Do not Add to His Words: The Church without the Canon

17 February 2015

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)

Not only did they have other books, but in the earliest centuries many parts of the Christian Church flourished without the New Testament at all! This does not lessen the importance of Scripture. It simply acknowledges that the early Christians, while guarding with their lives what Scriptures they had, lived a faith taught to them personally by the Apostles. They held fast to their teaching, some of which was preserved in their writings, but was mainly learned and taught orally and liturgically, passed down from generation to generation.

As late as A.D. 180, parts of the Church, particularly in the eastern regions, did not have large portions of the New Testament. But they practiced and held the same faith as the Greek speaking churches in the Mediterranean. St. Irenaeus, a bishop of France and the spiritual grandson of the Holy Apostle John, gives us an account of this in a treatise of his against the false teaching of Gnostic teachers of his day.

For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. ( Against Heresies 3.4.1–2)

Is it all that unusual to learn of orthodox churches that did not have the canon? After all, the New Testament was written only by about eight people. Half of it was written by companions, Ss. Paul & Luke. Over the course of the first century the bulk of the New Testament would have remained in the churches where Ss. Paul and Luke ministered.

Acts focuses on the spread of Christianity into Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece. For some reason Luke did not chronicle the deeds of St. Thomas, St. Bartholemew, or the other Apostles. He did not write about the spread of the Gospel to Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Carthage, Britain, and India. These places, all of which received the Gospel in the first century, did not have the complete writings of the Apostles until the second century and the earliest, some of them not until the fourth or fifth century!

The Apostles more busy living and teaching the Gospel than writing about it. St. James left us one letter. Was this the sum of his work? No, his mission was not a literary one. He and the rest of the Apostles were primarily concerned with establishing a living Church confirmed in the power of the Holy Spirit?

Even within the Greek speaking churches, as late as the early fourth century, the New Testament canon had not been finalized. The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius (260–340) writes:

It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of the gospels, followed by the Acts of the Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paul’s epistles, and after them we must recognize the epistle called 1 John; likewise 1 Peter. To these may be added, if it is thought proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I shall set out when the time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet familiar to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and 2 Peter, and those called 2 and 3 John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.

Among Spurious Books must be place the ‘Acts’ of Paul, the ‘Shepherd’, and the ‘Revelation of Peter’; also the alleged ‘Epistle of Barnabas’, and the ‘Teachings of the Apostles’, together with the Revelation of St. John, if this seems the right place for it: as I said before, some reject it, others include it among the Recognized Books. Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the ‘Gospel of Hebrews,’ a book which has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the tradition of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Sts. Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Sts. Andrew, John, and other apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer in his writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as the forgeries of heretics. It follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale. ( Ecc Hist 3:25)

After Eusebius, Canon 60 of the Synod of Laodicea (343) lists 26 books of the New Testament, omitting the Book of Revelation. St. Athanasius (296–373), in his Paschal letter of 367, writes the first list we have exactly matching the 27 books in our modern New Testament canon. This is subsequently confirmed in later writers such as Rufinus (345–410) and the African Code (419). Even then, all these late examples were not votes on what should be in the canon, but were witnesses to the slow development of the canon within the Church.