Which Books Were in Early Christian Bibles?

What canon of Scripture did the earliest Christians use?  A Protestant going by the handle Lojahw (Lover of Jesus and His word) argues that it was the modern Protestant Bible.  Specifically, he claimed that:

Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, St. Jerome in His Study (1617)

There were at least nine church fathers from the second through the fourth centuries who endorsed the shorter canon: six explicitly listed Esther, including Jerome and Rufinus, who agreed book-for-book with the Protestant canon.

I called him out on this claim, because it’s demonstrably untrue (as we’ll soon see).  He provided his list of nine Fathers, and sure enough, none of the nine actually agreed Book-for-Book.  The line he listed were: Melito, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, Epiphanius, Rufinus, and Jerome. He also added the (possibly spurious) 60th canon of the Council of Laodicea. I pointed out that none of these actually used the Protestant canon, and he fell back to this position:

Joe, Your point is well taken that my wording was sloppy, but it is true that there is no way to rationally reconcile the canons listed by the church fathers with any other imagined “competing” Jewish canon prior to Augustine. The fact that all those church fathers attested to the same 22 books with minor variations (picture a target with lots of arrows close to the bulls-eye, but only 1 in the very center – can you not figure out what the archers were aiming at?)

So can we use a “bulls-eye” approach? Let’s take a look.  I’ve compiled a chart of the various canons used by the early Church Fathers.  I’ve seen a similar chart compiled for the New Testament canon, so it’s only fitting to get the facts right on the Old Testament canon.

Below that, I’ve compared it with the Catholic canon (which agrees with the canons of Scripture assembled by St. Augustine, Jerome’s Vulgate, and the Third Council of Carthage) and the Protestant canon (which agrees with none of the Patristic canons).  My point is that no one, looking at the top half of the chart, would assemble the Protestant canon.  There’s simply no circle formed around the bulls-eye of the Protestant Bible.

Es To Ju La Ba Ep Wi Si 1M 2M GE 151
Amphilochius N N N ? ? ? N N N N N N
Athanasius N N N Y Y Y N N N N N N
Augustine Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y N N ***
Carthage Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y N N
Cyril Y N N Y Y Y N N N N N N
Jerome Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y N N ***
John Dama. Y N N ? ? ? ? ? N N ? ?
Laodicea Y N N Y Y Y N N N N N N
Melito N N N ? ? ? N N N N Y Y
Origen Y N N Y Y Y N N ? ? N N ***
Rufinus Y N N ? ? ? N N N N N N
Synopsis N N N ? ? ? N N N N Y Y
Catholic Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y N N
Protestant Y N N Y N N N N  N N N N

*** Denotes that the Father described widespread use of the Deuterocanon in Church.

If you’re wondering what those acronyms stand for, here’s a Book listing, along with which churches today accept each Book:

Acronym Book Name Who Considers it Canonical Today?
Es Esther Everyone
To Tobit Catholics and Orthodox
Ju Judith Catholics and Orthodox
La Lamentations Everyone
Ba Baruch Catholics and Orthodox
Ep Epistle of Jeremiah (Baruch 6) Catholics and Orthodox
Wi Wisdom Catholics and Orthodox
Si Sirach Catholics and Orthodox
1M First Book of Maccabees Catholics and Orthodox
2M Second Book of Maccabees Catholics and Orthodox
Ge “Greek Esdras” Orthodox
151 Psalm 151 Orthodox

So, no, you can’t deduce the Protestant canon via a bulls-eye approach, even one that cherry-picks the best Patristic evidence.  For example, apparently none of the Fathers accept Lamentations, while rejecting Baruch.  In fact, there seems to be a stronger case for including Baruch (including the Epistle) than for including the Book of Esther, which was expressly rejected by several Fathers.

The Widespread Practice of the Church
Many of the short canons cited by Lojahw may be Church Fathers listing the Books the Jews found canonical, rather than the Christians.  For example, Origen says, “The twenty-two books of the Hebrews are the following…”  You’ll note that I put asterisks next to certain Fathers (in the right-most column).  These are Church Fathers who testify that the Dueterocanonical Books were in widespread use in the early Church:
  • Origen’s own Hexapla contained side-by-side versions of various translations of Scriptures, and included the Deuterocanon, which suggests he accepted them as canonical.  More explicitly, he elsewhere endorsed and defended various Deuterocanonical Books.  He argued for the inspiration of the longer (Catholic) version of the Book of Daniel against Sextus Julius Africanus.  Both Africanus and Origen appealed to the (Book of Tobit in the course of this dispute, and Origen acknowledged that, while it’s not found in the Jewish version of the Old Testament, he accepted it, since “the Churches use Tobias.”  So citing him as a pre-Augustinian Father against the Dueterocanon is completely wrong and misleading.
  • The Council of Carthage, a regional North African Council, follows an earlier regional Council, called the Synod of Hippo, in endorsing the Catholic canon.  While we no longer have records of what happened at Hippo, this adds one more to the list.
  • Sandro Botticelli,
    Saint Augustine in His Study (1480)
  • St. Augustine explained that the canon wasn’t based on his own opinion, but upon the widespread practice of the Catholic Church.  He introduced the list of the Books of the Bible by writing:
Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive.  

St. Augustine then proceeds to list the full and exact Catholic canon as Scripture.

  • Jerome, whose views on the canon I’ve discussed before, argued against the Deuterocanonical Books, but seems to have believed that the LXX version of the Old Testament (which contained the Deuterocanon) was a divinely inspired translation.  He also argued in favor of the longer Catholic version of the Book of Daniel.  Most importantly, on the question of the canon, he deferred to the “judgment of the churches,” and translated the full Bible (including the Deuterocanon) into Latin, in the famous Vulgate translation.
Lojahw’s theory appears to be that Augustine is the first to treat the Deuterocanon as Scripture, and that earlier Fathers used something like the Protestant  Bible.  The record proves quite the opposite.  Apparently nobody used the Protestant canon of Scripture, while the acceptance of the Deuterocanon appears to have been widespread long before St. Augustine. By the way, I’ve included links in the chart above.  Feel free to double-check my work, and I welcome criticism in the comments section below. I think it’s important that we put to definitively rest this question of whether the early Christians used the Protestant Bible.  If Protestants are right that (a) Jesus Christ intended us to use the 66-Book Protestant Bible, (b) that the Protestant Old Testament was the well-established canon by the time of Christ,  and/or (c) that the Protestant canon of Scripture can be easily deduced by Christians, it should be easy to find records of the early faithful using the Protestant Bible.  If not a single early Christian can be found using the Protestant canon, it would certainly appear that (a), (b), and (c) are false.


  1. Speaking as a former Protestant minister, cherry pickers pick cherries period. It’s an intrinsic M.O.

    “He provided his list of nine Fathers, and sure enough, none of the nine actually agreed Book-for-Book.” Here, the Protestant who cherry picks the Bible is at least consistent in cherry picking the Church Fathers. How unexpected.

    I love the fact that these Fathers in the faith did not actually agree, book by book. Amen. God bless them. That’s why we do not rely on any one of them individually but rather thank them as they offer their contribution to the overall wealth upon which the mind of the Church, the Magisterium speaks definitively with the Authority given Her (the Church) by Christ.

    I am sure you know, Joe, that over the past few years there is a big push on by Protestants to reclaim Augustine. There are several books published toward this end. It would be precious really if it weren’t so desperate.

  2. So when will all this be available in a “Shameless Popery” book??!!
    A while back you had mentioned thinking about it but I don’t recall seeing any follow up.

    1. Joe,

      Between then and now, life got very busy. It’ll slow down briefly in a couple weeks, and I hope to turn towards outlining a Shameless Popery book soon. But an actual finalized product may yet be a ways off.



  3. This is very valuable research! Great work!

    Really interesting point with Jerome. Even though his gut feelings may have been one way, he deferred to the Bishop of Rome. Very telling witness.

  4. A note about Psalm 151.

    :Yes, this is in the Orthodox canon.

    BUT notice that while this Psalm also appears in the LIturgical Psalter (which contains OT canticles and other items), it is NEVER read liturgically at the Divine Office or any other time.

    It’s just “there”.

  5. The Authorized Version (KJV) of 1611 has the Apocrypha. There are 39 books in the Old Testament. 3 x 9 = 27 There are 27 book in the New Testament. 2 x 7 = 14 There are 14 books in the Apocrypha. I Esdras; II Esdras; Tobit; Judith; The rest of Ester; The Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus; Baruch, with the Epistle of Jeremiah; The Song of the three Holy Children; The History of Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; They Prayer of Manasses; I Maccabees; and II Macabees.

    1. Father,

      What you’ve exposed is the problem with using the term “Apocrypha.” It can mean whatever you want it to mean. So let’s use the term Deuterocanon, instead, since that’s what we’re really talking about. There are seven Books in the Deuterocanon, not 14. In arriving at 14, you make two mistakes:

      1) In some cases, you’re listing things as Books that aren’t Books. For example, “the rest of Esther” isn’t a separate Book (as your own description makes clear). Neither are “The Song of the three Holy Children, the History of Susanna,” or “Bel and the Dragon.” These are parts of the longer version of the Book of Daniel. And the Epistle of Jeremiah is included in the Book of Baruch.

      2) In other cases, you’re listing things as Books that aren’t in the Catholic Bible at all: for example, the book you call I Esdras and II Esdras, as well as Prayer of Manasses. I’ve addressed this error before. (See section III here, or this post).

      So the Seven Deuterocanonical Books (as opposed to section of Books) are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus), and I and II Maccabees.



  6. Mr Heschmeyer:

    Isn’t it a fact that the Seputagint contained more books than even today’s Catholic Bibles do, i.e., that it contained those books Eastern Orthodox generally consider canonical? In other words, even when we establish that the Septuagint was the de facto “official” OT of the early Church, doesnt that speak more in favor of the Orthodox than of Catholics?

    1. Good question. There are three families of texts within the LXX family, and slightly different Books between them. Additionally, not every Book contained within a given Codex is automatically considered canonical. For example, Psalm 151 is listed in the LXX as “outside the number.” So even the Orthodox appear to be internally divided as to the canonicity of certain Books within what they call the Anagignoskomena.

      In the chart above, you’ll see that Greek Esdras and Psalm 151 are listed as canonical by only one or two Fathers. The Catholic canon is, as Augustine said, “the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches.” We also have the authority of the Church definitively declaring the canon.

      Having said all of that, I think someone could coherently believe in the Orthodox canon on the basis of Patristic evidence, in a way that they couldn’t believe in the Protestant canon.



  7. There is also the record that a group of rabbis aligned with the Pharisees met in the late 1st century to determine the Jewish canon, as an incendiary measure against the growing early Church. They cut out the Deuterocanonical books, in favor of those originally in the Hebrew tradition exclusively. Luther acknowledges which list he used when translating the German Bible, but leaves out the fact that the Jews only came together to compile a standard Scripture canon until the Christians became a “problem.”
    Even if the Fathers were not in total agreement on the canon, I’m sure they would have been aware of this work by the Jewish community and would not have accepted it as a result.

    1. Therre it is — I was looking for someone to hit on this point. This was one of the many turning points/a-ha moments that made Lutheranism crumble for me before the majesty and genius of the Catholic Faith. Basing one’s rejection of the Duetero-canonical scriptures on the fact (explicitly or implicitly by claiming others ‘lists’ who point out the fact) that the Jewish canon didn’t include these books, automatically sets you up against the historical Catholic/Christian faith you are claiming to recapture. The Jewish canon rejected these books BECAUSE they rejected Christ.

      This makes for the confusion in the Lutehran confessions because even those confessions cite Duetero-canonical books. Greanted, they’re trying to argue against them, but at the time of the Reformation they were still part of the Bible for protestants. So, it makes it much easier to eliminate them.

      BTW – Luther never actually REMOVED them from the Bible. He simply placed them in a separate section between the Old and New Testament, claiming they might not be as ‘inspired’ as the rest of the canon, but still worthy of reading, study and our time. Even he knew to remove them was actually the old Marcion heresy reborn and reintroduced….

  8. Great post as always. I read your comments about the terms Apocrypha and Deuterocanon being used interchangeably. I concur that that’s incorrect. Unfortunately, when I was teaching religious education to teens, the Catholic text books also use them interchangeably. It’s very frustrating to try to teach correct catechesis when a lot of what us lay people are dealing with is flat out bad Catholicism. This is probably why people get so confused and why your blog is so invaluable.

    Thanks so much for straightening it all out.

  9. @Joe, ‘reply’ wasn’t working so I’ll just add this comment.

    An important consideration might be the extent to which it “matters”. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles refer to “the Scriptures” or say “it is written” without there having been a clear definition of what writings “count”. And among the many beefs that the Eastern Orthodox churches claim to have with the Western church, none seem to turn on the differences in which books we hold respectively as canonical. Certainly it is an issue with the Christian bodies resulting from the Reformation, because the Reformers specifically and prominently made it an issue. But that is a difference, it seems to me, in an understanding of what the Bible IS, so of course it matters what writings make up what the Bible is.

    1. TheFederalist,

      I agree with your point here, and it’s an idea that I’ve been wanting to flesh out more fully. One of the striking things that we often overlook is that the early Christians didn’t anathematize one another based on differing Biblical canons. And while both the Apostles’ and Niceno–Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creeds define and affirm belief in the Catholic Church, they’re silent on the Scriptures. All of this points to an obvious reality: that the early Christians were not sola Scripturists.



  10. I think more importantly, the “Word of God” is first of all, the only-begotten Son of God Who became incarnate as our Savior, Jesus Christ. The “word of God” is also the good news of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of the same Lord Jesus Christ, preached by the Church. One gets the impression that for our brethren in the Reformation bodies, the Gospel is basically synonymous with the Bible, so the precise content of the Bible is the precise content of the Gospel. Being inspired by God, the Scriptures inerrantly bear witness to Christ and the Good News, but it is not exactly the same thing as the deposit of faith. What must I do to be saved? Repent and believe the good news. Not, believe what is taught by the Bible.

  11. From Dom Orchard’s, “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture,” :

    The Bible as The Church’s Exclusive Possession:

    It is a teaching of the Church that the Old Testament Scriptures were transferred to her ownership by Christ himself in view of her position as the new ‘Israel of God’ and the heir of the OT promises; and that the New Testament Scriptures being written within the Church by some of its members for the benefit of all (or more precisely, within the society of the Catholic Church by Catholics for Catholics), are likewise her exclusive property, of which she is the absolute Owner, Guardian, Trustee and Interpreter….

    The Church, being the divinely appointed trustee of the whole deposit of revelation, holds the Scriptures as her very own. They are part of the patrimony or dowry that she has received as the Bride of Christ…

    Dear Mr. Heschmeyer. I love reading your site and your intellect and industry is impressive

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