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Origen via Rufinus on the New Testament Canon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 May 2016

Edmon L. Gallagher*
Heritage Christian University, PO Box HCU, Florence, AL 35630, USA. Email:


Around the turn of the fifth century Rufinus of Aquileia translated many important Greek theological works, especially by Origen and Eusebius. These translations have received a great deal of criticism for their lack of fidelity to their Vorlagen, a criticism that extends to their statements on the New Testament canon. Several scholars now assume that the list of New Testament books to be found in Origen's Homilies on Joshua 7.1 (available only in Rufinus' Latin translation) should be attributed to the translator rather than to Origen himself. This paper calls this assumption into question by comparing Eusebius’ statements on the books of the New Testament to Rufinus' translation of those statements. We will find that Rufinus does, in fact, alter his text in some subtle ways so that the statements on the canon correspond more closely to the increasingly stabilised canon of the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries, but such subtle alterations do not overturn the translator's basic fidelity when reporting earlier views. This analysis suggests that Origen did produce a list of books in the mid-third century that closely – though not exactly – resembled the list of New Testament books published by Athanasius in 367.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Some manuscripts add et apocalypsin. See discussion below.

2 W. A. Baehrens, ed., Origenes Werke vii: Homilien zum Hexateuch in Rufins Übersetzung (GCS 30; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1921) 327–8.

3 Translation from B. J. Bruce, Origen: Homilies on Joshua (FOC 105; Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 74–5.

4 B. M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 140. Metzger did entertain the possibility ‘that Rufinus altered Origen's words so as to reflect a later, fourth-century opinion concerning the extent of the canon’ (p. 139), but he takes this idea no further.

5 For Rufinus' comments about modifying Origen's translations, see the preface to his translation of Origen's De principiis, as well as his preface to Origen's Commentary on Romans.

6 L. M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007) 306; see also p. 307. See also D. R. Nienhuis, Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007) 62.

7 For criticisms of Rufinus' translations, see E. L. Gallagher, Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory: Canon, Language, Text (VCS 114; Leiden: Brill, 2012) 39–40; and the works mentioned in M. J. Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books in Homiliae in Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look’, Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado (ed. C. Keith and D. T. Roth; LSNT 528; London: Bloomsbury, 2015) 99–117, at 100–101 n. 6.

8 On Rufinus' translation of Eusebius, see now Humphries, M., ‘Rufinus's Eusebius: Translation, Continuation, and Edition in the Latin Ecclesiastical History’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 16 (2008) 143–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; L. Ciccolini and S. Morlet, ‘La version latine de l’Histoire ecclésiastique’, in S. Morlet and L. Perrone, Eusèbe de Césarée: Histoire Ecclésiastique. Commentaire, vol. i:Études d'Introduction (Paris: Cerf, 2012) 243–66. For a negative evaluation of his translations of Origen, see R. P. C. Hanson, Origen's Doctrine of Tradition (London: SPCK, 1954) 40–7; Kalin, E. R., ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History: 1. The Canon of Origen’, Currents in Theology and Mission 17 (1990) 274–82Google Scholar, esp. 279–81; G. A. Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn: Eusebius and the Formation of the Christian Bible’ (Diss., Duke University, 1986) 89–97.

9 F. X. Murphy, Rufinus of Aquileia (345–411): His Life and Works (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1945) 168; cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Rufinus: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed (ACW 20; Westminster, MD: Newman, 1955) 20.

10 É. Junod, ‘D'Eusèbe de Césarée à Athanase d'Alexandrie en passant par Cyrille de Jérusalem: de la construction savante du Nouveau Testament à la clôture ecclésiastique du canon’, Le canon du Nouveau Testament: regards nouveaux sur l'histoire de sa formation (ed. G. Aragione, É. Junod, E. Norelli; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2005) 169–95, at 175. See also id., ‘Les mots d'Eusèbe de Césarée pour désigner les livres du Nouveau Testament et ceux qui n'en font pas partie’, Eukarpa: études sur la Bible et ses exégètes en hommage à Gilles Dorival (ed. M. Loubet and D. Pralon; Paris: Cerf, 2011) 341–53. On the development of the literary critical categories employed by Eusebius – including their prehistory in classical scholarship and their adoption by Origen and other Christian writers prior to Eusebius – see Baum, A. D., ‘Der neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios (Hist. Eccl. iii,25,1–7) im Kontext seiner literaturgeschichtlichen Arbeit’, ETL 73 (1997) 307–48Google Scholar.

11 Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 323–5. On the term ὁμολογούμενα, see pp. 325–6, and J. J.  Armstrong, ‘The Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon according to Eusebius of Caesarea’ (Diss., Fordham University, 2006) 102–3.

12 For the first position, see E. R. Kalin, ‘The New Testament Canon of Eusebius', The Canon Debate (ed. L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002) 386–404, esp. 394–7; Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 137–41; in favour of the second option, see Junod, ‘D'Eusèbe de Césarée’, 178; id., ‘Mots d'Eusèbe’, 345. The difficulty of determining the correct interpretation is illustrated by Robbins, G. A., ‘Eusebius' Lexicon of Canonicity’, Studia Patristica 25 (1993) 134–41Google Scholar, at 134–5, who affirms both views, first saying that ‘[t]his middle category is further sub-divided to delineate between those orthodox counterfeits many ecclesiastics presumed to be genuine [= ἀντιλεγόμενα], and those which were widely recognized by the Church to be spurious [= νόθα]’ before asserting that ‘HE 3.25.6 makes it clear that ἀντιλεγόμενα and νόθα are, for Eusebius, simply two different words for the same category …’; cf. Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 122, 138. Robbins maintains that the distinction involves how the church views these writings: the church regards the first set as genuine but not the second set, whereas Eusebius regarded both sets as spurious. On the other hand, Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 338, 345 sees the distinction to consist in how Eusebius himself views these writings: the church regards all of these writings as spurious, but Eusebius thinks the first set are genuine.

13 Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, books i–v (trans. K. Lake; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926) 259, etc. See Gallagher, Hebrew Scripture, 39–40. For criticism of this translation, see Robbins, ‘Eusebius' Lexicon of Canonicity’, 135–6. On ἐνδιάθηκος, see Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 292; T. Bokedal, The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon: A Study in Text, Ritual and Interpretation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) 76: ‘The Word “encovenanted” or “testament-ed” (ἐνδιάθηκος; cf. Euseb. Hist. Eccl. iii, 3.1) thus is the third century equivalent to “canonical” …’ (he had just cited Zahn to similar effect). Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 101–2 says that Eusebius ‘never specifically equates this word [ἐνδιάθηκος] with any one of his three classes of Christian literature’ (p. 102 n. 24), but Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 334 insists that Eusebius equates ἐνδιάθηκος and ὁμολογούμενα multiple times (citing 3.3.1, 3; 3.9.5; 3.25.1–2.6). Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 144–5 points out that the term ἐνδιάθηκος reflects Melito's terminology in regard to his list of books of the Old ‘Covenant’ (4.26.12–14).

14 Junod, ‘Mots d'Eusèbe’, 351. For Origen's use of the term, see De oratione 14.4; Selectae in Psalmos = Philocalia 3 = Eusebius, HE 6.25.1. (Origen usually represented the concept of ‘canonicity’ with the term φερόμενος, ‘circulating’; see Gallagher, Hebrew Scripture, 57 n. 147; Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 104–6. The Latin translations of Origen by Rufinus contain the word ‘canon’ three times (zero for Jerome's translations): Commentarius in Canticum canticorum prologue, twice; De principiis 4.4.6. For discussion, see Gallagher, Hebrew Scripture, 38, 42; id., ‘Writings Labeled “Apocrypha” in Latin Patristic Sources', Sacra Scriptura: How ‘Non-Canonical’ Texts Functioned in Early Judaism and Early Christianity (ed. J. H. Charlesworth and L. M. McDonald; New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) 1–14. Nicephorus also uses the word several times, as do some other Greek writers (none before Origen). Total 29x in Greek literature, not counting the adverb ἐνδιαθήκως.

15 Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 153; Robbins, ‘Eusebius' Lexicon of Canonicity’, 138–9: ‘Eusebius' preferred word for a list of sacred writings, or any list, is catalogue’. See also Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 333; R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) 207, who does think the word κανών here means ‘canon’, but contrast R. M. Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) 141 n. 28: ‘Eusebius is simply referring to the Church's rule of accepting only four gospels.’

16 On the relationship of the Didache to the Two Ways mentioned by Rufinus, see Aldridge, R. E., ‘Peter and the “Two Ways”’, Vigiliae Christianae 53 (1999) 233–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 242–5. On the reception of the Shepherd of Hermas, see G. M. Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 61–71.

17 Comm. Symb. 36. See also his translation of Eusebius, HE 4.22.9; Origen, Commentarius in Canticum canticorum prologue, at the end, discussed in Gallagher, ‘Writings Labeled Apocrypha’, 7–8.

18 He does not always feel so constrained (cf. HE 6.14.1), but the fact that he seems to here suggests that he might merit somewhat more credence than is afforded him by Kalin, ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History’, 279–81 (see below).

19 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 201–7.

20 See E. S. Constantinou, ‘Banned from the Lectionary: Excluding the Apocalypse of John from the Orthodox New Testament Canon’, The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East (ed. V. S. Hovhanessian; New York: Peter Lang, 2012) 51–61, esp. 58–9, who explains that Revelation actually was (nearly) universally acknowledged in the East (and West) when Eusebius wrote, but he himself found it dubious, and so he classified it as universally received, as it was, and as spurious, as he regarded it (pp. 58–9). See also Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 339–40; Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 205 n. 38; Hahneman, Muratorian Fragment, 23–5. Contrast Kalin, ‘New Testament canon of Eusebius', 395.

21 Oulton, J. E. L., ‘Rufinus's Translation of the Church History of Eusebius’, JTS 30 (1929) 150–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 157.

22 E. Schwartz, ed., Eusebius Werke, vol. ii.2: Die Kirchengeschichte, Bücher vi–x (GCS 9.2; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1908) 694–700. A glance through Schwartz's edition, which prints on facing pages both the Greek and Theodor Mommsen's edition of Rufinus' Latin translation, will demonstrate that 7.25 is not the only time Rufinus resorts to summary.

23 Actually, four times: 1.1, 4, 9; 22.8. Dionysius quotes all four.

24 On these two terms, see Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 104 n. 30, who notes that Eusebius did not develop this terminology in reliance on Origen, who ‘never applies either of these terms to sacred texts'.

25 ἀντιλεγόμενα: 3.3.3; 3.25.3, 6 (twice); 3.31.6; 6.13.6; 6.14.1; ἀντιλέγω: 3.3.5, 6; 3.24.18.

26 At 3.24.18, Rufinus does not actually translate ἀντιλέγω; rather, he combines two Eusebian clauses (on 2–3 John and Revelation), eliminating the first reference to doubt but translating the second (anceps sententia), which now applies to each of these doubted Johannine books, though in Eusebius it had applied only to Revelation.

27 The omission of Hebrews here seems to counter Oulton's contention that Rufinus harboured doubts about Hebrews (‘Rufinus's translation’, 157–8), an opinion echoed by Murphy, Rufinus of Aquileia, 168–9, who even attributes to Rufinus a ‘somewhat decided rejection of the Epistle to the Hebrews'. But Rufinus mentions in his canon list the Pauli apostoli epistulae quattuordecim, which must include Hebrews (Comm. Symb. 35). On the patristic reception of Hebrews, see Hahneman, Muratorian Fragment, 119–25.

28 Eusebius had named here as antilegomena Jude, the other Catholic Epistles, Barnabas and the Apocalypse of Peter. Rufinus omits reference to all but the last.

29 On the use of the term apocrypha in Rufinus, see Gallagher, ‘Writings Labeled Apocrypha’, 108–9.

30 The four appearances of νόθος discussed in this paragraph are the only appearances in the HE in reference to religious literature. Cf. also 5.16.8 (no corresponding term in Latin); 5.16.9 (Rufinus: insanus), where Eusebius writes of the prophecies of Montanus and his associates with the term νόθος; and 7.30.6 (Rufinus: adulterina), where the teachings of Paul of Samosata are described with the term. On νόθος in Eusebius, see Junod, ‘Mots d'Eusèbe’, 348–9; Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 104 n. 30; Baum, ‘Neutestamentliche Kanon bei Eusebios', 327: ‘Daher meint auch der Begriff οἱ νόθοι in 25,4 nicht einfach die unechten Schriften bestimmter Verfasser, sondern Werke, die insofern unauthentisch sind, als sie entweder nicht den angenommenen Autoren oder nicht der apostolischen Zeit angehören oder sogar in beiden Hinsichten unecht sind. Dies ergibt sich daraus, daß der Begriff der Echtheit in iii,25,1–7 nicht in einen biobibliographischen, sondern in einen „chronographischen” Kontext eingebunden ist.’

31 See Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 124. Rufinus similarly adjusts the wording at 3.3.1 (2 Peter).

32 Similar conclusions in Ruwet, J., ‘Les “antilegomena” dans les œuvres d'Origène’, Biblica 23 (1942) 1842Google Scholar, at 22–3.

33 Kalin, ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History’, 280–1.

34 Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 95 objects to the appearance of James and Jude in the list of books in Rufinus' translation of Origen's Homilies on Joshua 7.1 (on which, see below): ‘… James and Jude, mention of which was entirely lacking in Eusebius' version of Origen's “canon”’ (i.e. Hist. Eccl. 6.25). But Robbins fails to note that Rufinus also omitted James and Jude at HE 6.25. Similar fidelity to his Vorlagen is demonstrated by other passages in Rufinus' translations: he does not add Esther to Melito's list, for instance, and even in Eusebius' confusing canon list at HE 3.25, he essentially remains faithful to the categories of books that he finds there, though of course he does harden the boundaries between the categories.

35 Kalin, ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History’, 280.

36 See the extracts of Origen collected by Eusebius at HE 6.25.3–14. On James and Jude, see the evidence cited and discussed in Nienhuis, Not by Paul Alone, 54–60.

37 Stenzel, M., ‘Der Bibelkanon des Rufin von Aquileja’, Biblica 23 (1942) 4361Google Scholar, at 53.

38 Baehrens, Origenes Werke vii, 327–8 includes in his apparatus some manuscript attestation for the Apocalypse (his Class C and Codex g), but the reading does not appear in his printed text. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 139 n. 51 agrees with Baehrens that it is ‘probably a scribal expansion of the text’; see also Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 113–14 n. 49; Stenzel, ‘Bibelkanon des Rufin von Aquileja’, 53. Other scholars assume that Revelation is original: Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books', 108 n. 47; Kalin, ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History’, 280; Robbins, ‘Peri tōn endiathēkōn graphōn’, 89–97. The translator Rufinus certainly accepts Revelation as canonical; he includes it in his canon list at Comm. Symb. 35. As for Origen, he gives no indication of harbouring doubt over its authorship, asserting it to be by John the apostle (Eusebius, HE 6.25.9, quoted above). On the reception of Revelation in early Christianity, including its ‘frequent’ citations by Origen, see Hahneman, Muratorian Fragment, 23–5.

39 Origen never cites 2–3 John, but a few citations of 2 Peter are preserved in works surviving in Latin, e.g. Hom. Lev. 4.4.

40 Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books', 104–7 argues that the list as extant in Rufinus' translation accurately reflects the Origenic original in every detail.

41 See Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6–10 (trans. T. P. Scheck; FOC 104; Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 311. For discussion, see A. Jaubert, Origène: Homélies sur Josué (SC 71; Paris: Cerf, 1960) 69. Jaubert's entire ‘Appendice ii’, in which she explores the quality of Rufinus' translation of these homilies, is relevant to our discussion (pp. 68–82). Her comparison of the Latin to some Greek fragments leads her to affirm the basic fidelity of the translation: ‘Dans l'ensemble, elle donne l'impression d'une longue paraphrase, mais non d'une paraphrase inexacte’ (p. 82).

42 Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books', 112–13. See also A. von Harnack, Der kirchengeschichtliche Ertrag der exegetischen Arbeiten des Origenes (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1918) 12.

43 Stenzel, ‘Bibelkanon des Rufin von Aquileja’, 54–5.

44 Kalin, ‘Re-examining New Testament Canon History’, 281.

45 Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books’, 110.

46 Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books’, 113.

47 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 140; see also Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books’, 115–16.

48 Armstrong, ‘Role of the Rule of Faith in the Formation of the New Testament Canon’, 113–14: ‘Certainly, Origen did not consider this catalogue to be exclusive, for he appeals to works that do not appear in this list.’

49 See Hahneman, Muratorian Fragment, 132.

50 For a detailed response to Hahneman, see J. Verheyden, ‘The Canon Muratori: A Matter of Dispute’, The Biblical Canons (ed. J.-M. Auwers and H. J. de Jonge; BETL 163; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003) 487–556. Kruger's recent discussion of Origen's Hom. Jos. 7.1 frames its argument for the authenticity of Origen's list in terms of weakening one plank in the argument for a late date for the Muratorian Fragment; see Kruger, ‘Origen's List of New Testament Books’, 100.

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