Do not Add to His Words: The Fathers and the Canon

10 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)

Every book that discusses the canon must inadvertently address the witness of the early Church Fathers. The Bible did not drop out of thin air and if the channels that gave us the Scriptures were unreliable then who can say our Faith is firm? Ironically, we rarely if ever give the early Church any authority, except in the question of the canon. What we usually hear is that the early Church had roughly the same canon we did. Some Evangelical apologists such as Geisler and Nix list the 27 books of the New Testament and mention all the early Fathers who quoted from them as Scripture. This presentation of the witness of the early Church leaves the reader with the impression that the canon was unambiguous from the death of the Apostles.

Hence, McDowell’s fifth test:

Was it received, collected, read and used? Was it accepted by the people of God?

As we have seen in the previous essay, the Body of Christ, the Church, received the Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha, as Scripture. Protestants, aside from Anglicans and Lutherans, have not observed that the people of God(?), the early Church(?) collected, read, and used the Apocryphal books. What good is this last test of McDowell’s, if we Evangelicals aren’t willing to follow it to its natural conclusion?

Let us use McDowell’s tests on three non-canonical books often cited by the early Fathers as Scripture.

Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas, a treatise against a Jewish interpretation of the Law, holds a position of great veneration in the writings of the early Church. Said to have been written by the companion of Paul, the letter dates from the late first or early second century.

It is included in the New Testament canon of the fourth century manuscript Codex Sinaiticus (4th c.) and is quoted by both Clement of Alexandria (150–215), Stromata 5.8; and Origen (185–254), First Principles 3:2:4, Against Celsus 1.63, Commentary on Romans 1.24, as Scripture. Tertullian (160–225) treated the letter as having truly come from the pen of St. Paul’s companion (On Modesty 20). The epistle resonates in thought with the Didache, a catechism highly regarded by the Church of the first century (Loeb, v.1, 306-7,337-9).

Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the early second century, is a series of apocalyptic visions meant to convey Christian teaching through parable. Like Barnabas, it was widely venerated in the early Church.

Clement of Alexandria quotes it as Scripture (Stromata 2.9), as do St. Irenaeus (130–200), Against Heresies 4.34.2, and Origen, First Principles 2.1.5, 4.1.11. Tertullian, however, called it the “shepherd of adulterers,” not because it was spurious, but because it taught that adultery could be forgiven (On Idolatry 4.15). The Shepherd, like Barnabas, is a part of the canon of the Codex Sinaiticus (Loeb, v.2, 2-5). Even in the late fourth century it was used to prepare new converts for baptism (Athanasius, Festal Letter, 367).

Book of Enoch

This book was written and compiled over the first few centuries before the birth of Christ. It is a series of books dealing with the beginning of human history and the nature of time, demons, and angels.

The Book of Enoch and its exegesis of Genesis permeates early Christian thought. It is quoted as Scripture by the Epistle of Barnabas (4.3; 16.5), Origen (First Principles 4.1.35), and Tertullian (On Idolatry 4,15). Commodian (3d c) draws from it (Comm 3). St. Irenaeus includes much of its interpretation of the Deluge in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (also Against Heresies 4:16:2). Justin Martyr (100–65) makes the same use of Enoch in his apology (II Apol 5) and Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata (5.1). Tertullian comments that the Book of Enoch was written by Enoch and entrusted to Noah. Tertuallian regarded it as Scripture, reliably protected by the power of the Spirit (Apparel of Women 3). Aramaic manuscripts of Enoch have also been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the book seems to have been treasured by the Essene community (Allegro, 128–29, 134).

This high regard of the early Christians for the Book of Enoch should be no surprise to us since part of it is already in the Bible! One of Enoch’s prophecies is quoted word for word in the New Testament:

And about these also Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (St. Jude 14,15)

It doesn’t matter so much that St. Jude says or does not say that the book is inspired. As we saw in the last essay, no individual book is called “inspired” in the New Testament. Rather, St. Jude incorporates Enoch’s prophetic utterance as a crux of his argument. He assumes that Enoch has authority for himself, and for the community to which he writes. The passage suggests that Jude and his congregation preserved and revered the work. If this were not the case, St. Jude’s argument would have been irrelevant to its readers.

Enoch’s imagery is also woven into Revelation’s apocalyptic imagery and the Gospels’ use of the term “Son of Man.” Although Enoch fell into disfavor in the fourth century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church retains it in their canon. (See Barr, 41-50, on the implications of St. Jude’s use of Enoch and the New Testament use of the pseudepigrapha.)

These are three of the many books the early Christian Church read, used, and circulated. According to McDowell’s tests, they should be part of our New Testament. The argument for the canonicity of these three books, based upon an empirical reading of the New Testament and the earliest Fathers, is actually stronger than some books in our present canon.

For instance, although 2 Peter seems to have been cited by the Shepherd of Hermas (Sim 8.11.1), it is not quoted again until Origen, in the early third century. In the early Church 2 Peter, as well as St. Jude, Revelation, and 2 & 3 John, were often in dispute, and regarded in the same fuzzy area as other books, such as Barnabas and the Shepherd. If the early Church was in doubt about these books, then didn’t they follow McDowell’s advice and “throw them out?”