How were the Canonical and Non-Canonical Books Categorized?

This article in my series about the Biblical Canon will be short, although the footnotes are extensive. In the first few hundred years after Jesus’s resurrection, the church was trying to understand which books were in the canon. God made the canon, but it was still up to the church to recognize which books were appropriate for use.

Have you ever walked into a crowded room and seen some faces which are vaguely familiar, but you can’t remember the names? Some people in the room you may know well, and some you’re certain you’ve never met before, but there are those you think you should know, but can’t put a name to. Most of the books in the New Testament were ones the early church clearly knew were part of the canon. It was just as clear some books which claimed to be scripture weren’t part of the canon. The church struggled with those which were vaguely familiar, the ones they thought they knew, but couldn’t quite recognize.

Neither the early church fathers nor a council decided which books to put in the canon, but they had to recognize which books God put in the canon (What are the Criteria for a Book to be Canonical?). The church father and historian Eusebius of Caesarea put each of the books into one of four categories in the chapter The Divine Scriptures that are accepted and those that are not (Book III, Chapter XXV) in his work Church History (Ecclesiastical History), written approximately A.D. 310-325.

Accepted Writings

The accepted writings are the ones which had near-universal agreement among the church fathers. The Greek word describing these books is homologeō (ὁμολογέω; Strong’s G3670), which the King James Version New Testament usually translates as confess. Few people questioned the canonicity of these books, and most of those who disagreed denied essential truths of Christianity (Why Create a Written Canon? Part 1). Eusebius lists 22 books in his Accepted Writings.

Since we are dealing with this subject it is proper to sum up the writings of the New Testament which have been already mentioned. First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels1 [Matthew, Mark, Luke and John23]; following them the Acts of the Apostles. After this must be reckoned the epistles of Paul4 [Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews56]; next in order the extant former epistle of John [1 John]7, and likewise the epistle of Peter [1 Peter]8, must be maintained. After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John [Revelation]910, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings.11

Disputed but Accepted Writings

The disputed writings are books which have orthodox teachings, but didn’t have the near-universal approval of the church fathers. These books were referred to using the Greek word antilegomena (ἀντιλεγόμενα), meaning disputed or spoken against. These books eventually were recognized as canonical by the churches, but not everyone agreed. Eusebius lists 5 books in his Disputed Writings.

Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James12 and that of Jude13, also the second epistle of Peter1415, and those that are called the second and third of John1617, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name.18

Disputed and Rejected Writings

The rejected writings do not have heretical teachings in them, but they also do not meet the criteria necessary to be recognized as canonical. Many people considered these books as useful for reading and education privately, and some churches used them in services while many didn’t. Some of these books have sames similar to books in the New Testament, but they’re all different writings.

It’s interesting Eusebius lists the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) in both the Accepted writings and the Disputed and Rejected writings. He apparently acknowledged the canonical status given by others in the church, but personally rejected the book as canonical. 

Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul19, and the so-called Shepherd [of Hermes]20, and the Apocalypse of Peter21, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John22, it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. And among these some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews, with which those of the Hebrews that have accepted Christ are especially delighted. And all these may be reckoned among the disputed books.23

Fictions of Heretics

The last category of books are ones which teach heresy. These books Eusebius considered “fictions of heretics” and they never had a serious chance of being recognized as canonical. Some of these books have sames similar to books in the New Testament, but they’re all different writings.

…we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter24of Thomasof Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings. And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics. Wherefore they are not to be placed even among the rejected writings, but are all of them to be cast aside as absurd and impious.25

Summary

The first two categories, Accepted Writings and Disputed but Accepted Writings contain the 27 books of the Protestant Canon, while some other denominations include additional books.

In sum, understanding these four categories is an essential step in removing misconceptions about the NT canon that seem to abound today. Knowing these categories can give a person a fairly basic picture of how the canon developed: (1) there was a core canon from a very early time, (2) there was dispute about some of the smaller books that took some time to resolve, (3) Christians continued to find some non-canonical books to be orthodox and helpful, though not Scripture, and (4) some books were so theologically off the mark that they were regarded as altogether heretical.26

Resources

Footnotes

  1. In his [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] first book on Matthew’s Gospel, maintaining the Canon of the Church, he testifies that he knows only four Gospels, writing as follows: “Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, saluteth you, and so doth Marcus, my son.’ And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John.” (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 3-6. (CCEL.org))
  2. [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 (ESV)] But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 17. (CCEL.org))
  3. [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] Why need we speak of him on the bosom of Jesus, John, who has left us one Gospel, though he confessed that he might write so many that the world could not contain them? (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 9. (CCEL.org))
  4. Paul’s fourteen epistles are well known and undisputed. It is not indeed right to overlook the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 5. (CCEL.org))
  5. He [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 ESV] says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XIV, Paragraph 2. (CCEL.org))
  6. In addition he [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] makes the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: “That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle [Paul], who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ [2 Corinthians 11:6 (KJV)] that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.” Farther on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” But let this suffice on these matters. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 11-14. (CCEL.org))
  7. [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 (ESV)] But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 17. (CCEL.org))
  8. Such are the writings that bear the name of Peter, only one of which I know to be genuine and acknowledged by the ancient elders. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 4. (CCEL.org))
  9. [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 (ESV)] In regard to the Apocalypse, the opinions of most men are still divided. But at the proper time this question likewise shall be decided from the testimony of the ancients. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 18. (CCEL.org))
  10. [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] …he [John] wrote also the Apocalypse, but was commanded to keep silence and not to write the words of the seven thunders. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 9. (CCEL.org))
  11. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 1-2. (CCEL.org)
  12. These things [the martyrdom of James] are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.(Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book II, Chapter XXIII, Paragraph 25. (CCEL.org))
  13. These things [the martyrdom of James] are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.(Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book II, Chapter XXIII, Paragraph 25. (CCEL.org))
  14. [Origen of Alexandria, about A.D. 184-253] And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail,’ has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 8. (CCEL.org))
  15. One epistle of Peter, that called the first, is acknowledged as genuine. And this the ancient elders used freely in their own writings as an undisputed work. But we have learned that his extant second Epistle does not belong to the canon; yet, as it has appeared profitable to many, it has been used with the other Scriptures. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 1. (CCEL.org))
  16. He [John] has left also an epistle of very few lines; perhaps also a second and third; but not all consider them genuine, and together they do not contain hundred lines.” (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 10. (CCEL.org))
  17. [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 (ESV)] But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 17. (CCEL.org)
  18. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 3. (CCEL.org)
  19. In regard to the so-called Acts of Paul, I have not found them among the undisputed writings. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 5. (CCEL.org))
  20. But as the same apostle [Paul], in the salutations at the end of the Epistle to the Romans, has made mention among others of Hermas [see Romans 16:14 (ESV)], to whom the book called The Shepherd is ascribed, it should be observed that this too has been disputed by some, and on their account cannot be placed among the acknowledged books; while by others it is considered quite indispensable, especially to those who need instruction in the elements of the faith. Hence, as we know, it has been publicly read in churches, and I have found that some of the most ancient writers used it. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 6. (CCEL.org))
  21. The so-called Acts of Peter, however, and the Gospel which bears his name, and the Preaching and the Apocalypse, as they are called, we know have not been universally accepted, because no ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern, has made use of testimonies drawn from them. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 2. (CCEL.org))
  22. [Pope Clement I, about A.D. 35-99; see Philippians 4:3 (ESV)] In regard to the Apocalypse, the opinions of most men are still divided. But at the proper time this question likewise shall be decided from the testimony of the ancients. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXIV, Paragraph 18. (CCEL.org)
  23. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 4-5. (CCEL.org)
  24. The so-called Acts of Peter, however, and the Gospel which bears his name, and the Preaching and the Apocalypse, as they are called, we know have not been universally accepted, because no ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern, has made use of testimonies drawn from them. (Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter III, Paragraph 2. (CCEL.org))
  25. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 6b-7. (CCEL.org)
  26. Kruger, Michael J. An Essential Key to Understanding the Development of the NT Canon (Canon Fodder, August 9, 2016) Accessed 31-Jul-2019.
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Twitter

Leave a Reply (The first message from an e-mail address must be approved by a moderator)