The Old Testament of the Early Church

The following lengthy excerpt is taken from J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, published by Adam & Charles Black, London, Fourth Edition 1968, pp. 52-56. All bold emphasis will be mine.



1. The Old Testament

For the first hundred years, at least, of its history the Church’s Scriptures, in the precise sense of the word, consisted exclusively of the Old Testament. The books comprising what later became known as the New Testament were, of course, already in existence; practically all of them had been written well before the first century ended, and they were familiar to and used by second-century. Christian writers. They had not yet been elevated, however, to the special status of canonical Scripture. Judaism, on the other hand, had its collection of sacred, or ‘holy’, books long before Christianity was born. The official list, though not formally ratified by the rabbis till the council of Jamnia c. A.D. 90, was virtually closed by the apostolic age, and it was natural that the Church should appropriate it. She instinctively claimed to be the new Israel, and as such the legitimate heir both of the revelation and of the promises made to the old. So when writers like Clement of Rome, ‘Barnabas’ and Justin refer to Scripture (‘it is written’, etc.), what they have in view is almost always the Bible of the Jews. There were important groups of second-century Christians (we shall discuss them in a later section) who felt uneasy about the Old Testament, or even rejected it as completely alien to the gospel of Christ, but they stood outside the central stream of Christianity. For the Church as a whole it was a Christian book which spoke of the Saviour on every page. Nor did this reverence for it diminish when, in the later decades of the second century, the New Testament writings won their way to recognition as inspired Scripture. Throughout the whole patristic age, as indeed in all subsequent Christian centuries, the Old Testament was accepted as the word of God, the unimpeachable sourcebook of saving doctrine.

It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism. (These conventional totals were arrived at by reckoning 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as two books, the twelve minor prophets as one book, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1-2 Chronicles as one book each, and, in the case of the former, by attaching Ruth and Lamentations to judges and Jeremiah respectively.) It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha, or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Begun at Alexandria about the middle of the third century B.C., this became the Bible of the Greek-speaking Jews of the Dispersion, and most of the Scriptural quotations found in the New Testament are based upon it rather than the Hebrew. For the Jews of Palestine the limits of the canon (the term is Christian, and was not used in Judaism) were rigidly fixed; they drew a sharp line of demarcation between the books which ‘defiled the hands’, i.e. were sacred, and other religiously edifying writings. The outlook of the Jewish communities outside Palestine tended to be much more elastic. While respecting the unique position of the Pentateuch, they treated the later books of the Old Testament with considerable freedom, making additions to some and drastically rewriting others; and they did not hesitate to add entirely new books to the permitted list. In this way 1 (3) Esdras, Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees came to be included among the histories, and Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Song of the Three Holy Children, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon (these last three ‘the Additions to the Book of Daniel’), and the Prayer of Manasseh among the poetical and prophetic books.

In the first two centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas and from 2 (4) Esdras and Ecclesiasticus in the latter. Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache Ecclesiasticus. Irenaeus refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary. Towards the close of the second century, when as a result of controversy with the Jews it became known that they were now united in repudiating the deutero-canonical books, hesitations began to creep in; Melito of Sardes (fl. 170), for example, satisfied himself,’ after a visit to Palestine, that the Hebrew canon was the authoritative one. Origen, it is true, made extensive use of the Apocrypha (as indeed of other truly apocryphal works), but his familiarity as a scholar with the Hebrew Bible made him conscious that there was a problem to be faced. A suggestion he advanced was that, when disputing with Jews, Christians should confine themselves to such books as they recognized; but he added the caution that the further extension of such a self-denying ordinance would necessitate the destruction of the copies of the Scriptures currently read in the churches.

It was in the fourth century, particularly where the scholarly standards of Alexandrian Christianity were influential, that these doubts began to make their mark officially. The view which now commended itself fairly generally in the Eastern church, as represented by Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Epiphanius, was that the deuterocanonical books should be relegated to a subordinate position outside the canon proper. Cyril was quite uncompromising; books not in the public canon were not to be studied even in private. Athanasius displayed greater flexibility, ruling that they might be used by catechumens for the purpose of instruction. Yet it should be noted (a) that no such scruples seem to have troubled adherents of the Antiochene School, such as John Chrysostom and Theodoret; and (b) that even those Eastern writers who took a strict line with the canon when it was formally under discussion were profuse in their citations from the Apocrypha on other occasions. This official reserve, however, persisted for long in the East. As late as the eighth century we find John Damascene maintaining the Hebrew canon of twenty-two books and excluding Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, although he was ready to acknowledge their admirable qualities.

The West, as a whole, was inclined to form a much more favourable estimate of the Apocrypha. Churchmen with Eastern contacts, as was to be expected, might be disposed to push them into the background. Thus Hilary, though in fact citing all of them as inspired, preferred to identify the Old Testament proper with the twenty-two books (as he reckoned them) extant in the Hebrew; while Rufinus describes Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith and 1 and 2 Maccabees as ‘not canonical, but ecclesiastical’, i.e. to be read by Christians but not adduced as authoritative for doctrine. Jerome, too, influenced by his long residence in Palestine as well as by purely scholarly considerations, declared about 391 that anything not in the Hebrew was ‘to be classed among the apocrypha’, and did not belong to the canon; somewhat later, in 398, he conceded that the Church read some of these books for edification, but not to support doctrine. For the great majority, however, the deutero-canonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense. Augustine, for example, whose influence in the West was decisive, made no distinction between them and the rest of the Old Testament, to which, breaking away once for all from the ancient Hebrew enumeration, he attributed forty-four books. The same inclusive attitude to the Apocrypha was authoritatively displayed at the synods of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 respectively, and also in the famous letter which Pope Innocent I despatched to Exuperius, bishop of Toulouse, in 405.


Gregory of Nazianus’ Biblical Canon

The Biblical Books of the Apostolic Canons

The Synod of Laodicea’s Biblical Canon

John of Damascus’ Biblical Canon

The Biblical Canon of the 5th-6th Centuries








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