On the Confusion of “Canon”

The following post is extracted from a small notebook of mine that I used to carry around in my bookbag precisely in order to capture such thoughts that were stimulated by my reading or conversations. This entry, germane to John Hobbins’ Thinking About Canon conversation, was written 21 August 1999, beginning at 3:25 pm, at home. I have edited the original slightly, expanding abbreviations and such, and bringing the whole more in line with my current thoughts on the subject, deleting some extraneous, distracting passages along the way.

On the Confusion of “Canon”
There are two approaches:
1.) The canon is that of my church tradition only.
2.) The canon is that of all the churches: it includes every work that every tradition holds in its canon.

The second is purely my own ideal, but one that I think is valid philosophically, ecumenically, and kindly. To reject a book held sacred by another church is to reject that church. Whether one accepts that all of these are the Body of Christ or not, one cannot ignore them or their practices, traditions, arts and their canon. The result of learning the canons of the churches has been, for me, often surprising, and always enlightening. And that’s simply at the current stage of history! Seeing in older writings various other books being accepted in various traditions and in various ways adds yet another dimension (or layer of confusion!) to the understanding.

I can see several approaches, all of which require a certain amount of dilgence:
1.) Extreme familiarity with ALL the books is required.
2.) Doctrinal arguments, in seeking scriptural referents, should seek them only in that group of books which is common to all (basically the Protestant canon of 39 OT/27 NT books).
3.) Books which we still possess (sadly, so many have been lost) and which at one time were held to be canonical, should be included in some way. Also, some books were approved for reading (church or private), though not canonized, and these too should be included in some fashion. Then, too, various manuscripts of the Bible include various books not usually canonical, and yet there they are! These, too, must play a role.
4.) I think that three levels are called for:
1.} Canonical—which refers to that canon with which one is most familiar in the church to which one belongs.
2.} Deutero-canonical, which is—all the various writings that are currently held canonical in other churches than one’s own.
3.} Trito-canonical—all the various writings which we still possess that were once canonical, or that were “recommended reading,” or that appear in biblical manuscripts.
To simplify:
1.) (Primary) Canon
2.) Secondary Canon
3.) Esteemed Books
(“Secondary Canon” is perhaps preferable to “deutero-canon” as the latter is already in use with a specific meaning already in place.)
or:
1.) My Canon
2.) Our Canon
3.) Their Canon

Now, all this leads to a very large number of books! 39 + 12 + 27 = 78, and this is simply the number of Old Testament + Apocrypha + New Testament books in the Ecumenical NRSV (not counting additions: Esther, Psalm 151, Letter of Jeremiah [included as chapter 6 of Baruch], Daniel [Prayer/Song, Susanna, Bel & Dragon]). All those are just to begin with! Some others to add are Jubilees and First Enoch (Ethiopian Church, and for Enoch, Jude), Psalms 152 through 155 (some Syrian manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls), First and Second Clement and the Apostolic Constitutions (Coptic Church), Odes of Solomon (some Syrian manuscripts, some Greek manuscripts), either the whole of Second Baruch or the Letter of Baruch (2Bar 78.1–86.1 or 87.1) [not sure about this one—definitely the Letter of Baruch, though], Apocalypse of Peter (formerly popular in the West), The Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and probably others.

Along with all these, there is the acknowledged necessity to familiarize oneself with the “literary context” of the Old Testament and New Testament, and thus, one takes up the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Charlesworth) and the New Testament Apocrypha (Schneemelcher) and the Apostolic Fathers (Lightfoot, in a handy edition edited by Harmer, then Holmes). All of the above-mentioned works will be found in one or more of those (except the Apostolic Constitutions, which can be found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, translated by William Whiston, edited by Donaldson; I may, or rather, I intend to produce a new, modern English translation of the Apostolic Constitutions, the lack of which is perplexing). Though such a wealth of reading is a daunting task, think of the rewards one finds upon gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation not only for this body of various writings, but also, and perhaps especially more importantly, for one’s fellow Christian in addition to oneself, for one will find beliefs held dear in these writings. Though one may also shy away from reading “apocryphal” books, and may not accept, say, a Syrian Orthodox or Ethiopian Tawahedo Christian as a brother, that does not mean that such an attitude is correct. This whole “I am, they’re not” attitude is not a pearl before swine, but rather something falling immediately behind the swine (let the reader understand!).

I think I like: Canon, Secondary Canon, Esteemed Books. Nice order, and quite clear.