Sunday, October 3, 2010

Council and Bible Canon in Christianity

I recently had a discussion with a friend in Facebook about the question of biblical canons and Ecumenical Councils. The key point concerned the role of Nicea, the famous first ecumenical Council of the Christian Church convened by Emperor Constantine. My friend, a (Roman) Catholic, assumed that the standard Bible of the Roman communion had been first defined at Nicea. He'd also assumed that the Bible canon of The Eastern Orthodox Churches was the same as the Roman canon, and was surprised to discover that not only was that not the case, but that there is and always has been canonical variation in the various Churches of the East.

The fact is at the time of the Council of Nicea (313 CE) there was no fixed canon of Christian scripture. Most Christians then used the Septuagint Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures as their Old Testament. The Greek Old Testament was more of a gestalt, resembling both Roman and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments today, with different versions of some Jewish texts such as Jeremiah, or with major additions to them such as in Daniel and Esther, or containing small variations and additions as with Joshua, Judges, Proverbs and some of the Books of Moses (Torah). There were a range of other books, not found in the Jewish canon because they were composed in Greek, or the prior Hebrew texts were 'lost' (the Hebrew version of Sirach was known in Judaism for many centuries, during which time Sirach sat on the edges of the Jewish canon; Origen also knows the Hebrew name for 1 Maccabees, Sarbeth Sarbaniel; Greek Tobit was translated from Hebrew, and a Hebrew plus Aramaic versions of it were found at Qumran). Most Syriac Christians, however, used a Syriac (Peshitta) Old Testament translated directly from the Hebrew and, initially, identical to the Jewish canon but the influence of the Greek would also change and expand it the particularly for West Syriac Christians within the Roman Empire. The overall Christian Old Testament gestalt generally consisted of Torah, plus historical, prophetic/apocalyptic and wisdom texts.

The New Testament was likewise fluid and not set in stone. At its core remained the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and a collection of Pauline letters. Syriac Christians, however, used a harmony of the four gospels, the Diatessaron, that had been put together in the 2nd century by Tatian and they would continue to use it for another century or so until concerns about possible heresy meant that they reverted to the four individual gospels. Especially in the East (Greek and Syriac), there were doubts about texts such as Revelation, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2-3 John and Jude. The Church of the East didn't include them in their New Testament, but again the western Syriac Christian Churches would do so. But there were other texts associated with the New Testament gestalt, as well, such as Epistle of Barnabas, 1 & 2 Clement, Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd, a wisdom/apocalypse text, was very popular in early Christianity, probably much more so than Revelation and for a long time was treated as a New Testament text in many local churches in and out of the Empire. Thus the New Testament gestalt at the time was the four gospels (individually or in a harmony), Pauline letters, other letters, A/acts and possibly apocalypses. Church 'constitutions' are also floating around the gestalt and eventually in Ethiopia (and apparently for a period in Armenia too) became incorporated into the local New Testament canon.

In the centuries before Nicea a number of individuals issued lists of texts they considered to be scripture. There's a list of them here, both those before and after Nicea, when local church councils also get into the act. The very fact of these lists shows that no canonical determination of scripture was ever made at Nicea. As far as Constantine goes, his main involvement in matters biblical was to commission 50 bibles for the new churches at Constantinople. Apparently, they were commissioned from the scripture academy at Caesarea in Palestine, which was where the Church historian and supporter of Constantine, Eusebius, was based. What texts were ruled in or out these Bibles we don't know because none survive. Eusebius had written his own listings of what were scriptural and what weren't and so perhaps we can get an idea of what Constantine's bibles looked like from there. However it has been suggested that maybe one or even all three of the oldest Christian Bibles in existence might have been part of that order of 50 Bibles. The one in question is Codex Sinaiticus and the other two, C. Vaticanus and C. Alexandrinus. All are in Greek and all date from the 4th/5th centuries. However Sinaitiacus included all 4 books of Maccabees in its Old Testament and ends its New Testament by adding Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas. Vaticanus is most like a Greek Orthodox Bible in that it includes 1 Esdras in its Old Testament. Alexandrinus includes all four books of Maccabees, plus Psalm 151 and the Book of Odes which includes the Prayer of Manasseh. The Alexandrinus New Testament ends adding 1 & 2 Clement and it also has an appendix which included a range of other texts but only one, Psalms of Solomon, remains. These three bibles from roughly the same period and from roughly the same region show just how fluid the Christian scriptural canon remained for a long time after Nicea.

And so in the centuries that follow Nicea, the production of lists continues and likewise the production of texts continues and again those which survive show a continuing fluidity. At the same time, Christianity spread widely outside the Roman Empire and so even if the state was interested in asserting a scriptural uniformity it could only apply to those churches within the Roman borders but not without. So the Armenian and Ethiopian Bibles developed with their own dynamic but nonetheless drawing from the Septuagint Greek Old Testament, just the same. The Ethiopian remains the most fluid to this day existing in both a broad and narrow canon. Nevertheless the narrow canon remains the biggest Christian canon in existence, including other ancient Jewish and Christian texts such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees and 1 Clement (thus perhaps making it the most conservative of the canons, nevertheless) as well as texts unique to Ethiopia itself, 1-3 Meqabiyya. As I said above the West Syriac Bible also gets expanded through Septuagint and other influence too and would incorporate at times 2 Baruch and Psalms 152-155 (and the Armenian Bible would include for a time Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and 3 Corinthians) .

You can get an idea of the current state of play concerning what's in and out of scripture across the various forms of Christianity from this Wikipedia table here.

In the century after Nicea we start getting Church councils producing lists. We're in the era of the Ecumenical Councils but the councils producing scripture lists are local not ecumenical. There's one in the East, Laodicea, and the rest in the West and primarily in Africa at Hippo and Carthage. These African lists match the standard Roman biblical canon of today but the African councils were not ecumenical. But their decisions were subsequently confirmed by the Pope in Rome, under whose jurisdiction they were then subject, being Latin rite churches. The Roman Pontiff was their Patriarch. The issue was important for the Latin rite churches because all of this was happening at the time Jerome was working on a new translation of the scriptures into Latin. Originally he worked from the Greek, but Jerome not only knew of the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament texts, he accorded them a priority over the Greek - if they're in the original language then they must be the original or authentic texts, is the thinking here. That assumption turned out to be wrong (there are no original texts for one thing) but it would take the discoveries at Qumran in the 20th century to demonstrate that. Jerome not only wanted to translate from Hebrew not Greek but he also wanted to scrap those Old Testament texts like Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach etc that weren't in the Hebrew canon of Judaism. Jerome's position generated considerable controversy in the West and was opposed by none other than Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Augustine not only wanted to keep those texts not found in the Jewish canon but he also believed that the Greek as well the Hebrew versions of the Old Testament texts should have equal standing. Jerome's position was rejected by those Western Councils and consequently the Latin Vulgate emerged as a hybrid text, as far as its Old Testament was concerned, because it gave priority wherever possible to the Hebrew but remained overwhelmingly shared by the Greek.

The Council of Carthage was in 397 CE. It would be another 300 years before a decision scripture would be made by a Council with a claim for ecumenicity, although that claim was contested by Rome. In 692, the Council in Trullo met at Constantinople. Also known as the Quinisext Council, it met to finish off the work of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils which had also met at Constantinople. On matters scriptural it confirmed both the decisions of the councils of Laodicea and Carthage, even though both produced different lists (e.g. Laodicea omitted Revelation from the New Testament but Carthage included it). It also confirmed the lists produced by various individuals, which likewise disagreed with each other (and the Councils) and further sanctioned the listing from the Apostolic Constitutions , which counted all four books of Maccabees as canonical. What seems to be happening at Trullo is that it is affirming the various scripture canons of the Church, endorsing local usage in the broader orthodox and Catholic context. Trullo is recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church as sharing in the ecumenicity of the previous two Councils of Constantinople but it was rejected by the West.

And that's where matters stood up until the Renaissance and Reformation. In other words there was no Ecumenical Council that produced a single agreed on list of canonical texts that could be called The Bible. On the ground, though, was an even more interesting reality. According to the Council of Carthage the Vulgate Latin Bible of the medieval West should have looked like the standard Bible of the Roman communion today. The thing is, it didn't. It included some Old Testament extras some of which are found in the Greek Bible and one not. The Vulgate's extras included 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and Prayer of Manasseh. All but 2 Esdras are found in the Greek Bible. 2 Esdras is however found in the Slavonic and Georgian Bibles. These extras were included in the Old Testament of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 15th century. However the Gutenberg did not include the Vulgate's addition to the New Testament, Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans as that had only recently been removed. But it seems that in the medieval period there was remarkable cohesion in the Old Testaments of the Byzantine and Roman communions. As far as the Greek Church was concerned the Roman Bible had one text they didn't, 2 Esdras, and lacked one text that they had, 3 Maccabees. Even more odd is that the Western Old Testament stayed this way after the Council of Florence had produced a canon list following the Carthaginian one as part of an attempt at reunion with the Byzantine Church under negotiation in 1439-41. This reunion was unsuccessful but while it resulted in a papal bull declaring the Carthaginian canon as normative for the Bible, it doesn't actually seem to have changed the Roman/Western Old Testament at all, despite the fact that Rome regards Florence as an Ecumenical Council. It was only the Reformation that would actually change the Western Bible .

Luther picked up on Jerome's complaint and in his translation of the Bible into German, he created new category, the Apocrypha, into which he placed not only 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and Prayer of Manasseh, but also the other texts questioned by Jerome but endorsed by Carthage (and Trullo): Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom, 1 & 2 Maccabees, plus the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther. The Bible of the English Reformation followed Luther's lead too and the texts outside the Jewish canon were likewise collected into the Apocrypha. Luther also wanted to re-open the New Testament as well. It seems he would have preferred one like that used by the Church of the East, except that Luther would also have dumped the Letter of James. But Luther's proposed New Testament failed to win the support of the Reformation movement as a whole and thus the New Testament finally remained unchanged.

Luther's attempted revision of the New Testament was based on dogmatic grounds - James in particular could be used by Rome to critique Lutheran theology of justification. Similarly with the revision of the Old Testament. The so-called apocryphal (Protestant) or deutero-canonical (Roman) texts could be used by Rome in its arguments with the Reformers. Jerome, the 'father' of the Latin Bible, gave the Reformers the precedent to reject scriptural authority for those texts placed in the Apocrypha. Rome clearly turned to the Council of Carthage, especially as its decisions had been endorsed by the Pope of the day (and subsequently reaffirmed at Florence), and at the Council of Trent (which met in 25 sessions from 1545 to 1563) the standard Roman biblical canon was formally declared as the norm for the Roman communion. As I've written before, the other four texts, 1 & 2 Esdras, Ps 151, Manasseh, weren't dumped from the Latin Bible but transferred to an Appendix (together with the Epistle to the Laodiceans) where they remain, effectively as Roman Catholic Apocrypha. They were even included in the first Douai-Rheims English translation of the Latin Bible in an appendix to the Old Testament. But they have been dropped from subsequent translations of the Latin Bible so that most Roman Catholics have no idea these texts have been part of the scriptural legacy of the Western Church.

Curiously as I was writing this piece, I stumbled across a Roman Catholic apologetic site against the Eastern Orthodox Church. On that site there was an article on the Orthodox Bible by Mark Bonocore. He argues that the Roman canon was affirmed by an Ecumenical Council, accepted by East and West, and held at Nicea too. It's the second Council of Nicea, the 7th Ecumenical Council, held in 787 CE. His argument is that Nicea 2 affirmed the decisions of the Council at Trullo validating the decisons of the Council of Carthage. Consequently, the Roman Bible canon has been defined by an Ecumenical Council accepted by East and West and so should be adopted by the Eastern Orthodox communion. Unfortunately for Bonocore's argument, Trullo affirmed a range of biblical canon lists, as well as the Carthaginian one, in which case Nicea 2 has itself given ecumenical authority - an authority binding on West and East - to canonical diversity and fluidity.

And perhaps, too, the meme concerning the Bible and Nicea is unknowingly derived from Nicea 2. If that's the case, it's a meme that's not only misidentified the Council but also got the decision wrong too. Rather than setting a single locked down canon in stone it effectively defined plurality and diversity as the only possible norm.

This conciliar history further reminds us that *The Bible* in Christianity is not something that fell out of heaven but rather is something that, as the Russian theologian Georges Florovsky said, is created by the Church instead.


  1. Thank you very much for this exhaustive critique of the Biblical Canon, Michael. I 'd like to tell you, that I own a copy of ''Biblia Sacra Vulgata'', in Latin, which i actually on occasion do read, and which printed in 1969 and 1994 by Deutsche Bibelgeselschaft. After the New Testament there is an appendix containing Oratio Manasse, Liber Ezrae Tertius, Liber Ezrae Quartus, Psalmus CLI, and Epistula ad Laodicenses. Some Popes have quoted from some of these extra writings in encyclicals, and some Mass texts (such as Introitus) in the traditional Roman Missal (last typical edition: 1962) are based upon passages in some of these writings.

  2. I'm glad you liked it, Albertus; I'm now thinking about writing a similar one on Bible in Judaism