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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


b. The Status of the Canon at the Beginning of the Fourth Century

From the fourth century on, the story of the canon is anticlimactic. It is just a statement of what was already known. And anyway, we begin having complete manuscripts of the New Testament that have survived from this time on. Their contents just transmit what had been received from earlier centuries.

In the early fourth century the historian Eusebius surveyed the literature that might be put forward as having “testamental” status (ἐνδιάθηκος, as the term “canonical” was not quite in use yet at this time). He wished to distinguish this group of writings from others that had been put forward under the name of the apostles but which in his view were heretical. As his project turned out, however, he had to make three lists, not two.

The first list contains the books which are “acknowledged” (ὁμολογουμένοι) and widely quoted by writers who “belong to the succession of the orthodox.“ They are as follows:


The four Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)


The letters of Paul (presumably including Hebrews)

1 John

1 Peter

Revelation, perhaps


There is nothing exceptional about this list. But you will note that Eusebius’ opinion about the Book of Revelation makes him hesitant to list it without qualification.

Eusebius is not hesitant, however, about listing books which he calls wicked and impious (ἄτοπα πάντῃ καὶ δυσσεβῆ). These, he says, have not been quoted by orthodox writers, their language differs from apostolic style, and their contents are at odds with right teaching. Here is the list he gives:


Gospel of Peter

Gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Matthias

    and others

Acts of Andrew

Acts of John

    and others


The list is not comprehensive. Eusebius only names five out of many. But there is no fuzziness here: these books clearly have no place in the church’s testamental literature.

In between these two lists, Eusebius must place a third. These are the books that are “disputed” (ἀντιλεγομένοι), although they are widely known. Their orthodoxy is apparently not under suspicion, but in varying degrees they are acknowledged by some, disputed by others. Here is the middle list:




2 Peter

2 John

3 John (which Eusebius says might be by John the Evangelist or someone else named John)

Spurious books:

Acts of Paul

The Shepherd

Apocalypse of Peter

Epistle of Barnabas

Teaching of the Apostles

Revelation (unless the view prevails that it is among the acknowledged books)

Gospel according to the Hebrews (acknowledged by some and enjoyed by Jewish Christians)


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