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.
*** 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?|
|To||Tobit||Catholics and Orthodox|
|Ju||Judith||Catholics and Orthodox|
|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|
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.
- 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.
- 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:
Saint Augustine in His Study (1480)
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.