit evidence that he considered them all one book (see footnote 2473 here, which mentions that St. John Cassian did the same). His list explicitly includes Tobias (Tobit), 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach). He cites to the DC elsewhere as Scripture, for example, his use of the angel in Tobit as Scripture in chapter 13 of City of God. He explicitly says of 1st and 2nd Maccabees, “These are held as canonical, not by the Jews, but by the Church, on account of the extreme and wonderful sufferings of certain martyrs, who, before Christ had come in the flesh, contended for the law of God even unto death, and endured most grievous and horrible evils.” And he defends the Book of Wisdom at greater length here. On the whole, I think if you’re writing a book to discredit the Deuterocanon, our man Augustine may not be the guy to go with.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 1
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 5

F. Jerome
Jerome’s the most famous. But the problem is, he never created a Protestant canon. He just doubted the authenticity of the Deuterocanon, and there’s a mile of difference between those two things. What his canon would have looked like, if left to his own devices, is pretty unclear: would it have included Esther? Would it have included the LXX version of Jeremiah? Anyways, he ultimately deferred to the Church’s view, even if he did complain. Here’s a brief post I wrote explaining why Jerome’s a bad example for Protestants, because he deferred to the authority of the Pope and Church councils over his own theological speculation. Questioning the authenticity of the Deuterocanon isn’t the same as positively putting forward a dissenting canon, much less a full and exact Protestant canon. Lots of Early Church Fathers were unsure of its canonicity: that’s why it’s called the Deuterocanon. That doesn’t mean that they used the KJV.

But remember, Jerome wasn’t left to his own devices (he was a papal secretary, after all), and he did translate and assemble a canon: The Latin Vulgate, the popular Bible used in the Catholic Church for centuries, which contained the DC (to be sure, it had Jerome’s kvetching about having to translate it, and his doubts, but as I’ll address below, that’s pretty irrelevant if the question is “books in the canon”). Jerome could have made a “St. Jerome canon,” but he didn’t, because he deferred to those in authority – specifically, his boss, Pope St. Damasus, who held with the Church that the DC was canonical. Trying to use him now as an authority for the anti-Deuterocanonical position would be to do the opposite of what he’d done in life: defer to the Church. So chalk up one more Catholic canon, fully assembled.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 2
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t:

G. Rufin (340-410):
His list contains “Rufin,” which I assume means Rufinus of Aquileia. If so, his Old Testament canon doesn’t explicitly include Lamentations. Probably, like most of the other Fathers we’ve considered, he uses the LXX version of Jeremiah, which contains Lamentations, the Epistle of Jeremy (Baruch 6), and in many cases, the rest of Baruch. If he meant the Hebrew version of Jeremiah, he’s a book short (Lamentations) of the Protestant canon. If he meant the Greek version of Jeremiah, he’s got all or part of Baruch as well. Either way, this isn’t a perfect Protestant canon.
Rufinus employed a three-tiered structure: “canonical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “apocryphal.” Canonical were those books “which the fathers have included in the canon; on which they would have us establish the declarations of our faith.” Apocrypha were “which they would not have read in the churches.” He doesn’t define Ecclesiastical books. In his list of Ecclesiastical books, he doesn’t include Baruch or Lamentations. So he either thought they were totally apocryphal (unlikely), or considered them canonical.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 2
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 7

H. The Council of Laodicea, in their LX. Canon:
That canon is right here, and as you can see, it has Baruch and “the Epistle” explicitly, just like so many of the ECFs we’ve looked at so far. It also doesn’t have Revelation, but that’s ok since it’s a regional council, and not infallible. Besides that, both the Calvinist link above, and New Advent, which is Catholic, express doubts on the authenticity of this canon, because many copies of the canons of this Council don’t include it (although that may have been because the pope rejected it).
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 2
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 8

I. The Third Council of Carthage:
It’s here. And of course, it contains the full and exact Catholic canon. This was the regional council whose views caught on throughout the entire West, and put to rest most of the concerns about the Deuterocanon. It’s believed that it was reaffirming an earlier Synod, the Synod of Hippo, so this is arguably two (regional) Church Councils for the Catholic canon. But we’ll just count it as one.
Final score:
# of Protestant Canons listed: 0
# of Catholic Canons listed: 3
# of times Alexander Archibald claimed a Protestant canon existed where it didn’t: 9

So of the 9 sources which Alexander Archibald pointed to as having “catalogues” which “exactly correspond with our present Canon of the Hebrew Bible,” not a one did. And three of them explicitly affirmed the Catholic canon. And remember, this is just 3 of the examples held up to disprove the Catholic canon, which is a very different thing than saying that Catholics can only find 3 supporters. Every one of his sources affirmed at least part of the Deuterocanon. This raises some questions, like where does the Protestant authority for their Bible come from? And why is Archibald Alexander’s book considered part of Calvin College’s Christian Classics Ethereal Library? It’s a smear on the Catholic Church which even a few hours of research will easily disprove.

So Archibald lost the Early Church Protestant Canon Challenge, and badly. It turns out that his book was just meant to drum up support for his pet position, without actually being based in facts. Which leaves us with the original question: did any early Christian, when saying, “these are the books which our church uses” or even the lesser claim of “these are the books which I personally wish our church would use” mention the precise canon used by Protestants today? I can’t prove a universal negative – that is, that there was no Christian over all those centuries – but every avenue I’ve looked down has come up a dead end, or (worse, for the Protestant position), the exact opposite of what is meant to be proven: early Church Fathers hammering home the authenticity of the Catholic canon.

III. Nota Bene: Where Jerome and Rufinus went Wrong.

Two Early Church Fathers, Jerome and Rufinus, were particularly skeptical on the authenticity of the Deuterocanonical Books, and wanted them considered as “Ecclessastical” books – edifying, but not the source of doctrine. Here are some reasons for where and why I think they went wrong:
(1) There’s a reason Archibald Alexander appeals to “men of the first authority in the church, but by councils, consisting of numerous bishops.” Bishops are leaders of their diocese, and if a bishop says “this is a canon,” that’s pretty good evidence that everyone in his diocese is using that canon. In contrast, if it’s a Bible scholar or theologian, it may just be a case where academia rots good men’s brains. Jerome and Rufinus, who have canons nearest that of modern Protestants, were the ones who were deviating. They weren’t bishops, like most of the others on this list. They were scholars: both of them were translators, which isn’t insignificant. As translators, they discovered that there weren’t Hebrew manuscripts of the Deuterocanon [which the earlier Church Fathers already knew], and decided that the Jews must not have ever considered the Deuterocanon as Scripture [a conclusion most scholars would now disagree with, I believe]. On the basis of this evidence, they doubted the authenticity of the DC. But they’re the innovators, the ones who don’t represent the orthodox view. Both of them imagine that the Hebrew-speaking Fathers would have held canons without the DC in it, but there’s no evidence of this. In fact, all the canons before theirs, as we’ve seen, held the DC in whole or in part. Alexander is right to value early bishops over early scholars to gauge the historical belief of the early Church. He’s just wrong about what those early bishops believed.
(2) Jerome and Rufinus’ canons were hypothetical canons. They weren’t listing the books which Catholics (anywhere) used, but the books which they thought that they should use (and in Jerome’s case, not even listing, at all). There are fewer copies of a Rufinus Bible (0) then a Jefferson Bible (1). In neither case, do we assume that these quirky canons represented anything more than the editor’s quirkiness. And while there are a lot of Jerome Bibles, they contain the DC. It’s much easier to convince yourself of a change in the Church than to convince the Church (or actually accomplish that change). The bishops’ canons were the in-practice, tried, tested, and true canons.
(3) The Vulgate compromise – this isn’t so much where things went wrong, as how they were righted. Jerome translated the Deuterocanonical books, but noted his concern about their authenticity. That’s fine. The New American Bible was translated in part by people who are apparently heathens. Note footnote 16 on Matthew 16. It denies the authenticity of Jesus’ prophesies, suggests He doesn’t know about the Passion, and comes pretty close to denying that He’s God. Jimmy Akin takes it to task here. The books of the Bible are protected by the Holy Spirit. The footnotes and introductions are not. So Jerome’s books were divinely protected, but his introductions were not.


Since writing this post, I’ve heard question about other Church Fathers who allegedly used the Protestant canon. In order to keep the information easy to find, I’ll continually update this list.

J. The ‘Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae’ (c. 550 A.D.):
It’s available here, and it’s not very close. For starters, it doesn’t include Lamentations by name. It’s possible it’s using the Greek version of Jeremiah, which included Lamentations and the Epistle of Jeremy (Baruch 6), but since Protestants accept Jeremiah and Lamentations, but not Baruch, that’s either one Book too many, or too few.

Additionally, it says that First and Second Esdras are canonical. While sometimes, that’s a way of referring to Ezra and Nehemiah, in this case, “First Esdras” means the apocryphal “Greek Esdras.” How do we know? Because the author quotes the opening passage: “Josias kept the passover to his Lord in Jerusalem; he killed the passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month.” That’s a Book neither Catholics nor Protestants believe is canonical. It also claims that there are 151 canonical Psalms.

Additionally, there’s a second tier of Books which “are not considered canonical, but which are only read to catechumens.” This includes the Book of Esther, along with Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, and Tobit, as well as “the four books of the Maccabees, Ptolemaic books, the Psalms and Odes of Solomon, Susanna.” The author even makes a note that the Jews consider Esther canonical. So this wasn’t a mistake, but a deliberate declaration that Esther is not part of the canon, while Greek Esdras is.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 3

K. Amphilochius of Iconium (c. 380 A.D.)
Part of an old poem for learning the Books of Scripture.  Lamentations isn’t mentioned: as I explained above, this means that there’s either one Book too many, or too few for Protestants (depending on whether it’s the Hebrew or Greek version). It also lists “Esdras, one and then the second” as canonical, which either means Ezra and Nehemiah, or Ezra, Nehemiah and Greek Esdras (again, see above). It expressly doesn’t count Esther as canonical, cutting her out of the traditional Jewish ordering, albeit noting at the end: “With these, some approve the inclusion of Esther.”

The New Testament list says of the Book of Revelation that “some approve, but most will call it spurious.” And as for the seven so-called Catholic Epistles, we’re told: “some say seven, others only three must be accepted: one of James, one of Peter, one of John, otherwise three of John, and with them two of Peter, and also Jude’s, the seventh.”
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 3

L. St. John of Damascus (730 A.D.)
Some have said that his list is written to explain what the Jews used as the canon, but it’s not the Protestant canon in either case. Starting out, we’ve got the same problems with Lamentations as the last two: either one Book too many or too few. And like them, he also lists First and Second Esdras, which might be a Book too many (but probably isn’t in this case). He then says that the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Sirach “are virtuous and noble, but are not counted nor were they placed in the ark.” I’m not sure whether he viewed these two Books as inspired or not, because that’s not the standard he’s using for whether they belong in the canon. His New Testament includes the apocryphal “Apostolic Canons,” which are universally considered a forgery today.
# of Protestant Canons so far: 0
# of Catholic Canons so far: 3


  1. Thank you both! And Daniel, I’ll say this: Patristic research has gotten a heck of a lot easier as more stuff has been put online. So that might be why these facts are so much easier to come by, these days. We’re not left to rely on the good word of “scholars” like Archibald Alexander: we can look things up ourselves. God bless!

  2. This post is awesome. Has all the research that is so tedious to do but so needed when Protestants seek to claim their canon is obviously the right one from looking at the Fathers.

  3. Joe, this post is just awesome. I just found it now, but I’ll be returning to it again and again. Thanks for doing all the research and compiling all of the sources into one central guide.

  4. What difference does any of this make? As pointed out, It is simply the doctrine of men both full of gross corruption from inception. None of it is based on the inerrant word of god. All subject to human error and was clearly not divine or protected as attested to by the bible itself. Don Mack

  5. This post may be old but it is putting a lot of things into perspective about the Reformation. I’m Anglican (the disillusioned type). Initially I was questioning the turn Anglicanism has taken, but lately, I am questioning its very foundations. I’ve made it this far because I’ve never associated it with the Reformation but the infamous political event that we all know of. The Reformation camp Anglicans are having a louder voice, therefore doing a good job of driving us away as we find ourselves learning more about this Reformation that they speak of (and insisting that we cannot be Anglicans if we are not reformed). Questions like, “by what authority did Cranmer or Luther implement these reforms?”, “Is there a precedent in Church History of any single priest or Bishop taking such weighty matters upon themselves?”, have become frequent in my mind.

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