Which New Testament Books Could Have Been Left Out of the Canon and Why?

The ancient Church used apostolic writings and the Apocrypha, which have also co-existed with bogus texts claiming to be authentic. The Church had to separate the wheat from the chaff, and theologians were divided over certain books. Some books we now recognise as canonical were not always considered that way. Preceding the final approval of the Canon of the Holy Books by the Councils of Laodicea, Hippo and Carthage, several canons were in use, with varying authority and reach.

The Greek word Bible means “book”, and not without reason. In ancient times, the Holy Scriptures existed as separate books or manuscripts. Sometimes, several books were written on a single papyrus or parchment, but the complete collection of all books in one volume did not become common until centuries later.

The authority of some books was never questioned. Some less common books were known in some churches but not others, some were rejected upfront. Among the books accepted as canonical by the Orthodox church, three took time to be accepted by all churches: Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, the Second Ecumenical Epistle of the Apostle Peter, and the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation of John the Theologian.

Now let us consider these books in detail.

Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews

The debate on whether the Epistle to the Hebrews belongs to the hand of the Apostle Paul has been going on since ancient times. The earliest New Testament Canon, Canon Muratori (142-154), does not mention the Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it states: “Also in circulation is another [epistle], to the Laodiceans, [and] yet another. to the Alexandrians, [both] falsely ascribed to Paul to [give weight] to the heresy of Marcion. The Catholic Church cannot accept these epistles, or several other texts along with them, as it is not good to mix bile with honey.”

The Canon of Origen (185-254) is more equivocal. Admitting that the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews was different from Paul’s, Origen also acknowledges that the ideas could be taken to belong to Paul. According to Origen, the text of the Epistle has also been ascribed to the Holy Martyr Clement of Rome and Luke the Evangelist.

Likewise, the canon of Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340), a church historian, excluded the Epistle to the Hebrews. According to Eusebius, the Church of Rome not only denied Paul’s authorship of the epistle but also questioned its apostolic origins.

The first canon to include the Apostle to the Hebrews was compiled by St Cyril of Jerusalem in c.a. 350. All later canons came with the epistle, including the canons of the Council of Laodicea, St Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Amphilochius of Iconium, among others. So why did it take so long for the book of Hebrews to overcome its uncertain canonical status?

As noted by writers from ancient times, the most prominent reason was perhaps the language of the text. Paul’s style is distinct for its simplicity and its court manner of expression. Yet the epistle is written in elegant literary Greek, not the popular Koine dialect of the rest of the New Testament books. The Greek text has excellent flow, and all the ideas are complete and well connected.

Also, the text quotes verbatim the fragments from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, also suggesting that it had been written by an educated Greek, not a Jew. In his other epistles, Paul quotes from memory, and from the original in Hebrew.

Also missing from the text are several other features typical of Paul’s other epistles. We find no salutation or attribution, or Paul’s distinct terms present in other texts, such as the Gospel, “In Christ,” “Revelation”, “Redemption” or “Fulfilment”.

Occasionally, Paul’s theology in the Epistle is also not congruent with the other epistles, mainly because of his different manner of expression. On the other hand, nowhere in his epistle do we find anything that contradicts the theology of Paul’s other texts. For example, Paul refers to Christ only by his first name and calls Him the Lord only three times. A possible cause for these differences could be that he was writing for a different audience: while his previous texts were addressed to former Pagans, his epistle to the Hebrews was intended for the Christians from the Jews.

In light of this controversy, the Epistle to the Hebrews is the last among Paul’s epistles. In Protestantism, most biblical scholars deny the attribution of its text to Apostle Paul. Some Catholics also share this view, but Orthodox scholars have criticised it. Some prominent writers who affirmed Paul’s authorship included St. Theophan the Recluse, A.V. Ivanov, N.N. Glubokovsky, and Bishop Nicanor (Kamensky).

One plausible explanation for the unusual language and the absence of a salutation and signature and other distinctive details could be that the scribe was writing from his memory. It is also speculated that the original text of the Apostle Paul could have been edited for literary style. However, as observed by Origen, the theological views of the Epistle do not contradict those of the other texts ascribed to Apostle Paul, despite their unusual form.

The Second Epistle of the Apostle Peter

The history of the Second Epistle of the Apostle Peter was less straightforward. Its first mention as a part of the Scripture refers to the third century. We find it in the canon of Origen. In his commentary, Origen mentions one recognised epistle and another that is questioned. Eusebius of Cesaria wrote of this second text in the early fourth century that the majority accepted it, despite the questions asked.

Regarding this latter epistle, Origen and Eusebius gave no reason for the doubts about its authenticity. They simply declared that they existed. The fact that it was so little-known at the time could probably explain this situation. For example, the widely used canon of Muratori made no mention of it.

The blessed Jerome, a fourth-century saint, observed the striking difference in language between the first and second epistle. He believed the second epistle to be canonical and explained that the apostle may have used different secretaries to record each. This is a plausible suggestion, given the long period between the two texts. The first epistle announces the imminent second coming of Christ, while in the second, the apostle responds to the lamentations of the false prophets that the promise of His second coming was unfulfilled, and things remained as they were at the beginning of time, despite the generation change. Furthermore, the first epistle discloses the identity of the scribe, but the second does not.

What else might suggest that these texts were written years apart? The second epistle of Peter assumes that the reader must be well familiar with the epistles of Paul, already accepted as a part and parcel of the Scripture. In this aspect, the Second Epistle performed the role of pseudepigrapha.

A large amount of pseudepigraphic literature signed in the Apostle Peter’s name could explain the relative obscurity of the second epistle of Peter. The Church had already rejected as bogus the Gospel of Peter, Peter’s Epistle to Apostle James, Peter’s epistle to Phillip and two Apocalypses of Peter. Incidentally, the scholars who dispute Peter’s authorship of the second epistle date it to the first century of our time, even though the majority of the New Testament Apocrypha are dated to the second or third centuries.

The Orthodox Church did not fully accept Peter’s second epistle until the dawn of the fourth century, until it finally appreciated, with guidance from the Hol;y Spirit the doctrinal worth of the text and its apostolic origin.

The Apocalypse, or Revelation of John the Theologian

Many fathers of the Holy Church recognised this text, but it was the last of all books to be included in the New Testament Canon. The Western Church accepted it sooner than the East, Archbishop Irenaeus of Lyon (II century), Martyr Justine the Philosopher (II century), St. Jerome (IV-V centuries), St. Augustine (IV-V centuries) and many other church fathers considered it sacred. The book was also included in Origen’s and Muratorian canons.

However, in the East, it remained little known up until the fourth century. It was not mentioned in the Statute of St Cyril of Jerusalem, the canon of the Council of Laodicea. Eusebius of Caesarea denounced it as spurious. However, late fourth-century great Cappadocians knew the Revelation well and treated it as sacred. Nevertheless, separate Greek manuscripts of the Apocalypse were not written until the tenth century. Ninth-century saint Nicephorus of Constantinople makes no mention of the Apocalypse in his writings. Because the West accepted the Apocalypse earlier than the East, the Western Church uses it in its liturgical practice, unlike the Eastern Church, which still does not.

There are two reasons for this situation: language differences between the Apocalypse and the other texts by Apostle John, and the references to the thousand-year kingdom of Christ (Revelation 20: 1, 4).

Already in the third century, St. Dionysius the Great observed that while the Gospel of John and his Epistles were written in good Greek without any errors, the Book of Revelation had errors in language and multiple borrowings from Hebrew. It was as if he was writing in Greek but thinking in Hebrew, which was particularly visible from the syntax. However, St. Dionysius believed that the events and visions described in the Apocalypse were genuine.

John wrote his Apocalypse much later than the Gospels, which might explain the discrepancies in the language. By the time he wrote the text, he simply had not had enough time to learn Greek well enough. Most scholars date his works to the first century. According to alternative views, he may have finished the text sometime in the sixties.

The discrepancies in the language may be telling, but the texts do not reveal any contradictions in doctrine. The usual theme of the opposition of good against evil and God against the devil is just as present in the Apocalypse as in all of his other works.

Misinterpretation of Verses 1, 4 of Chapter 20 gave rise to the false teaching of Chiliasm, rejected by the Church. Some fathers of the Western Church entertained moderate forms of chiliasm, but only as private opinions, and not as doctrine. The sensuous variant of Chiliasm – espoused by the Gnostics – has been rejected universally and unequivocally. Limited knowledge of the text in the East made the rejection of Gnostic teachings more radical. But the defeat of Gnosticism made it possible for the Church to reconsider its position towards the book of the Apocalypse, accepted by most of the Christian world.

In conclusion: some observations on modern biblical scholarship and the Orthodox idea of the biblical canon

In biblical scholarship, especially among Protestants, there is a growing trend toward revising the biblical canon. Protestants hold the Scripture as the final authority for all matters of faith (the scripture alone principle). Yet the Holy Scripture and the Tradition are closely intertwined, something that protestants find hard to admit. By rejecting the tradition, one also comes to reject the Scripture. Martin Luther believed that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by the Alexandrian theologian Apollos, although he still recognised it as canonical.

Over centuries, attempts to revise Scripture have intensified. For example, the famous Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) believed that in time, the Protestant canon would no longer include the books of the Old Testament. A proponent of reform, he asserted that the ancient church had not undertaken it earlier because it was not ready for it. No book of the New Testament could escape a challenge from some biblical scholar.

It is hardly possible to conduct a failsafe analysis confirming the authorship of an ancient text with full certainty. The Holy fathers have also made mistakes in their decisions to reject or accept a scripture book. Laypeople have been even less reliable in this regard. But the Holy Spirit has descended on our Church, making it the pillar and guardian of truth. The gates of Hades will not prevail against it. According to orthodox doctrine, all decisions of the ecumenical councils were guided by the Spirit of God, and so we should treat all the books of the Bible that the Church has recognised as inspired by God.

About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

Comments

  1. Hi, thank you for this article! I’m sorry, I had misclicked during the vote, I wish I had clicked “Non-canonical Sayings of Christ. Overview, types and sources.” instead. You wrote a nice article! It’s just that I wish I had contributed to knowing (all) the Words of our Lord, rather than the opposite, of about removing from the New Testament.

    1. Thank you too! Sorry to hear that.Though I guess one vote would not change much. Don’t worry, maybe I’ll make an article on this too

  2. Thank you for this helpful explanation.
    It might perhaps be of interest to explain also
    something about some of the texts which have
    been regarded as on the ‘fringe’ of the New
    Testament canon, like the epistles of Sts. Clement
    and Ignatius of Antioch and the ‘Shepherd’ of Hermas.
    In recent decades some Anglican and other scholars
    have been paying attention to the so-called gospel
    of Thomas, and there is discussion about the
    position in the Ethiopian Canon of the Book of Enoch.

    1. I had the same idea. If the editor approves it, I’ll write about it some time later. Thank you.

  3. Thank you John for such a thorough essay on these 3 disputed (at one time) books. It is so helpful to have the full background to the reasons for the disputes. One can read the books now with new eyes.

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