Add to bookbag
Title: Canon
Original Title: Canon
Volume and Page: Vol. 2 (1752), pp. 601–604
Author: Denis Diderot (biography)
Translator: Susan Emanuel []
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

This text is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Please see for information on reproduction.

Citation (MLA): Diderot, Denis. "Canon." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Canon," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 2. Paris, 1752.
Citation (Chicago): Diderot, Denis. "Canon." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Canon," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 2:601–604 (Paris, 1752).

Canon, is an authentic catalogue of the books that one should recognize as divine, made by a legitimate authority, and given to the people to teach them which are the original texts that ought to govern their conduct and their faith. The canon of the Bible has not been the same in all ages; it has not been uniform in all societies that recognize this collection as a divine book. The Roman Catholics are in contestation over this point with the Protestants. The Christian Church, in addition to the books of the New Testament that it has accepted into its canon , has added to them, into the canon of the Old Testament that it received from the Jewish church, some that were not previously in the latter's canon and that it did not recognize as divine books at all. It was these differences that gave rise to the division of holy books into proto-canonical, deutero-canonical , and apocryphal . However, it should be observed that these [terms] apply to a very small number of books. People agree about the great majority that compose the corpus of the Bible. One may pose several important questions on the subject that we are treating. We are going to examine some of them, less to decide them than to propose, to those who one day turn to criticism, some examples of the manner of discussing and illuminating questions of this nature.

Was there a canon of sacred books among the Jews? This is the first question. The Jewish people did not recognize all sorts of books as divine; nevertheless they granted this character to some: thus among them there was a canon of these books, fixed and determined by the authority of the synagogue . Can one doubt this truth when one considers that the Jews all gave the title divine to the same books, and that the consensus among them was unanimous on this point? Where did this unanimity come from, if not from a rule made and known, which marked what should be adhered to, which is to say a canon or authentic catalogue that fixed the number of the books, and indicated their names. It was not conceivable that among several books written in different times and by different authors, there might be a certain number of them generally accepted as divine to the exclusion of others, without an authorized catalogue that distinguished them from those which were not held in the same veneration; and it would give us an opinion of the Jewish nation just as false as dangerous, to represent it as accepting indistinctly and without examination everything that it pleased any one individual to propose as inspired. The preceding appears to me as unquestionable. It remains merely to prove that the Jews recognized as divine only a certain number of books, and that they all agreed to make the same ones divine. Proofs of this lie before our eyes. The first is drawn from the uniformity of the catalogues that the ancient Fathers reported every single time that they had occasion to enumerate the books recognized as sacred by the Hebrews. If the Jews themselves had not fixed the number of their divine books, then the Fathers would not have troubled to do so; they would have been content to notice those that the Christians ought to regard as such, without going out of their way for the beliefs of the Jews on the matter; or else if they had dared to suppose a Jewish canon that did not exist, they could not have all fabricated it in the same manner; with the truth not directing them, then caprice would have made them vary, either in the choice or in the number of them; and several would not have failed to insert especially those that we call deuterocanonical , since they believed them divine and cited them as such. Thus we should be persuaded of their good faith by the uniformity of their language, and by the sincerity of the admission they made that several books placed by the Church in the rank of ancient canonical scriptures had been excluded by the synagogues. The same reason should also convince us that they were sufficiently instructed in this fact: for if there had been diversity or variations on this point among the Jews, they would at least have had enough facility to inform themselves about it as to know that one counted these books by the letters of the alphabet, and they would have transmitted one to us just like the other. The accord of the Fathers on this question demonstrates, therefore, that of the Jews on their canon .

But the authority of the Fathers is joined by that of Josephus, who on these matters, says M. Huet, is worth a horde of others, unus pro mille . Josephus, of sacerdotal race and very well educated in everything concerning his nation, is of the Fathers' sentiment. One reads in his first work Against Apion that the Jews unlike the Greeks did not have a multitude of books; that they only recognized a certain number as divine; that these books contain everything that happened since the beginning of the world up until Artaxerxes; that although they had other writings, these writings did not have the same authority as the divine books, and that each Jews was ready to spill his blood for the defense of the latter: hence there were among the Jews , according to Josephus, a fixed and determined number of books recognized as divine; and that is precisely what we call the canon .

The constant tradition of the Jewish people is a third proof that cannot be rejected. Even today they count among the divine books only those, they say, that their ancient fathers included in the canon in the time of the great synagogue, which flourished after the return from captivity. It was even partly for this reason that it was called great . The author of the treatise Megilla in the Gemara tells us in chapter III that this title was given to it not only for having added to the name of God the epithet gadol, grand, magnificent , but also for having drawn up the canon of sacred books: hence , we may conclude for the third time, it is certain that there was among the Jews a canon, determined and authentic, of the books of the Old Testament regarded as divine .

Among the Jews has there always been one and the same canon of Holy Scripture? This second question may serve as confirmation of the proofs of the preceding question. Some authors have suggested that the Jews had made at various times different canons of their sacred books, and that apart from the first, composed of twenty-two books, they had drawn up others in which they had inserted as divine: Tobias, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, and the Maccabees .

Génébrard supposes in his chronology three different canons made by the assemblies of the synagogue: the first in the time of Esdras, drawn up by the great synagogue, which he counts as the fifth synod; it contained twenty-two books; the second in the time of the pontiff Eleazar, in a synod assembled to deliberate over the version requested by King Ptolemy, and which we call the Septuagint , which includes among divine books Tobias, Judith, Wisdom , and Ecclesiasticus; the third in the time of Hircan, in the seventh synod assembled to confirm the sect of the Pharisees, of which Hillel and Sammaï were the leaders, and to condemn Sadoc and Barjetos , promoters of the Sadducees, and where the last canon was augmented by the book of the Maccabees , and the two preceding ones were confirmed, despite the Sadducees, who like the Samaritans wanted to admit as divine only the five books of Moses. Upon hearing Génébrard establish all these distinctions so deliberately, one might say that he has all the testimony of the ancient history of the Jews in his favor; however, one finds nothing of the kind there, and so one may regard his narration as one of the most extraordinary efforts of the imagination, and one of the best proofs that we have of the necessity of verifying the facts before admitting them into a demonstration.

Serrarius, who came after Génébrard, did not consider it à propos to attribute to the Jews three different canons . He believed that two were enough, one of twenty-two books made by Esdras, and the same, augmented by the deutero-canonical books, drawn up in the time of the Maccabees. As proof of this double canon , it seemed to him (as it had for Génébrard) that his word sufficed. However, he did offer the objection of the silence on the Fathers on these different canons, and their unanimous agreement to recognize only one, composed of twenty-two divine books. But his answer is less that of a scholar searching for the truth than that of a disputant defending his thesis. He claims with confidence that the Fathers in speaking of a canon of Jewish Scriptures composed of twenty-two books, only mentioned the first one without excluding any others . Well then, when one examines expressly through research which books a nation admit as divine, when one positively notes their number, and when one gives the particular names, is one not excluding those that one does not name? When Moses says that Abraham took with him three hundred and eighteen of his servants to deliver Loth his nephew from the hands of his enemies, does he not thereby exclude the number of four hundred? And when the Evangelist says that Jesus Christ chose a dozen apostles among his disciples, does he not exclude a greater number? Could not the Fathers just as explicitly have told us that the canon of Old Testament books did not amount to thirty as to have assured us that it was twenty-two? When Meliton says to Onesimus that he has traveled even to the Orient to discover which were the canonical books, and when he then names those he has discovered and known, does he not tell us enough to make us understand that he knew of no others than those he named? Thus it amounts to excluding a book from the rank of sacred books to not put it in the catalogue that one has expressly made to designate their number and titles. Hence, in enumerating the books recognized as divine by the Jews, the Fathers necessarily excluded all those that they did not name; similarly, when our public papers give the list of officers that the King has promoted, one is correct to be assured that they are excluding from this number all those who are not found on their list. But if these reasons do not suffice, if one wants positive proofs that the Fathers excluded in an express and formal manner from the canon of Scripture accepted as divine by the Jews all the books that they did not count among the twenty-two, it would not be difficult to find them.

Saint Jerome, in his defensive prologue, says that he composed it so people would know that all the books that are not among the twenty-two he named should be regarded as apocryphal: ut scire valeamus quidquid extra hos est (we shall see under the following question which were the twenty-two books) inter apocrypha esse ponendum . He then adds that the books of Wisdom , Ecclesiasticus, Tobias, Judith , are not in the canon: Igitur Sapientia, quoe vulgo Salomonis inscribitur, and Jesu filii Sirach liber, and Judith, and Tobias, and Pastor, non sunt in canone . In the preface on Tobias, he says that the Hebrews exclude this book from the number of divine Scriptures, and throw it among the apocryphals. He says as much at the head of his commentary on the prophet Jonas .

One reads in the letter that Origen writes to Africanus that the Hebrews did not acknowledge either Tobias nor Judith , but placed them among the apocryphal books: nos oportet scire quod Hebroei Tobia non utuntur neque Judith; non enim ea habent nisi in apocryphis .

Saint Epiphanius says in sections 3 and 4 of his book on Weights and Measures , that the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus do not have the rank of Holy Scriptures among the Jews.

The author of the Synopsis assures us that Tobias, Judith , Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are not canonical books, although they are read to the catchumens.

Nothing is more clear or more decisive than these passages. On what basis, then, should Serrarius take a stand? He would repeat that the Fathers are speaking in all these places only of the first canon of the Jews, but he will not be believed; we shall see that they clearly state that Judith, Tobias , and others of the same class are not recognized as divine by the Jews, by the Hebrews, by the nation. Moreover, would not this second imaginary canon have been known by the Jews just like the first? How then could St. Jerome and Origen have advanced the idea that the Jews regarded as apocryphal books they would have declared to be authentically divine and sacred, albeit according to a second canon ? Would the former have added, as he does in his preface to Tobias , that the Jews may reproach him for having translated this work as a divine book, against the authority of their canon —if there had been among them a second canon in which Tobias had been placed in the rank of divine books? And did Méliton search out only the books of the first canon , or did he not voyage event to the Orient to know all the works recognized in his day as canonical? In a word, was the design of the Fathers in publishing the catalogue of books accepted as divine among the Jews to explain the belief of this people in Esdras's time, or rather in their own time? And if it had been a matter of some such distinction, would they have not made it? Let us allow the School to think what they will thereon; but we ourselves conclude that the Jews did not have three, nor two canons , but only one canon of twenty-two books; and we persist in this sentiment until someone draws us away from it, by making us see that the Fathers were wrong—which is not possible. For from whence would come this proof? No ancient author spoke of a double canon. The tradition of the Jews formally contradicts this. Even today they have only twenty-two divine books that they have accepted in all times as such. Josephus says, as we have already seen and will see again below, that his nation recognizes only twenty-two divine books, and that if it had others, it did not grant them the same authority. But , one might say, Josephus cited Ecclesiasticus in his second book, Against Apion . If one agreed on this, would it follow that he held it as a divine book? By no means! But it is not at all decided that Josephus cited Ecclesiasticus . He proposed to demonstrate the excellence and superiority of the legislation of Moses over that of Solomon, Lycurgus and others. On this occasion he reports precepts and maxims, and he attributes to Moses the opinion that man is superior in everything to woman. He has him say that the malicious man is better than the beneficent woman; γυνὴ δὲ χεῖρων φησὶν ἀνδρὸσ2 ωσ2 τὰ πάντα, καὶ ἡ ποηρία ἀυτοῦ ὐῶὲρ ἀγαοποιοῦ γὐναικὸσ2;—words cited as from Moses, and not as from Ecclesiasticus . No doubt one might object that this passage is definitely not found in Moses. So be it. Thus Josephus does not attribute it to him . I repudiate it because the fact is evident. But while I might agree on all that has been claimed, one could never infer therefore that Josephus had declared Ecclesiasticus to be a canonical book. M. Pithou remarks that the last words of the passage cited by Josephus are not by him and that they had been inserted by all appearances by some copyist. This criticism is all the more plausible in that they are not found in the ancient Latin version by Rufin. Hence the double and the triple canon are chimeras; the Jews make no mention of them whatsoever, and the Fathers never knew about them , as must be demonstrated.

How many books compose the canon of divine Scriptures among the Jews, and which were these books ? This is the third question, whose solution will serve to illuminate and support the two preceding questions. The Jews have always composed their canon of twenty-two books, in relation to the number of letters in their alphabet, which they used to designate them, according to the observation of St. Jérôme in his general or defensive prologue. Some rabbis have counted twenty-four; others twenty-seven; but these different calculations neither augment nor diminish the real number of books; it is merely because certain books are divided into several parts and occupy several places.

Those who counted twenty-four books of Scripture separated Lamentations from the Prophecy of Jeremiah, and the book of Ruth from Judges , which those who count only twenty-two left combined. However, to be able to mark these twenty-four books with the letters of their alphabet, they repeated the letter jod three times, in honor of God's name Jehova , which the Chaldeans wrote with three jods . This number twenty-four is what the Jews of the present day use to designate the books of Holy Scripture; and this is perhaps to what the twenty-four old men of the Apocalypse alludes.

Those who count twenty-seven books separated into six numbers the books of the Kings and the Paralipomenon , which counted as only three for the others. And to indicate them, they added to the ordinary twenty-two letters of the alphabet the five final ones, as we learn from St. Epiphanius in his book Weights and Measures . Those who know the Hebrew alphabet (for one does not have to know any more than that) know these final letters. They are caph, mem, nun, pé, tsad , which are written at the end of words in a different way than in the middle or at the beginning.

Therefore the canon has always been the same, whether the books were counted as 22, 24 or 27. But the first way was most general and most common; it was that of Josephus. M. Simon gives antiquity to 24, but I do not know on what proof, for he gives none at all. I admit that these matters are not familiar enough to me to take a stand on this question and to hazard a conjecture.

Now let us see which were these 22, 24 and 27 books. St. Jérôme, a worthy witness in this matter, makes the following enumeration: Genesis . Exodus . Leviticus . Numbers . Deuteronomy. Joshua . Judges , to which is joined Ruth. Samuel , which are the first two of Kings . Kings are the second two book s. Isaiah. Jeremiah, with its Lamentations. Ezekiel . The dozen minor Prophets. Job . Psalms . Proverbs . Ecclésiasticus. The Song of Songs. Daniel . Paralipomenon, double Esdras, double Esther .

St. Epiphanius, Heres. viij. nomb. 6. edit. by Petau , reports the same books as St. Jérôme. One finds the same canon in two or three other places of his book Weights and Measures. See numb. 3. 4. 22. 23 . One reads at number 22 that the Hebrews had only 22 letters in their alphabet, and that it is for this reason that they counted only 22 sacred books although they had 27, among which they doubled five, thus they had five double characters; wherefore, since in their writing there are 27 characters, which still make only twenty-two letters, so they have properly speaking twenty-seven divine books, which are reduced to twenty-two.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells Christians in his fourth catechesis to meditate on the twenty-two books of the Old Testament, and to commit them to memory such as he is going to name them; then he names them as we have just reported according to St. Jérôme and St. Epiphanius.

St. Hilaire, in his Prologue sur les Pseaumes , does not differ from the preceding enumeration, either on the numbers or on the books. Canon 60 by Laodicea, says the same thing. Origen, cited by Eusebius, had drawn up the same canon . It would mean beginning the same thing over again unto tedium to report on these canons .

Méliton, Bishop of the Sardinians, who lived in the second century of the Church, had made a catalogue that Eusebius has kept for us: c. xxvj. l. IV o f his history. He took particular care over its preparation. He had voyaged in the Orient for this purpose, and his catalogue is the same as that of the preceding authors, for it is to be presumed that the omission of Esther is a fault by the copyist.

Bellarmin gives rise to reflection in what he says in his book on Ecrivains Ecclésiastiques , to wit, that Méliton placed among Old Testament books the Book of Wisdom, although it was not recognized by the Jews as a divine book . But Bellarmin is himself mistaken. Wisdom is not in Méliton's canon , where one reads: Salomonis Proverbia quoe & Sapientia , σαλομῶνοσ2 Παροιμίαι ἡ καὶ Σοφία -from which it follows that Méliton does not name Wisdom as a book distinguished from Proverbs ; it is the ή either forgotten, or misunderstood, that gave rise to the mistake. But to come back to the Jewish canon , Josephus says in his book Against Apion , that there are in his nation only 22 books recognized as divine: five of Moses, thirteen of the prophets, containing the history of all the ages up to Artaxerxes, and four others that contain hymns of praise for God, or precepts for living. He does not go into detail, but evidently designates the same books as those that are contained in the catalogues of the Fathers.

Based on the Jewish historian's placing (in his Antiquitie s) the story of Esther under the reign of Artaxerxes, and on his saying at the same point that the prophets wrote their history up ' until' the time of this prince and that one cannot have the same faith in what happened ' since then' , M. Dupin was persuaded that [Josephus] excluded the book of Esther from the number of the twenty-two books of his canon . But who told M. Dupin that Josephus did not make use of the word ' until' in an inclusive sense, as well as the term ' since then' in an exclusive sense? This would be an insult to the able and judicious authors who preceded M. Dupin, to balance their testimony with a grammatical observation that at the very least neither proves nor disproves anything.

Nor should it be imagined that Josephus has not put the book of Job among the twenty-two divine books, because he says nothing in his book of the miseries of this saintly man. This author regarded the book of Job as an inspired book, but not as a true story but rather as a poem that showed the spirit of God everywhere, not as the recitation of a real event; and in this sense, what relation Job's adventure might have with the history of his nation.

What is the time and who is the author of the canon of sacred book among the Jews? -is the fourth question. It seems that it would today be a paradox to advance the idea that Esdras was never the author of the canon of sacred books of the Jews; even the most judicious doctors having ascribed to Esdras everything of whose author and origin they were ignorant in matters concerning the Bible. They made him the repairer of lost or altered books, reformer of the manner of writing; for some, he was even the inventor of vowel points—and all of them made him author of the canon of Scriptures. On this last point there is only one opinion. It is astonishing that our Scaliger and our Huet, those among us who pretend to examine things closely, have not pronounced on the matter, yet the subject is well worth the effort. M. Dupin, instead of transcribing as a copyist the opinion of his predecessors, would have done much better to expound the question and to show how difficult it was to resolve.

Whatever common opinion might be, it seems to me that there would be no temerity in assuring that one may maintain that Esdras is NOT the author of the canon of books recognized as divine books by the Jews, whether one wants to discuss this fact by the history of the Persian emperors, and of the return from captivity; or whether one seeks enlightenment in the books of Esdras and Nehemiah, which might particularly instruct us. The contrary opinion, although more prevalent, is by no means an article of faith.

In short, here are the difficulties that will have to be fully resolved, and these difficulties appear to me very great: 1°. One has to ascertain just when Esdras lived; 2°. Under what prince he came back from Babylon to Jerusalem; 3°. Whether all the books that are in the canon were written before him; 4°. If he himself is the author of the book that bears his name.

That is the route by which one must pass before arriving at the solution of the 4° question: we are not going to enter into it, for fear that it would carry us well beyond the boundaries that we set ourselves: what we have said up to now suffices to give those who feel a taste for criticism an example of the manner in which they should proceed to arrive at some result satisfying for themselves and for others; this was our principal goal.

It remains for us to make only one more observation, which is that the canon that fixes at the number of twenty-two the divine books of the Old Testament, was followed in the early Church until the Council of Carthage; that this council much increased this canon , as it had the right to do; and that the Council of Trent went even farther than the Council of Carthage, pronouncing anathema against those who refused to submit to its decisions.

Hence it follows that in all critical discussions on these delicate matters, the judgment of the Church should always go before our own; and that on the occasions when it happens that the result of our research does not conform to its decrees, we ought to believe that the error is on our side: the authority that we would then have against us is of such great weight that it would leave us only the merit of modesty when we submit to it and that we would show an unpardonable vanity when we swung away from submitting ourselves. Such are the sentiments with which I began, continued, and finished this article, for which I demand from the reader a little indulgence: he owes it for the difficulty of the subject, and for the care I have taken in discussing it as it merits. See the article Canonical (Books) which concerns the canon of the New Testament; it is the natural sequel to what we have just said.