Origen and the New Testament Canon

by Luke Wayne
8/20/16

You will often hear from critics that there is no complete list of the 27 New Testament books all in one place prior to the 4th century and the time of the eccumentical church councils. Even if this were true, one does not need to produce a list to demonstrate that the ancient churches considered these books to be sacred scripture long before such councils. Still, it is useful to note that the 27 New Testament books as we have them today were in fact listed together long before the church councils ever gathered. We find references to this in the imaginative and allegorical commentaries of the 3rd-century Christian philosopher, Origen of Alexandria.1 Writing about 250 A.D., Origen saw the Old Testament narrative of Joshua son of Nun leading the people of Israel into the promised land as an allegory for the coming of Jesus (the names "Joshua" and "Jesus" are actually the same name in the original languages). About the blowing of the trumpets at the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6, Origen writes:

"But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations," (Hom. Jos. 7.1).2

In Origen's day, most people considered the Apostle Paul to be the author of the book of Hebrews, which is why Origen here attributes 14 letters to him. Understanding this, the list above matches perfectly with the books of our present New Testament. One should note in the quote above that "and Revelation" is in brackets. This is because there is a textual variant in that spot. Some manuscripts do not mention Revelation. However, it seems very likely that Revelation was listed in the original, since elsewhere Origin wrote:

"The one who reclined on Jesus' breast, John, who left behind one gospel while admitting that he could produce so many that the world would not be able to contain them [John 21:25]. He also wrote the Apocalypse, after being ordered to be silent and not to write what the seven thunders said [Rev 10:3-4]," (Expositions on the Gospel of John).3

The commentary on Joshua is not the only place that Origen gave us a list like this. He also wrote a more concise version in another of his allegorical commentaries. While lacking the detail of the first, the information here is still instructive:

"Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them. Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant. These all dig the wells of the New Testament," (Hom. Gen. 13.2). 4

It is useful to note that in both his commentary on Joshua and in this account here, Origen does not seem to be trying to assert a list of books that his readers are not familiar with, but rather affirming one that they already know and acknowledge. He mentions this list quite matter-of-factly. It seems likely, then, that he is writing to a community that has long accepted this list of authentic scriptures, making this tradition quite early.

This does not mean that all Christians everywhere had already accepted the precise canon we have today. Some churches were still asking questions about a few of the books, and Origen acknowledges this in some of his other writings. He certainly sees the question of which gospels are genuine to be settled among true, orthodox Christians, writing of "the four gospels, the only ones not disputed by the church of God under heaven."5 Origen was very open, however, about what controversies did still exist with regard to a few other books and the New Testament. For example, he writes:

"Paul was made worthy to be a minister of the new covenant, a covenant based not on the letter but on the Spirit [2 Cor. 3:6]; and he spread the gospel from Jerusalem and its vicinity, as far as Illyricum [Rom 15:19]. He did not write to all the churches he taught; but to those he did write, he sent letters of not many lines. Peter, on whom the church of Christ was built and against which the gates of hell will not prevail [Matt. 16:18], left behind one letter that is acknowledged, and possibly a second, for it is disputed. And why do we need to speak of the one who reclined on Jesus' breast, John, who left behind one Gospel, while admitting he could produce so many that the world would not be able to contain them [John 21:25]. He also wrote the Apocalypse, after being ordered to be silent and not to write what the seven thunders said [Rev 10:3-4]. He also left behind an epistle of a very few lines, and possibly a second and third. For not everyone agrees that these are genuine. But taken together, both do not contain 100 lines," (Expositions on the Gospel of John).6

While Origen and his audience accepted these books, he is aware that there are people who did not. Notice, however, that even here what we have is a few smaller books in the New Testament that some people are not sure are genuinely apostolic. The books under discussion are still the 27 books of the New Testament. We do not have a bunch of other books outside our 27 that people thought should be in the New Testament. As early as 250 AD (and from the way Origen writes about it, it seems from much earlier) the churches were largely in agreement about the New Testament. There was healthy discussion about a few books within the New Testament, but largely the New Testament they were using then is the one we are using now, long before any church council could have forced this on anyone.

  • 1. This article owes a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Michael Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary who brought the bulk of this material from Origen to light as far as its relation to the books of the New Testament. I cannot commend to you enough his fine work on the New Testament Canon.
  • 2. Michael Kruger, http://michaeljkruger.com/what-is-the-earliest-complete-list-of-the-canon-of-the-new-testament/ (Accessed 8/19/16)
  • 3. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 335
  • 4. Michael Kruger, http://michaeljkruger.com/what-is-the-earliest-complete-list-of-the-canon-of-the-new-testament/ (Accessed 8/19/16)
  • 5. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 335
  • 6. ibid, 335