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!


  1. Hi John. Yes, it would be, but I don’t think everything would fit easily in just one volume, as there are so very many different books involved. For instance, it would need to include not just the Old Testament translated from Hebrew and Aramaic, but also that of the Septuagint, with all its extra books. This is because the LXX books, even those which are also in the Hebrew Bible, differ textually, sometimes significantly, from the Hebrew versions. So there’s a few inches thick book already. Adding to that all the rest of the books today considered canonical doesn’t add too much, but adding all the ones that were historically canonical and no longer are would be a significant chunk. It could easily be four inches thick on Bible paper, I would think.

    I’ll just work on a list for now. If someone ever wanted to publish such a volume, we’ll deal with that then.

  2. The list alone will be very useful! I just ordered the new LXX translation on your recommendation and look forward to it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *