Category Archives: Canon

Goodies from The Biblical Canon

Below are some particularly striking excerpts from Lee Martin McDonald’s book, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007). I thought others might find them stimulating, too.

Just because a text was cited by a well-known church father, one cannot assume that the writing was a part of either his or others’ biblical canon. This was often misunderstood even in antiquity. Every citation or quote must be evaluated on its own merit before being added to someone’s biblical canon.
page 29

Evidence that the Prophets had not yet moved into a fixed-canon category by the late third century B.C.E. is seen in the translation of the LXX (ca. 280-250 B.C.E.), when the Law alone was translated into Greek. Had other OT writings been accepted as inviolable Scripture at that time, it seems likely that they too would have been part of that translation project. Later (ca. 150-130 B.C.E.), the Prophets circulated in a somewhat loose collection of Scriptures, as the prologue to Sirach suggests; and the Writings were circulating in a looser form until someone later in the second or first century B.C.E., when they are other religious texts were translated into Greek and added to the LXX.
page 35

In an old but still important contribution to canonical studies, Reuss (1891) claims correctly that the question of the biblical canon depends on a theory of inspiration that simply was not present or even an issue for the apostles and their immediate disciples.
page 110

De Jonge is certainly correct when he claims that “because Christians were convinced of the continuity in God’s revelation through the great figures of the ‘Old Testament” and through Jesus Christ and his apostles, the distinction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Christian’ was for them only of relative importance.”
page 146

The Apostolic Fathers, the closest Christian writings to the time of the NT, quote, refer, or allude to 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras, and 1 Enoch—but not to the canonical books of Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Obadiah, Micah, or Haggai. This is important information for those who argue that Jesus’ canon could not have included the Apocrypha since he does not cite this literature. Does this argument also extend to the flip side and claim that Jesus did not accept Judges, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentation, Obadiah, Micah, or Haggai since he did not cite or quote them? Since the second-century churches were informed by more than the current Protestant OT canonical literature, this reaises the question whether today’s church should reconsider what literature informs its faith and witness.
page 221

Again, Irenaeus’s primary concern was to defend the Christian message, which was his “canon,” and he limited this message to the apostolic tradition resident in the church, which in turn was limited to (i.e., found in only) the primary literature of the second-century church (i.e., four NT Gospels and an imprecise collection of Paul’s Letters). . . . For Irenaeus, the apostolic witness was the primary determining principle for the recognition of the authority of the NT Scriptures (Haer. 3.2.2). He did not limit the succession of the apostolic witness, however, to the bishops at Rome alone (Haer. 3.3.2).
page 297

Failure to mention an ancient source does not necessarily mean this source was either unknown of not viewed as authoritative by Irenaeus.
page 301

This implies that the standard applied to pseudepigraphy was orthodoxy. If a particular writing fit theologically with what was acceptable to a particular Christian community, then the writing itself was acceptable, even though someone other than the author listed may have written it.
page 347

“While it is true that the Biblical authors were inspired by God, this does not mean that inspiration is a criterion of canonicity. A writing is not canonical because its author was inspired, but rather an author is considered to be inspired because what he has written is recognized as canonical, that is, is recognized as authoritative.” Inspiration was not a criterion by which a NT book was given the status of Scripture and later placed into a fixed biblical canon, but rather a corollary to its recognized status.
page 420

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Canon(s) or Canonical?

Terminology related to the canon of the Bible’s books is rife with confusion. The usage of “canon” itself to refer to a collection of books is only of eighteenth century vintage. The general usage anciently and to the present of canon or κανων was in reference to a rule, either literal or metaphorical, that is, either a measuring stick of some kind or a set of beliefs held as an authoritative code for one’s behavior. Yet these days, in discussing various books of the Bible, people will often speak of whether a book is canonical or non-canonical, by which they simply mean whether it is or is not considered a book of the Bible, or the “Biblical canon” by which they mean that list of books in the Bible. This usage is likely to only generate more confusion, because it is then assumed that there is some single official list of books that belong to the Bible, which there is not. Different faith traditions have different Bibles. Among Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholics and Orthodox each have an increasing number of different books included in their Bibles, with the latter having several different lists of such books (from the Eastern Orthodox, the Russian and Greek traditions differ by including one book each which the other doesn’t; among the Oriental Orthodox, the Coptic Church and Ethiopic Churches include even more books than the Eastern Orthodox, while some of the Syrian Orthodox have five fewer books in their New Testament through excluding the books of 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse). As is also well known, the Jewish Bible includes the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, though traditionally arranging the books in a different order than they do. So, there is no “the” canon at all, but several canons, depending upon various traditions, which situation becomes even more complex if one looks at historical documentation concerning which books various ancient writers thought should be considered part of the Bible. Let us leave this confusion to the side for now.

There is a better way to discuss these books, by simply using “canonical” with the older connotation in mind. That is, these books are canonical to particular groups because they were considered to reflect their regula fidei or κανων πιστεως. By using this approach, we not only come to an immediate understanding of precisely why certain traditions include the various books in their Bibles, but also enter into a greater continuity with past reflection on and usage of the the word and concept of “canon,” thus returning to an understanding that these books didn’t just happen to be in a certain collection divorced from all interaction with people as though by an inevitable physical process which has yet to be discovered, but rather through a process in which they were recognized as reflective of the values and mores, the “canons,” of those groups which mindfully and prayerfully included them in their Bibles. Likewise, other books were prayerfully and mindfully excluded, as they were not considered to reflect the rule of faith or tradition.

Thus, rather than saying, “This is the Eastern Orthdox Biblical Canon,” it is better to say, “These are the canonical books of the Bible in the Eastern Orthodox Church.” The difference in usage is subtle, but important. “Canonical” connotes a relationship to a tradition’s rule of faith as canon, while “canon” would attempt to substitute a set of mute books for that living tradition. It is a kind of bibliolatry to place the books of the Bible in the position of the Rule of Faith. They are certainly a part of it, along with other elements, but they are not the Rule of Faith itself. Our language should reflect that reality.

It is important to remember that, as some wag put it, “The Church wrote the Bible; the Bible didn’t create the Church.”

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Regula fidei scriptorumque

The challenges of the second century, including local persecution of Christians and the growth of heresy (Gnosticism, Marcion, and the Montanists), were not responded to by the establishment of a biblical canon in the second century, but rather by setting forth a “canon of faith” (regula fidei), namely, a creed that stated what was generally believed to be the true teaching of the church at that time. There was no firmly fixed biblical canon at the end of the second century, but rather several books of the NT—primarily the Gospels and several of Paul’s Letters—were beginning to be called “Scripture.”

Lee Martin McDonald. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority, p. xix.

McDonald raises an interesting point, one which bears elaboration and extension into the first century. Rather than characterizing the regula fidei as a “creed” particularly, which calls to mind a classic verbal summary formulation of beliefs, like the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, among others, it’s better to understand the regula fidei as a shared worldview, which includes not only particularized
statements of beliefs, but is truly an entire complicated mindset involving behavior, action, belief, vocabulary, and writings, just as it still is today. The regula fidei that I know as an Eastern Christian is more than the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we recite in the Divine Liturgy, much, much more. But I digress.

McDonald mentions a series of instances in which the Church was forced to clarify its beliefs in the face of disbelief or wrong belief. Eventually, these clarifications would take the form of Ecumenical Councils, which would respond to various heresies and administrative issues. But earlier, before such a universally organized and effective response was possible, what was the practice? McDonald mentions here the formation of the regula fidei in the second century in response to such stimuli. I would say that we quite literally need to date the establishment of this back into the first century itself, finding the writings of the apostles and their successors reflecting an earlier establishment of the regula fidei that was operative at that time, the original apostolic deposit of faith, not so well-articulated as in later years, once it had gained interest, so to speak, yet obviously present. In this sense, the actual writing of the Gospels and Epistles and other books fits also into that framework of stabilization later represented by the Ecumenical (and other) Councils, following as the writings do on the verbal, personal establishment of the faith communities, the local churches, by the apostles. Notice that in every one of the New Testament writings we find clarification on various topics in the form of correction or even polemic which is sometimes so mild as to be missable and other times sharply, almost viciously, explicit. In this sense, the writings themselves are an expression of clarification of that regula fidei established by the apostles in their missionary work, and preserved among the communities thus founded. This is particularly clear in the letters of Paul, where in several letters we find him misunderstood (I think primarily of the two letters to the Thessalonians) and so clarifying issues, or explicitly reacting against improper beliefs imposed by others (seemingly every other letter of his!). The Gospels too, contain more subtle evidence of such, as well, if only by their existence and acceptance among the apostolically founded groups that they were believed to represent Christ more truly, indeed, to reflect more clearly the regula fidei than other gospels did.

So, I would like to suggest that the writing of the individual New Testament books, their preservation, and subsequent canonization as part of the New Testament was all a part of the growth of the deposit of faith, part of the safeguarding of the original apostolic regula fidei. During the second and third centuries, the work of safeguarding the faith continued differently, by producing other, different writings, and also thereby extending defense of the faith more fully. Eventually, the first expressions of defense and establishment of the faith, those books we know as the 27 books of the New Testament, being related to the apostles themselves and the first generation of Christians, were recognized as authentic and particularly more foundational and special than subsequent orthodox writings, and were established as a canon. The recognition of these books in particular was also somewhat circular. As there was an original deposit of faith at the establishment of the various churches of the Great Church, as it was then known, and these works were shared among those apostolically founded communities, the worldview or the regula fidei in the communities and the writings meshed, and each reinforced the other. The esoteric expansive writings of the New Testament apocrypha didn’t stand a chance outside their own communities, as they literally made no sense in the context of a different regula fidei. On the other hand, various other writings, like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, etc, and popular expansive writings like the Acts of Paul, written also from within the same apostolically founded regula fidei, were very popular, but recognized as sub-apostolic, and not as valuable as those earliest documents.

In summary, the writing of the New Testament documents occurred for the reason of defense of the faith, as the further clarification of the very rule of faith (regula fidei) established by the apostles when the local church communities were founded in the first century.

(As a side note, I use two terms in the above: “esoteric expansive writings” and “popular expansive writings.” I am putting these terms through a trial run, to test them for applicability as replacements for “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” in relation to both the Old and New Testaments. That is, all such materials tend to be expansive literature based on some element or other of the core canon of the OT or NT. The “esoteric expansive writings” show clear sectarian markers that indicate their use in only a particular group. The “popular expansive writings” were those works which were, of course, popular, more well-known, and thereby better preserved. Using “esoteric” and “popular” seemed good choices to avoid the arguments which would ensue by using “heretical” or “gnostic” versus “orthodox,” which would be anachronistic or incorrect. The popular works are occasionally of questionable orthodoxy, and “gnostic” wasn’t the only kind of non-orthodoxy around. In any case, new terminology to replace “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” is necessary, and these are my suggestions.)

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On McDonald’s The Biblical Canon

Back in January I wrote about Lee Martin McDonald’s book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007), detailing a number of errors that I’d noticed that finally put me off reading the book. As you can see there, Dr McDonald has left a very illuminating comment, in addition to sending me a private email covering the same points, showing that several of these errors were actually caused by the editor, rather than being allowed to slip past the editor, as I had so ungenerously assumed. As I explained in my apology to Dr McDonald, it simply had not entered my mind that a professional editor could be so inept. The lesson here is quite obviously caveat scriptor! I reproduce his comment in full here:

Dear Readers:

Thank you for these comments. I looked at the manuscript that I sent to Hendricksons to see what I actually had sent to them because the sentence about Sirach translating the Septuagint on p. 80 was just as surprising to me as to you. My original manuscript to them said: “These “writings” circulated in Palestine and were later translated from Hebrew into Greek— probably by the time of Sirach’s translation—not only for the Jews in Egypt, but also for the other Jews in the Diaspora.” The editor dropped out “the time” and it came out absolutely wrong. As you can see on pages 83-84, I only claim that the grandson of Sirach translated his grandfather’s work. I would not consciously claim that any one individual translated the LXX –no one says that. Thank you for catching this.

Also, the word “theraputae” (a plural form) should, of course, be “Therapeutae.” It is listed as Theraputai in some volumes, but here it is clearly wrong in my volume.

I was just as disappointed as you when I saw how the editor butchered the Neusner dictum on p. 170. changning “not” to “know” destroyed the whole point of the saying.

By the reference to three-dimensional stelae on pp. 39-40 I mean to focus on height, breadth, and depth. I am sorry for the confusion.

I do accept the other comments also as quite helpful. I was told by one of the readers that Hendrickson has issued a new printing in March and they were supposed to have caught several of these mistakes. I called them about several of them in January, but I do not know if they were caught. I have not yet seen the new printing, but several of the mistakes were, of course, embarrassing and I apologize that they appeared. The pressure to get the volume out after many editorial delays allowed for a quick read and not a good one. Ultimately the errors are my responsibility and I accept that. I assure you that I will be much more careful in my next volume.

Thank you again for your help. If you find any other errors, I will be most happy to receive them and I will ask that they be corrected in the next printing. I am on sabbatical leave at the moment, but I may be still be contacted this year at lee.mcdonald<at>

Thank you again.

Lee Martin McDonald

I intend to recommence reading the book, making a detailed list of everything that seems odd. If any other readers were so inclined, it would be good to forward those lists to Dr McDonald for the sake of corrections made in a future printing, or perhaps a second edition. The book itself, corrected, would be a great resource, I think, and an excellent summary of the status quaestionis about the Biblical canon. It would certainly make a fine textbook for any classes on the subject.

At this point I also want to recommend to those readers who may not know it, a volume co-edited by Lee Martin McDonald and James Sanders, The Canon Debate (Hendrickson, 2002). Each chapter is by a different scholar covering various subjects related to the development of both the Old Testament and New Testament canons. Several of the chapters in that book were starkly illuminating, and altered my thought on several issues regarding canon formation, particularly the Mason, Lewis, and Lightstone chapters. Keeping in mind that the work is multi-authored, with some overlap of coverage and even some minor instances of contradiction between chapters inevitable, the work as a whole flows well and coherently. I cannot recommend it more highly, and trust that I shall soon be able to recommend McDonald’s The Biblical Canon with equal enthusiasm!

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Caveat scriptor!

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a short review of Lee Martin McDonald’s new book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007). He has just left a comment indicating he’s been working on a list of corrections to be incorporated in the second printing, thankfully. Take a look at his comments there. Also, for those of you who publish, it would apparently be quite a good thing for you to remember never to assume your editor knows anything more than where to put commas.

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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.)
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.

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It’s all canonical fun!

John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has made an initial post in a long series on the Biblical Canon, an initial full text version of which he’s sent to various bloggers. In it he brings up something that I always try to bring forward whenever we start to talk about “the Biblical canon”: there’s not just one Christian canon now, there has never been just one Christian one, and there didn’t used to be just one Jewish one. And while I think the de facto result of the history of the canon has led to the evidently universal recognition of the 27 books of the New Testament being agreed, the differences between the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testaments (yes, plural) defies reduction. It’s a great subject, and I think John has taken it in a good direction, one which it seldom goes, recognizing canonical multiplicity as a fact, and not necessarily a bad one, while also recognizing a core of texts that are implicitly recognized by all the traditions as perhaps the canonical core, based upon preserved ancient quotation, allusion, and homilies. It’s fascinating stuff.

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