Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Eusebius, EH.5.8: Irenaeus on the Canon of the NT and the Septuagint

This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: Here is Book 5, chapter 8. Listen here.

Notes and Commentary:

In this chapter Eusebius discusses Irenaeus’s comments on the canon of Christian Scripture.

First, he cites Irenaeus’s description of the four Gospels and their Evangelists:

Matthew is described as a “written” Gospel, first published among the Jews in their own language. This reinforces the traditional view that Matthew was first written for a Jewish audience.

Mark is described as “the disciple and interpreter (herméneutés) of Peter.”

Luke was a “follower of Paul” and conveyed Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

John was disciple of the Lord and the one who rested on his breast (thus the “beloved” disciple), who later lived at Ephesus.

Next, he cites Irenaeus’s reference to Revelation and the number of the Antichrist (Rev 13:18). Irenaeus noted that the proper number (presumably 666) is found in all the “good and ancient copies [antigraphoi].”

Reference is also made to Irenaeus’s citation of 1 John and 1 Peter.

Next, however, Eusebius notes that Irenaeus held some non-canonical books to be “Scripture.” This included the Shepherd of Hermas and perhaps the Wisdom of Solomon.

Eusebius also notes that Irenaeus cited the Apostolic Fathers Justin Martyr and Ignatius, and he mentions that Irenaeus “promised” to refute Marcion.

Finally, Eusebius discusses Irenaeus’s treatment of the Greek OT. He makes references to conflict over the proper translation of Isaiah 7:14, noting that rather than “virgin [parthenos]”, some translators (Theodotian and Aquila) used “young woman [neanis]”, a rendering preferred by the Ebionites, who denied the deity of Christ.

Eusebius then relays Irenaeus’s account of the legend of the origins of the Septuagint, as produced by seventy Jewish scholars for the library at Alexandria by Ptolemy.

He closes by noting Irenaeus’s statement that it was little wonder for the Lord to so inspire Scripture, since he had also inspired Ezra the priest to restore the Scriptures after the time of the Babylonian exile.


This chapter continues Eusebius’s periodic interest in the EH of giving accounts of how the canon of Scripture came to be recognized by the early church (cf. earlier descriptions of Papias of Hierapolis and Melito of Sardis). According to Eusebius, Irenaeus acknowledged, most importantly, the Gospels, as well as Revelation, 1 Peter, and 1 Joh, but no mention is made of the rest of the canonical books of the NT (especially Paul’s letters), and it is noted that he also accepted non-canonical works (at least the Shepherd). This emphasizes the fact that the canon was only slowly recognized among early Christians This account also stresses the value of the Septuagint among some early believers as the preferred translation of the Greek OT.


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