“Deciding” the Canon of Scripture: Damasus and the Council of Rome in 382 AD

Historical recognition of the canon of Scripture is far more complicated than most realize, particularly for the Old Testament (OT). I’m planning a series on the OT canon, but here I hope to address a commonly asserted but false claim, namely that: Pope Damasus/the Council of Rome in 382 decided (or canonized) books of the Bible.

This claim surfaces frequently in online discussions. Both lay and professional apologists repeat it. The latter should keep the former in check but that rarely happens. Repetition of these false claims does not contribute to productive dialog. I suppose those who make a living preaching to the choir don’t consider historicity and productive dialog of much concern. A scholar with whom I recently corresponded said it well: “The biggest pitfall of most avowed apologists (of all stripes) is back-projection, wanting to see the present Church (and typically the one to which they profess membership) in the past.”

The books of the Codes Sinaiticus do not exactly match the canon of Scripture recognized by any Christian tradition.
Codex Sinaiticus (source) is a mid-4th century manuscript that contains the earliest complete copy of the NT. It also contains some, but not all, of the contested OT books that appear today in Catholic Bibles (see here).

The following short video is a classic example of this false claim. There are other historical errors but we’ll focus on one here. The first 1:40 is sufficient to hear the claim made.

I hope to provide enough information to help others understand the origin of this claim and it’s historical problems. It’s one of many examples where people simply don’t distinguish between useful scholarship and pop apologetics. Nor do they even attempt to square this claim with rather obvious historical contradictions. There are explicit canon lists that post-date this supposed decree of Pope Damasus and/or the council. Further, of the four great uncial codices we have, two were compiled before the time of Damasus and none, including those that post-date his time, exactly match the modern Catholic Bible (or that of any tradition). While the gentleman in the video above seems like a nice guy, Damasus didn’t canonize or compile the Bible.

In their zeal, claimants like this just parrot their favorite author/apologist/website and continue the inertial propagation of revisionist history. In this case, plenty of helpful information is available. One just needs to know what to look for and where to find it. My aim here is to consolidate enough sources and provide enough information to bridge these gaps. For those with interest in digging deeper, the sources I review should suffice as an effective starting point. For those desiring “quick proof,” I hope you’ll find enough here to approach the claim with caution. Perhaps you’ll even feel confident in correcting others making this false claim.

Locating and defining the claim about Pope Damasus, the 382 Council of Rome, and the Biblical canon

The claim that Damasus and/or the Council of Rome in 382 decided/decreed (or canonized and compiled, as the video above says) the Biblical canon does not seem to predate the 1980’s. It seems to originate in the Catholic Answers (CA) era (after 1979). Variations of the claim, some with more embellishment than others, find use by many of their apologists. See here, here, here, here, and here, for examples. A list of books and blogs by CA affiliate authors would be a book unto itself.

To be fair I need to be clear that there is a much longer history (which I’ll address) of believing the council in question generated one of the earliest lists of canonical books. It reflects a little known, local tradition in Rome, not that a universal, dogmatic decision for the Christian world. When I speak of embellishments, I’m largely referring to authority claims and the extent of influence. Apologists often suggest this council made a universal, widely known, binding decision.

The claim takes various forms. It is common to hear things like: the list was compiled in Rome in 382, then ratified by the councils of Carthage and Hippo in 397 and 393 and apologists often implicitly treat these councils as ecumenical. Others say the councils of Florence (1449) and Trent (1569) simply “reaffirm” a decision made at these earlier councils. None of these embellishments are true. Nor is it likely true that the Council of Rome in 382 even published such a list, as we’ll see. There is evidence that there was a small, local council held in Rome in 382. It was in response to the Eastern Council of Constantinople in 381. Historical evidence suggests it is not true that the Biblical canon was discussed in Rome, much less issued in a decree. The actual reason for the council and it’s dealings are beyond the scope of this discussion.

From where do modern apologists get the idea that the Council of Rome under Damasus decided the canon of Scripture?

The claim, as made by modern apologists, is largely based on statements from W. A. Jurgens in his book “Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1,” published in 1970. It is common to see this cited as a source in other books. It is also common to see the claim made without citation, especially on the internet. His 3-book series was ripe fodder for the re-writing and embellishment of church history in the 1980’s through the early 2000’s. Most of it was by CA apologists and their cadre of authors and affiliates, crusading to take down “Fundamentalism.” Cyprian on Roman primacy is another of their favorite claims, supported by Jurgens, though that claim has deeper historical roots. Jurgens passed away in 1982 so there was no opportunity for him to see how the acorn he planted would grow into a banana tree.[1]I must credit Paul Facey (it may have been one of his guests) of the YouTube channel: The Other Paul for this amusing allusion to John Henry Newman’s theory of doctrinal development. I regret … Continue reading

Jurgens seems to have been a decent historian. He even included some useful, appropriately cautious commentary in his “Faith of the Early Fathers” set. Nevertheless, the volumes are little more than quote-mines, grouped as collections of proof-texts for Catholic dogma. They are apologetic works, not scholarship, though he does make an effort to incorporate scholarship. In discussing the supposed Decree of Damasus, which comes to us as part of a larger composite text called the Galasian Decree (an English translation is here), Jurgens says:

“Belonging also to the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. is a decree of which three parts are extant. The first part of this decree…has long been known as the Decree of Damasus…It is now commonly held that the part of the Gelasian Decree dealing with the accepted canon of Scripture is an authentic work of the Council of Rome in 382 AD and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century…”[2]The Decree of the Damasus [A.D. 382]”, in The Faith of the Early Fathers: Volume 1, Pre-Nicene and Nicene eras. (United States: Liturgical Press, 1970, pg. 404).

The first important point to note here is the use of the word “decree” by Jurgens’ in referencing the “Decree of Damasus.” Knowingly or not, Jurgens is introducing anachronism with this term. In fact, no translation of the text that I’ve seen, actually says: “Decree of Damasus” anywhere in the text. It often only refers to the (local) council of Rome under Damasus, sometimes with “We decree…” leading it’s sections. His mention of it having “long been known as…” only suggests someone started calling it that at some point. Who knows when? This may seem subtle but it is important. The term “decree” has a specific technical meaning. It suggests a degree of authority without warrant, especially considering the anachronism in it…

The language Jurgens uses is not just absent from some of the translations, but also absent from that time in church history. He implies the text with Damasean attribution constitutes a papal decree (or “decretal”), before such decrees even existed. Papal decretals were not issued until after the time of Damasus, see here. According to Jasper and Furhman (Catholic University of America Press, 2001), Pope Siricius’ letter (a rescript) to Bishop Himerius of Taragona in February of 385 (after the death of Damasus) is considered the first papal decretal.[3]Jasper, Detlev, and Fuhrmann, Horst. Papal Letters in the Early Middle Ages. (United States: Catholic University of America Press, 2001, pg. 11). Scholarship on the origin of papal decretals does not seem to reflect much division. Neil and Allen of Australian Catholic University (Brepols, 2014)[4]Gelasius. The Letters of Gelasius I (492-496): Pastor and Micro-manager of the Church of Rome. (Belgium, Brepols, 2014). number the earliest decretals by pope, beginning with two letters of Siricius (consistent with Jasper and Fuhrman), who was bishop of Rome from 384-399, after succeeding Damasus. In their publication of the letters of Gelasius I (many are first-time English translations), they have an entire chapter on decretals, as well as useful historical analysis and commentary. They state:

“Decretals from bishops of Rome originated as responses to queries from individual bishops, which were later taken to have universal application. Their status as decretals was thus a gradual evolution, owed in large part to their preservation in medieval canon law collections. Gelasius provides perhaps the earliest definition when he wrote in Letter 42: ‘Likewise, decretal letters which the most blessed popes sent at different times from the city of Rome…” (emphasis added – Letter 42 is the authentic letter that constitutes part of the Decretum Gelasanium compiled at a later time)[5]Ibid, pg. 141.

Again, there is nothing in the entire Decretum Gelasianum that refers to a prior “Decree of Damasus” and such decrees only come after Damasus dies. When they do begin, their scope and influence is far too limited to involve something like promulgating the Biblical canon for all of the Christian world. If you search for “decre” (again, the English translation is here), you’ll only find occurrences in the title of the document: “THE ‘DECRETUM GELASIANUM DE LIBRIS RECIPIENDIS ET NON RECIPIENDIS’ (The Gelasian Decree on Receiving and Not Receiving Books) and in section III (see figure 1 below).

The timeline is important. Damasus was bishop of Rome from 366-384 AD. Gelasius was bishop of Rome from 492-496. Jurgens reconciles the gap in production of the component parts (more than a century) by implying Galasius merely added to an authentic decree from Damasus, one that resulted from presiding over the “Council of Rome” in 382. The absence of the word “decree” in some translations of the Damasean portion or the absensce of papal detretals from this time in history, is not enough to establish that such a list was not produced by the council. It only speaks to the lack of force or authority understood in the time of Damasus. But alas, there’s more…

Examining the Decretum Gelasium

We’ll first note that the composite Decretum Gelasianum has five sections, under two headings, as follows:

  • HERE BEGINS THE COUNCIL OF ROME UNDER POPE DAMASUS “ON EXPLAINING THE FAITH”
    • I – three paragraphs describing the Holy Spirit and Christ
    • II – the Biblical canon list in question
    • III – “Likewise it was said” (probably an unoriginal interpolation to bridge the council content with Galasian content)
  • HERE BEGINS THE DECRETAL ‘ON BOOKS TO BE RECEIVED AND NOT TO BE RECEIVED’ WHICH WAS WRITTEN BY POPE GELASIUS AND SEVENTY MOST ERUDITE BISHOPS AT THE APOSTOLIC SEAT IN THE CITY OF ROME
  • A discussion of Roman Primacy (arrogantly disregarding the existence of Constantinople, but we won’t get into that)
    • IV – a discussion of accepted, non-Biblical writings
    • V – a list of apocryphal books (some are the earliest witness to later dogma… but that’s another discussion)

That we are dealing with content purportedly produced at two different times, is immediately evident. The first part is content supposedly from the Council of Rome in 382. The second part appears to be an addition (and an actual decree), in the name of Gelasius, produced over a century later. This delineation also finds support in the editorial notes in red (see image below) that describe longer and shorter recensions from different manuscripts.

The content from Damasus and the Council of Rome in 382 is authentic, right?

The answer to this question was convincingly given by the German scholar Ernst von Dobschütz in 1912 and outlined for English readers in 1913 by F.C. Burkitt in the Journal of Theological Studies[6]Review of Ernst von Dobschütz, Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis in kritischem Text (Leipzig, 1912): F. C. Burkitt in Journal of Theological … Continue reading (it can be read here, for German readers, Dobschütz’ original work is here). Dobschütz made a brilliant observation about the text that purports to be from the Council of Rome. His key (not the only) finding is very easy to verify now, even for English readers. In section 1, paragraph 3 of the Gelasian Decree, just before the canon list, is the following text:

“For the Holy Spirit is not of the Father only or of the Son only, but of the Father and the Son; for it is written: ‘He who delights in the world, the Spirit of the Father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15); again it is written; ‘However anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, does not belong to him’ (Romans 8:9). So the Holy Spirit is understood to be called of the Father and the Son, [and] of whom the Son himself in the gospel says that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’ and ‘he will receive from me and he will make known to you’.”

This is a verbatim quote from St. Augustine’s Tractate 9 on the Gospel of John. You can also read this online here. The relevant text is:

“For the Holy Spirit is not that of the Father only, nor of the Son only, but the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. For it is written, If any man love the world, the Spirit of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15). And again, Whoever has not the Spirit of Christ is none of His (Romans 8:9). The same, then, is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Therefore, the Father and the Son being named, the Holy Spirit also is understood, because He is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.”

The problem? Augustine writes this work years after the Council of Rome in 382. The Wikipedia article says 35 years but there is evidence Augustine writes/preaches this in the winter of 406-407 (source). So, somewhere between 24-35 years is a reasonable conclusion for the terminus post quem, I’d say. While the council itself likely happened (addressing matters between Rome and Constantinople), it is near impossible for it to have produced the first three sections of the Decretum Gelasianum. This includes the list of canonical books of Scripture.

Why didn’t Jurgens mention this?

W.A. Jurgens’ acknowledged some of the historical problems with this text, citing the work of C. H. Turner (1910), which he says “failed to convince everyone.” He also says “little has been written on the subject in most recent years.” This creates the illusion of historical accuracy with regard to the scholarship. The information to refute his statement was widely available in journals, long before he published his book. In the 1970’s it was much less accessible than it is today so he may have simply not known about it, especially if there was a relative dearth of discussion in his circles.

Regardless of his historical accuracy and familiarity with more current scholarship, Jurgens NEVER actually says Pope Damasus or the Council of Rome “decided” or “promulgated” the canon. One must infer that from the implication that it was “decreed.” Jurgens’ actual claim is only that the text deals with “the accepted canon of Scripture.” The astute reader would be wise to ask questions like: “Accepted by whom, where, and when?”.

The authority claims are modern embellishments, finding popularity in the era of CA pop apologetics. In fairness to those who take Jurgens’ already inaccurate comments and read these embellishments in, the presence of the word “decree” easily invokes some not-so-obvious, anachronistic ideas. Nevertheless, only a cursory review of church history, relative to the recognition of the canon, reveals this is problematic. As mentioned, published canon lists and the contents of codices attest to this. For further discussion on these topics, you’ll have to wait on my series about the historical recognition of the OT canon.

How should we receive the Gelasian Decree today?

Today, most scholars consider the Decretum Gelasianum to be an anonymous work, likely from Italy, in the 6th century. This is after both Damasus and Gelasius lived. Mentions of the text don’t appear in manuscripts until the 9th century, if I recall correctly. Even then, it’s not widely discussed and nobody claims the Damasean portion “decided the canon,” even with the false attribution to a pope. All the while, differing perspectives on the canon (mainly concerning the OT) persist all the way through the Council of Trent in 1569. At Trent, they are still a matter of debate. The Council of Florence does list canonical books before Trent but not dogmatically.

Neil and Allen (2014), authors of the most comprehensive and current analysis of Gelasius’ letters that I know, say this:

“The Gelasian Decretal (Letter 42) was the first Roman document to fix the canon of tradition, although the canon of Scripture was not set down by a bishop of Rome until the time of Hormisdas (514-523).”[7]Neil and Allen, Gelasius, 60.

In a letter to the bishop of Toulouse in 405, Innocent I outlines the larger canon of Scripture, to include apocryphal/deuterocanonical (the latter being an anachronistic term) books of the OT. I do not believe scholars consider this a “decretal” or even a communication with more than local influence. Thus, we do see a distinct Latin tradition emerging. It is nevertheless, very unsettled in the 3rd-6th centuries, particularly if the East is considered. The Decretum Gelasianum is, therefore, rightly viewed as evidence of this tradition but not a settled matter.

There is a lot of potential to have informative, productive discussions about the recognition of the canon of Scripture. Unfortunately, modern apologetics often presents a tremendous barrier to this kind of dialog. Chipping away at some of the more egregiously false claims is a start, I hope.

References

References
1I must credit Paul Facey (it may have been one of his guests) of the YouTube channel: The Other Paul for this amusing allusion to John Henry Newman’s theory of doctrinal development. I regret not remembering in which video this statement was made. As hard as I laughed, though, I’ll likely never forget the analogy.
2The Decree of the Damasus [A.D. 382]”, in The Faith of the Early Fathers: Volume 1, Pre-Nicene and Nicene eras. (United States: Liturgical Press, 1970, pg. 404).
3Jasper, Detlev, and Fuhrmann, Horst. Papal Letters in the Early Middle Ages. (United States: Catholic University of America Press, 2001, pg. 11).
4Gelasius. The Letters of Gelasius I (492-496): Pastor and Micro-manager of the Church of Rome. (Belgium, Brepols, 2014).
5Ibid, pg. 141.
6Review of Ernst von Dobschütz, Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis in kritischem Text (Leipzig, 1912): F. C. Burkitt in Journal of Theological Studies 14 (1913 pp. 469–471)
7Neil and Allen, Gelasius, 60.

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