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.


  1. Great notes Kevin! I’ve determined to spend the next year really studying the canon (beginning in Jan.) and I’ll make sure to bookmark this page for frequent reference. Thanks!

  2. Kevin,

    Hear, hear to points three and five. The Bible-only fundamentalists and Protestants seem to have some assumption that one day John set about to write “the Bible,” or that Paul was under the impression that he was just writing another book for the Tanakh. The New Testament reflects as well as guides the life of the Church.

    This paradox is further compounded by the insistence on using the Bible as the only rule of faith (whatever that means), but then applying categories of understanding to it that simply don’t exist within it. Such as canon and apocrypha. These notions are abstractions that have been applied in retrospect. They might be useful, but not necessary and over reliance on them impinges upon the ability to understand the Bible as it actually is (e.g. a literal reading of Genesis one in young-earth, six-day creationism versus allowing the poetic construction of the book speak for itself.)

    For all of the reliance and authority given to the Bible, this movement almost makes it a point to remain ignorant about the Bible’s construction, themes, development, original languages, etc.


  3. Kevin, I purchased a bunch of books last month on the canon to add to the few that I already had. Among the new purchases was The Canon Debate. I haven’t gotten into it yet, but thanks for letting me know that it’s worth while. 🙂

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