The many Christian canons

by Ibn Anwar

    The word canon comes from the Greek kanna which accoding to Prof. Bleddyn J. Roberts means " ?reed' or ?cane'; which the idea of measuring-rod, and it was first used in this sense when Athanasius applied it to the books of the NT." [1] In the Biblical sense canon refers to a select number of books that are considered authoritative and divinely inspired, hence, their inclusion in a particular Bible volume. Many Christians, especially from the west are pretty much familiar with the 66 books canon - 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The Protestants would be less familiar with the Catholic canon which consists 73 books containing 7 extra books. The so-called Deuterocanonical books are regarded as apocryphal(doubtful) by the Protestants, but the Catholics consider them canonical. One may think that the existence of different canons end at the Catholic-Protestant traditions. One would be very wrong to think that. As a matter of fact throughout Christian history there have been numerous different canons that differ from one another. In this article we shall have a glimpse at those many Christian canons. The main purpose of this article is to show that those Christians out there who want to talk about Qur'anic manuscripts burned by Uthman r.a. and try to undermine its credibility from that approach need to reconsider their tactic.

Early Christian Canons

The first Christian canon in Christian history was actually put together by Marcion whom the Church or so-called Orthodoxy deemed a heretic and his teachings heretical. Christian scholars have argued that it was Marcion's canon that gave the ?orthodox' Christians the impetus to canonise scripture. [2]  So, can you imagine that the first canon of scripture was instituted by a pagan? Prof. Bart D. Ehrman says, " Marcion was the first Christian that we know of who produced an actual "canon" of scripture - that is, a collection of books that, he argued, constituted the sacred texts of the faith." [3] His canon consisted of the following books,

- Luke, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon. He totally rejected the Old Testament. [4]

Iranaeus' canon which came about at around the end of the 2nd century(200 years after Jesus) consisted the following books,

- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John,  Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 & 2 John, Revelations, Hermas and Acts. [5] That's 23 books with Hermas in it.

Another major early Christian figure is Tertullian. He was Iranaeus' contemporary who later became a ?heretic' when he converted to Montanism. His canon consisted the following books,

- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1  John, Revelations and Jude. He also accepted Hermas until he converted to Montanism. He knew about Hebrews and attributed it to Barnabas, but rejects it.[6] That's only 21 books or 22 if Hermas is concluded.

We have yet another contemporary scholar of Iranaeus by the name Clement of Alexandria. His canon consisted the following books,

- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel according to the Egyptians, Hebrews(which he attributes to Pauline origin), Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 & 2 John, Jude, Barnabas, Acts, Revelations, Apocolypse of Peter, 1 Clement, Didache and Hermas. [7] That's over 31 books all together!

The so-called Muratorian Canon is an anonymous fragment that has 85 lines in it. According to Sanders its origin is Roman. The fragment lists books that are counted as apostolic and that should be read in the church. The following are the books that are accepted as canonical in the Muratorian fragment,

- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 & 2 John, Jude, Revelations, Wisdom of Solomon, the Apocolypse of Peter. It also accepts Hermas, but not as sacred text. [8]

Origen who came to the scene around 254 introduced the idea of ?acknowledged and disputed' books. His acknowledged books or canon consist of the following,

- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelations and Acts. [9] That's only 21 books.

Eusebius' canon or acknowledged books are the same with Origen's, but he hesitated to accept Revelations as scriptural. [10]

Where is the canon of 27 books? It was not until 367 years after Jesus in the late 4th century that the canon of 27 books came about. Athanasius the Bishop of Alexandria was responsible for this. [11] Athanasius' canon consists of the 27 books in the following order,

-Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians,  Hebrews, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Apocolypse of John(Revelations). [12]

Professor Roland H. Bainton summarises the development of the Christian New Testament canon as follows,

"First the letters of Paul were accepted, and the four Gospels, and the book of The Acts. The other writings of our New Testament were slower in finding a place and even John's Gospel had a struggle. So did he book of Revelation. Hebrews, II Peter, Jude, James, and the second and third etters of John only gradually were marked upon the ruler*. Not until the fourth century was the canon closed." [13]

For over four centuries the Christians argued, bickered and debated over which scripture was authoritative and which  wasn't. According to Bainton the issue was resolved in the fourth century. Is this true?


The Church and their Bibles and/or Canons

The Catholic Church (Canon: 73 books)

The Catholic church as we have mentioned carries a canon of 73 books that includes Tobit, Judith, Greek additions to Esther(from the LXX), Sirach, Baruch, the letter of Jeremiah, three Greek additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the three Jews, Susanna, and Bell and the Dragon), 1 and 2 Maccabees. [14]

The Protestant Church (Canon: 66 books)

Unlike the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church does not follow the Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate in its canon of scripture. Rather, it follows the Hebrew canon and the 27 books of the New Testament. [15] This yields a total of 66 books as mentioned at the beginning of the article.

Greek Orthodox Church (Canon: 77 books)

The canon of the Greek Orthodox Church includes the all the books of the Catholic canon and in addition to that it also includes 1 Esdras, the prayer of Menasseh, Psalms 151, and 3 Meccabees. That means the Greek Orthodox canon consists of 77 books. The Slavonic canon on the other hand includes 2 Esdras, but designates 1 and 2 Esdras as 2 and 3 Esdras. Other eastern churches have 4 Meccabees as well. [16]

The Coptic Church(Canon: 29 books in NT)

The canon of the Coptic Church contains all the 27 books, but, adds the two epistles of Clement.[17] This means the Coptic New Testament canon consists of 29 books.

The Ethiopic Church (Canon: 81 books)

The Ethiopic canon is divided into what is called the ?narrower' canon and ?broader' canon.

"The Ethiopic church has the largest Bible of all, and distinguishes different canons, the "narrower" and the "broader," according to the extent of the New Testament. The Ethiopic Old Testament comprises the books of the Hebrew Bible as well as all of the deuterocanonical books listed above, along with Jubilees, I Enoch, and Joseph ben Gorion's (Josippon's) medieval history of the Jews and other nations. The New Testament in what is referred to as the "broader" canon is made up of thirty-five books, joining to the usual twenty-seven books eight additional texts, namely four sections of church order from a compilation called Sinodos, two sections from the Ethiopic Book of the Covenant, Ethiopic Clement, and Ethiopic Didascalia. When the "narrower" New Testament canon is followed, it is made up of only the familiar twenty-seven books, but then the Old Testament books are divided differently so that they make up 54 books instead of 46. In both the narrower and broader canon, the total number of books comes to 81." [18] (emphasis added)


List of many early versions of the New Testament [19]

1. The Latin Versions

a) The Latin versions before Jerome

b) Jerome's Latin Vulgate

2. The Syriac Versions

a) The Old Syriac Versions

b) The Peshitta Syriac Version

c) The Philoxenian and/or Harclean Versions

d) The Palestianian Syriac Version

3. The Coptic Versions

a) The Sahidic Version

b) The Bohairic Version

c) Other Coptic Versions

4. The Gothic Version

5. The Armenian Version

6. The Georgian Version

7. The Ethiopic Version

8. The Nubian Version

9. The Old Arabic Versions

10. The Old Slavic Versions


 How did the Christian canons come to be? Prof. Bart D. Ehrman tells us,

"The New Testament did not emerge as an established and complete set of books immediately after the death of Jesus. Many years passed before Christians agreed concerning which books should comprise their sacred scriptures, with debates over the contour of the "canon" (i.e. the collection of sacred texts) that were long, hard, and sometimes harsh." [20]

Why is one canon superior than the other? Has there ever been a supreme canon? Philip R. Davies says that no particular canon ever reigned.

"For no single Christian canon has ever reigned: the Catholic, Protestant, Ethiopic, Orthodox(Greek and Russian), Coptic and Syrian canons differ. In many cases canons were, and are, a matter of uncertainty(the contents of the vulgate were not settled until 1546). ?Canon', then, like ?bible', is a category of which there are several members. Whether a piece of writing is ?canonical' and whether it is in a bible is a matter of where and when you choose to ask. For the earliest stages in the devlopment of both, ?biblical' is easier to define than ?canonical, of course, because we can consult an ancient bible and see immediately what was in it. And anything that was in it was obviously ?biblical': there is no other rational definition! Any book that has been included in a bible is, after all, a biblical a book: that is a matter of fact and not for discussion. Whether the contents of the earliest bibleare ?canonical' is a different matter, involving an understanding of what the term might have meant at any particular time. (Canonical criticism, then, is not cenral to biblical studies but concerns a related topic.) Thus, for example, the New Testament of he Peshitta (dating from the fifth century) omits four of the Catholic epistles (2 and 3 John, Philemon, 2 Peter). The Ethiopic New Testament canon has 35 books. But no Ethiopic biblical manuscripts contain the whole New Testament." [21]

In the history of the Qur'an what was to constsitute the Qur'an was agreed upon by the immediate companions of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. themselves. Utterly dinstinct from the Islamic tradition, the Christian sacred texts as we have illustrated in this article went through virtually hundreds of years of arguing and debating and even today it is not totally settled with numerous different versions that differ from one another. Even the earlier Christian theologians themselves were not certain which books to include as sacred. As a matter of fact, the first person to introduce a canon was a pagan who believed in two gods i.e. Marcion. One cannot help but laugh when the Christian missionaries and propagandists try to point fingers at the Qur'an and yell corruption.


[1] Matthew Black, B. J. Roberts. Peake's Commentary on the Bible( 1987). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 73

[2] Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus(2005). New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 34 ;  Matthew Black, J. N. Sanders. Peake's COmmentary on the Bible(1987). Ibid. p. 680

[3] Bart D. Ehrman. Ibid. p. 33

[4] J. N. Sanders. Op. Cit. p. 680

[5] Ibid. p. 681

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman. Lost Scriptures(2003). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 331  ; J.N. Sanders. Ibid.

[9] J.N. Sanders. Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op. Cit. Misquoting Jesus. p. 36

[12] Op. Cit. Lost Scriptures. p. 340

[13] Roland H. Bainton. The Church of Our Fathers(1941). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 29

[14] Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible(1993). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 79

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development(1997). New York, United States: Oxford University Press Inc. p. 225

[18] Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan. Op. Cit. p. 79

[19] Matthew Black, Bruce M. Metzger p. 671-674

[20] Op. Cit. Lost Scriptures. p. 1

[21] Philip R. Davies. Whose Bible is it Anyway? (1995). Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. p. 64