Sunday, August 25, 2013

Questions about Canon

[Study resource for adult Christian formation class at my church on August 25th 2013]

Please read through the following resource from Mennonite New Testament scholar Loren Johns in preparation for our discussion.  The Google Books link will take you to his essay.

Johns, Loren L.  “Was ‘Canon’ Ever God’s Will?” Pages 41-45 in Jewish and Christian Scriptures: the Funciton of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-Canonical Religious Texts. Edited by James H. Charlesworth and Lee Martin McDonald. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Questions about Canon
“Canon” comes from a Greek word that means “measuring rod.”  The biblical canon is the list of books that is considered to be specially authoritative and that make up our Bibles.  There are a lot of important historical, theological, and practical questions surrounding the canon, but they receive little attention within most churches.  Here are some questions to consider:

How did we get the Bibles that we have?  Why do we have these partiulcar books, and not others? Why do different Christians have different books in their Old Testaments?

How do we justify what is inside our Bibles?  What good reasons can we offer for having the particular books we do and not others?

Does it make sense to claim the Bible and not church tradition is our authority, when it was centuries of church tradition that made the Bible in the first place?

What does it mean for a book to be in the Bible?  Are all books in the Bible fundamentally different from all books outside of the Bible?  And if so, what makes them different?

Is our Bible “flat”?  In other words, do all of the books inside have the same authority? 

Can we add or remove books of the Bible?  Why or why not?

Do we need a clearly defined, closed list of writings?  Do we need a ‘Bible’? 

There are some additional questions for Anabaptist Christians who have traditionally criticized some of the post-Constantinian developments in the early Christian church.  Anabaptists have challenged the development of Christian just war theory and the role of political/imperial power in the formation of the creeds.  We also need to give attention to the role of “Constantinianism” in the formation of the Christian canon of scripture. While beliefs that the Bible was “closed” at the end of the 1st century may still linger in some fundamentalist circles, most now accept that canon formation was a lengthy process which took some of its most significant steps in the 4th century CE – the century in which Christianity became a legitimate religion of the Roman empire under Constantine, and the official religion under Theodosius I.

As Anabaptists I believe we need to explore the relationship between the ancient trends we identify as “Constantinian” and the formation of our biblical canon.  We need to ask what roles power, conformity, and coercion played in this process.  This is not just a matter of “which books are in, which books are out?”  It also involves looking at the very idea of a closed, authoritative canon of scripture.  As Loren Johns points out, when we talk about canon formation many assume that a closed canon of scripture, a Bible as we have it, was a historical and/or theological inevitability -- it just took time to get there.  But we have to seriously ask whether or not the very idea a closed canon of scripture was a historical or theological inevitability, and thus whether it has continuing normative value for us.  Is the very idea of a closed canon a result of the trends, developments, and characteristics of ancient Christianity that we reject in areas like peace/war?

A few more questions to consider:

Most scholars agree that the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 was not an “original” part of the Gospel of John, but was added at a later point.  Does this make the story non-canonical?  Many scholars also believe that John 21 was added to the Gospel after the death of the beloved disciple.  Is this canonical?  The same is true of the various longer endings of Mark, which have either been cut from many modern English translations or placed in a footnote.  What ending of Mark is canonical?

Many books in our Bible underwent a long process of literary development and editing before they reached their current forms.  The Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) was created from several earlier documents.  The prophets were edited over the centuries, with oracles being added to the books along the way.  What do we make of this process?  Do these earlier stages matter, or is it just the final canonical form that is important?

We do not have the “original” manuscripts of any biblical writings (the word “original” is in scare quotes because the long process of development we just mentioned makes the very idea of an original manuscript questionable).  Instead we have copies of copies, all of which disagree with each other.  What is canonical?  Do we do our best to figure out what the “original” might have looked like, and consider our reconstruction of that original text canonical?  Do we pick a single manuscript or manuscript family?  Is every manuscript canonical?

Most scholars believe that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and that Paul did not write 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, or Titus.  Additionally, many scholars believe Paul did not write Ephesians or Colossians, and that Peter did not write 2nd Peter.  Does this have any impact on the canonical status of these writings?

Many of the stories in the Bible are probably not historical, including some of the stories and sayings in the Gospels.  Does this matter?  Does something have to be historical for us to consider it canonical?

Myths and Quick Notes About the Canon

  • Myth: the Old Testament canon was closed by the time of Jesus.  There was no closed Old Testament canon in Jesus’ time.  Different Jewish groups had different understandings of which writings were scripture and how these writings were to be approached, conceptualized, and interpreted. 
  • We do see the formation of three general categories for sacred writings among early Jewish groups: Law, Prophets, Writings.  These categories continue to be used today.
  • In trying to answer the question “what books should be in our Old Testament?” some Christians say that we should look at which writings are quoted or used by Jesus and the New Testament writers.  Some things to consider here: (1) not all of the books we consider canonical are quoted or used within the New Testament; (2) there is evidence that New Testament authors knew and used some writings from the Apocrypha; (3) Jude quotes from 1 Enoch, and probably considered this book to be scripture.
  • Myth: the Jews made their canon official at the council of Jamnia/Yavneh at the end of the 1st century CE.  Recent scholarship has rejected this.
  • Myth: the Christian canon was all wrapped up by the end of the 1st century CE.  Canon formation was a centuries long process and the scope and nature of the canon continues to be debated by Christians today.  This process was not just a matter of picking which books were in and which were out – the very idea of canon and scripture developed over time. 
  • Myth: those books inside the Bible are inspired, while those outside the Bible are not.  The early Christians did not consider inspiration and canon to be the same thing.  While all canonical books were inspired, not all inspired books were canonical.  Inspiration was not the sole property of canonical writings.
  • Myth: we cannot add or remove anything from the Bible because of the warning at the end of Revelation.  When John wrote Revelation there was not yet a Bible, and this warning referred only to the book of Revelation.  Additionally, the warning may not be referring to physically adding or removing portions of the book, but obeying its message. 

Additional Resources
If you have access to a full-text journal database or a theological library, you might also look at David Brakke’s article:

Brakke, David.  “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasisus             of Alexandria’s Thirty-Ninth ‘Festal Letter’.” The Harvard Theological Review 87 (1994): 395-419.

 In Hector Avalos’ provocative article he argues for de-canonizing violent texts in scripture:

Mark Goodacre has some links to canon information on the web at:


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