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.


  1. As always, enlightening, Kevin. Have you read Jaroslav Pelikan’s next-to-last book, Whose Bible Is It? It’s about the Jewish and Christian intersection of views on canon. I’ve only gotten about 30 pages in, but it’s fascinating, and reminds me of one of my all-time favorites, John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. I wish there was more goodwill to create space to talk about our shared sacred texts with respect (e.g. Christians not viewing the Old Testament as the “Cold Testament” and Jews being willing to read the New Testament with charity and seeing the value in its teachings.) Canonical chauvinism is basically a manifestation of the same old us-versus-them fundamentalism that gets in the way of genuine reciprocity among different faith traditions. When our shared traditions (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Eastern, etc.) overlap so much, it is easy to see how there can be such sharp disagreement, but I would hope there would be an equal amount of charity and good faith.

  2. Thanks, Justin! I haven’t read Pelikan’s or Yoder’s books, but those certainly do sound interesting.

    Part of avoiding the canonical chauvinism you mention is the importance of honesty in any interactions. We have to be up front about our solid support for our own traditions, while still being appreciative of the input coming from others. For instance, the unique role of the Septuagint and Masoretic texts in the history of Christianity and Judaism is a fine example of a shared resource which was read differently in each context. Greek Orthodox hold the LXX as canonical in the same way that the Jews hold the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, but each still refers to the other for illumination of their own treasured text. We take that interaction for granted in a scholarly context, but in what way can it be made valuable in the context of faith traditions? The same relates to my categories of “Second Canon” and “Esteemed Books” described above. Most of these books were authored in Jewish contexts, and were apparently valued to the extent that talent and resources were devoted to their creation. But they were transmitted (with greater or lesser alterations) by Christians, who found value in them, and still do. Part of honoring the “Church Triumphant” in the “Church Militant” is precisely reading what they read, valuing what they valued, and incorporating those works respectfully into our own traditions. At the very least, turning people away from the prejudice that they’re just fables and not worth the careful attention of devoted reading is a necessary step.

  3. Very interesting post! This really gives me something to ponder as I get ready to teach Old Testament survey next spring–although I\’ll still probably have to zero in on the Protestant/Jewish canon given the exigencies of my teaching milieu. Still, I was planning on discussing the formation of the canon and the \

  4. Sorry: browser went goofy. Here’s the rest of my comment:

    … “extra” books. These thoughts provide a helpful way of clarifying some important things that need to be said.

  5. I’m pleased to have helped. D.P.! As I mentioned, these are just jottings from a little notebook, but it’s an idea that I think I’ll start expanding on soon, because of this recent conversation. I’ve always been fascinated by the varying canon lists and the way to explain their differences in relation to one another, to the material evidence in manuscript pandects, and to modern canon lists. Then there is the development of things like the collection of works we call The Apostolic Fathers, a subset of which collection is found in Codex Hierosolymitanus, dated 1056 but drawing, very likely, on a very late fourth or early fifth century compilation. Thus “The Apostolic Fathers” itself is a canon, one whose borders are blurred with the Bible, judging by manuscripts of the latter which include works like The Shepherd, or 1 or 2 Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabas, etc .

    So, in a way, I think the above suggestions can be developed not just as a prescriptive idea, of advocating a multi-tiered canon, but also as a descriptive framework which can help us to make sense of the overlapping but divergent lines of data in all the Biblical Canon information available. Fun stuff!

  6. I’m particularly interested in the ecumenical implications for elaborating on this idea of a “multi-tiered” (“loose-leaf”??) canon. First, it would seem to provide a kind-hearted, open-minded way to show respect for everyone at the table. Second, it provides those of us Christians with the narrowest canon (and often the least regard for the history of the church) an impetus for expanding, if not “our” canon, at least our appreciation for the development of Christian tradition.

  7. Yes, D.P., that’s particularly what was in mind when I wrote that down. I wrote it in a period when I was doing precisely that kind of reading, gaining an appreciation for the history of Christian tradition which led not too long after to my conversion to Orthodoxy. Alot of the reading was a by-product of my study of lectionaries, studying the interconnection between passages selected for whatever feast day, teasing out the themes, and seeing the much wider variety of lengthier readings used anciently than are used in the modern lectionaries. An appreciation of how different traditions use the same Bible led to discovery of their appreciation of the books that make their Bibles different, which is an ongoing process still. With reception history now becoming more popular, it’s becoming much easier to find studies on this aspect of traditional readings/use of these various books, but there’s still a whole lot of reading primary sources that’s necessary. Fortunately, it’s fascinating stuff!

  8. Kevin,

    When you write “I haven’t read Pelikan’s or Yoder’s books,” do you mean any of their books? It would surprise me if you haven’t read the former’s definitive history of Christianity in five volumes. He also has great books on the developments of creeds, Christology, Mariology, and canon (the book in question.)

    I completely agree: we need to have honesty, passion, and charity. If we are honest and charitable, but not passionate, we end up sitting around saying “Oh, that’s nice.” If we are charitable and passionate, but not honest, we can hide our agendas that come to us from our respective traditions. If we are passionate and honest, but not charitable, that’s a recipe for simply being an ideologue. If we all have the assumption that we have something to learn from one another and that we have genuine differences between us, that is the only way to move forward with any dialogue – ecumenical, Jewish/Christian, and inter-faith.

    It would be the joy of my heart to see believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reading one another’s holy texts with an eye toward what truth they contain, but not forgoing any critical faculties. An evangelical Protestant doesn’t “admit defeat” by reading the Apocrypha – he can read it searching for every flaw (fundamentalism), he can read it carelessly assuming that it’s just as valid as anything else (subjectivism), or he can read it with critical thinking skills and a hospitable attitude (charity, honesty, and passion.) This includes pious Jews reading the New Testament, Church Fathers, etc. and Christians of all traditions reading the Talmud, Mishna, Gemara, etc. Although it’s definitely true that there are serious differences that have emerged historically between what we call “Christianity” and “Judaism,” it is also true that they share more rich tradition between themselves than do any other two faiths (the only close possibility being Islam and Baha’i.)

    The real question is: Why shouldn’t we read these other Scriptures?


  9. Hi Justin! I’ve read plenty of other things by Pelikan, just not the particular book you mentioned. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Yoder, though. The name isn’t familiar at all.

    I definitely agree that reading the rabbinic texts is a good thing. But I don’t think those actually fit into the same category that I was describing, however informative they may be. They require a good deal more training to comprehend before being of benefit to the reader. They’re not meant to be read privately, but in the context of receiving a rabbinically guided education. Productive private reading of these texts is almost impossible. Their methods of argumentation and condensation are very particular, and easily misunderstood. A superficial “outside” reading very easily leads to misunderstanding, despite the best of intentions. It’s definitely fascinating stuff, but outside of what I was considering above.

    The works I think of primarily as belonging to the categories I was discussing in the post are those works springing out of only pre-rabbinic/pre-Christian Judean circles and early Christianity, the various apocryphal/pseudepigraphic/deuterocanonical writings that fit into the shaded borders of overlapping Christian canons, something that gives an historically ecumenical (not interfaith) breadth and a better understanding of the way early Christians appreciate(d) the various writings as canonical.

    Also, rather than seeing this as so much of a prescriptive practice for others, I just start with the individual I can influence best: myself. Others can do as they please. This is something I think is a good approach, and others can try it out and let me know how it works for them. But advocating it as some kind of programmatic practice is a bit much. I’ll be writing more on the subject soon, though. So stay tuned!

  10. Kevin,

    Yoder’s a Mennonite; his classic piece is Politics of Jesus. As you might imagine ,he brings an Anabaptist/peace church perspective to his writings.

    Re: rabbinic texts. Granted. Certainly, to be of use and properly understood, the Talmud needs to be read in a context of Jewish history and culture (e.g. in a shul.) While that is also true of the canon, it is much less the case, and there is neither as much minutiae nor as much necessary background knowledge.

    For that matter, I certainly agree with the notion of being the change you want to see. I would not put any pressure on anyone else to read texts outside his canon, simply encouragement to do so.

    Again, good as always.


  11. Beginning in September of 2006, I made a serendipitous discovery of amazing stuff in Ethiopian Enoch. So I began an in-depth study of the book; almost one year has passed and I’m still digging it out. Slowly, this process has led me to a re-examination of the other subjects such as inspiration, scripture transmission, and canonization. Over the past month I began my first investigation of the Apochrypha from a devotional perspective; (having left the RCC tradition many years ago, I had become unjustly prejudiced toward those books). This week I had come to exactly the same conclusions as yourself, Kevin, with nearly identical justifications as you list above. Now I read your blog and comments you’d elucidated as early as 1999!

    I think it would be wonderful if all the books of the canons of the ancient communions could be appreciated by Christians in more universally.

    Thanks for your thoughts, I’ll have to give your other posts some look-see as well.

    Take care,

    Bob Burns
    San Francisco

Leave a Comment

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