The Canon of Holy Scripture: An Anglican Note

The Canon

The canon (from Greek, κανών: “norm,” “rule,” or “standard”) of books recognized as Holy Scripture by Anglicans, Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics, includes the books that make up the Jewish Scriptures, written before Christ and traditionally referred to by Christians as “The Old Testament”—“old” not, of course, in the sense of “outdated” or “irrelevant” but rather of “original” and “first,” since these are the Scriptures that Christ himself used [1]—and 27 books in Greek, written after Christ and traditionally referred to by Christians as “The New Testament.”


The Canon of the Old Testament   

Thus far, it is relatively easy to describe the canon of Scripture.  As regards the Old Testament, however, the matter is complicated by the fact that at the beginning of the Christian era the canon of Jewish scripture was still fluid. It was certainly the case that “the Law” and “the Prophets” were well enough defined.  There remained, however, a third group, including those books later to be identified in Jewish tradition as “the Writings,” which at this time was by no means well defined. A number of books were used in addition to those that would eventually form part of the Jewish Bible, including Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus [or Sirach], Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Prayer of Manasses, and various additions to Daniel and Esther. Although some of these were originally written in Hebrew, and fragments of them have been found at Qumran, they appear chiefly to have circulated in Greek versions outside Palestine.  Thus, all of the above except 2 Esdras are to be found in copies of what is generally known as “the Septuagint” (that is, the Bible of Greek speaking Judaism) [2] and 2 Esdras is found in Old Latin translations of the Septuagint.

It was then natural that these additional books came to be used alongside the others by the largely Greek speaking Christian church.  So it is that while New Testament writers most commonly cite those scriptures that did indeed finally become part of the Jewish Bible (notably the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms), from time to time they also echo the additional books, notably Sirach (compare e.g. James 1.13 with Sirach 15.11–12, James 1.19 with Sir. 5.11), and Wisdom (compare e.g. Romans 1.20–32 with Wisdom 11–15, Romans 9.20–23 with Wisdom 12.12, 15.7, and Hebrews 1.2 with Wisdom 7.26).[3]  It has sometimes been claimed (for example by Frank C. Porter in the 1898 edition of James Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible) that “such citations do not imply that authority was ascribed to them.”[4]  Such a claim is merely specious.  In fact, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that New Testament writers made the distinction implied by Porter.  Indeed, it is quite clear that such a distinction was not made, either by their contemporaries at Qumran [5] or by their successors such as Clement of Rome (see e.g. 1 Clement 26.5 citing Wisdom 12.12).  We have therefore every reason to suppose that the New Testament writers also did not make it, and the burden of proof must rest with those who suggest they did.

The exact process, criteria, and time frame by which the Jewish canon of Holy Scripture was eventually defined is uncertain.  It is clear that by the end of the second Christian century various books that we now call “apocryphal / deuterocanonical” had been excluded; it is equally clear that they continued to be used by Christians, who had already come to regard them as holy. In other words, though the church inherited Scriptures from Judaism, it did not inherit a canon of Scripture. The church determined its canon for itself.  Nevertheless, once the Jewish canon had been established, it did exercise influence on the Christian, especially in the East. Hence Christian authorities in antiquity as eminent as Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome all claimed in one way or another that a distinction must be made between the books that comprised the Hebrew canon and the others, and expressed varying degrees of reservation about the latter (Athanasius, Festal. Epist. 39; Hilary, Proleg. in Librum Psalmorum, 15; Gregory Nazianzus, Carm. 33; Jerome, In Prologo Galeato, Tom. 1).[6]  It appears to have been the immensely prestigious Jerome who first called them “apocrypha” (that is, “secret,” or “of unknown origin”), and he spoke of them also as “libri ecclesiastici” (“church books”) as opposed to “libri canonici” (“canonical books”).

Following the reformation, Protestant tradition normally referred to the books not found in the Hebrew Bible as “apocryphal” and excluded them from the canon. Roman Catholic scholars called them “deuterocanonical” (indicating that they were added later to the canon, in distinction from “protocanonical” for books of which there was never any doubt); but the Roman Catholic church (following the Council of Trent) continued to treat them as part of the canon, excluding only 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses.  During this period a brief attempt was made by Cyril Lukaris, Patriarch of Constantinople, to persuade the Greek Church to adopt the Hebrew Canon, but it was not successful.  The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church in general accepts the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books as canonical, excluding 2 Esdras, but including Psalm 151 and 3 Maccabees. Slavonic Bibles approved by the Russian Orthodox Church also include 2 Esdras (referring to 1 and 2 Esdras, however, as 2 and 3 Esdras).

Anglican views of the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books are in certain respects to be distinguished from all the views outlined above. Article VI of the Articles of Religion (Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation) notes that “In the name of holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.”  Following this, under the subheading, “Of the Names and Number of the Canonical Books,” the article lists not only the books of the Hebrew Bible, but also “other” books, namely 1 and 2 Esdras (referred to as “third” and “fourth”), Tobit, Judith, Esther, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, The Song of the Three Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasses, and 1 and 2 Maccabees, noting that they are read “as Hierome [Jerome] saith… for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet it [the church] doth not apply them to establish any doctrine.”  In other words, the framers of the article shared antiquity’s reservations over the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books yet remained committed to retaining them within the general category of Holy Scripture, that is, as both sacred and canonical.

Anglican history bears this out.  The Book of Common Prayer from 1549 onward appointed extensive lessons from the Apocrypha for daily Morning and Evening Prayer.  The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 spoke of the Apocrypha in its table of contents as “the fourth part [of the Bible] called Apocryphus,” and provided a classified list of “the whole Scripture of the Bible” under the headings Legal, Historical, Sapiental, and Prophetical that followed, with minor changes, the Vulgate.  The “authorized” or “King James” translation of 1611 distinguished “books called Apocrypha” by the running title “Apocrypha” at the top of the page, but had no separate preface or table of contents for them, and in its table of lessons at the beginning simply included them with the rest of the Old Testament. In 1615 George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the King James translators, issued public notices forbidding the binding and selling of Bibles lacking the Apocrypha on pain of a year’s imprisonment.  Urged by Puritans to discontinue lections from the Apocrypha in the church’s liturgy, the bishops of the Savoy Conference in 1661 replied tartly that it was much to be desired that all sermons should give as useful instruction as did the readings.

Despite the tendency of a number of nineteenth and twentieth century commentators to confuse Anglican views with Protestant,[7] Anglican formularies and practice have in fact continued to hold to the position of the Savoy divines.  The Book of Common Prayer 1979 (USA) is typical.  In the section on “The Holy Scriptures” in the “Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism” it notes without comment that in addition to the Old and New Testaments, “other books, called the Apocrypha, are often included in the Bible.” These are books “written by the people of the Old Covenant, and used in the Christian Church” (853).  Readings from the Apocrypha are accordingly appointed on some occasions in the Lectionary for the Sunday Eucharist (for example, Lectionary A, Sundays after Pentecost, Proper 1, 11, 19) and portions of the Apocrypha are read in course at Morning and Evening Prayer (for example, Daily Office Year One, Week of 4 Easter).


The Canon of the New Testament

As regards the New Testament, Article VI of the Church of England concluded that “All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical”—of which books the article had already observed that they were those “of whose authority there was never any doubt in the church.”  Critical scholarship obliges us to concede that the matter was not quite so simple as the article suggested.  Various doctors of the church at various times in antiquity had expressed uncertainties about the Revelation to John (the Apocalypse), the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letter of James, the second and third Letters of John, the Second Letter of Peter, and the Letter of Jude (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25).  Such doubts continued to be voiced as late as the Reformation. Martin Luther said of the Apocalypse in his 1522 Preface, “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it… Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”  He relegated it, together with Hebrews and the Letter of James, to the appendix of his Bible.  Although in 1545 Luther somewhat tempered his expression of his opinion of these books, there is no evidence that he ever really changed his views on the subject.  Thomas Cranmer made no statements about the canonicity of the Apocalypse, but it is notable that (in contrast to his quite extensive use of the Apocrypha) he did not include any readings from it in the daily office Lectionary of the Church of England.

Nevertheless, in contrast to their continuing differences over the Old Testament, it may reasonably be claimed that Christians did move quite rapidly to a consensus on the New and have broadly held to it. Origen (born 185) and Eusebius of Caesarea (born 270) both give lists of the New Testament books that are in all important respects the same as our list (Origen, Comment. in Matt. cited in Eusebius, H.E. 6.25.2; Eusebius, H.E. 3.25.1-7). Athanasius in his Festal Letter of 326 gives a list exactly corresponding with ours (Ex Festali Epist. 39).  The Council of Hippo in 393, at which St. Augustine was present, likewise established a canon identical to ours (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana Lib.II.c.8), and the same list was presented by Pope Innocent I in his letter to Esuperius in 405.  On the question of the New Testament, then, Article VI of the Church of England may fairly be said simply to have ratified the common tradition of the Church.


Other Books

Certain other books of a sacred character, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the so-called Gospel of Thomas, lingered for a while in antiquity on the edge of the New Testament, and in some cases were for a while accepted as canonical by some individuals and groups.  Such apocryphal and pseudepigraphical (“falsely attributed”) books remain of interest to us as illustrating ideas and aspirations of the age that produced them, but they were never in fact recognized as canonical by any consensus of the Church, and are not so regarded by Anglicans.



These observations should not be seen as polemic. In general, I incline agree with Albert C. Sundberg: that as far as concerns the apocryphal / deuterocanonical books, it ought now to be possible for Protestants and Roman Catholics to agree.[8]  As for the specifically Anglican position, and Article VI in particular, it should be noted that—even in an age of polemic—the Article was hardly that.  Its form is notably neither prescriptive, admonitory, nor exhortatory, but descriptive and indicative.  These books, it observes without comment, are in fact read for the improvement of morals and manners, and the church does not in fact use them to “establish” doctrine.  It would be hard to see how that statement could be denied, for even among those denominations and groups most adamant in their claims for the identical authority of protocanonical and deuterocanonical books, what single significant article of faith would be claimed as established on the testimony of the latter alone?  Thus, for example, we treasure Wisdom’s testimony to God’s love and faithfulness towards the faithful departed (Wisd. 3.1–9); but we have other texts, including the words of Our Lord himself, by which we establish that hope (Mark 12.26–27; 1 Cor. 15.1–38).  Without the testimony of Wisdom, our liturgy and our prayers would be impoverished, but our faith would not be changed.

As for precise location of the Anglican position on the map of ecclesiastical relations: if it is to be placed anywhere, save at the center, of a line between Trent and the Westminster Confession, then, granted the connection between lex orandi and lex credendi, the force of continuing liturgical usage must finally place closer to the witness of Trent.



  1. Regarding Jewish Scriptures are divided by Jewish tradition into three parts, namely the Law (Tora, meaning “teaching,” comprising the five books of the Pentateuch), the Prophets (Nebi’im, subdivided into the Former Prophets, that is, the historic books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings; and the Latter Prophets, that is Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve “minor prophets”), and the Writings (Ketubim, namely Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles). This gives a total of 24, although various combinations are sometimes used to give a total of 22, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
  2. The term “Septuagint” and the description here given of its sense, though convenient enough for our present purpose, are not, it should be noted, themselves beyond controversy: for a discussion see Christopher Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Techniques in the Pauline Epistles and contemporary literature. SNTS Monograph Series 74(Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1992) 41-51 and literature there cited.
  3. Other allusions are detected in the margin to Nestle-Aland; see further Albert C. Sundberg,The Old Testament of the Early Church (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963), 54–55.
  4. Frank C. Porter, “Apocrypha,” iii, 1, in James Hastings’ A Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898).
  5. It is impossible to show that the Qumran texts use the books that were eventually included in the Hebrew canon in any way differently from the way they use those later to be identified as apocryphal / deuterocanonical: see B. J. Roberts, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament Scriptures,” BJRL 36 (1953–54): 84.
  6. Others who expressed doubts or preferred the Hebrew canon included Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory the Great, and Cardinal Cajetan. On this entire subject, see further Albert C. Sundberg, Jr., “The ‘Old Testament’: A Christian Canon,” CBQ 30 (1968): 143–55.
  7. Thus, for example, articles such as David W. Suter’s “Apocrypha, Old Testament,” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985) and the “Introduction to the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, eds., (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1991), iii–xii AP, especially viii AP, contain some of the relevant information, but obscure its significance by the authors’ failure in both cases to distinguish properly between Anglican and Protestant positions. Whoever composed the end-papers to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, purporting to show the position of the Aprocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books in the various Christian canons, appears to been unaware even that there was an Anglican position. Much better is Robert C. Dentan, “Apocrypha,” in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, since he does include a sentence stating correctly the current position of the Church of England; also Bruce M. Metzger’s article “Bible” in the same volume has a paragraph presenting a reasonable summary of Anglican practice, and noting its distinction from that of both Roman Catholics and “many Protestant denominations.” Alas, the unfortunate last paragraph of John T. Beckwith’s “Canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament” in the same volume goes some way toward recreating the usual muddle since it seems, yet again, to reflect entire ignorance of the Anglican tradition: this paragraph might with profit simply be deleted in future editions of the OCB.
  8. Sundberg, “The ‘Old Testament,’” 155.

© Christopher Bryan, School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. All rights reserved. This paper is a revision of a paper published some years ago in the Sewanee Theological Review, and subsquently as a chapter in Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke: The Bible in the Life of the Church (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2002).  If you would like permission to reprint any part of this article, please Contact the Author.