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 mother of Jesus) 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 like 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 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 of Jesus! 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 Ethiopian Christians. 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, and their hymnography draws on even more works. 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 books which 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 any continuous tradition.) 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 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 broader 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 of those ancient Christians 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 faith, 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.)


  1. Kevin, thank you for an informative post again.

    It seems to opportunity for folks to become more broad in their exposure to this pool of writings is greater today than ever. I would have never purchased a copy of 1 Enoch initially, but now, having read him online, I’m interested in all the rest too.

    On a more granular level, are you aware if at any time “The Lives of the Prophets”, was included on anyone’s canonical list of authoritative books?

    Also, in part inspired by your communications on this subject, I’ve put up http://www.summascriptura.com a couple weeks back.

    Take care,


  2. Thanks, guys!

    Yes, Bob, the Lives of the Prophets is referred to as the Deaths of the Prophets in the Armenian OT as found in the canon list attributed to John the Deacon. See Michael Stone, “Armenian Canon Lists III: The Lists of Mechitar of Ayrivank (c. 1285 CE)” Harvard Theological Review 69.3/4 [Jul-Oct 1976]: 289-300. See especially pp 295 for the list, and 299, where he describes some of the expansions on the LivPro in the Armenian version (with some bibliographic references, too). This list is the most comprehensive in the Armenian lists presented in Stone’s series of articles, and is clearly one based in a canonical theory as opposed to actual practice. This is known through the inclusion of 4 Maccabees in the list, which Stone says is “unknown in Armenian.” But the Lives of the Prophets certainly was known. Even so, the above-mentioned list leapt out of the realm of canonical theory into that of canonical practice when Mechitar used it as the basis for writing the manuscript now known as Erevan Matenadaran 1500, as Stone describes.

  3. Kevin, relating two of your favorite topics (mine too), the canon and the yearly reading schedule, once its been settled which books are included in the various canonical lists of books, we get to create a reading schedule to cycle through the entire corpus in the course of a year! Along those lines, what do you think of the following possible sequence for all the Jeremiah-literature that’s included:

    The Letter of Jeremiah
    Things Ommitted from Jeremiah (4 Baruch)
    Tha Apocalypse of Baruch

    I’ve left off 3 Baruch, not having seen it on any canonical lists as yet. Perhaps after I’ve read it, I’ll add it anyway! 🙂

    Your thoughts?


  4. Hi Bob,
    I think you’re right. That’s probably the minimum for the Jeremiah books. I haven’t run across other books (like 3Bar) in lists/manuscripts that I can think of, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there somewhere. I’m not really at the stage yet to put a list together at that level of detail, because there’s so much to look into, and there are a few more helpful books I need to get to start on that particular level of detail for this project. It’ll certainly be a fun thing to do! I need to look into the manuscript evidence, which books are included together in what kinds of groups, when/where were they produced, and stuff like that. I have a suspicion that such will be very illuminating. So that’s my next step.

    Also, the organization I recommend above really doesn’t lend itself easily to one list of reading, because the first two categories, the My and Our Canons, will differ depending upon the different traditions people belong to. It would also be alot of reading, because there are going to be a larger number of books than even the Ethiopians have now. I don’t even feel comfortable with making a tentative list of such books in the Their Canon category of historically canonical and still surviving works. As I said, I want to try to limit them to those which are orthodox, and that line is a very fine one. It’ll take more work.

    But thanks for your enthusiastic interest!

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