The Formation of the Biblical Canon: From Early Councils to the Council of Trent
The formation of the biblical canon, the collection of sacred books considered authoritative by the Christian Church, was a gradual and complex process that spanned several centuries. This article explores the significant events and councils that played crucial roles in shaping the canon, from the First Council of Nicaea to the Council of Trent. It also addresses the Protestant Reformation and the canonization of books, providing a comprehensive overview of the development of the biblical canon.
The First Council of Nicaea:
The First Council of Nicaea, convened in 325 AD, had a central focus on addressing theological matters, particularly the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The council aimed to resolve the Arian controversy, which questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, although not directly addressing the question of the biblical canon, was part of a larger movement towards greater unity and consistency within the Church, its deliberations laid the groundwork for future discussions on doctrinal matters. This included a desire for a more standardized collection of Christian scriptures. The creation of the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus can be seen as a reflection of this trend.
Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus – Created after the Council of Nicea
The Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are two of the oldest known copies of the Christian Bible written in Greek, and they contain a slightly different selection of books compared to modern versions of the Bible.
The Codex Sinaiticus originally contained the entire Old and New Testaments and two early Christian texts, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. However, parts of the Old Testament have been lost over time, and the existing manuscript includes:
- Most of the Old Testament (or “Septuagint,” the early Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), although some parts are missing due to the manuscript’s age and condition.
- The complete New Testament.
- Two early Christian works not found in modern Bibles: the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.
The Codex Vaticanus, also written in Greek, is believed to have originally contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, but some parts have been lost or damaged over time. The existing manuscript includes:
- The majority of the Septuagint, with some minor gaps.
- All the books of the New Testament, except for the books of Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation, which are missing.
Both of these codices include some books that are not found in the modern Protestant Bible but are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, such as the deuterocanonical books (also known as the Apocrypha). This reflects the fact that the canon of the Bible was not yet fully standardized at the time when these manuscripts were created.
Councils of Hippo and Carthage:
The Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419) were pivotal in the process of forming the biblical canon. These councils addressed the issue of which books should be considered authoritative and included in the Old and New Testaments. Although the exact lists of accepted books were not explicitly recorded, certain books were widely recognized and affirmed during these councils.
The commonly accepted books during the Councils of Hippo and Carthage include:
- Old Testament (Hebrew Bible): 11 books
- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel
- New Testament: 27 books
- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation (Apocalypse)
The Protestant Reformation and the Canon:
The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, challenged various practices and teachings of the Catholic Church. One of the key areas of dispute was the biblical canon. Luther and other reformers questioned the inclusion of certain books, such as the Deuterocanonical books found in the Catholic Bible. The Deuterocanonical books or the Apocrypha, are as follows:
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
- First and Second Maccabees
- Additional sections in the books of Esther and Daniel
These books, considered canonical by the Catholic Church, were not included in the Protestant Bible. The exclusion of these books was based on various factors, including differences in interpretation, concerns about authorship, and theological considerations during the Reformation period.
The Protestant Bible consists of a total of 66 books, with 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. The 27 books of the New Testament are universally accepted by both Protestants and Catholics.
It is important to note that the status of these books differs between Protestant and Catholic traditions, and they are not universally recognized as canonical by all Christian denominations.
The Council of Trent:
The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, was a significant event in the history of the Catholic Church. This council was called in response to the Protestant Reformation and aimed to address doctrinal and disciplinary matters. As part of its deliberations, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the canon of Scripture and officially recognized the books that are now accepted by the Catholic Church. This reaffirmation solidified the canon and ensured a unified understanding within the Catholic Church.
The recognized books of the Catholic Bible, reaffirmed during the Council of Trent, include:
Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) – 46 books:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther (with additions), 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel (with additions), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
- Note: Some scholars and theologians consider 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees as only one book.
New Testament – 27 books:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation (Apocalypse)
The formation of the biblical canon was a complex process that unfolded over centuries, involving various councils and deliberations. While the First Council of Nicaea primarily addressed theological matters, subsequent councils such as those of Hippo and Carthage played crucial roles in affirming certain books for inclusion in the biblical canon.
It is important to note that prior to the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, the concept of a standardized and universally accepted “Bible” was still in the process of development. Different Christian communities had their own collections of writings regarded as sacred, and the canonization process aimed to bring about a consensus on the authoritative books.
The Council of Trent, held in response to the Protestant Reformation, reaffirmed the canon of Scripture and officially recognized the books accepted by the Catholic Church. This solidified the canon and ensured a unified understanding within Catholicism.
Overall, the process of forming the biblical canon involved ongoing debates, regional practices, and the recognition of certain books as authoritative by early Christian communities and leaders. The final canonization of the books, as we know it today, reflects the collective wisdom and discernment of the early Church and its ongoing commitment to preserving and interpreting the sacred texts.
Last Updated on June 29, 2023