On the Biblical Canon

What Books do you call Sacred Scripture?

Following the rule of the Catholic Church, we call Sacred Scripture all those which Cyril [Lucar] collected from the Synod of Laodicea, and enumerated, adding thereto those which he foolishly, and ignorantly, or rather maliciously called Apocrypha; to wit, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” “Judith,” “Tobit,” “The History of the Dragon,” “The History of Susanna,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Wisdom of Sirach.” For we judge these also to be with the other genuine Books of Divine Scripture genuine parts of Scripture. For ancient custom, or rather the Catholic Church, which hath delivered to us as genuine the Sacred Gospels and the other Books of Scripture, hath undoubtedly delivered these also as parts of Scripture, and the denial of these is the rejection of those. And if, perhaps, it seemeth that not always have all been by all reckoned with the others, yet nevertheless these also have been counted and reckoned with the rest of Scripture, as well by Synods, as by how many of the most ancient and eminent Theologians of the Catholic Church; all of which we also judge to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture.

From The Confession of Dositheus, available in full here

Patriarch Dositheus of Jerusalem wrote the Confession in 1672 as part of a local Synod of Jerusalem. It is a point by point response to the Confession attributed to Cyril Lucaris, erstwhile Patriarch of Constantinople, which appeared in Latin in Geneva in 1629, but which the Synod of Jerusalem, in comparing Cyril’s other writings, determined was a forgery. (Almost certainly, however, they erred in this determination; Cyril was educated in Geneva and likely found Reformed opinion on the Apocrypha probative.) One of Cyril’s answered questions was on the biblical canon. Here, Patriarch Dositheus gives a short but pithy answer. He does not apportion the “extra” books to a separate, second-class body of Scripture, whether “deuterocanonical” or “Apocrypha,” but maintains an older opinion founded in patristic and Conciliar sources. (It should be noted that the term “Apocrypha” in Byzantine times had developed a connotation of “spurious and heretical,” a connotation that persisted into later Greek Christian usage.)

Perhaps most interesting is Patriarch Dositheus’ reference to conciliar decisions regarding the Biblical Canon (note: to avoid confusion, “Canon” is capitalized here and below to refer to the list of biblical books considered canonical, while the lowercase “canon” refers to rules established by Councils). The summary list of the relevant canons is described in canon 2 of the Quinisext Council, also known as the Council in Trullo. In addition to the work titled Apostolic Canons (a second century[?] work, but considered authentic and authoritative in Eastern Orthodox canonical law), the list is as follows (double square brackets indicate my additions/corrections):

But we set our seal likewise upon all the other holy canons set forth by our holy and blessed Fathers, that is, by the 318 holy God-bearing Fathers assembled at Nice[[a]], and those at Ancyra, further those at NeoCaesarea and likewise those at Gangra, and besides, those at Antioch in Syria: those too at Laodicea in Phrygia: and likewise the 150 who assembled in this heaven-protected royal city [[i.e., Constantinople]]: and the 200 who assembled the first time in the metropolis of the Ephesians, and the 630 holy and blessed Fathers at Chalcedon. In like manner those of Sardica, and those of Carthage: those also who again assembled in this heaven-protected royal city under its bishop Nectarins [[sic; read Nectarius]] and Theophilus Archbishop of Alexandria. Likewise too the Canons [i.e. the decretal letters] of Dionysius, formerly Archbishop of the great city of Alexandria; and of Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria and Martyr; of Gregory the Wonder-worker, Bishop of NeoCaesarea; of Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria; of Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia; of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa; of Gregory Theologus; of Amphilochius of Iconium; of Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria; of Theophilus, Archbishop of the same great city of Alexandria; of Cyril, Archbishop of the same Alexandria; of Gennadius, Patriarch of this heaven-protected royal city. Moreover the Canon set forth by Cyprian, Archbishop of the country of the Africans and Martyr, and by the Synod under him, which has been kept only in the country of the aforesaid Bishops, according to the custom delivered down to them. (NPNF2 v. 14, p. 361).

One of the intriguing things about this list, and which is quite indicative of the Eastern Orthodox approach to canon law (which has never, unlike the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, been codified), is that various lists of what were considered the Biblical Canon are included in the canons of the Councils listed above and in the various writings of the authors listed above, which are also considered canonical. In these canons and writings, the New Testament Canon is identical to the modern one, but some of the Old Testament Canons are short, like or identical to the Jewish Hebrew Bible Canon, and some are longer, closer to modern traditional Orthodox Christian Canons (by which I mean both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Canons). That is, both the long and the short Biblical Canons are, surprisingly, determined canonical! The import of this is that, unlike the case in other churches, the Eastern Orthodox Biblical Canon has never been strictly defined in a clearcut manner in a conciliar or other authoritative and universally binding setting. Yet while the lists are contradictory, there is a solution. In Eastern Orthodox canon law, a principle pertains that prefers judgements be made on the basis of the least restrictive canon when there are other canons on the same matter which are more restrictive. As various of the canons dealing with the Biblical Canon differ, those listing shorter Canons were considered more restrictive, and those with broader Canons considered less restrictive. Patriarch Dositheus therefore appropriately concluded, in the view of Eastern Orthodox canon law, that a broader Old Testament Canon was to be preferred. In placing this determination in a conciliar context, this made that determination canonical. That’s why Patriarch Dositheus’ statement above on the Biblical Canon is considered authoritative on the Biblical Canon in Eastern Orthodox churches.

So what does a modern Eastern Orthodox Christian learn from this? Indeed, what would a modern non-Orthodox person learn from this? What we all learn from Patriarch Dositheus’ decision, recognized as valid and representative by the other Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates, is that, in the first place, the decision-making process was not one which depended upon Biblical scholarship. Indeed, the objection raised to the books by Cyril was one rooted in Biblical scholarship of his day in Geneva. Patriarch Dositheus rejects this, in favor of tradition and, ostensibly, the canon from the Council in Trullo. How does the modern Eastern Orthodox tradition view these books? For one, the entire Prayer of Manasseh is recited in Lent in every monastery and in various parishes, in the Greater Compline service. Another work, the Song of the Three Children, which is one of the additions to Daniel, is a cherished hymn just before Christmas, with quite a catchy tune. Judith is praised in various liturgical works for her undaunted faith in God, and Tobit for his virtues of familial love and care for the dead. Allusions to the Wisdom of Solomon are everywhere in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and other liturgies, and readings from Wisdom are included in the lectionary. While some of these books can be seen as rather basic or rudimentary in their help to the faithful, it was in fact this very rudimentary virtue and simplicity which made them valuable. They were, as Athanasius of Alexandria said, “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness” (Festal Letter 39, for 367; NPNF2 vol. 4, p. 551). The world of these books, in the company of the Canon, becomes a different world than they belong to when looked at as separate, as substandard, as knockoff versions of the Canonical books. They were, and are, recognized by many Christians as an important part of the Canon, with a particular role to play. Their value lies not in something that scholarship is capable of addressing, but in moral and even spiritual value, giving “instruction in the word of godliness.” It’s heartening to know that these books are gaining more of a well-deserved attention these days, textually, and so on, in academia. One thing I’d like to see more of is commentary on them from those with the viewpoint and appreciation that they are of value for basic instruction in the Christian Way, such as the Blackwell Bible Commentary series based on reception history. I’d especially like to see a reception history commentary on First Enoch from the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian perspective. First Enoch is fully Canonical in their tradition, and especially valued. I’m sure that would be fascinating!


  1. The Orthodox communions have preserved an invaluable heritage for the rest of us. By preserving for us certain supernumerary Psalms, we can gain insight which applies to the rest of the books Orthodoxy uniquely preserves.

    For millenia the churches of the Orthodox communions preserved for us certain Psalms which fell outside of the symmetrical arrangement of the Book of Psalms found in the Hebrew scriptures. These extra Psalms are referred to as supernumerary because they fall outside of the classic arrangement of 150 Psalms broken down into 5 sub-groups.

    Psalm 151 has been uniquely preserved for 2,000 years in the scriptures of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

    Psalms 152-155, stood out as unique among the preserved supernumerary Psalms being found only in the Peshitta, the scriptures of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

    Prior to the discovery of the DSS it seemed reasonable in the minds of scholars to late-date Psalm 151 and hypothesize its original composition to be in the Greek language. How wrong they were!

    The discovery of the DSS has verified Psalms 151 is truly ancient being found there in the Hebrew language. Not only that, portions of 154, 155 and expansions to 151 were also found.

    This provides an example of how the Orthodox Churches of the East, taking great pride in preserving the most ancient traditions of the Christianity have performed an invaluable service to the greater Church and world. On balance they have proved themselves faithful stewards of God’s word uniquely preserving this and many other books of scripture for generations to come.

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