This question What are the biblical arguments that the Bible canon is NOT closed? made me wonder:

1) When did the idea of a canon originate? I would suppose this should be quite early, and Jews probably had the concept of a canon for quite some time... did they not?

2) The idea that this canon could somehow be closed - when did it originate? Seeing that we have 400 years of silence between Malachi and the New Testament, or a little less if you count Maccabeans as canon (which some people object), it could be a jewish idea, but I don't see any such indications in the New Testament. So, independent of deciding what the canon is, when did the idea originate that the canon is closed (or even can be closed)?

  • 1
    FYI, If you count Maccabees - from 150BC, there is no "silent period," because there are gaps of more than 200 years in other parts of scripture... Jan 22, 2015 at 20:25
  • When the canon closed is covered in When was the Biblical canon formalised?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 22, 2015 at 23:50
  • Also relevant (and potentially a dupe): When was the OT canon as used by Protestants finalized?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 22, 2015 at 23:53
  • @curiousdannii I feel the edit of my title changed it's meaning. It's not about a canon, it's about a closed canon - meaning the cessation of revelation that becomes scripture.
    – kutschkem
    Jan 23, 2015 at 8:59
  • @kutschkem That's covered by the first question I linked to. It would probably be best to separate your two sub questions.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 23, 2015 at 9:04

2 Answers 2


The best reference for answering this question, is not surprisingly, from Bruce Metzger. He is probably the foremost textual critic of the 20th Century - a fact that both Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrmann would agree with. The UBS4 is, in large part, his baby. His work: The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance can be found online here. Of key interest is the chapter "Attempts at Closing the Canon," which sort of gives a flavor for the process.

Summarizing, Metzger essentially asserts the following key points:

  1. Prior to Augustine (c. 400), the Church is less about a "canon" than about a spectrum of the worth of various books. Especially in the East, the key was "grading" the books into those that should be read out loud in church, those that should be read by the ecclesiasticals, those that should be read by layman, and those that were heretical. Those lists were somewhat fluid, but a pretty solid consensus had formed by the mid 300s

    The Latin Church had, in general, a stronger feeling than the Greek for the necessity of making a sharp delineation with regard to the canon. It was less conscious than the Greek Church of the gradation of spiritual quality among the books that it accepted, and therefore was more often disposed to assert that the books which it rejected possessed no spiritual quality whatever. In the search for the highest authority it showed a far more lively feeling for an uncompromising Yea or Nay; a classification such as that of Origen, or still more that of Eusebius, was consequently quite unheard of.

  2. Like so many things, Augustine's opinions really held sway for most of the Middle Ages. His opinions on what was "best" effectively closed the canon in practice, if not in dogma

    With Augustine, whose influence upon the Western Church was even greater than that of Jerome, we come to a natural terminus in our survey of debate concerning the closing of the New Testament canon. ... Augustine's treatise De doctrina Christiana ('On Christian Learning' in four books) might well head his works on Biblical scholarship. The greater part of it (i. i-iii. 24) was written in 396-7, but completed only in 426. In ii. 13 he gives our present list of New Testament books (but places James at the end of the Catholic Epistles, thus giving Peter the first place): the four Gospels, fourteen Epistles of Paul, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, James, Acts, Apocalypse. Although he includes Hebrews in the list (following Philemon) as Paul's, in his later works when he quotes from it he assiduously avoids calling it by the Apostle's name." But while he came to hesitate as to the authorship of the Epistle, he had no scruples as to its canonicity

    Before citing the list of Biblical books, Augustine exercises critical judgement, recognizing that some books are received on weightier authority than others. The Christian reader, he says, "will hold fast therefore to this measure in the canonical Scriptures, that he will prefer those that are received by all Catholic Churches to those which some of them do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, let him prefer those which the more numerous and the weightier churches receive to those which fewer and less authoritative churches hold. But if, however, he finds some held by the more numerous, and some held by the churches of more authority (though this is not very likely to happen), I think that in such a case they ought to be regarded as of equal authority (De doct. chr. ii. 12)".

    Twenty-seven books [in the New Testament], no more, and no less, is henceforth the watchword throughout the Latin Church. Yet it would be a mistake to represent the question of the canon as finally settled in all Christian communities by the beginning of the fifth century

  3. The dogmatic interpretation that the received canon was closed was finally brought about in the Middle Ages, nearing the time of the Reformations.

    During the Middle Ages the Church in the West received the Latin New Testament in the form that Jerome had given to it, and the subject of the canon was seldom discussed. At the same time, however, we find a certain elasticity in the boundaries of the New Testament. This is shown by the presence of the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans in more than one hundred manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate (including the oldest, the celebrated codex Fuldensis, A.D. 546), as well as in manuscripts of early Albigensian, Bohemian, English, and Flemish versions

    It was not until the Council of Florence (1439-43) that the See of Rome delivered for the first time a categorical opinion on the Scriptural canon.

  4. Finally, the Council of Trent (1540s) formalized the doctrines of canonicity and its closedness. Note that Trent is largely seen as the beginning of the "Counter-Reformation" and the thing that creates a "Roman" Catholic Church distinct from the Protestant ones.

    Finally on 8 April 1546, by a vote of 24 to 15, with 16 abstensions, the Council issued a decree (De Canonicis Scripturis) in which , for the first time in the history of the Church , the question of the contents of the Bible was made an absolute article of faith and confirmed by an anathema . 'The holy ecumenical and general Council of Trent' , so the decree runs, '.. . following the example of the orthodox Fathers receives and venerates all the books of the Old and New Testament.. . and also the traditions pertaining to faith and conduct.. . with an equal sense of devotion and reverence (pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia).

Thus, the quick answer to your question is probably best summarized as thus:

  • The idea of "canon" originated in the Western (Roman) church, in response to a "gradation" approach in the East.
  • Augustine more or less definitively settled what was in the canon for the Nicene Church around 400AD.
  • In the Middle Ages and the Reformations, there were minor quibbles around individual books
  • Formally the canon itself is best "officially" classified as closed in the 1400s.
  • That dogma, however, is more a recognition of actual practice and solidarity than a "new" idea that it was closed.
  • +1 Such a great answer! I am tempted to accept this, but it is hard for me to discern between "we have decided which books are non-canonical, but that doesn't mean we can't have more revelation that will become scripture" and "even though there is some uncertainty with regard to the canonicity of some existing books, there will not come down more revelation that will become scripture later", so to say. Do you have information that could shed more light in this regard?
    – kutschkem
    Jan 23, 2015 at 8:31
  • I can tell you where I stand - canonicity is ultimately a human agreement, but one that seems to have stood the test of time and God's approval. As a practical matter, I don't see the canon changing any time soon. As a good Barthian, I don't discount God's ability to do so if he chooses, but as a matter of practice, I doubt he will Jan 23, 2015 at 14:53
  • Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you, and I say this as a committed Biblical perfectionist and a one time bibliolator, is that you need to remember the Bible contains God Word. Jesus is His Word. As a fallen creature, I need to be corrected by Scripture, because my heart is deceitful and wicked. It is blind to the Word of God, because my heart is perishing. The technology of ink on paper is hard to refute. But in the end, the ink on paper is just that. Focus on the Word, and don't worry about the exact status of any given work Jan 23, 2015 at 14:55
  • Good words :) I am coming from a church which has an open canon, and to me the very idea that a canon could be closed is, to be frank, plain weird, so I try to understand how the catholic/protestant canon ended up as being understood to be closed. I just can't accept the usual Revelations citation "don't add to the book", knowing that whatever is meant, it is not "the canon is closed, and this is it". I am not really worrying much about the status of apocryphical books.
    – kutschkem
    Jan 23, 2015 at 15:15
  • 1
    It seems like Metzger is really focused on the west, but the canon first developed in the Greek east - reactively, not proactively - largely in response to Marcion's rejection of all but Luke's and Paul's writings in the early 2nd century. I didn't see this mentioned in your answer and the link to Metzger's article was dead.
    – guest37
    Apr 6, 2017 at 4:59

The need for a Christian Scriptural canon arose in the early 2nd century, largely as a result of a heresy promulgated by Marcion of Sinope.

The origin of the New Testament canon can be traced to Marcion of Sinope, who lived between 110 and 160. Marcion believed that the significance of Christ came not in being the Incarnate Son of God, but rather in revealing a hitherto unknown benevolent God (or "god") who existed in opposition to the apparently malevolent Hebrew God. Justin Martyr, a contemporary of Marcion, mentions him in his First Apology:

And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works.1

Marcion seems to have been the first to have proposed a rigid New Testament which included some writings and excluded others. As described by Tertullian2, Marcion accepted the writings of Luke (the Gospel and Acts) and ten of Paul's Epistles to the exclusion of all others and interpreted what remained to support his theology. (Tertullian seemed to have delighted in refuting Marcion from the same constrained set of texts).

Marcion was in large part the impetus for early Church Fathers to determine a "rule" of Scripture (Greek kanon) to ensure that the proper Apostolic writings (or writings attributed to the Apostles, directly or indirectly) were included in what was to be read in the Churches.

The history of the development of the canon subsequent to Marcion has been documented elsewhere (including on this site) - a history which includes the Muratorian Fragment and Athanasius' Festal Letter, as well as the formalization and finalization of the Biblical canon by the Church.

1 Chapter XXVI
2 Against Marcion, Book IV

  • That is very interesting indeed, if I understand you correctly, the first christian canon came about to make sure certain writings are definitely included and taught. Only later comes the need to make sure certain things are excluded, as the other answer states?
    – kutschkem
    Apr 28, 2017 at 9:07
  • @kutschkem - I think if anything it might be the other way around. The notion of a canon (or "rule") came about because Marcion was excluding certain Apostolic writings that the Church Fathers at the time felt should not be neglected. Until Marcion there was really no conscious effort to develop a "New Testament" as we know it.
    – guest37
    Apr 28, 2017 at 16:55

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