16 Early Christianity and the Christian Canon

(KJV) 1631 Holy Bible, Robert Barker/John Bill, London. King James Version
1631 Holy Bible, Robert Barker/John Bill, London. King James Version

What is in the Christian Canon, and how did it evolve?

Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have canons. These include the Qur’an for Islam, the Hebrew Bible for Judaism, and the Hebrew Bible plus the New Testament for Christians.

What does the term “Canon” mean that makes it somehow different from the term “Scripture”? When the term canon is used, it refers to an actual list that a religion adheres to, with books that are either “in” the list or books that are “not in”. So “scripture” can refer to any kind of writing that a bunch of people consider holy or inspired. But when something is called “canon,” it means that there is a group of writing that has final boundaries to it, and nothing more can be added to it, nor taken away. This term comes from a Greek word that at some point meant a measuring pole or rod, but eventually came to mean something authoritative.  So the concept of a Canon within a religion comes to mean a list that is considered authoritative–and in early Christianity, the authoritative list develops into the New Testament.

Assistance in this chapter comes from Dr. Dale B. Martin of Yale[1] and Dr. Annie Sutherland[2] of the University of Oxford, and Dr. Scott McKendrick[3] of the British Library.

Many early Christians, from the very early period, accepted Jewish scripture as their own. When the Apostle Paul says, “Scripture says,” he is not talking about the New Testament. He is talking about the Hebrew scriptures. The early Christians didn’t know that they were writing the New Testament. They just thought they were writing a gospel or a sermon or a letter–something from a genre that they understood from other contexts in their lives. So when the term “scripture” is found in the New Testament it refers to Jewish scripture that followers of Jesus accepted as their own.


Key Questions:  So how did the particular twenty-seven books that came to be the New Testament canon get chosen? By whom–who made the decision? When did they make the decision? And what were the criteria they used? Why did they allow some books in and other books not in?


Original source: The Hundred Greatest Men New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.
Apostle Paul.  Original source: The Hundred Greatest Men New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.

The oldest written materials of Christianity are actually the letters of Paul. This may come as a surprise, because the gospels come first in the New Testament. Most people assume, “Oh, the gospels, they’re about the life of Jesus. They must be the oldest.” The gospels are actually all written  20 to 30 years after the letters written by Paul to the early churches.

The oldest of Paul’s letters is generally considered to be  1 Thessalonians, dated to around the year 50 CE.  Paul’s churches started sending copies of Paul’s letters around the region to different groups of believers, because there was, of course, no printing press in the ancient world. Whenever a church would get one of these letters from Paul, scribes would take that letter and make a copy of it. They would keep one copy and send the other copy off to some other group of followers. And so the letters and books would be copied and sent around the region from and to different communities of believers. This process of sharing is actually referred to in the letters themselves.

The letter to the Ephesians looks, for example, like it was not actually written to just the one church. It looks like it was a letter written with the intent that it be circulated to different churches. One of the reasons this is thought to be true is because in some of the oldest manuscripts of Ephesians, “To the Ephesians” is not included as a greeting, as is common in most of the letters to churches.  The addressee is either left blank or the text of the letter now known as Ephesians is actually addressed to somebody else entirely. So some scholars have suggested that maybe the letter to the Ephesians was originally intended as a circular letter.

Paul’s letters were imitated, new letters were being written by other people than Paul to the various churches, and all of these letters were being circulated to encourage and build up the communities of believers across the empire. Paul’s letters actually became so famous and respected that in some places within early Christianity they were called “scripture.”

There is one exception to the rule that when the word “scripture” is seen in the New Testament that it refers to Jewish scripture. The person who wrote 2 Peter talked about Paul’s letters and calls them scripture.

2 Peter says,

“There are many things in Paul’s letters very difficult to understand. And some people twist them to their own destruction as they do other kinds of scripture.”

So by the time 2 Peter was written, which was much later than the letters of Paul, Paul’s letters have come to be regarded by at least some early Christians as scripture themselves. Collections of Paul’s letters were gradually made, copied, and circulated. That set of Paul’s letters is the first development of a collection of what might be considered holy writing among Christians (that was in addition to the Jewish scripture already considered holy).

This is a “passing-on” tradition commonly found in the Greek world. Paul knows he is passing on a bit of very early Christian tradition through his letters. But Paul was not a disciple of Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime. Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh. This tells us that different disciples of Jesus were remembering some of Jesus’ sayings and passing them around to other people after his life.  Paul was the recipient of this oral (or perhaps written, as well) transmission from the actual disciples. It is why Paul is called an apostle instead of a disciple.


Key information about the circulation of the letters: How Did Paul’s Letters First Circulate?  Dr. Laura Lasrallah[4]


Manuscripts of parts of what is now the New Testament began to circulate amongst the faithful in the late 1st century CE. In format they were rather humble copies, similar in size to modern pocket paperbacks, and comprising mainly single books of the Bible, mostly letters from Paul.


Four Evangelists, miniatures from the Gelati (Georgia) Gospels, Eleventh century.
Four Evangelists, miniatures from the Gelati (Georgia) Gospels, Eleventh century.

After Paul’s letters came the Gospels.  The earliest Gospel that pulled together some of the ideas from the letters– and from oral tradition– is the Gospel of Mark. It was written around the year 70 CE. (more about dating of the gospels in the chapter about them!) Matthew and Luke were both written shortly after Mark’s gospel, and they both used Mark as one of their sources.

The beginning of the gospel of Luke starts off like this.

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I, too, decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about what you have been instructed.”

That passage alone tells the reader that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke did some research. He collected other sayings about Jesus. He even looked at other written accounts. And from those different things he compiled his own gospel.

So the gospels start off with oral tradition that is passed around, including different sayings and stories about Jesus. The Gospel of Mark is written about the year 70 CE. If Jesus was crucified around the year 30 CE,  that is a 40 year period of time between the death of Jesus and the appearance of the first gospel that is known. Although there were other written materials being passed around during that time, Mark is a key manuscript in the life of the early church.

Last Supper fresco from Kremikovtsi Monastery, Bulgaria, 16th century AD
Last Supper fresco from Kremikovtsi Monastery, Bulgaria, 16th century CE

From Stories to Canon

Look at 1 Corinthians 11, verse 23.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he took the cup, also, after supper saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Where did Paul get this? He says, in essence, “I gave it to you as I received it myself.”

Modern people tend to think that a written text is actually the best source. It is better than just rumor or hearsay or oral tradition. Many ancient people didn’t think that way, however. An example of this older perspective can be seen in the work of a man named Papias.  He was a Christian leader who lived and wrote around the year 130-140 CE. He says this about his own research:

“I shall not hesitate to put down for you with my interpretations whatsoever things I well learned at one time from the Presbyters,” (the elders of the church) “and well remembered, confidently asserting truthfulness for them. For I did not take pleasure as the multitude does in those who say many things, but in those who teach the things that are true. Nor did I take pleasure in those who recall strange commands, but in those who recall the commands given by the Lord to the Faith and coming from Truth itself. But if, per chance, there came, also, anyone who had followed the Presbyters, I made inquiry concerning the words of the Presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew, or any of the other disciples of the Lord said. And what things Aristeon and the Presbyter John, disciples of the Lord used to say. For I did not suppose that the things from the books would aid me, so much as things from the living and continuing voice.”

Notice what Papias says he’s doing. He does not interview the actual apostles, as he is alive far too long after their deaths. But he tries to find people who are old, but who knew the apostles. And he says he questioned them about what they said Jesus had said. It is an interesting process, because it shows this continuing tradition of oral transmission. It is also interesting that he says he trusted that traditional living voice more than he trusted written documents.


Stained glass depiction of Justin Martyr. Great St Mary's church in Cambridge.
Stained glass depiction of Justin Martyr. Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge UK.

Around the middle of the second century CE lived a man named Justin Martyr. He is called that because he was martyred for the faith around the year 150 CE. He mentions “the memoirs of the apostles.” Scholars think he was talking about the gospels, but he doesn’t actually use the term Gospel.  Clearly he knows that there are written documents in existence.

At that time several different writings are being passed around the Christian community that look like gospels. There are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are in the Bible. But there is also the Gospel of Thomas, known from very early on. The Gospel of Judas was discovered recently and published. There is a Gospel of Mary. There is a Gospel of Nicodemus. There are several other gospels that circulated during the second century, too.  How did the Christian church settle on the final four, given all of these gospels in existence?

What modern scholars believe is that all four of these gospels were anonymously published. They don’t tell us who their author is.  They are not considered pseudonymous. There’s a difference between pseudonymous writings and anonymous. Anonymous means we don’t know who wrote it. It’s published without an author’s name being listed. Pseudonymous means it’s published with a false name, a false author attributed. Usually this happened to lend extra credibility or importance to the written materials.

The four gospels are not pseudonymous because the earliest manuscripts of these gospels did not contain the titles, “Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of John.” The texts were just published with no author attached to them. If they ever had an author’s name attached to them, there is no evidence in the manuscript history.  Instead, these names got attached to these documents over time–perhaps to eventually make them look more important as a source. Centuries later people thought that these documents were written by the people whose names they eventually acquired.

When did the Bible become Canon scripture?

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. The byzantine paintings in the Chora Church are all located in the parecclesion (or side-chapel) and date to around the 1320's.
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. The Byzantine paintings in the Chora Church are all located in the parecclesion (or side-chapel) and date to around the 1320’s.

The first time a Christian created a list that survives through the centuries, that shows the twenty-seven books of the New Testament found in the Bible, is in the year 367 CE. It is found in the Easter letter by the Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. Bishops at this time, especially of major cities, would sometimes send around an Easter letter. In this they would give instructions or information to their churches. In this particular letter he says, “These are the books that you should read.” This is the first time that the precise twenty-seven books that he lists are the twenty-seven books that are now included in the canonical list of the New Testament.

So some people would say that is when the Christian canon of the New Testament was set– because it’s the earliest time for this list (or at least the earliest found). But Athanasius was just the bishop of one area. His letter was not binding on anybody else, except the churches in his Alexandrian diocese. So this letter didn’t set the canon. 367 CE is simply the time when the earliest list that matches the list of twenty-seven books of the New Testament shows up. One sees,  when looking at all the different canon lists from a century later in the 400s, two centuries later in the 500s, even three centuries later in the 600s, that there are still different lists of authoritative books. The canon may have been commonly held by 600 CE, but other materials were still in active use.


Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum. Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea, 325 CE

Why were some texts included in the New Testament and other texts not included in the New Testament?

Most Christians will say, “Because they are inspired.”

That is not what the ancients believed, however. They believed that there were many texts that were inspired, and that there were different levels of inspiration. So just because a text is inspired wasn’t enough for ancient Christians to include it in the canon.


Inspiration, contrary to modern assumptions, was not the key criteria for acceptance into the Canon that ancient people talked about.

Apostolic authorship was important to the ancient believers. Ancient writers would say, “We accept the Gospel of Mark because if it wasn’t written by an apostle or disciple, it was written by someone very close to one of them.” The problem with this is that people in the ancient world would argue against something being authored by an apostle if there was a gospel that they didn’t like. It is clear historically, however, that these texts were not written by apostles. The timing of their creation and the internal evidence within the gospels makes this obvious. It is also clear that they were not even written by close followers of apostles. These are anonymous texts. If authorship was the reason they were included in the ancient world, it is not the reason they are still in the canon now, because most modern scholars do not believe any apostles actually wrote the texts in the New Testament.

A second big reason for consideration of a piece of writing for the canon was simply general acceptance. Apparently, the texts that were the most popular over a bigger geographical space tended to be the ones that got into the canon. There were different gospels, however, that were popular in different parts of the Mediterranean. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was especially popular in certain parts of the East, but not in Rome. Generally Christian leaders tried to include those gospels and other documents that were more broadly accepted across all of Christendom to include in the canon.

But the most important criterion for inclusion in the canon was theological acceptability. People tended to want to include in the canon the documents that matched their own theology. In other words people believed something was apostolic if it taught ideas that people believed to be true. When theological appropriateness is what ended up being the most important criterion for including materials in the canon, it is important to actually say, “Theologically appropriate to whom?” And of course that means there is a judgment call about each item in the canon.

The documents that came to be accepted as canon were the ones called the “proto-orthodox.”

In the second century one can’t use the term “orthodox Christianity” versus “heretical Christianity,” because orthodoxy hadn’t been established yet. Belief was in a state of flux for centuries. People believed all kinds of different things that fell within the term “Christian”. So what scholars have done is create the word “proto-orthodox.” This refers to the kinds of writing and belief that would later be proclaimed as orthodox in various Christian creeds and councils.

So the people who were Christians in the second and third centuries CE, who believed what later became the Nicene Creed, or Orthodox Christianity, were the people who had the most say in what became part of the Bible. In the end, the canon is a list of the winners in the historical debate to define orthodox Christianity.


Example: the Nicene Creed  325 CE  (amended 381 CE)

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.



Small Books: introducing the codex

The hand-written copies of parts of the New Testament the were circulated around the Mediterranean consisted mostly of the letters of Paul to specific early Christian communities, and stories of the life and teaching of Jesus passed by word of mouth, committed to memory by the earliest Christians and written down by the Evangelists.

Although typical of Graeco-Roman books in their use of papyrus for writing material, early Christian books were distinctive in their use of the codex format (an assemblage of single folded leaves of papyrus or parchment held together at the spine) rather than the scroll format. In this respect they form part of a critical transition in the history of the book, when the traditional format of the scroll, used by all literate cultures in the Mediterranean world for many millennia, was replaced by the book.


From the British Library, Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth century manuscript of the Greek Old Testament, the New Testament, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas on parchment
British Library, Codex Sinaiticus, fourth century manuscript of the Greek Old Testament, New Testament, Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas


The triumph of the codex–that book style assembly of writings– is most evident in the 4th century CE Codex Sinaiticus. Originally intended to contain the whole of the Old and New Testaments, this massive volume aimed to establish beyond dispute which texts formed part of the canon of scripture for the Christians. The overall contents of this manuscript signaled what was approved by the Christian Church as newly authorized by Emperor Constantine the Great in the first half of the 4th century CE.

After so many years of persecution by the Roman authorities and threats of internal schism, Christians at last had physically, as well as in principle, a single book of Scripture. To achieve this significant step in the history of the Bible, book technology also had to develop further, papyrus being replaced by the more robust parchment, and binding structures becoming more complex and resilient. Such advances enabled the canon of Scripture to be captured in its further recensions over succeeding centuries.

Why are there so few manuscripts of the whole Bible?

The large-format Bible, in one or several volumes like Codex Sinaiticus, was not the most common form of Bible produced during the hand-written manuscript era. During these 1,500 years, the most common book was not a complete Bible, but a portion of the Bible. Frequency of use was a much stronger factor in determining which books were produced in the era before printing, when every word entailed significant cost or labor and was the result of painstaking copying by hand.


The Rossano Gospels (Cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, Italy, Archepiscopal Treasury, s.n.) is a 6th century Byzantine Gospel Book and is believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament manuscript. Date6th century
The Rossano Gospels (Cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, Italy, Archepiscopal Treasury) is a 6th century Byzantine Gospel Book and is believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament manuscript.

The most commonly owned manuscript Christian book was the Four Gospels, either preserving the distinct sequence of each text or comprising selected passages re-ordered in line with the readings employed in the Church year to form a lectionary. The popularity of this form of the Gospels is attested to by the large number that survive to this day – there are over two thousand copies of the Greek Gospels alone. The Four Gospels were also combined into a single narrative in what are known as Gospel Harmonies.

Also numerous were psalters, copies of the Psalms structured to mirror their daily use in monastic liturgy. The Book of Revelation appeared in separate volumes or combined with various Biblical or non-Biblical texts.  In the West the Book of Revelation was most often copied together with a commentary explaining it; most surviving Greek copies of Revelation include or relate to a commentary. In the West many copies of an individual book or groups of books of the Bible, such as the Psalms, Gospels or Pauline Epistles, included commentaries.


Double page from the Holkham Bible, BL Add. MS 47682, fol. 7v and 8r; Noah's Ark Datebetween 1325 and 1350
Double page from the Holkham Bible; Noah’s Ark, from between 1325 and 1350

In the West readings from several New Testament books were presented in a separate volume, known as an epistolary. Even when such small hand written works covered parts of both the Old and the New Testaments, copies of them often comprised only a particular part of the text. Many of the so-called Bibles with extensive illumination are in fact mere paraphrases. The texts of the Bible moralisée, for example, focus on their moralized and typological interpretations of the Bible. The Holkham Bible Picture Book includes only brief captions to accompany its images.  Literacy was not common among ordinary people.


English Coloured title page of a 'Great Bible', probably Henry VIII's personal copy. Date1539
Colored title page of an English ‘Great Bible’, Henry VIII’s personal copy. 1539 CE

What were complete Bibles used for?

The huge one-volume Bibles, such as those produced in Northumbria under Abbot Ceolfrith and at Tours under the Emperor Charlemagne and his successors, came into being as much to progress the political ambitions of their sponsors as to preserve the Biblical text. Similarly, the enormous Romanesque Bibles stand testament to the power and wealth of the great monastic houses for which they were produced, as well as to the central importance of Scripture to the lives of the monks. The massive Great Bible from the English royal library, with pages over two feet tall, shows Henry VIII’s ambition and wealth.


Small Bibles require an entirely different explanation. The so-called pocket Bibles produced in the 13th century CE assisted the evangelistic mission of the friars. In this context a complete, portable text of the Bible was a great advantage. As in the case of modern Bibles, portability was achieved through the use of tiny script and pages of lightweight, very thin material. Although large in number, illustrations in these pocket Bibles are proportionately small in scale and more reflective of mass production. Surprisingly, all such traditions of complete Bible production arise only in Western Europe. From the Byzantine world, for example, there is evidence of only seven complete Greek Bibles.


The beginning verses of the Gospel of John, from a facsimile edition of William Tyndale's 1525 English translation of the New Testament.
The beginning verses of the Gospel of John, from a facsimile edition of William Tyndale’s 1525 English translation of the New Testament. Note the chapter number at the top of the page.

How were manuscript Bibles referenced and numbered?

The system of using chapters and verses in the Bible was not in use for most of the manuscript era. Numbering parts of the Gospels was introduced at an early date and further exploited by the Christian writer Eusebius (d. 340).

The Psalms were also individually numbered early on, and, thanks to an editorial system attributed to Euthalius (c. 4th–7th century), chapter numbers were assigned within Greek manuscripts of the Book of Acts and the Epistles. Other systems of dividing Biblical texts either by headings or numbers were used in individual copies or by individual commentators, but these were of very limited use for comparison given the varying methods employed.

Only in the early 13th century did teachers and students at the University of Paris begin to employ the standardized system of chapter numbering now in use. Often ascribed to Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this means of referencing Biblical text remained the principal one until the introduction of verse numbers by Robert Estienne for his edition of the Bible in French, printed at Geneva in 1553 CE.


Anjou Bible, Napoli, 1340, KU Leuven Maurits Sabbe Library LanguageLatin Publication date circa 1340
Anjou Bible, Napoli, 1340, Maurits Sabbe Library, Latin
circa 1340

How were manuscript Bibles used?

Like modern printed Bibles, manuscript Bibles were used for many different purposes. Within the Mass, the appointed readings from the Gospels and Epistles were made by the celebrant from Gospel books, Gospel lectionaries, epistolaries or, in the West, from the relevant parts of Missals. For the recitation of all the Psalms each week during the Western Divine Office it was essential to have the psalter or another book that contained the whole of the Psalms, the Breviary. In monastic refectories across Europe the prescribed readings that accompanied the daily eating of meals regularly drew on Scripture to nourish the spiritual well-being of the community. Large volumes, like modern lectern (podium) Bibles, enabled easy reading in the communal setting of the liturgy, chapter meetings, mealtimes and teaching.

Small volumes also had distinctive purposes. Shaped to fit easily into the palm of a hand, they enabled private reading, devotion or study wherever it was required, as well as preaching to others in various formal and informal settings. Such Biblical manuscripts were only made for a relatively small literate minority. As literacy widened, printing enabled more people to have their own copy of the Bible. The lower cost and wider availability of printed Bibles facilitated this.


In this 8th-century psalter the Latin text is in large capital letters in the centre of the page and the Old English translation is in much smaller lower case letters between the lines of the Latin.
In this 8th-century psalter the Latin text is in large capital letters in the center of the page and the Old English translation is in much smaller lower case letters between the lines of the Latin.

Biblical translation in early years (pre-Reformation)

In early  (500-1000 CE) Anglo-Saxon England, many different monks and scholars translated parts of the Bible from Latin into English. Some people were anxious about this, as they worried that uneducated people might misinterpret Biblical teachings. Nonetheless, several vernacular translations survive from this period. They were often added to manuscripts containing Latin biblical texts, either in between the lines (interlinear translation) or in the margins of the page (marginal translation).

Biblical translation from Latin into English continued throughout the later Middle Ages. Of all parts of the Bible, it was the Psalms that were most frequently translated into vernacular languages. This was probably because, as personal prayers which directly address God, they were easily adaptable to use in private devotional practice. Nonetheless, efforts to translate the Bible into the English vernacular during this period were often met with profound suspicion. These suspicions were based in part on a fear that the English language was not as sophisticated a language as Latin and was, therefore, unsuitable for use in the expression of Biblical truth.

Many important figures in the contemporary Church also worried that if the Bible was made available to ordinary people in a language that they understood, it might be misinterpreted and could lead to dangerous heresy. Anxieties such as these led the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, to pass legislation intended to outlaw any unauthorized translation of the Bible, or of parts of the Bible, from Latin into English. Known as Arundel’s Constitutions (1407 CE), this legislation stated:

We enact and ordain that none hereafter translate upon his own authority any manner text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue or any other tongue in manner of a work, book or treatise. And that no such work, book or treatise be read openly or privily, in part or in whole, which was made lately in the time of the said John Wyclif, or since, or hereafter shall be made, under the pain of great excommunication, until such time as that translation be approved by the Diocesan of that place, or if the thing so require by the Council Provincial.

When was the Bible first translated into English?

Arundel’s Constitutions were published in part to counter the threat which the Church believed to be posed by John Wycliffe and his followers. A controversial Oxford priest and academic, Wycliffe (c. 1320–1384) spearheaded the so-called Wycliffite movement which argued, among many other things, for the importance of Biblical translation into the vernacular. The Wycliffites were responsible for the first translation of the complete Bible into the English language, completed by the end of the 1390s. Scholars call this translation ‘The Wycliffite Bible’, and have noted that it circulated in two versions: the Early Version was a very literal translation of the Latin, while the Late Version was a looser and more idiomatic rendering of the same.

The Wycliffites, and those who shared their views on Biblical translation, recognized that God’s truth could be communicated in English just as well as it could in Latin. For such thinkers, Latin was simply a vernacular language on a par with English; it had no special claim to authority.

This being the case, there was no excuse for denying Biblical access to those unable to read Latin:

And since they [the Church authorities] pray so earnestly that Christian people should understand God’s law, I wonder at why they are so unwilling to teach English people God’s law in the English language. For without the English tongue, the unlearned English people will not be able to know God’s law. And I marvel greatly why they are so busy to prevent people from understanding God’s law and the holy Bible.[5]

Despite Arundel’s draconian attempt to limit the audience of the Wycliffite Bible, it became one of the most widely circulated texts of the late Middle Ages, and survives in whole and in part in around 250 manuscripts. Its profound impact on the religious and literary culture of the Middle Ages and beyond cannot be overestimated.

McKendrick, Scott. “Manuscripts of the Christian Bible.” British Library, 23 Sept. 2019, https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/manuscripts-of-the-christian-bible.

Sutherland, Annie. “The Importance of Translation in the Diffusion of Christianity.” British Library, 23 Sept. 2019, https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/the-importance-of-translation-in-the-diffusion-of-christianity.

Nasrallah, Laura. “How Did Paul’s Letters First Circulate?” The Letters of Paul at St James by the Sea Episcopal Church, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wb0Wz9cJdws.

Gabel, John B. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.


Dale Martin, Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University: Open Yale Courses, http://oyc.yale.edu. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA .  Most of the lectures and course material within Open Yale Courses are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. Unless explicitly set forth in the applicable Credits section of a lecture, third-party content is not covered under the Creative Commons license.



  1. Dale B. Martin specializes in New Testament and Christian Origins, including attention to social and cultural history of the Greco-Roman world. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1999, he taught at Rhodes College and Duke University. His books include: Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity; The Corinthian Body; Inventing Superstition: from the Hippocratics to the Christians; Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation; Pedagogy of the Bible: an Analysis and Proposal; New Testament History and Literature; and most recently, Biblical Truths: The Meaning of Scripture in the Twenty-First Century. He has edited several books, including (with Patricia Cox Miller), The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. He was an associate editor for the revision and expansion of the Encyclopedia of Religion, published in 2005. He has published several articles on topics related to the ancient family, gender and sexuality in the ancient world, and ideology of modern biblical scholarship, including titles such as: “Contradictions of Masculinity: Ascetic Inseminators and Menstruating Men in Greco-Roman Culture.” He currently is working on issues in biblical interpretation, social history and religion in the Greco-Roman world, and sexual ethics. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany), the Lilly Foundation, the Fulbright Commission (USA-Denmark), and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 2009).
  2. Dr Annie Sutherland is an Associate Professor in Old and Middle English at the University of Oxford. She works on religious literature of the English Middle Ages, with a particular focus on writing by and for women. Her published work includes English Psalms in the Middle Ages, 1300–1450. She is currently working on some prayer texts associated with a group of 13th century women living on the borders between England and Wales.
  3. Dr Scot McKendrick is Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library. His recent publications include Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript (BL Pubs, 2015) and The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (Thames and Hudson, 2016).
  4. Yale Divinity School, Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Joint appointment in the Department of Religious Studies. Laura Nasrallah’s research and teaching bring together New Testament and early Christian literature with the archaeological remains of the Mediterranean world, and often engage issues of colonialism, gender, race, status, and power.
  5. The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible: The Texts of the Medieval Debate, Mary Dove (ed.) (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2010)


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