Is the Decree by Pope Damasus (AD 382) a forgery?


I have been led to believe by catholic apologists, bloggers and theologians that the Canon of Scripture was closed by the Magisterium at the Council of Rome, by Pope Damasus I in AD 382. However, I have found that a professor Ernst von Dobschutz that the source, the Decretum Gelasianum was a written by an anonymous author in the 6th century and not Pope Gelasium or Pope Damasus. Does anyone have any other sources for the claim that Rome gave us the Canon of Scripture? Thanks.


Coincidentally, I just read on an Anglican website a claim by a Protestant minister that “Rome” did not finalize its own Biblical canon until the Council of Trent, that is, not until after Luther had published his version. Another commenter challenged this, stating that the Catholic canon had been finalized as early as the year 393, at the Synod of Hippo, a few years after Pope Damasus (d. 384) commissioned Jerome to compile the biblical text that became known as the Vulgate. I have no way of telling which of the two has got his facts straight, though it strikes me as exceedingly odd that the Catholic Church should have had no definitive canon until such a late date. Perhaps the disagreement only has to do with the seven deuterocanonical OT books, aka “the Apocrypha.”


I think it was at Trent that the debates over the Antilegomena (basically the latter half of the NT) were silenced.

I perceive it as the “arm-chair theologian” issue of the day. If protestants of the present like to casually debate whether Christ’s grace was “imputed or imparted”, then the men of yesteryear liked to discuss “Is Jude (and others) actually canonical???”.

As these discussions can get uselessly heated, the pope and council put the kibosh on it.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t an established canon for the 1000 previous years. There was. Trent just stamped it with “not open for discussion”.

This is my interpretation of the events. YMMV with reading exactly the same texts I’ve read.


If not Rome, then who provided the Scripture that the Reformers wanted translated from Latin and into the vernacular? :wink:


There are 3 separate questions here:
“Who gave us the canon of scripture?”…
“Is the canon of scripture closed?”…and…
“If so, who closed it?” (by what authority)

I don’t think any one document proves or disproves that the Magisterium has authority on the scriptures. Protestants can argue that just because a pope endorsed something, in the 4th or 16th century, that does not prove any connection with causing it.
A stronger argument is to look at the NT canon itself.

  • It is amazingly short.
  • The vast majority of potential books were thrown out.
  • Adding a “New Testament” to the bible was an outrageous innovation at the time.
  • For some invisible reason, no new books have been added or subtracted since it was established. (Even Luther was not allowed by his followers to subtract from the NT).

The above points strongly suggest a single, powerful human authority, like the Magisterium, rather than a canon by consensus, arising spontaneously from “the community”.


I had to look up Antilegomena, which appears to be a term in Lutheran use only. Seven NT books are now officially classified as Antilegomena, namely Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.
I found nothing about the use of the term in Catholic circles. Is it really possible that as recently as the mid-sixteenth century the Catholic Church had still not settled all internal disputes about which books were in and which were out?


There are two further questions, arising from the observation that there is now no difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles as far as the NT is concerned. Unlike the OT (46 books or 39 books), the NT invariably comprises the same 27 books in the same order.

  1. Since when has this been the case?
  2. On what occasion did the Catholic Church make its own internal decision that these 27 books, and no others, constitute the NT, regardless of Lutheran and other Protestant views on the subject?


Here you’ll find it used 5 times in just this one article.

I would resist drawing conclusions on these sorts of topics based on one or two Google searches.

The term means “disputed texts” and while that list can vary from person to person, you usually see the same books across most lists - like Jude, the 3 Johns and 2 Peter. As Eusebius wrote on the topic, the idea predates Luther quite substantially.


Thank you, Vonsalza. I’ll go through it carefully. There seems to be enough information there to answer the second question I asked Commenter, “On what occasion did the Catholic Church make its own internal decision that these 27 books, and no others, constitute the NT, regardless of Lutheran and other Protestant views on the subject?”


I have never been under the impression that the canon was definitively and universally closed by the Council of Rome under Pope Damasus. That’s just wishful thinking on the part of some Catholic apologists who want the early papacy to function as it does today. It’s simply not a historically accurate position. The Councils of Rome and Carthage, which defined the modern Catholic canon, were local synods. They were not ecumenical councils. To this day the various Eastern Churches use different canons… there was no single canon in the first millennium. It was a locally binding canon, not a universal one.
As a Catholic I of course accept papal primacy, but there has been development of doctrine here over time. 4th century Popes simply didn’t issue decrees to the universal Church. They may have settled disputes, but there was no unilateral micromanagement of distant Churches.


I’d guess in the positive at Carthage and in the negative a thousand years later at Florence and Trent - if firing from the hip.

But I’m not sure a lot of the premises Commenter is asking from are 100% right-on. Like in his claim that:

The Jewish view on scripture has always been more “tiered” than the traditional, western “in or out” approach. The Babylonian Captivity predated Christ by about 600 years and many of their religious texts had been written and recognized in the interim.

Paradigm differences…


Some things are so large we tend not to notice them, or we are insufficiently startled by them.
For many centuries we have taken it for granted that there would be one NT canon throughout all Western Christianity, rather than, say, 1000 canons (if there were 1000 parishes then), or 1 million canons today. Actually there likely were 1000 NT canons more or less in use at one time.

One parish might happen to have the gospel of Mark and gospel of Mary, but lack Luke. Any parish that had an epistle written to it would emphasize that epistle, but maybe not that other epistle written to the parish at Corinth. Any parish historically identified with an apostle, say Thomas, would likely include the gospel of Thomas in their canon.

So, yes, it does look as if someone did some unilateral micromanagement of distant churches, so that they all mysteriously took on essentially the same canon within a few generations.


Dobschutz expressed his opinions in a work he wrote in 1912 and in an article in the wikipedia on the Decretum Gelasianum concerning the textual history of the Decretum Gelasianum they point to an article in a footnote written by one F.C. Burkitt in 1913. Burkitt expresses the opinion of Dobschutz in the article. Now, a lot of research, study, and discoveries have been done since 1912 and 1913.

Fast forward to 1970 and the three volume set of The Faith of the Early Fathers by Rev. William A. Jurgens, who was a professor of patristics at St Mary’s Seminary in Ohio. The Faith of the Early Fathers is a very scholarly work. Rev. Jurgens says that what is commonly known as the Gelasian Decree is the second of three parts of what is called The Decree of Damasus which belong to the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. The first part is itself called the Decree of Damasus and it concerns the Holy Spirit and the sevenfold gifts. Rev. Jurgens says “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 of 382 A.D., and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century, adding to it the catalog of the rejected books, the apocrypha. It is now almost universally accepted that these parts one and two of the Decree of Damasus are authentic parts of the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D.”


Yet the Eastern Churches never adopted a single canon… and haven’t to this day.
The New Testament has been universal for the most part for the past 1500 years or so, but not the Old. That being said, Ethiopians and Syrians have different New Testament canons… so at the time of separation (Chalcedon), the Canon was still not universal.


True. My understanding is that the slight differences, a book here and a book there, are mostly for liturgical purposes. I don’t minimize the importance of these books but I believe Eastern Churches use the same Scriptures as the West the vast majority of the time for most purposes.

So you could say there is (almost) one NT canon. There was a time when many wildly different scriptures competed, with totally different theologies, with likely huge variation from region to region. Something pretty powerful and centralized must have intervened to generate the tiny, mostly uniform NT canon we have today.


Two things happened, I think. One was the development, however slow and uneven, of the powers of the papacy, paralleled by the growth of Luther’s rival church. The other was Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. Until then, any local church would have had to replace its old scrolls, when they wore out, by buying paper and ink and hiring a team of scribes to do the copying. From Gutenberg onward, Bible production became centralized and standardized.


Trent was mainly about addressing Protestant heresy. They tried to impose several new theological ideas and challenged the Canon of the Bible.
Trent reaffirmed the Canon, not defined it.
The Canon was defined at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, before 400 AD.

Back in the day people would even read things like the Shepherd of Hamas during Mass!


For the thousand or so years prior to Trent (and Gutenberg), certain books were cited pretty consistently as scripture, and many others were cited in other ways, not as scripture.


Great comments. Thanks! It seems clear to me that based on the Catholic Encyclopedia and the writings of Rev. Jurgens it is universally accepted that the Damasian Decree is authentic. Moreover, I found that at the closing of the Council of Carthage in AD 397, after defining the canonicity of scriptures, the bishops declared “De confirmando hoc canone ecclesia transmarina consulatur” (Let the church beyond the sea be consulted, meaning the church of Rome).


Why do so many Catholics listen to so many non-Catholic doubters? The Church has spoken. The matter is solved. Ernst von Whomever was apparently a doubter who thought that he knew more about the decree 1,500 yeas later than those at the time did. Isn’t that normally called arrogance?

I mean, really! Wouldn’t Saint Jerome have said at least something about all of this? He outlived Damasus I by 36 years. How come no one back then challenged the document?

Even if a forgery is found, how does that affect the pronouncement of Pope Damasus? We have the living tradition to verify, and as mentioned, Trent sealed it for all time.

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