Eusebius’ New Testament “Canon” only has 20 Truly Undisputed Books

One of the purposes of is to look at how Christianity started and what was originally believed and practiced, and to then look at how it developed over time, and compare that to the original.  We are doing that here with scripture, what was scripture or had scriptural status with the original Christians, how the word of God was received and recognized, and how that changed and developed over time.

This is part of a section of articles on this website under the heading of the Canon of Scripture.  In the articles there we have been looking at Marcion, Clement, Ignatius, the Muraturion Fragment and more in ancient times.  As regards current times we have looked briefly at the Syriac, Orthodox Tewahedo, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the Protestant canons, all of which are different while all claiming holy spirit guidance.

Today we are looking at the listings of undisputed, disputed, and rejected books talked about by Eusebius.

As stated in 03.0 Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius is recognized as the father of Christian Church history after the apostles.  In the article, I explained that Eusebius is viewed as a valuable resource in that he documents items in early church history that are not to be found anywhere else.

However, there are obvious biases and flaws in Eusebius’s writing. Instead of actually starting with events that happened after the apostles, he felt it was necessary to start his history with a short dissertation on the twofold nature of Christ, and gives a refutation to the argument that the divinity of Christ doctrine was of recent and foreign origin that appeared only yesterday.  The very fact that he starts with this agenda points to the controversial nature of the deity of Christ in his time and others.  It points out that one of the arguments against the deity of Christ in Eusebius’ time was its recent development. Another is that the deity of Christ doctrine has its roots in other cultures.  It is no coincidence that Eusebius’ History was written around 324 AD, just before the fateful Council of Nicea in 325 AD where the hot topic was the deity of Christ.

Still, Eusebius is a fantastic source on the status of the Scriptures in the early fourth century. He makes numerous comments in his history about how different books were considered in terms of being Scripture or not. (All of the following Eusebian references are from EUSEBIUS, The Ecclesiastical History.[1])

First, by Eusebius’ time, the Apostles were viewed as completely virtuous at least to him but probably this was a widespread belief. Eusebius claims that “Those inspired and venerable ancients, I mean Christ’s Apostles, had completely purified their life and adorned their souls with every virtue, yet were but simple men in speech ..” (p. 249)  You can compare that with the view that the view that while they did receive revelation as to the administration of the church to which we belong as well as the doctrine for our church contained in their writings, and for the most part they purely followed the spirit’s guidance, the Apostles occasionally made mistakes and had disagreements as seen in The Apostles and Disciples Had Major Disagreements and Made Mistakes.

Eusebius goes on to explain that the holy spirit enabled these men of simple speech to write their gospels. However, he does praise Paul for his unique ability to communicate among the Apostles.   This appears to elevate the status of learned men over simple men.  This is in contrast to what Paul writes about in First Corinthians chapter 1.

For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that don’t exist, that he might bring to nothing the things that exist, that no flesh should boast before God. (1Co 1:26-29 WEB)

When Eusebius points out that the gospels were written by men of simple speech it appears to reflect the age-old bias that generally only highly educated people can understand these kinds of matters.  But that is not what scripture teaches.

But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. (1Co 2:12-13 WEB)

That verse clearly says that we have received the spirit from God so that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.  There are no university degrees stated as required for that ability, although diligent study and properly handling the scriptures are requirements stated in scripture, just not reserved only for those with PhDs and other advanced degrees.

Eusebius discusses the principle of Apostolic authorship which has always been a critical factor in evaluating the inspired status of the books that should be considered as genuine. Genuine itself refers to whether the source of the writing is one of the Apostles.  Eusebius’ own words as to what he was recognizing are:

“This will serve to show the divine writings that are undisputed as well as those that are not universally acknowledged.”[2]

So, he is discussing the current opinions of which books are divine wrings of apostolic origin.

Eusebius wrote that the gospel of John and the first epistle of John were the only writings of John accepted without controversy.

“Of the writings of John in addition to the gospel the first of his epistles has been accepted without controversy by ancients and moderns alike but the other two are disputed , and as to the Revelation there have been many advocates of either opinion up to the present.” (p. 255-257)

Thus, as we shall see 2nd and 3rd John were clearly controversial and there were camps on both sides of whether Revelation was acceptable.

Next, Eusebius lists what he calls the “Recognized” books as a group.

“At this point it seems reasonable to summarize the writings of the New Testament which have been quoted. In the first place should be put the holy tetrad of the Gospels. To them follows the writing of the Acts of the Apostles. After this should be reckoned the Epistles of Paul. Following them the Epistle of John called the first, and in the same way should be recognized the Epistle of Peter. In addition to these should be put, if it seem desirable, the Revelation of John, the arguments concerning which we will expound at the proper time. These belong to the Recognized Books.” (p. 257)

So, Eusebius’s “canon of scripture” was really 20 books.  He adds that he could be 21, depending on which side of Revelation one stood. The way he phrases it makes it appear that he favored including it on the undisputed side.  But since Revelation clearly had camps on both sides that means there was still dispute about that book and Eusebius’ “canon of Scripture”, so to speak, his list of undisputed books, totaled 20 books.

Next Eusebius lists what he labels disputed books and Eusebius clearly marks James, Jude, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John as disputed books. (p.257)

And Eusebius flatly rejects other works with Peter’s name on them, namely, his gospel, his preaching, and his apocalypse.  He acknowledges that Hermas is mentioned at the end of Romans and has written a book that some find indispensable for basic tenets of the faith, but others strongly dispute it.  He rejects the Acts of Paul.

Eusebius does pledge to point out in his history when ancient authors refer to disputed books.

As far as the Old Testament is concerned, Eusebius shows that there was no consensus as to which books were contained in it as he refers in different places to Josephus, Melito, and Origen, all of whom have different listings in their lists of Old Testament books.[3]

Some other interesting comments by Eusebius include:

Papias, Bishop of Heiropolis, probably writing at the turn of the first century or little later, wrote that whenever he met with followers of the original Christians he always asked about what they said, saying,” for I do not think that I derive so much benefit from books as from the living voice of those that are still surviving.” (HE 3.39.4)  This shows that there existed for some time a strong oral tradition where the apostles ministered, orally speaking the words of Jesus and the teachings of our faith without them all being written down. Furthermore, some, at least Papias, preferred to hear the oral transmission of the gospel.

Matthew originally went to the Hebrews, and consequently, when he wrote his gospel, he first wrote it in Hebrew. (HE 3.39.16)

Mark was the interpreter of Peter and wrote with great accuracy, but not necessarily in the order that it was spoken or done by our Lord. Mark did not actually witness the events, rather he was instructed by Peter as to what happened and what was said. He was very careful to not pass by anything or state anything falsely. This clearly places the source for Mark’s gospel as the apostle Peter. (HE 3.39.15)

As far as Luke, Eusebius writes, “But as for Luke, in the beginning of his Gospel, he states himself the reasons which led him to write it. He states that since many others had more rashly undertaken to compose a narrative of the events of which he had acquired perfect knowledge, he himself, feeling the necessity of freeing us from their uncertain opinions, delivered in his own Gospel an accurate account of those events in regard to which he had learned the full truth, being aided by his intimacy and his stay with Paul and by his acquaintance with the rest of the apostles. (HE 3.24.15)

The Gospels were originally called memoirs, but Eusebius in HE 3.37.2 refers to them as “the books of the holy Gospels”.

Book 3 of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History is all about where the apostles went.

Book 8 of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History is entitled The Great Persecution which includes not only the ordeals of the martyrs, but also the destruction of Christian writings.

Bible Researcher has a good discussion on Eusebius’ stance on which books are recognized as genuine.[4] The work also makes some interesting comments such as this regarding 2nd Peter:

“The epistle is so frequently quoted in the second century, it is never connected with Peter’s name until the time of Irenæus.”[5]

Contrast What We Have Looked at With the Modern Stand on the Canon of Scripture

In Scripture on Determining which Writings are Scripture we discuss the contemporary view of some churches that God gave us the canon of scripture, not the church  They say it’s been God all along, not men.

Here’s another quote from an article on the divine guidance used to form the canon.

“The 66 books of the Bible are the word of God, not because some church council decided they were, but because the Holy Spirit guided the church to treasure them above all other writings and to accept the authority of God himself speaking through them.”[6]

That may be well-intentioned, but the facts to support that statement are missing. We have a number of articles on this website to talk about the sincere desire of people to be able to determine which scriptures are divine writings, especially in the early centuries after the apostles and author after author disputes Hebrews, James, Jude, Second Peter, Second and Third John as well as Revelation as genuinely written by apostles. This article is another example that the 66 books mentioned were not universally accepted, in this case by Eusebius.

And, remember, Martin Luther, at the forefront of the Reformation, isolated and marked the disputed books in his bible, thus relegating them to at least a lower status than that of the undisputed writings.

We see time after time that a crucial element in investigations of ancient authors is whether the divine writings in question come from the apostles.  But as to which writings are divine we see in Eusebius another example where there is clarity only up to a certain point. Eusebius gives his logic on this. He phrases it like this;  Eusebius certainly allows the Gospels. And following them he adds the Acts of the Apostles. After this, he adds the Epistles of Paul. And after these, he only absolutely adds two more books, the Epistle of John called the first, and in the same way, should be recognized the Epistle of Peter. Those are the only books in the New Testament that are undisputed according to Eusebius.

Eusebius does allow that there is a strong contingent for Revelation, but it is not universal, so it really is another disputed book. Part of the problem is that the introduction to the book of Revelation names a “John” as the author, but there never has been absolute certainty that this is the apostle.

And Eusebius clearly marks James, Jude, second Peter, second and third John as disputed books.

And, while we are at it, nothing in Eusebius endorses the canon of the Old Testament as the one chosen by the church.


Once again, there are books of the bible written by the apostles and there are references in things written by the apostles that what they were writing is the word of God.

For this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when you received from us the word of the message of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also works in you who believe. (1Th 2:13 WEB)

This verse clearly says that the apostles taught that they were not teaching the word of men, but the word of God.  And the next verse says that they got this word of God by revelation.

But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12 WEB)

Furthermore, the apostles also charge us to follow their tradition

So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter. (2Th 2:15 WEB)

So, putting that together, we have the apostles teaching that they received what they taught by revelation, and it is the word of God, and it is the tradition upon which we are to live our lives.

This logic from Scripture makes the case that Eusebius is making, that at the very least the undisputed books as listed by Eusebius are eligible to be recognized as divine.

But, not all the books in our New Testament are undisputed. So, to say in our time that God has always preserved the 27 books in the Protestant New Testament and likewise, the 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament as the word of God simply isn’t true.

But regarding the New Testament we have pretty uniform agreement on the four Gospels, the book of Acts, the epistles of Paul, the first epistle of Peter, and the first epistle of John.

And this is one of the points that Eusebius makes.


[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, available online at Google Books, If the link does not work, you can search Google Books for the book yourself.

[2] Eusebius on the Canon, a study

[3] Bible-Reseacher, Eusebius on the Canon

[4] Bible-Reseacher, Eusebius on the Canon

[5] ibid.

[6] Why do our Bibles contain these books and not others, Tony Watkins, Tynedale House

Bibliography (besides cited sources)

EUSEBIUS, The Church History, Translation and commentary by Paul L.Maier, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1999

The Canon Of The New Testament, Bruce M Metzger, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997

The Making of the New Testament, Arthur G Patzia, University Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995

© copyright 2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. Last edited 1/9/24

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