A Nestorian Canon of Scripture

A Nestorian Canon of Scripture

I have long been interested in the development of the biblical canon. I probably wouldn’t have found my way into the Orthodox Church without such studies.

Recently, I found a 13th century canon defined by Nestorian Metropolitan Mar Abd Yeshua (ca. A.D. 1298). He apparently served as the chief bishop of Nisibia and Armenia for the Nestorian church of the east. (Nestorians separated from the Orthodox Church following the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.)

I present it here as an interesting historical witness to the development of the canon in the churches of the east, and also due to some of the qualifying or explanatory statements throughout. This bishop’s canon is part of a larger “Index of Biblical and Ecclesiastical Writings,” including a listing of some of the writers of their fathers and saints (both East and West, and many of which are venerated neither by the Orthodox Church nor Rome).

For the Old Testament, he lists the following:

Moses wrote the Law in five books, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

After these follow the book of Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Samuel, the book of Kings, the Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, the Great Wisdom, the Wisdom of the son of Sirach, Job, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbacuc, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Judith, Esther, Susanna, Ezra, Daniel the Less, the Epistle of Baruch, the Traditions of the Elders, Josephus the historian, the book of Proverbs, the Narrative of the sons of Solomona, the Maccabees, an account of Herod the king, the book of the destruction of the latter Jerusalem by Titus, the book of Asenath the wife of Joseph the son of Jacob the righteous, and the book of Tobias and Tobit the Israelites.

What’s intriguing about his Old Testament canon is the inclusion of several writings that are far-removed from the era of the Old Testament itself. For example, certain writings of Josephus (also called “Titus” here) on the Jewish people (Antiquities of the Jews? ca. A.D. 94) and the destruction of Jerusalem (The Jewish War? ca. A.D. 75), as well as the apocryphal book of Asenath.

There are other writings I cannot specifically identify, such as the “account of Herod the king.”

For the New Testament, he lists:

Having enumerated the books of the Old Testament, we shall now record those of the New Testament.

First, Matthew wrote in Palestine, in the Hebrew tongue.

After him comes Mark, who wrote in Latin at Rome.

Luke, in Alexandria, spoke and wrote in Greek. John also wrote his Gospel in Greek at Ephesus.

The Acts of the Apostles were written by Luke to Theophilus; and the three Epistles of James, Peter, and John, were written in all languages, and called Catholic.

Besides these there are fourteen Epistles of the great Apostle Paul, that is, the Epistle to the Romans, written from Corinth; the First Epistle to the Corinthians, written from Ephesus and sent by the hands of Timothy; the Second to the Corinthians, written from Philippi of Macedonia the great, and sent by the hands of Titus; the Epistle to the Galatians, written at Rome, and sent by the same person; the Epistle to the Ephesians, also written at Rome, and sent by Tychicus; the Epistle to the Philippians, written at the same place, and sent by the hands of Epaphroditus; the Epistle to the Colossians, written at Rome, and sent by Tychicus the true disciple; the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, written at Athens, and sent by the hands of Timothy; the Second to the Thessalonians, written at Laodicea of Pisidia, and sent also by Timothy; the First Epistle to Timothy, also written from Laodicea of Pisidia, and sent by the hands of Luke; the Second to Timothy, written from Rome, and sent by the hands of Luke, the Physician and Evangelist; the Epistle to Titus, written at Nicapolis, and sent by the hands of Epaphroditus; the Epistle to Philemon, written at Rome, and sent by Onesimus, the slave of Philemon; the Epistle to the Hebrews, written in Italy, and sent by the hands of Timothy, the spiritual son.

And the Gospels, called the Diatesseron, collated by a man of Alexandria named Amonis, who is Tatian.

The location and languages used for the four Gospels is notable—and no doubt different from what modern textual critics will claim—but is yet consistent with other, earlier patristic testimony.

He also has no problem assigning the fourteen epistles (including Hebrews) to the apostle Paul, placing him squarely within the predominant apostolic and patristic tradition on this matter. What I find most interesting with Paul’s letters is where they were written, and who “sent” them to their respective destinations.

Noticeably absent from this New Testament canon are the second and third epistles of John, the second epistle of Peter, Jude, and the Apocalypse or Revelation to John. However, even during the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, these writings were disputed by many.

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Source: George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals, vol. 2 (Joseph Masters, 1852), pp. 361ff


  1. Evan L says

    Very cool post Gabe.

    I’m really curious if this is presented to a more fundamentalist Evangelical, what they would say.

    I imagine that he would have issues to that canon claiming that his canon is the correct one. But then run into the reality that he has no authority to appeal to that and the bible isn’t what he thought it was.

    Given that so many were raised to believe that the Bible is almost a magical book, I would easily imagine that it could damage their faith since it’s anchored to the wrong thing. Kinda like what happened to Bart Ehrman (not sure how it’s spelled)

  2. R V Warren says

    I don’t think the “by” in “the book of the destruction of the latter Jerusalem by Titus” is meant to signify author, but he who destroyed the city. Josephus wrote the account, Titus, son of Vespasian, razed the city.

    • says

      Yeah, that’s a good point. I wasn’t sure if it was a reference to the Roman or the Jewish chronicler with the same name (either way, it seems to be a reference to Josephus’ work on the matter).

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