Eusebius and “canonical”

Most readers of Eusebius’ History of the Church are familiar with his interesting chapter (Book III, Chapter 25) devoted to discussing the canonical status of the books of the New Testament. After a recent re-reading of Eusebius, I thought it would be good to share some interesting things that have come up in light of this reading, informed as I am now by a wealth of further reading on the subject of the Biblical canon since I last read Eusebius. In such a case of re-reading, formerly innocuous words and phrases often take on new meaning. This is precisely the case here in regards to Eusebius’ interesting discussion of the books of the New Testament.

First, it is necessary to emphasize that the word “canon” (κανὼν, κανόνος) and its derivative forms are not used by Eusebius to refer to the books of the Bible, but primarily to the Rule of Faith of the Church.

The word κανὼν appears only in the title of one of Clement of Alexandria’s works (VI.13: Κανὼν ἐκκλησιαστικὸς ἢ πρὸς τοὺς Ἰουδαΐζοντας, “The Canon of the Church, or, Against the Judaizers”), and nowhere else in the text of Eusebius’ History of the Church. No derivative forms of this spelling appear. Eusebius himself prefers the alternate spelling, κανόνος, and its derivatives.

In Eusebius’ lengthy work, it is perhaps surprising to find κανόνος and its derivatives used only 16 times:
1.) II 17.1: …τῆς ἐκκλησίας περιέχει κανόνας· “…it contains the rule of the Church.”
2.) III 32.7-8: …τὸν ὑγιῆ κανόνα τοῦ σωτηρίου κηρύγματος· “…the healthful rule of the preaching of salvation.”
3.) IV 23.5: …τῷ τῆς ἀληθείας παρίσταται κανόνι…. “…defending the canon of faith….”
4.) V 24.6: …ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸν κανόνα τῆς πίστεως ἀκολουθοῦντες· “…rather following according to the rule of faith.”
5.) V 28.13: …πίστεώς τε ἀρχαίας κανόνα ἠθετήκασιν…. “…they have rejected the rule of the ancient faith….”
6.) VI 2.14: …φυλάττων ἐξ ἔτι παιδὸς κανόνα ἐκκλησίας…. “…from the age of a boy keeping the rule of the Church….”
7.) VI 22.1: …καί τινα κανόνα ἑκκαιδεκαετηρίδος περὶ τοῦ πάσχα προθείς… “…and he puts forth a sixteen year rule relating to Pascha….”
8.) VI 25.3: …τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν φυλάττων κανόνα…. “…guarding the rule of the Church….”
9.) VI 33.1: …τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν παρεκτρέπων κανόνα…. “…perverting the rule of the Church….”
10.) VI 43.15: …κατὰ τὸν τῆς ἐκκλησίας κανόνα…. “according to the rule of the Church….”
11.) VII pinax: …ἐκκλησιαστικοῦ κανόνος. “…the rule of the Church.”
12.) VII pinax: …ἔνθα καὶ περὶ τοῦ πάσχα κανονίζει. “…in which he also gives rules regarding Pascha.”
13.) VII 7.4: τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον. “This is the rule and model I took from our blessed father Heraclas”
14.) VII 20.1: …ἐν ᾗ καὶ κανόνα ἐκτίθεται ὀκταετηρίδος….” “in which he also proposes an eight-year rule”
15.) VII 30.6: ὅπου δὲ ἀποστὰς τοῦ κανόνος…. “Whereas he has forsaken the canon….”
16.) VII 32.13: Ἐκ τῶν περὶ τοῦ πάσχα Ἀνατολίου κανόνων· “From the rules concerning Pascha by Anatolius.”

Eusebius’ usage is clear. When κανόνος and its derivatives are used in his writings, he is primarily referring to the Rule of the Faith, the Rule of the Church, that is, the tradition of conduct and belief that originated with the Apostles and was preserved inviolate in the Church (excluding heresies) down to his own day. Secondarily, he uses it to refer to the rules regarding the calculation of the date for Pascha, Easter.

Reflecting upon this usage, we must notice that elsewhere Eusebius interestingly chooses to refer to what we would call the canonical books of the New Testament by terminology which ultimately describes these books in terms of their Apostolic origins. His discussion of the various books of the New Testament (III 25) is particularly interesting, and has garnered much commentary. His description involves a threefold categorization in which a book is described as ὁμολογουμένος, ἀντιλεγομένος, or νόθος, that is, agreed-upon, disputed, and spurious. This terminology does not refer to agreement or disagreement in terms of belonging to the Bible, but rather in terms of agreement or disagreement of Apostolic origins for the book. The distinction is a crucial one. There is no hypothesis here of a “Bible” to which a book is going to be either included or excluded. Rather, there are various books, and those which the churches agree in recognizing as of Apostolic origin belong to the “agreed-upon” category, those in which books are recognized by some as authentically Apostolic yet not recognized as so by others belong to the “disputed” category. To the “spurious” category belong those books which are generally recognized as not originating with the Apostles. So we see the criterion of organization here is not based upon an idea of what we now think of a Biblical canon, but was rather motivated by concerns for authenticity and authority. The Apostles are the foundation of the Church, and their writings are therefore considerered the protocanon of all ecclesiastical writings. The concern for ascertaining the proper list of those authentic works in order to safeguard against heresy and other failure is one that is shown throughout Eusebius’ work.

In light of this, it’s perfectly legitimate to translate Eusebius’ tripartite terminology above as “agreed to be authentic”, “disputedly authentic”, “agreed to be inauthentic.”

In the next post, I’ll touch on Eusebius’ peculiar treatment of the Apocalypse.


  1. Kevin,

    I like that fact that you have a Greek θσεδ instead of a English “used” : )

    Seriously, though, a very good and thought-provoking post. I look forward to hearing more.


  2. Thank you, Michael! There are a number of other posts on the subject of the Biblical canon linked to in my canon category, over in the right column.

    It’s a very interesting and perpetually diverting subject!

  3. There’s some good stuff there, Kevin. Like you, I’m an advocate for an ecumenical canon. I also like what you have to say about the personal canon in one of those posts; and also the notion of liturgy as a canon. I never knew that elements of the Acts of John were in the Orthodox/Byzantine liturgy. I wonder what surprises might be found in the Roman/Liturgy.

  4. Thanks, Michael! It’s a very interesting subject, of course. These days I’m leaning more and more toward the idea of canon as primarily referring to the Rule of Faith, and books considered canonical because they were considered 1.) authentic (whether of the Apostolic age, or from ancient Israel) and therefore 2.) representative of the Rule of Faith, as authentic books can only be such. That throws a wrench (I don’t mind throwing those around) into goofy ideas of “canonical pseudepigrapha” and such. That latter is a concept that is being bent over backwards to accomodate those moderns who recognize psedepigrapha in the OT and NT and yet maintain that they are authoritative.

    I’m sure the Roman liturgy includes some interesting things, too. But that’s such a centralized body of texts that there are likely not as many fun things like the Acts of John excerpts surviving in the Menologion of some obscure monastery church somewhere. I’m betting there are fantastic manuscripts waiting to be discovered in the Coptic monasteries. We’ll see.

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