Early Church Fathers: Canon of Scripture



Objective: Students should be able to recite all the books of the Bible and have an understanding of what constitutes the canon of Scripture and how we got it, to recite the Nicene Creed and understand the positions of Arius and Athanasius at the Council of Nicea, and to list the parts of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the objects used in the liturgy, understanding the life of St. John and his ministry.




Present the historical material, either as teacher or with students taking turns reading the lesson. Ask frequent questions as you go to inhibit day-dreaming; use the quiz questions scattered thru the reading as a teaching aid, and later as a quiz at the end.


How the Bible came to be:

 In the early Church, the only Scriptures known were the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. It was written in their language, Hebrew. It was written long before Jesus was born. The Hebrew Scriptures tell about the creation of the world, God’s chosen people, God’s promises of a Savior, and the history of the Jewish people. Do you remember some of the stories from the Old Testament? Some of the books we memorized 2 years ago? Jesus Himself read from these Scriptures when He taught. This was the only Bible read by the apostles! But, there is debate even about these Scriptures. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, includes some books not included in some of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts. These books, known as the Apocrypha, are recognized by both the Church and the Jewish synagogues as inspired but not in the same category as the other books of the Old Testament.

In the first days after Pentecost, the apostles taught the people about Jesus. The people memorized the stories and loved hearing them. So, even while the apostles were still alive, collections of stories about Jesus began to be written down. Peter probably supervised the writing of the gospel of Mark. Luke traveled and talked to many people to learn all about Jesus to write his gospel. And, of course, Matthew and John were with Jesus from the start and wrote what they had personally seen and heard. These books are called the gospels and tell about Jesus. They are the first four books of the New Testament. . The gospels are slightly different, since no book could tell all of the acts of Jesus. Matthew was Jewish and speaking to the Jewish people, proclaiming their Messiah. Mark spoke of the power of Jesus. Luke spoke to his Greek friends about Jesus, God and man. These three, called the synoptic gospels, tell details about Jesus’ life. John’s gospel is a bit different, writing mostly about Jesus’ thoughts and prayers.

Luke also traveled with Paul and wrote a book about the history of the early Church. This is called the book of Acts. The apostles traveled to many cities, starting churches all over the world. When you travel, don’t you send letters or postcards to those you miss at home or in other towns? So, the apostles wrote letters, or epistles, to others of their churches while they were elsewhere. Most were written in Greek. Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude all wrote letters. In fact, they wrote a lot more letters than are in the New Testament. Some letters may have been fake or lies. But, from earliest times, certain ones of their letters went from church to church, copy by copy, by foot or donkey or horse or camel. Each copy was made by hand – each hand-carried with love to the next town to share with fellow believers. Even the apostles, in their letters, talked about the letters of the other apostles they had read! These letters were especially precious in the days of persecution, when they had to be hidden carefully from the Romans. In fact, during the reign of Diocletian, the Romans sent spies all over the empire and tried to destroy all Christian writings!

            But, by the second century, many of these letters were well-known through the church. Early Christian bishops, Clement and Polycarp and Ignatius (Do you remember the story of Ignatius?), refer to them as being read in the churches. Origen, a great scholar and teacher in Alexandria, had by the year 200 made a list of writings that he considered to be really the work of the apostles. Finally, Constantine became Emperor and Christians were free to read the Scriptures in their churches openly. But, which Scriptures? Constantine gave the great historian Eusebius, who had lived through the persecution of Diocletian, a great order – to produce 50 Bibles. Eusebius carefully studied all the letters and gospels he could find and came up with a list of 27 books for the New Testament, the same 27 books we recognize today. Have you ever heard of the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Gospel of Peter, or the Shepherd of Hermas or the Gospel of Nicodemus? These are all writings rejected by Eusebius, although each was loved in a few cities. Eusebius chose carefully those writings accepted by most of the cities – writings known throughout the early Church to be the true work of an apostle or saint. The first are the gospels (Can you name them?), then the Acts, then lots of epistles (or letters), and finally the Revelation of John (Remember what it was about?). The Council of Carthage in 397 AD formally listed these 27 books as the New Testament.


If the canon of Scripture was settled in 397 AD, why do we have so many different Bibles today, even just in the English language? Go to any Bible bookstore and see the shelves of varying texts. Let’s look at them:

  • Orthodox Study Bible: Includes all the books of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament in historical order plus the New Testament, but was not available until 2008. The OSB was translated into English from the Septuagint for the Old Testament and uses the New King James version of the New Testament.
  • Jerusalem Bible: Roman Catholic Bible containing all of the books of the Septuagint, but with the Apocryphal books at the end of the Old Testament in a group. The earliest Western Bibles were translated into Latin by St. Jerome just before the Council of Carthage; he translated to Latin directly from Hebrew and his “Vulgate” varied from the Septuagint in several ways. The Vulgate was the accepted Bible of the Latin church in the West. When an English-language version was needed, the Jerusalem Bible was translated almost entirely from the French translation of the Vulgate. However, in the late 1900s, the “New Jerusalem Bible” was translated from the original sources in Hebrew and Greek.
  • Protestant Bible in English: The earliest English version of the Bible was the Wycliffe Bible, translated into English largely from the Latin Vulgate. William Tyndale was responsible for the first printed version. And, in Switzerland, the English “Geneva Bible” was produced. What was the “authorized version”? Confusion reigned. King James I of England authorized an English-language version for the Church of England, known at first as the “Authorized Version,” but, of course, now known as the “King James Bible,” published in 1611 AD. The group of 47 scholars translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, the Greek for the New Testament, and the Greek from the Septuagint for the Apocryphal books. Note that the Apocryphal books were still present – later to be discarded by printers to make the Bibles shorter and easier to print. Then, to make the language a bit more modern, but still hold many of the old, familiar usages, the “New King James”. Other translations using more modern vernacular are the New International Version (NIV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New American Standard (NAS) using American English. There are also some “Bibles” that are really re-written storybooks, reworded completely from the text to be “fun to read.” And, this is only for the English language!


Books of the Bible:

  1. Work on the books of the Bible using the Orthodox Study Bible – Memory work for this week is the books of the Bible. Take the students on a tour of their Bibles; can they find the Torah, the History books, the Poetry books, the Prophets in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha (not in the Protestant Bible) and the Gospels, the History book (Acts), and the Epistles (or letters) in the New?


  1. Try playing Bible relay: Break the class into two teams. Write various Bible references on cards. Place a Bible on the table a few feet in front of each line of students. The first student in each line must find the first reference, then return and tag the next person, who finds the second reference, etc. These “time trials” help the students to learn the books, since looking them up in the Table of Contents is too time-consuming.


  1. Make Bible flash cards for the students to use to learn the books of the Bible at home. Have each student write each book of the Bible on an index card. (This will take awhile but will be more of a learning experience than having the cards pre-printed on the computer.) Can they put them in order?


Quiz Questions:

There are ____ books in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament was originally written in the ________ language.

The Book of ____________ contains beautiful poetry.

The _____ Testament was written before Christ was born.

There are _____ books in the New Testament.

Most of the New Testament was originally written in the ____ language.

The ________ tell of the life of Jesus.

The ________ are letters.

Some of the writers of the Epistles are ____________________.

The list of official books in the Bible is called the _____ of Scripture.

_______________ put together the original list of New Testament books.

The Council of __________ decreed the official canon of Scripture.



(to the tune of  the verses of “Jesus Loves Me”)

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,

Numbers, Deuteronomy,

Joshua, Judges, Ruth God brings,

Kingdoms 1,2,3, and 4,


Two of Chronicles and Ezras two,

Nehemiah,Tobit, Judith

Esther, Maccabees all three,

Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes,


Song of Songs and Wisdoms two

Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel,

Obadiah, Jonah, not all,

Nahum, then comes Habakkuk,


Zephaniah, Haggai,

Zechariah, Malachi

Isaiah, Jeremiah

Baruch and Lamentations, too.


Jeremiah’s Epistle then.

Ezekiel, Daniel, that’s the end,

All of these God’s works foretold

And His promises of old.


Books in bold are the historical books (beginning with the 5 books of the Torah), those underlined are the books of songs and wisdom, and those in italics are the Old Testament Prophets.



(to the tune of the ABCs)

Matthew, Mark and Luke and John,

Acts and Romans, Corinthians 2

Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians,

1st and 2nd Thessalonians,

1st and 2nd  Timothy,

Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James,

2 of  Peter and 3 of John,

Jude and the Revelation.

Now we know the 27 books

Of the New Testament of Christ our Lord. 


Books in bold are the gospels and books in italics are the Epistles (or letters) of St. Paul.