Category Archives: Canon

Eusebius and the Apocalypse

I recommend to all the dissertation of Presvytera Jeannie Constantinou: Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation (Université Laval, Québec, 2008). There are several points of interest in her dissertation: 1.) the first complete English translation of Andrew of Caesarea’s Commentary to the Apocalypse; 2.) the very clear summary discussion of the text types of the Apocalypse; and 3.) the extended discussion on the canonical status of the Apocalypse, with particular focus on its reception in the East. It’s a subset of this third topic that I’d like to discuss here, particularly in light of my last post, titled Eusebius and “canonical”.

In short, Constantinou describes a determined effort on the part of several Greek writers, culminating in Eusebius, who undermined the previously more positive reception of the Apocalypse in the East. The popularity of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History led to his position being valued more highly than it really deserved, a point that Constnantinou clarifies through tracking the scheme of Eusebius’ quotations, particularly his practice of mining various authors, even heretics, for aspersions and doubts to cast upon the Apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse. Eusebius was so much an anti-chiliast that no dirty tricks were considered too low to accomplish his self-assigned task.

I will recommend to all readers that they read the discussion in full in Constantinou’s dissertation, but I’ll summarize here some of the points involved:
1.) Eusebius treats the Apocalypse in a very peculiar fashion in his list of canonical works in Ecclesiatical History III.25, where he divided the books of the New Testament into three categories, based in the recognition of Apostolic origin: “agreed-upon”, “disputed”, and “spurious.” In the first category, describing those works which are generally agreed to be of Apostolic origin, are included the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Epistles, First John, First Peter, and (note this!) the Apocalypse. In the second category, that of works whose authenticity as Apostolic writings is in dispute, are the epistles of James, Jude, Second Peter, and Second and Third John. (Note the similarity to the classical Syrian NT canon, exemplified by the Peshitta version, which also excluded these epistles.) Then comes the third category, of those works generally recognized as not being of Apostolic origin, and thus inauthentic or spurious: the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd (of Hermas), the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Apostles (i.e., the Didache), and, shockingly, the Apocalypse of John.

In this case, Eusebius has trounced his own categorizations in order to cast aspersions onto the Apocalypse. As Constantinou shows in her historical survey, the Apocalypse was almost universally accepted as Apostolic at the time Eusebius wrote. This is reflected by his placing the Apocalypse in the first category, that listing of books which all or very nearly all Christians agreed were of Apostolic origin. Yet, this is not to Eusebius’ liking. And, rather than placing the Apocalypse in the group of books of disputed authenticity, he instead includes the Apocalypse in the list of inauthentic books. There are two possible reasons for this: a.) Eusebius simply made a mistake and was sloppy in his categorization; or b.) this was a deliberate choice on his part. In the face of the broader sweep of evidence that Constantinou relates, it is clear that the latter is the case. Eusebius was, in the Ecclesiastical History, among other things, embarking on a program designed to damage the Apostolic reputation of the Apocalypse.

Eusebius quotes with favor both Dionysius of Alexandria, who shows a clear animadversion to the Apocalypse already in his letters, and invents out of whole cloth the tale of two tombs of Johns in Ephesus. Eusebius also approvingly quotes with favor Gaius the presbyter, from Rome, in relation to the Apocalypse. Yet Gaius was one of the Alogoi heretics, who denied Apostolic origin to the entire Johannine corpus: the Gospel, three letters, and the Apocalypse! Eusebius brazenly trots out Gaius in support for his anti-Apocalypse machinations. Perhaps betting on his good standing with Emperor Constantine, Eusebius was able to spread his idea of a non-Apostolic and therefore non-canonical Apocalypse throughout the Empire and beyond, as his original Ecclesiastical History was often copied and was even translated into multiple different languages for various Christian communities over the centuries. Unfortunately, Eusebius’ ideas about the Apocalypse also spread far and wide, particularly in the East, where the Apocalypse finally settled into a solid and unquestioned recognition as Apostolic and canonical only in the modern period, in the seventeenth century.

Really, though, it’s a cracking good story, and one ought to read of it in full, in Presvytera Constantinou’s dissertation. It’s really that good.

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Eusebius and “canonical”

Most readers of Eusebius’ History of the Church are familiar with his interesting chapter (Book III, Chapter 25) devoted to discussing the canonical status of the books of the New Testament. After a recent re-reading of Eusebius, I thought it would be good to share some interesting things that have come up in light of this reading, informed as I am now by a wealth of further reading on the subject of the Biblical canon since I last read Eusebius. In such a case of re-reading, formerly innocuous words and phrases often take on new meaning. This is precisely the case here in regards to Eusebius’ interesting discussion of the books of the New Testament.

First, it is necessary to emphasize that the word “canon” (κανὼν, κανόνος) and its derivative forms are not used by Eusebius to refer to the books of the Bible, but primarily to the Rule of Faith of the Church.

The word κανὼν appears only in the title of one of Clement of Alexandria’s works (VI.13: Κανὼν ἐκκλησιαστικὸς ἢ πρὸς τοὺς Ἰουδαΐζοντας, “The Canon of the Church, or, Against the Judaizers”), and nowhere else in the text of Eusebius’ History of the Church. No derivative forms of this spelling appear. Eusebius himself prefers the alternate spelling, κανόνος, and its derivatives.

In Eusebius’ lengthy work, it is perhaps surprising to find κανόνος and its derivatives used only 16 times:
1.) II 17.1: …τῆς ἐκκλησίας περιέχει κανόνας· “…it contains the rule of the Church.”
2.) III 32.7-8: …τὸν ὑγιῆ κανόνα τοῦ σωτηρίου κηρύγματος· “…the healthful rule of the preaching of salvation.”
3.) IV 23.5: …τῷ τῆς ἀληθείας παρίσταται κανόνι…. “…defending the canon of faith….”
4.) V 24.6: …ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸν κανόνα τῆς πίστεως ἀκολουθοῦντες· “…rather following according to the rule of faith.”
5.) V 28.13: …πίστεώς τε ἀρχαίας κανόνα ἠθετήκασιν…. “…they have rejected the rule of the ancient faith….”
6.) VI 2.14: …φυλάττων ἐξ ἔτι παιδὸς κανόνα ἐκκλησίας…. “…from the age of a boy keeping the rule of the Church….”
7.) VI 22.1: …καί τινα κανόνα ἑκκαιδεκαετηρίδος περὶ τοῦ πάσχα προθείς… “…and he puts forth a sixteen year rule relating to Pascha….”
8.) VI 25.3: …τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν φυλάττων κανόνα…. “…guarding the rule of the Church….”
9.) VI 33.1: …τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν παρεκτρέπων κανόνα…. “…perverting the rule of the Church….”
10.) VI 43.15: …κατὰ τὸν τῆς ἐκκλησίας κανόνα…. “according to the rule of the Church….”
11.) VII pinax: …ἐκκλησιαστικοῦ κανόνος. “…the rule of the Church.”
12.) VII pinax: …ἔνθα καὶ περὶ τοῦ πάσχα κανονίζει. “…in which he also gives rules regarding Pascha.”
13.) VII 7.4: τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον. “This is the rule and model I took from our blessed father Heraclas”
14.) VII 20.1: …ἐν ᾗ καὶ κανόνα ἐκτίθεται ὀκταετηρίδος….” “in which he also proposes an eight-year rule”
15.) VII 30.6: ὅπου δὲ ἀποστὰς τοῦ κανόνος…. “Whereas he has forsaken the canon….”
16.) VII 32.13: Ἐκ τῶν περὶ τοῦ πάσχα Ἀνατολίου κανόνων· “From the rules concerning Pascha by Anatolius.”

Eusebius’ usage is clear. When κανόνος and its derivatives are used in his writings, he is primarily referring to the Rule of the Faith, the Rule of the Church, that is, the tradition of conduct and belief that originated with the Apostles and was preserved inviolate in the Church (excluding heresies) down to his own day. Secondarily, he uses it to refer to the rules regarding the calculation of the date for Pascha, Easter.

Reflecting upon this usage, we must notice that elsewhere Eusebius interestingly chooses to refer to what we would call the canonical books of the New Testament by terminology which ultimately describes these books in terms of their Apostolic origins. His discussion of the various books of the New Testament (III 25) is particularly interesting, and has garnered much commentary. His description involves a threefold categorization in which a book is described as ὁμολογουμένος, ἀντιλεγομένος, or νόθος, that is, agreed-upon, disputed, and spurious. This terminology does not refer to agreement or disagreement in terms of belonging to the Bible, but rather in terms of agreement or disagreement of Apostolic origins for the book. The distinction is a crucial one. There is no hypothesis here of a “Bible” to which a book is going to be either included or excluded. Rather, there are various books, and those which the churches agree in recognizing as of Apostolic origin belong to the “agreed-upon” category, those in which books are recognized by some as authentically Apostolic yet not recognized as so by others belong to the “disputed” category. To the “spurious” category belong those books which are generally recognized as not originating with the Apostles. So we see the criterion of organization here is not based upon an idea of what we now think of a Biblical canon, but was rather motivated by concerns for authenticity and authority. The Apostles are the foundation of the Church, and their writings are therefore considerered the protocanon of all ecclesiastical writings. The concern for ascertaining the proper list of those authentic works in order to safeguard against heresy and other failure is one that is shown throughout Eusebius’ work.

In light of this, it’s perfectly legitimate to translate Eusebius’ tripartite terminology above as “agreed to be authentic”, “disputedly authentic”, “agreed to be inauthentic.”

In the next post, I’ll touch on Eusebius’ peculiar treatment of the Apocalypse.

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Canonical scribblings

The following are some notes that I recently sent to a friend on reading an early draft of the introduction and first chapter of a manuscript he’s working on. I’ll preserve his anonymity, aside from mentioning that the book’s written on the subject of the “apocrypha” and the Biblical canon. I did think that the points I present, however, can stand alone as topics for discussion. Additionally, they inspire some other thoughts that I want to post on soon. And lastly, I don’t want to misplace them! Though reading these notes may seem the equivalent of hearing only one side of a phone conversation, these days we’re all used to that anyway, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to cope with this, too! I think it’s all pretty clear.

1.) I think the intended audience needs to be clarified a bit here. This audience is obviously a Protestant one, to whom these apocryphal/pseudepigraphic books are of little familiarity and generally disparaged. To make that audience explicit would make the arguments for earliest Christian acceptance of these books that much more incisive; it may also, however, give direction to the argumentation, as well.

2.) In the first paragraph, there is a reference to “arguments” being the winning factor in the success of “orthodoxy.” I find this misguided. It is rather the apostolic foundation of the communities and their continuous descendants, and the living faith shared among those communities individually and as a whole (as “the Great Church” or “the Apostolic Church”) that is both the unifier and the cause for that Church’s eventual majority status. While argumentation appears in the second century (especially n the apologetic literature) and even to a degree in the first century (in certain polemical statements in various now-canonical NT books), it was always explicitly secondary to the concern with the apostolic deposit–the authenticity of the individual churches and their beliefs.

3.) Further on #2 above, the first-century writings were not intended as standalone authoritative documents, as they are often considered today. They were expressions of the living faith of the apostolically established communities, and considered therefore to be the only accurate reflection of their beliefes, concerns, and earliest history. In that sense, Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture fails on two points: a.) he, too, bases his work in the assumption that the texts were foundational rather than expressionistic, standalone sources of authority that could somehow fall into other hands and thereby have an effect. This ignores scribal practice and the likelihood of copies being commissioned. b.) Ehrman’s examples are taken almost exclusively from one-off mss, which don’t represent any particular tradition, with him atomistically selecting variants and assigning motivations without controls. Had every of his variants entered every known orthodox textual tradition, he might have an argument, but this is not the case.

4.) We do not precisely know the extent of any individual church’s collection of writings, in either scroll or codex format. Many suppositions are made based on the scanty survival of extremely fragile papyrus docs. Most of the early Church’s territories (including Judea!) were too damp to permit the preservation of papyrus or parchment. It is only in freakishly dry places (non-riverine Egypt and the Dead Sea caves) that any substantial deposits have been recovered from antiquity. We likewise have no explicit listing of groups of volumes (whether scrolls or codices) much less listings of individual documents on which one might solidly base a theory of the holdings of any local church library. With so few data, there’s hardly a basis to say that some churches owned only one gospel, all four, or sixteen, for that matter. It may’ve been the case that the community that commissioned and owned, for instance, Codex Sinaiticus, possessed another volume (or more!) incorporating numerous other books, yet the only one to survive is the one we have, and we don’t even know its origins.

5.) The terminology of canon/apocrypha/etc were not “invented” in the modern period (or even the medieval), but were used anciently in divergent ways from those commonly used now in the academy (which usage is still inconsistent–note the varying references these days to Psalm 151, 3Mac, 4Mac, and others, which, though included in modern churches’ Old Testaments, are still typically referred to as pseudepigrapha, contra the general connotation of “apocrypha” that they are a collection of books included in the OT of a church, but not in the Hebrew Bible). However, it is apparent that it was the Reformation agenda which is here in play, and its tacit acceptance (through either ignorance or arrogance) of the Roman Catholic canon as the only other canon. In particular, this means Luther and his definition of the apocrypha as the Catholic OT books and parts of books supernumerary to the Hebrew. It is the priveleging of this particular perspective which is responsible for our terminological conundrum. Just as the Roman Catholics (post-Luther) applied “deuterocanon” as the label for these items, so the Greek Orthodox utilized anaginōskomena, “readables,” to them, directly basing their term in the recommendations given by St Athanasius the Great in his 39th Festal Letter, the relevant portion of which had been preserved in Greek.

As always, however, internalized education trumps prejudice. It is necessary for those with unexamined prejudices against these books to be familiarized first with the books themselves, and secondly with information about those books, and their importance in traditions older and other than their own. This is particularly a Protestant problem, obviously.

One thing I’ve always found interesting is the Protestant unanimity on their OT and NT canons. Without any synod or central authority, it was even so unanimous and still is (except in the anomalous Anglican canon). The root is obviously Luther, “the first Protestant Pope.” Yet Luther’s peculiar recommendations in sequestering some of the NT books wasn’t accepted. What is this mechanism? It also needs to be explored. That is, rather than looking at the majority of the Christian canons (the Roman Catholic and Orthodox comprise roughly 3/4 of the world’s Christians) as containing more, we should be looking at the Protestant minority to determine the historical processes that led to their including less.

6.) Constantine made Christianity legal. By his favor, he also made it popular. But it was not made the official religion of the empire/state until Theodosius the Great made it so. And although the “pagan” religion was deprived of state support, it managed to survive in various temples up to the advent of Islam. It was not banned by Constantine. And though it was certainly to be regretted that many insincere opportunists became Christians in the days of Constantine, such a contingent has never been absent from the Church from the beginning to this day.

7.) There needs to be a tighter distinction in these pages between sub-apostolic writings which have always been considered orthodox (the “Apostolic Fathers” collection, etc.) and those which were unorthodox (“New Testament Apocrypha” proper). Though various of the former have always been considered edifying and were included in the great pandects (Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, etc), they were seldom (if ever) included in later authoritative lists designating books permitted in liturgical reading. There are, of course, exceptions. In both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, excerpts from some of these works appear in manuscripts (and breviaries today) as edifying reading for matins. In the Orthodox Church’s tradition of the reading of hagiographies on the various days of commemoration for different saints, we find that various elements of apocryphal writings have been preserved. There is even the case that some particular NT Apoc have been preserved withinn the setting of a menologion. I think this was the case with the Acts of John (or some other John-related apocryphon). In any case, my point is that there was (and is) a difference in the readings that are liturgically permitted. There is a freedom in the menologion texts that some may find disturbing. They are devotional and intended to instruct regarding morals and so on, but they are not Scripture; that is, their texts have never been frozen, and the details of the stories told about the saints are only required in the wider sense. That is, there are elements of the hagiographies which are recognized as Tradition, yet there is no exact formulation required in their expression. In a way this is the difference between quotation and allusion; that is, Scripture is recognized in a kind of verbatim allegiance, while hagiography suffices with (and perhaps thrives on) the art of allusive expression. It’s only rarely that a particular text becomes “canonical” for a saint’s reading. One case is that of St Athanasius the Great’s Life of Anthony. Another is St Sophronios’ (?) account of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. Even so, in each case, summaries of such stories/writings are entirely common. It’s not so much the wording, but the tale, that’s important. In those cases where there is a widespread well-known text there will be recognizable allusions in summaries. How can we exclude, in the face of this, that other lost “standard” texts may have existed for the commemorations of various saints? Like present, like past? It’s hard to say. But it’s certainly the case that apocryphal writings have been preserved in menologia, wholesale. That tropes or elements thereof have also been preserved is also beyond doubt. Note that the framework and even details of the Protevangelium Jacobi are all considered truth in the Orthodox Church. Relatedly, though many elements are found in common in unorthodox apocrypha and orthodox hagiographa, we cannot automatically assume that simply because a given apocryphon contains the earliest preserved attestation (taking into account the exigencies of manuscript preservation, etc) of any hagiographical trope, that the source of it is the apocryphon. Such elements of the hagiographa were popular, and necessarily included, as they were expected by the faithful familiar with the lives of the saints. Any apocryphon would be expected to include all the details commonly related in the relevant hagiography, which were then expanded in the apocryphon, whether orthodox or unorthodox.

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Canon and Catechesis

There are a number of discussions these days about the Biblical canon, about the way it was formed, about the different canons of various communities of faith, and so on. One of the more interesting questions is: What is the function of canon? That is, people wonder what exactly is a list of books supposed to accomplish. The simple answer is that canon is a function of catechesis.

Think about it. When we speak (or spoke, as the case may be) of the canon of great literature in school, the context of such a list of great works of literature was specifically didactic. A true familiarity with the great works of literature was not simply an expected hurdle of the academy, but was actually training in both the recognition and production of good writing, as well as the passing on of a cultural patrimony, the treasures of the past, to a new generation.

The Biblical canons work the same way. Their context lies in maintaining a list of books considered by teaching authorities as canonical, that is, adhering to the Rule of Faith. In the past in both Christian and Jewish communities, during the number of centuries before doctrines and practices were truly settled, the canons within both were also in flux. As the Rule of Faith changed and came to more perfect delineation in each, so also the canons were adjusted to reflect this. This would explain why at one point some books appeared to be Scripture, while later they were classed as apocryphal, or merely good reading if they were lucky.

The above idea is something that I’ll be looking into more deeply, but it came from realizing that a number of those works which list the books of the canon do so in the context of instruction in proper faith (catechesis is the strictest sense), and some explicitly mention that fact, for instance, Athanasius of Alexandria in his famous Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Unfortunately, the beginning of that letter is lost, as is the context for various of the lists preserved only by Eusebius in his systematizing survey in the Ecclesiastical History.

Anyhow, more on that some other time, in more detail.

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McDonald’s The Biblical Canon: update

Good news! Lee Martin McDonald has received word that his latest book, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007), is going to be issued in a corrected reprinting in January or February 2008. Hopefully they’ll recall and destroy all the old copies! We’ve discussed the problems with the current printing of this book here, here, and here before. I’ve posted a small selection of quotes that I thought were particularly striking here.

So, if any readers were waiting to buy a copy, it will only be a couple of months more to wait. So that’s good news!

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More on Loose Canons

Going back and reading my Loose Canons post, I see that it was somewhat prophetic, in the sense that several of the points that I discussed in the first part of the post were covered precisely during the discussions and papers I experienced in San Diego. That fortunately means that some very talented people are working on exactly the same issues that I described as needing attention, for which we can all be grateful. More on that in upcoming posts of my SBL notes.

I want to discuss further some issues with the second part of my Loose Canons post, which described a tripartite organization for a synchronic and diachronic Christian Biblical canon. I don’t think I sufficiently described some of my points very well, and want to ealaborate on them here.

Firstly, I’d like to suggest some alternate terminology for the three canons. For one thing, I think it’s actually better in more technical labels to move away from the word “canon” itself. As “canon” has come to bear a connotation of exclusivity for the list of books contained within it, in such a context as this tripartite scheme of mine which is inclusive at core, there is some cognitive dissonance involved in using this label. So, though My Canon, Our Canon, and Their Canon are fine labels colloquially, other labels would need to be used for more accurate, technical descriptions of these groupings.

Particularly tricky is the first category, of My Canon. With it I betray a great sympathy for community over individuality, in that what I intend by this category is that of one’s Christian community. This institutional component could also be missed in a reading of the label My Canon which is other than its intended reading, for instance, were someone to understand the label as an individual’s personal or heart canon of particular books which are especially dear (on which, see below). However, this is a label which describes a received canon for that individual. In that sense, a more technical label for this level of canonicity would be Canonically Received Books, or perhaps a Received Canon. At this level, the primary level of a reader’s interaction with this literature, the standard usage of “canon” is certainly appropriate, as it is an exclusive list of materials authorized by one’s Christian tradition. Thus Received Canon connotes the authority of that transmission of a tradition of canonicity with this particular set of books to the user. It is likely a set of books that the user will find still to be of more value than those appearing in other categories.

The second level, that which encompasses those books which are currently held canonical in other orthodox Christian traditions other than one’s own, Our Canon, could be labeled Contemporarily Canonical Books. The connotation of “comtemporarily” involves something going on at the same time, while separate from the primary point of view. In this sense, it’s appropriate for this usage, in that it is both limited to the contemporary age and usage, but external to the tradition described in the primary level above, the Received Canon.

The third level, that of Their Canon, would obviously bear the label Historically Canonical Books. This level comprises, of course, only those books which survive of those works which were considered canonical in the past by orthodox Christians. This is a perfect label for those works like The Shepherd of Hermas, which were once quite obviously judged canonical in various places at various times, whether through theoretical means (lists and quotations) or practical means (inclusion in Bibles) and yet are no longer considered canonical in any living tradition. Attached secondarily to this list could be a list of those of the works which were considered canonical historically which are entirely lost and known only by title, or which have only survived in fragments, like Eldad and Modad.

To these three levels I would like to add the potential for a fourth, touched on above briefly, a Zero Level Canon: the Canon of the Heart, or a Secret Canon. I think everyone who reads the books of the Bible has some subset which speaks to their heart better than others do. This is simply a fact of the beauty of free will and individuality interfacing with literature. And while we may never tell anyone else which in particular these books are, we will continue to go to them for the simple joy of it. These are the Personally Canonical or Secretly Canonical Books, or even, dare we say it, the Apocryphal Canon, understanding “apocryphal” in its original sense of “hidden away,” and “canon” with its connotation of exclusivity intact because this collection of books seldom changes for an individual once it has formed. Yet, even so, I think it’s better to keep this level a secret, and personal, a privelege of the reader and not a public thing at all, but a secret between reader and God. Just as lists never begin with zero, so we can understand this level as implied, but not publish it.

Secondly, I’d like to discuss shortly why I limit these levels of distinction or canon to orthodox books in particular. We have numerous unorthodox books preserved, particularly from the Nag Hammadi collection. And yet, these books can only be said to have been of import to the development of the wider Christian tradition through the ages in an adversarial role if at all. Most are not quoted, most do not appear in lists of historical churches as canonical, and yet they do often appear in such lists as non-canonical or heretical, a decdedly negative context. In many cases we have no idea who thought these various books were canonical, or even if anyone actually did. Yet, even so, as I described in the Loose Canons post above with the Acts of John, on occasion some of these outré works were excerpted in orthodox hagiographical and liturgical works, thereby bestowing canonicity on those excerpts, quite extraordinarily. So, even though there is a great deal of value in these books in a scholarly sense, particularly for investigation of the development of various heresies and controversies in the early centuries of Church history, for the personal edification of a modern orthodox Christian, it is necessary to eschew these books and exclude them from the various levels of canonicity that I have described above. If there were living traditions of Ophites or Sethians out there somewhere suggesting such lists as I’ve done above, I wouldn’t be at all surprised or offended if they were to exclude the (to them) heterodox works that we would actually include. There’s no bitterness or triumphalism in my exclusion of heterodox writings, simply practicality and a concern for consistency and appropriateness. These are lists for orthodox Chrisitians. Others may make their own.

Thirdly, I’d like to elaborate on what I described in the earlier post as the suggested three canons suggested above as “psychological safety barriers.” I touched briefly on the concept above that we are more comfortable in our own tradition’s Biblical canon. Other people’s canons may include books or subject matter that our own tradition may consider unacceptable. Thus we find the need for a certain amount of separation of the canonical works into those that are currently institutionally canonical in our home traditions as our home base for canonicity, with a secondary level of canonicity which we could all recognize as of lower value to us personally but still of value for an understanding of contemporary Christianity, and then with a third level, of even lower value, as our ancestors in the faith eventually decided against maintaining these works in the Biblical canons which they have passed down to us. Each of these levels may also ostensibly be seen as of decreasing authority in the life of a Christian. But as a whole, every work included in these categories should be held of more value than any other work written, in that they constitute a Bible of the ages.

And that we can reconstruct such a Bible of the ages is something to give thanks for!

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Loose Canons

Some may recognize the title of this post, a great pun coined by Philip Davies in the title of an article, “Loose Canons: Reflections on the Formation of the Hebrew Bible” (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures volume 1 [1996-97], article 5) which you may read here.

Through being immersed in various apocryphal and pseudepigraphal readings lately, my thoughts on canon have turned again toward the gulf between theory and practice in matters of Biblical canonicity. Recent deeper reading of Eastern Orthodox liturgical texts continue to reveal echoes of, if not allusions to, various “non-canonical” works. Yet there is nothing more canonical in the Eastern Church than the liturgies themselves! In fact, while the full texts of the books themselves may well be authoritatively pronounced non-canonical, or indeed condemned, sometimes the majorities of the stories in them (as in the Protevangelium of James, concerning the details of the life of Mary the Theotokos) or even actual excerpts of texts from the books themselves (as in the case of Acts of John) have otherwise come to be accepted into liturgical texts, and therefore are as canonical as they could possibly get. This situation requires a rethinking of the practical application of any concept of canonicity, frankly.

How can a book, the Manichaean Acts of John, be condemned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“No one is to copy [it]: not only so, but we consider that it deserves to be consigned to the fire.” Acts of Session Five, quoted in Schneemelcher New Testament Apocrypha, 2.156), and yet have its only surviving (and fairly extensive!) excerpts preserved in hagiographical texts for liturgical use, if the several meanings of “canonical” have been adhered to in practice in precisely the Church which condemned it? This exemplifies perfectly the gulf that exists between the theory of canonicity and its practice.

A further example of this gulf is also found in the New Testament by the inclusion of an explicit quotation from the First Book of Enoch in the Letter of Jude. Outside of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, no other Christian community holds 1 Enoch canonical. Yet there it is in Jude, in the New Testament, while books like Esther and numerous others in the universally accepted core of the canon of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible are not quoted at all. The theoretical mechanism of canonicity is seen here not to reflect the canonical practice of Jude the brother of James and the Lord! That is, while Jude certainly found this prophecy to be authentic and authoritative, and would’ve thereby included it in a list of authoritative books were we to ask him which books were such, the book was not retained in the Old Testament by the majority of Christians, and would in fact have been almost entirely lost were it not for the Ethiopians. So, even the theoretical rule of New Testament writers’ positive quotations of Biblical books indicating canonicity is not seen as authoritative enough to determine practice (save among the Ethiopians).

Take also into consideration the quite well-known Thirty-ninth Festal Letter of Athanasius of Alexandria. Here he divided the Old and New Testament books into “canonical” and “readable” with those in the latter category being Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, Esther (!), Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Yet his instruction had no discernible effect on the Church in Egypt. Both the Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian churches in Egypt include Wisdom, Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit in the Old Testament as fully canonical. Again, theory is trumped by practice.

It appears that it will be necessary to focus on practice in order to really ascertain the limits of what is or is not a canonical text in any given tradition. The Eastern churches, with their elaborate, lengthy liturgies and hymnology, demonstrate a much looser concept of canon in practice than they do even in theory, where their official canons are still the most inclusive among Christian churches. Alternatively, we might recognize that the theoretical concept of an exclusive canon simply isn’t applicable in these cases, as practice shows that many more materials have been effectively canonical (especially in the sense of adhering to the Canon or Rule of Faith, as I have already described) in practice. The canons are loose! Look out! You might be hit by some stray apocrypha!

Relatedly, I’d like to discuss a way of categorizing writings for the individual Christian reader in recognition of these rather loose canons through the ages and the churches. This involves a triple collection: 1.) the current Biblical canon of the reader’s own tradition; 2.) those orthodox books that are not included in the canon of the tradition of the reader, but are included in the canon of other contemporary Christian traditions; and 3.) those orthodox books that are not included in the reader’s current canon or any others’, but which were at some point in history either in theory or practice (that is, appearing in canonical lists, in codices, or in authoritative quotation) included in the canons of various churches and which such books still survive. (It is simply necessary for the intended purpose of this categorization to exclude unorthodox/heretical books; they have their place in the history of Christianity, but not in the personal spiritual development of an orthodox Christian reader.) In keeping with the different possibilities that these categories would include depending upon the reader, these options should simply be labeled My Canon, Our Canon, Their Canon. Such a way of organizing the books not only comfortably integrates the Christian reader into a greater perspective of understanding of the contemporary Christian canonical world, but also into that of the ages past, where much more variety existed in Bibles, judging by practice, than effectively does today. A synchronic and diachronic experience of such a threefold widest possible Christian canon can only be a good thing for opening up a reader to the possibilities of internalizing a more Christian worldview, by reading the Bible of both the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant, so to speak. This, I think, through the volume of reading involved if nothing else, and the simple fascination with the readings, will impact the reader’s worldview, effectively, hopefully, guiding the reader more into a worldview of a Christian of the ages, something rare and wondrous in these days. Related to this idea of worldview, possibly my favorite article is one by Luke Timothy Johnson, “Imagining the World Scripture Imagines” (Modern Theology 14.2 [April 1988]: 165-180). In brief, he describes how the worldview of not just the authors of Scripture, but the initial hearers and readers of Scripture is something that we need to recover. How better to do this than by immersing ourselves in the Scriptures themselves, and in the writings that were produced and written in reflection on them which became so well-received as to themselves become Scriptures. And yet, the three levels which I describe may also serve as a series of psychological safety barriers as well, for none of us would be truly comfortable with associating all these disparate writings with one another as all completely equivalent in value of canonicity. Thus My Canon, the canon of your own hearth; Our Canon, the canon of friends and neighbors; and Their Canon, the canon of the departed, many of whom were people of great holiness, and from whom we could learn much.

It’s a thought.

Some further thoughts of mine on the Biblical canon:
On the Biblical Canon
McDonald’s Biblical Canon
Codex Hierosolymitanus Canon List
It’s all canonical fun!
An Enochian memorial?
On the Confusion of “Canon”
Caveat scriptor!
On McDonald’s The Biblical Canon
Regula fidei scriptorumque
Canon(s) or Canonical?
Goodies from The Biblical Canon
(Various of those posts will also include links to other writers’ very interesting thoughts on the Biblical canon.)

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