The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today

The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


R. W. Cowley

Ostkirchliche Studien, 1974, Volume 23, pp. 318-323.

The Biblical corpus is recognised in Ethiopia as a limited group of writings, and is generally called ‘the 81 books’.[1] However, the canon lists found in Ethiopian MSS and printed books present many variations, and the study of the history of the canon offers a wide field for investigation.[2] This present study is concerned with the lesser problem of establishing the canon list considered to be normative today by the authorities most respected by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The following difficulties were encountered in the course of the study: –

1. The concept of canonicity is regarded more loosely than it is among most other churches.

2. The number of canonical books is reckoned to be 81, but this total is reached in various ways.

3. The naming of a book in a list does not necessarily uniquely identify it.

4. Some of the books assigned canonical authority have never been printed in Geez, or only printed outside Ethiopia, or are difficult to obtain.

5. The authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have never said of an edition of the Geez or Amharic Bible that it was complete.

Of the ancient sources recognised in Ethiopia, the principal ones containing canon lists are the books Sinodos and Fetha NägästSinodos is a collection of material attributed to the apostles and early church councils. Fetha Nägäst, the canon law, specifically cites Sinodos as its source in its section on the canon, and so has the same list; this list adds to the universally accepted canon at least the books Judith, Tobit, 2 books of Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and Pseudo-Josephus.[3]

As this list does not add up to 81, some more recent works enumerate further canonical books, further identify the ones listed in the Fetha Nägäst, and attempt to explain the discrepancy. These later lists fall into two main groups, one group having a broader canon, the other a narrower one, as follows: –

1. The Broader Canon

The main source for this is the traditional Amharic commentary on the Geez text of the Fetha Nägäst.[4] It gives 46 as the total for the books of the Old Testament, made up as follows: – Octateuch (8), Judith (1), Samuel and Kings (4), Chronicles (2), 1 Esdras and the Ezra Apocalypse (2), Esther (1), Tobit (1), Maccabees (2), Job (1), Psalms (1), books of Solomon (5),[5] Prophets (16), Ecclesiasticus (1), Pseudo-Josephus (1); Jubilees and Enoch are to be included in the number (by counting Samuel and Kings as only 2 books). It gives 35 as the total for the books of the New Testament, namely the Gospels (4), Acts (1), the Catholic epistles (7), the Pauline epistles (14), Revelation (1), Sinodos (4 sections), the Book of the Covenant (2 sections), Clement (1), Didascalia (1).

2. The Narrower Canon

This is listed in ‘The Prayers of the Church’,[6] and is the list of the books actually printed in the large Geez and Amharic diglot,[7] and Amharic[8] Bibles, issued by the Emperor’s command. In this, the universally accepted 39 Old Testament books are counted as 40 by the separation of Messale (Prov. 1-24) and Tägsas (Prov. 25-31), and then 14 further books are listed as equally fully canonical, namely Enoch, Jubilees, Wisdom, 1 Esdras, Ezra Apocalypse, Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, ‘the rest of Jeremiah’, book of Susanna, ‘the rest of Daniel’, 1 and 2 Maccabees. This brings the Old Testament total to 54, which together with the universally accepted 27 Old Testament books makes a total of 81.

The actual text of most of the books listed may conveniently be examined in the large Amharic, and Geez and Amharic diglot, Bibles mentioned above; and the following notes show where their text differs appreciably from the Hebrew, Greek or English: –

1. The prayer of Menasseh appears as 13 numbered verses following 2 Chronicles 33 v. 12.

2. Jubilees and Enoch have a different system of chapter division than that found in the editions of Dillmann, Charles and others.

3. The Ezra Apocalypse (Ezra Sutu’el) has 13 chapters, being 4 Esdras 3-14 of the Vulgate. It does not include 5 and 6 Ezra.

4. In Esther, Job, Psalms and Daniel the LXX additions are found in the Geez and Amharic.

5. The 3 books of ‘Maccabees’ (Mäqabeyan), which are counted as 2 by the Canon Law Commentary by reckoning the 2nd and 3rd as one book, are not the same as any of the 4 LXX books of Maccabees, or as Pseudo-Josephus, which the Canon Law Commentary calls ‘a further book of Maccabees’.[9]

6. The accepted text of Jeremiah 1-52 is followed by Baruch (5 chapters, but shorter than the LXX text), and Säqoqawä Eremyas. The latter is made up of Lamentations (5 chapters), the epistle to the captives (Lam. 6), the prophecy against Pashhur (Lam. 7 v. 1-5)[10] and ‘the rest of the words of Baruch’ (4 Baruch, Lam. 7 v. 6-11 v. 63).

The books for which canonicity is claimed (at least by some authorities), but which are not included in these large editions of the Bible, have not been printed in Ethiopia at all; so for these one can only turn to MSS or to foreign printed editions. The books are the following: –

1. ‘Pseudo-Josephus’, the book of YosĂ«f Wäldä Koryon, called ZĂ«na Ayhud or Mäshäfä Serew, a history of the Jews in 8 parts, based on the writings of Josephus.[11]

2. Sinodos, a book of church order. The part of it attributed to the apostles is traditionally divided into 4 sections, Ser`atä Seyon (30 canons), Te’ezaz (71 canons), Gessew (56 canons) and Abtelis (81 canons). Sinodos MSS contain more material than this, and their content and order are rather variable.[12]

3. Clement (QälĂ«mentos) is a book in seven parts, communicated by Peter to Clement.[13] It is not the Roman or Corinthian correspondence, nor one of the parts of Sinodos, (namely Te’ezazGessew or Abtelis, which are sometimes called 1, 2 and 3 Clement), nor part of the Syriac Octateuch of Clement.

4. The Book of the Covenant (Mäshafä Kidan) is counted as 2 parts, firstly sections 1-60, mostly about Church order, and secondly section 61, a discourse of our Lord to his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection.[14]

5. The Ethiopian Didascalia (Didesqelya),[15] a book of Church order in 43 chapters, distinct from the Didascalia Apostolorum, but similar to books I-VII of the so-called Apostolic Constitutions.


1. The canonicity of the books included in the large Geez and Amharic diglot, and large Amharic editions of the Bible, and in the ‘narrower’ Canon, can be regarded as undisputed in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today. The former Emperor is reported as saying that these editions of the Bible are complete.[16]

2. From a traditionalist point of view the additional books of the ‘broader’ canon must be regarded as equally canonical; but it seems that in practice they may come to be regarded more as ‘commentary’ on the canonical books, and therefore as possessing only a derived authority.

3. Some European writers[17] allege that the ‘Ascension of Isaiah’ (Ergätä Isayeyas) and the ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ (Herma Näbiy) are generally regarded as canonical in Ethiopia. While this may have been true in the past, this study has not found it to be so at the present.

The writer is grateful to Fr. Dr. Ephräm Eising of Niederaltaich, W. Germany, and to Prof. E. Ullendorff of S.O.A.S., London, for advice concerning this study.


[1] The authority for the number is the book Sinodos (see below, fn. 12).

[2] K. Wendt, “Der Kampf um den Kanon Heiliger Schriften in der Ă„thiopischen Kirche der Reformen des XV. jahrhunderts”, Journal of Semitic Studies, Manchester, vol. IX no.1, pp. 107-112; E. B. Eising, Zur Geschichte des Kanons der Heiligen Schrift in der ostsyrischen Kirche im ersten jahrtansend, dissertation awaiting publication.

[3] Fetha Nägäst, Geez, Asmara, 1956 E. C. ; Geez and Amharic, Addis Ababa, 1962 E. C. (E. C. = Ethiopian Calendar); Italian translation by I. Guidi, Rome, 1899 A. D.; English translation by Paulos Tzadua, Addis Ababa, 1968 A. D. The list of canonical books is in part I, chapter II, and reads as follows (in the translation of Paulos Tzadua):

“The books of the Old Testament, that is, the Law (Pentateuch), five books; one book of Joshua, the son of Nun; the book of Judges; the book of Ruth; the book of Judith; the books of the Kings, four in number, of which the first and second form one book and similarly the third and fourth form another book; two (books of) Paralipomenon; two books of Ezra, the scribe; the book of Esther; the book of Tobias;

Machabees, two books; the book of Job; the Psalms of David, one book; five books of the Wisdom of Solomon, that is, Proverbs, Qohelet, the Song of Songs, Wisdom, Wisdom of Bagor; sixteen books of the Prophets, of whom the greater ones are four, namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and the lesser ones are twelve, to wit, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Besides these there are the Wisdom of Jesus, the son of Sirach, for the education of boys and also the book of Joseph, the son of Koryon, which is (another) book of Machabees.

The books of the New Testament are: The four Evangelists, the Preachers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; the book of the Apostles, that is, the seven epistles, of which two are Peter’s, three John the Evangelist’s, one James’, and one Jude’s; the book of Paul (containing) fourteen epistles; and the book of the Apocalypse of John the Evangelist.”

The heading to the chapter says the books are 81 in number, but the list does not total 81. It is not clear whether Kings are to be counted as 2 books or 4, nor whether Sirach and Joseph, son of Koryon, are to be counted; nor does the list identify, e. g., the Wisdom of Bagor or the 2 books of Ezra.

[4] Fetha Nägäst, nebabenna tergwamew, Addis Ababa, photo-offset, 1958 E. C., pp. 41-44. Identical or similar lists will be found in: Abusaker, Geez and Amharic, A. A. 1962 E. C., pp. 90-92; Kwäkweha haymanot, by Mäl’akä Berhan Admasu Jänbäre, Amh., A. A. 1949 E. C., pp. 83-86; Sedqä haymanot, by Roger Cowley, Amh., A. A. 1963 E. C., pp. 81-85; Märha Lebbuna, by Aklilä Berhan Wäldä Qirqos, Amh., A. A. 1943 E. C., pp. 56-62; Fenotä a’emro, by Le`ul Ras Kassa Haylu, Amh., AA. 1953 E. C., pp. 30-40; Yä’ityop. ya ortodoks täwahedo bĂ«tä krestiyan emnätenna temhert, by Liqä Seltanat Habtä Maryam Wärqnäh, Amh., A. A. 1962 E. C., pp. 42-49 (this gives an account of the ‘narrower canon’ also); Mäshafä Hezqe’el, by Kidanä Wäld KeflĂ«, Geez and Amh., Dire Dawa 1916 E. C., pp. 511-13.

The list in Kwäkweha haymanot (op. cit.) is similar to that of the Fetha Nägäst commentary, but it reaches the total in a different way, as follows: Law (5), Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Judith, Kings (4), Chronicles (2), Ezra (2), Esther, Tobit, Maccabees (2), Job, Psalms, Solomon (5), Prophets (4+12), Ecclesiasticus, YosĂ«f wäldä koryon. Total 46. To these, Enoch, Jubilees and Ezra Apocalypse are to be added, making 49. Gospels (4), Acts, Paul (14), Catholic epistles (7), Revelation. Total 27. To these, M. Kidan (2), Sinodos, Didesqelya and Clement are to be added, making a N. T. total of 32, and grand total of 81.

The book Märha Lebbuna (op. cit.) explains the Hebrew canon of 24 books, and lists the 14 ‘not counted among them’ – namely Ezra 3 and 4, Tobit, Judith, 2 Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Song of 3 Holy Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Menasseh, Mäqabis of Benjamin and Mäqabis of Moab.

It adds (p. 58) that Ezra and Nehemiah are counted in the 24. Nehemiah has been called 2 Ezra, “that which was divided from” 1 Ezra was called 3 Ezra, and the Ezra Apocalypse was called 4 Ezra. 2 Esther is addition to Esther. The writer says that the number of canonical books was determined as 46 O. T. and 35 N. T., but the Europeans do not accept the following: – Jubilees, 1 and 2 Macc., Enoch, 1 Esdras, Ezra Apocalypse, Tob., Jud., Wisd., Ecclus.

[5] The canon law commentary account of these is confused. Today they are understood to be: – 1. MessalĂ« (Proverbs 1-24), 2. Tägsas (Proverbs 25-31, presumably to be identified with ‘Wisdom of Bagor‘), 3. Tebäb (Wisdom), 4. Mäkbeb (Ecclesiastes) and 5. Mähaleyä mähaley (Song of Songs).

[6] Yäbetä krestiyan sälot, Geez and Amh., photolithograph 1931 E. C., printed A. A. 1936 E. C.. pp. 97-100. Also:

Yäkam mättasäbiya, by Asräs Yänesäw, Amh., Asmara 1951 E. C., pp. 23-30.

Goha Sebah, by Heruy Wäldä SellasĂ«, Amh., Addis Ababa 1919 E. C., pp. 17-29. The writer lists the 40 commonly accepted O. T. books (separating MessalĂ« and Tägsas), and then 9 more – Enoch, Jubilees, Wisdom, 2 Ezra and Ezra Apocalypse (listed as though they were the same), Judith, Tobit, Ecclus., 1 and 2 Macc., thus making 49, which is the O. T. total of Kwäkweha haymanot, though Goha Sebah has reached it without listing YosĂ«f wäldä koryon.

The writer then lists the commonly accepted 27 N. T. books, and adds comments on the folly of counting any additional books as Holy Scripture.

[7] Mäshaf qeddus bäge `ezenna bä’ amarenna yätäsafä, prepared in Geez and Amharic by 1927 E. C. and produced by photolithography in London (undated). Its 4 large volumes are as follows:

Vol. 1. the ‘protestant’ Canon, Genesis – Esther.

Vol. 2. the ‘protestant’ Canon, Job – Malachi (omitting Psalms).

Vol. 3. Jubilees, 1, 2, 3 Maccabees, Enoch, Ezra Apocalypse, 1 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, ‘the rest of Jeremiah’, Susanna, ‘the rest of Daniel’.

Vol. 4. Psalms and the New Testament as universally accepted.

[8] Mäshaf qeddus, yäbeluyenna yähaddis kidan mäsaheft, Amharic, A. A. 1953 E. C. It contains Gen., Ex., Lev., Num., Deut.,Josh.,Jdg., Ruth, 1 and 2 Sam., 1 and 2 Kgs., 1 and 2 Chron. Jub., En., Ez., Neh., Ez. Apoc., 1 Esd., Tob., Jud., Est., 1, 2 and 3 Macc., Job, Ps., Prov. Tägsas, Wisd., Eccles., Song, Ecclus., Isa., Jer., Bar., Lam., Ezek., Dan., Hos., Am., Mic.. Joel, Ob., Jonah, Nah., Hab., Zeph., Hag., Zech., Mal., Mt., Mk., Lk., Jn., Ac., Rom. 1 and 2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., Col., 1 and 2 Th., 1 and 2 Tim., Tit., Phm., Heb., 1 and 2 Pet. 1, 2 and 3 Jn., Jas., Jude, Rev. In this edition the text of the universally accepted books is the same as that of the Bible issued by the Bible Society (A. A. 1954 E. C.), which also carries the Imperial preface; the text of the other books is the same as that in the edition described in footnote 7.

[9] Further particulars of the Ethiopian books of Maccabees will be found in J. Horovitz, “Das äthiopische Maccabäerbuch”, Zeitschrift fĂĽr Assyriologie, Leipzig, XIX, pp. 194–233 and R. Cowley, “Old Testament Introduction in the Andemta Commentary Tradition”, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, vol. XII no.1, pp. 133-175, especially p. 144. In the large Bibles of fn. 7 and 8 the books appear as follows:

1 Maccabees, 36 chapters, beginning “In the days of the Moabites and Medes”. It says that there was a wicked idol-worshipping king of Media and Midian called Tsirutsaydan. A Benjaminite called Meqabis taught that men should worship the true God, and his 5 sons, Abya, Sila, Fentos, and two others were burnt by Tsirutsaydan.

2 Maccabees, 21 chapters, beginning “After he found the Jews in Syrian Mesopotamia”. It says that a king of Moab named Meqabis made war against Israel as a punishment on them. Subsequently he repented of his sins and taught the Israelites God’s law. After his death, Tsirutsaydan introduced idolatry and burnt the sons of Meqabis, who refused to conform.

3 Maccabees, 10 chapters, beginning ” And the islands of Egypt shall rejoice”. It is a diffuse account of salvation and punishment, illustrated from the lives of Adam, Job, David and others.

[10] A. Dillmann, Chrestomathia Aethiopica, Leipzig 1866, pp. VIII – IX and 1 – 15 has the Geez text of the Pashhur prophecy and of 4 Baruch.

[11] Des Josef ben Gorion (Josippon) Geschichte der Juden, Zena Ayhud, ed. Murad Kamil, New York 1937.

[12] E. Hammerschmidt, “Das Pseudo-Apostolische Schrifttum in Ă„thiopischer Ăśberlieferung”, Journal of Semitic Studies, Manchester, VoI. IX no.1, pp. 114-121 gives full bibliographical information on these additional NT books.

Of the parts of Sinodos which are assigned apostolic authority, Te’ezaz (71 or 72 canons) has been printed in G. Homer, The Statutes of the Apostles, London 1904; and Gessew (56 or 57 canons) has been printed in W. Fell, Canones Apostolorum aethiopice, Leipzig 1871. I am preparing for publication the text of Abtelis (81 or 83 canons).

Abtelis is very similar to Book VIII of the Syriac Octateuch of Clement; parts of Te’ezaz are contained in Books III, IV and V of the Syriac Octateuch.

The Fetha Nägäst cites Te’ezaz 81 and Gessew 55 as authority for its canon list; the latter reference is correct (see Fell, Canon 56), but the former is wrong (Homer’s text has no canon list) and should read Abtelis 81 or 83. In B. M. Orient 793 f. 50 b, the text of Abtelis 83, having listed the canonical books in the same way as the Geez text of the Fetha Nägäst does (fn. 3 above), adds 8 books of Clement which he received from the apostles, and 1 book of Clement which only the scholars of the church should read (cf. F. Nau and P. Ciprotti, La Version Syriaque de 1’Octateuque de ClĂ©ment, Paris 1967, p. 105).

[13] W. Wright, Catalogue of the Ethiopic manuscripts in the British Museum, London 1877, pp. 211-213 and

S. GrĂ©baut, “LittĂ©rature Éthiopienne Pseudo-ClĂ©mentine”, Revue de l’Orient ChrĂ©tien, Paris 1911, pp. 72-77 contain outlines of this book QälĂ«mentos.

A translation of part 1- part 3, ch. 10, by S. GrĂ©baut, will be found in ROC 16 (1911), pp. 78-84, 167-175, 225-233, 17 (1912), pp. 16-31, 133-144, 244-252, 337-346, 18 (1913), pp. 69-78, 19 (1914), pp. 324-330, 20 (1915-17), pp. 33-37, 424-430, 21 (1918), pp. 246-252, 22 (1920), pp. 22-28, 113-117, 395-400, 26 (1927-28), pp. 22-31.

[14] Wright (op. cit.), pp. 270-4 has an outline of both parts. Part 1 is being prepared for publication by R. Beylot, and is similar to Books I and II of the Syriac Octateuch of Clement. Part 2 (text and French translation) has been printed as L. Guerrier and S. GrĂ©baut, “Le Testament en GalilĂ©e de Notre-Seigneur JĂ©sus-Christ”, Patrologia Orientalis IX, 3. Both parts are found, e.g., in British Museum MS Orient 793.

[15] Incomplete text and translation in T. P. Platt, The Ethiopic Didascalia, London 1834. Complete English translation in J. M. Harden, The Ethiopic Didascalia, London 1920,

[16] Liqä Seltanat Habtä Maryam Wärqnäh in Yä’ityop. ya ortodoks täwahedo bĂ«tä krestiyan emnätenna temhert, op. cit. p. 47. The author says that His Majesty Haile Sellassie 1st commanded the church scholars to study the matter of the canon, and after the agreed text and canon had been written out by hand, His Majesty had it printed as ‘the complete Bible of Ethiopia’. This refers to the edition of footnote 7 above, and in effect to that of footnote 8 also.

[17] I. Guidi, Storia della Letteratura etiopica, Rome 1932, pp. 16 -17; E. Cerulli, La letteratura Etiopica, Florence and Milan 1969, p. 21; A. Dillmann, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgen- liindischen Gesellschaft XV; F. Cross (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, O.U.P. 1958, p. 467.