CANON OF THE SCRIPTURE
There are two basic uses of the word “canon.” The one refers to the shape of a limited body of literature held sacred by a believing community. The other refers to the function in such a community of texts and traditions held sacred by it. Traditional terms used to designate these distinct uses are norma normata, in reference to a limited and authoritative list of sacred books, and norma normans in reference to literature and/or traditions that function authoritatively in the community, which finds in them its identity and indications for its lifestyle. But the terms “shape” and “function” are broader and include pre- and protocanonical literary and historical factors as well as factors resulting from the eventual stabilization of text and canon.
Some (though not all) of the great religions of the world are scriptured, such as Judaism, the Samaritan religion, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. When one speaks of a canon of sacred literature, one must relate it to a community of faith (Sanders, 1984a). In antiquity there were differing canons within Judaism and Christianity, and to a lesser extent the situation persists. The Sadducees, like the Samaritans, accepted only the Pentateuch as canon, and the extent of the canon of the Jewish sect at Qumran is not certain. The word “canon” is used by J. Neusner to refer to the rabbinic corpus in addition to the Jewish Bible or even instead of the Bible (Neusner, 1987, pp. 43-51).
Within Christianity the so-called Apocrypha were included in printed editions of the Bible until the late nineteenth century when some Protestant groups began to omit them; the Roman Catholic Bible has always included them as deuterocanonical. The Orthodox churches sometimes include more than the Apocrypha. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has eighty-one books in its canon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is perhaps the latest to claim the Christian canon to be open-ended (Davies, 1986). The discovery at Nag Hammadi of documents dating from the second and following centuries has brought the number of known noncanonical gospels to about twenty-five. This has raised the issue in scholarly discussion of whether there should be a clear distinction between canonical and noncanonical.
The word “canon” is derived from the Greek kanon, which itself came from a Semitic root (Hebrew qaneh, Assyrian qan u, [Sumerian-] Akkadian qin, Ugaritic gn). The original meaning was “reed,” as in the English “cannon,” something firm and straight. It came to designate a stick used for drawing a straight line or for measuring, such as a “ruler.” Metaphoric uses included meanings like “model,” “standard” (Phil. 3:16 in some manuscripts), “limit” (2 Cor. 10:13) or “paradigm.” ATHANASIUS was the first (367) clearly known to use the word to designate the twenty-seven books of the New Testament: “Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.”
Jews did not apparently use the word until after the Enlightenment. The canon of the early churches was the so-called Old Testament, or what was included in the term “Scripture” (e.g., Jn. 2:22 and Acts 8:32) or “the Scriptures” (Mk. 12:24; 1 Cor. 15:3-4) at that time. Other terms were “Holy Scriptures,” “the writings,” “the sacred scriptures,” “the Law and the Prophets,” “the Law and the Prophets and other writings,” or “. . . and Psalms” as in Luke 24:44. In Judaism, other terms used were “holy books,” “reading,” “holy writings,” “that which is written,” and “those [books] that soil the hands.” The most precise term used in Judaism for the tripartite Jewish canon is TaNaK—an acrostic designating Torah, Neb i im (Prophets), and Ket ub im (Hagiographa, or Writings)—but it is not certain when the term began to be used, perhaps not until Talmudic times.
Rabbinic disputes between the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the Second Jewish Revolt in 132 indicate that five books in the Jewish canon were focuses of debate about whether they soiled the hands: Ezekiel, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. There is disagreement as to whether these were in doubt (the majority view) or whether questions about them were raised only in academic debate. There is, however, general agreement that the gathering of rabbis (c. 90) at the Palestinian coastal town of Yabneh (Jamnia) did not constitute an official canonizing council. This is largely taken to mean that the canonical process was the result of sociopolitical factors and community needs over a period of time and that such gatherings only ratified what had already happened in the communities in the historical process. A few take it to mean that canonization had already taken place by the end of the second century B.C., either de facto or de jure.
The Jewish Bible, or canon, was stabilized in stages beginning with the Torah, or Pentateuch, which was edited in the large Babylonian Jewish community in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. and brought to Jerusalem in the middle of the fifth by Ezra (Neh. 8). The Early Prophets, the section including Joshua, Judges, the two Samuels, and the two Kings, was accepted about the same time, the salient observation being that a firm distinction was made in the story that runs from Genesis through 2 Kings between Torah (Pentateuch) and Early Prophets (Joshua to Kings).
The text of the Early Prophets was not stabilized until later. The Later Prophets, the section including the three Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea to Malachi) was probably also set in its basic present contours about the same time, but the stabilization of the order of the various books of the Later Prophets and of their texts came considerably later. While the texts were stabilized in surviving Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism soon after the fall of Jerusalem toward the end of the first century A.D., the order has varied down through the centuries to a limited extent.
The third section, called the Hagiographa, or the Writings, also was not stabilized for all Judaism until the Pharisaic-rabbinic denomination prevailed as the Judaism that continues until today. Some scholars hold that this section was stabilized or canonized by the end of the second century B.C., and others, that it did not attain such stability until early in the second century A.D. Those that hold the former position see the Jewish library at Qumran and the Septuagint as benign aberrations of a canon already officially set.
Those that hold the latter position deny clarity of evidence in such extrabiblical witnesses as Sirach, 2 Maccabees, Philo, and the New Testament for a pre-Christian closing of the Writings. Rather, they emphasize the value of the actual extant manuscripts from Qumran and the evidence of the Septuagint as clearer witnesses to the more traditional view that the Hagiographa was closed by the end of the first century A.D. (the twenty-four books mentioned in 4 Esd. 14:44-46; cf. Josephus Against Apion 1.37-43) for surviving Judaism but remained open for Christianity for some time to come.
While Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was very clear about the canon of twenty-seven New Testament books to which none should be added or subtracted, the rest of the church in the East was not so clear. No fewer than six different lists of the contents of the two testaments were officially received in the Greek church in the tenth century. The Coptic church, like others in the East, has included two epistles of Clement.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has thirty-five books in its New Testament. The testimony of actual extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament is telling. While there are some 2,328 manuscripts of the Gospels, there are only 287 of the Book of Revelation. Only three uncials and fifty-six minuscules contain the whole of the New Testament. “It is obvious that the conception of the canon of the New Testament was not essentially a dogmatic issue whereby all parts of the text were regarded as equally necessary” (Metzger, 1987).
While the church in the West sought greater uniformity by sanction of high authority, it, too, has an interesting history in terms of closure of the canon of the New Testament. Augustine was very clear in his De doctrina christiana (completed 426) that there were twenty-seven books in the New Testament. While he questioned Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, he nonetheless accepted its canonicity. Augustine cast his considerable weight behind church synods held in the fourth and fifth centuries to limit the New Testament canon to the twenty-seven books (Metzger, 1987). But it was not until the Council of FLORENCE in 1439-1443 that the Roman church issued a categorical opinion on the issue of canon.
Luther had considerable trouble with Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, and Lutherans generally thereafter had questions about them, sometimes creating a tripartite New Testament: the Gospels and Acts, Epistles of Holy Apostles, and the Aprocryphal New Testament. Calvin would not accept Roman authority as valid for determining the canon but rather the interior witness of the Holy Spirit. He denied Pauline authorship of Hebrews and questioned Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, though he accepted them as canonical. He failed to write commentaries on 2 and 3 John and Revelation, though he occasionally quoted them as he did non-Masoretic books of the Old Testament.
It was not until 1546 at the Council of Trent, prompted by such opinions of the reformers and of some in the Roman Catholic church itself, that the church issued an absolute article of faith (De Canonicis Scripturis), sealed by anathema, concerning the canon of the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments. Reformed confessions of the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries list the twenty-seven books of the New Testament; and the sixth of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, issued in 1563, lists the books of the Old Testament and concludes that the books of the New Testament commonly received are canonical. None of the Lutheran confessional statements includes such lists.
The concept of the shape of a canon also includes the observation that a canon of scripture is a compressed literature written by many different authors over a long period of time. It has been rightly observed that in contrast to the Qur’an, the Bible is made up of human responses to divine revelations rather than being a record of divine revelation to one person. Canon in this sense creates a context in which to read the parts. Each literary unit may be read in its original historical context by means of historical, formal, and redactional criticism, but it may also be read in the light of the whole.
If the New Testament, for instance, is read only in the synchronic context of the Hellenistic-Roman period, it is in effect decanonized. For Christians, the same is true of the Old Testament. To read the Old and New Testaments canonically is to read them in the light of the theocentric-monotheizing hermeneutics of their canonical context.
The community of faith that adheres to a canon finds in it the community’s ongoing identity in the ever-changing situations and ambiguity of reality and finds in it clues for its lifestyle and obedience. There is an ongoing dialogue between the community and its canon. A compressed canon includes both pluralism between its parts and multivalency within the richness of its literary units.
This constitutes what may be called the canon’s built-in self- corrective, or prophetic, apparatus. “What is written in Torah and how do you read it?” Jesus asked an interlocutor (Lk. 10:26). Both the choice of text and the hermeneutics by which it then is read in the new historical context and in which it is repeated or reread are important.
Three factors in community dialogue with scripture as norma normans must always be kept in mind: the text read; the sociopolitical contexts from which it arose and in which it is reread; and the hermeneutics by which it is reread. Authoritative oral traditions functioned in this way in ancient Israel and Judah and in the early church well before they were written down; and they were written well before they became scripture or canon. Study of how they functioned on their route to becoming canon as norma normata is the study of canonical hermeneutics.
Such study has shown that the “mid term” (Sanders, 1987, pp. 9-39) between a canon’s stability as canon (shape) and its adaptability as canon (function) is theocentric-monotheizing hermeneutics. The God that emerges from the canon as a whole is a compressed concept made up of many different views of God along the path of formation of canon. God is made up of high gods and local deities, tutelary gods and personal gods, national and international gods, male and female deities. God is, however, One God: creator, sustainer-nurturer, judge, and redeemer.
The surviving names of these gods in the compressed text become epithets or occasional names. There is a tradition that God has seventy names, but God is above all One, the integrity of Reality. Ancient Israel and the early church learned from others of God’s creatures and from international wisdom, and adapted what they learned into its monotheizing mode. The Bible is a record of many struggles against the polytheisms of the five culture eras and many idioms and mores through which it passed in its formation. It is a paradigm for how believing communities may go and do likewise, in order to pursue and affirm the integrity of Reality and thus become integrated themselves into that Reality, which is the One God of All.
It has been recognized that “inspired” and “canonical” are not synonymous terms. Whether inspired noncanonical literature can be called scripture is disputed. In any case, the concept of inspiration is a broader one than that of canon. Taking a clue from Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, one should broaden the traditional concept of inspiration of individual authors to include the work of God or God’s Holy Spirit all along the path of formation of the canon.
The new concept would be inclusive in several senses: it would include the work of editors, redactors, and scribes; it would include the pseudepigraphic writings that pervade both testaments; it would include recognition of Israel’s, Judaism’s, and the early church’s learning from international wisdom. It would provide a way for present-day believing communities to work toward an understanding of their canons as paradigms wrought over many ancient centuries and thus of how to continue to benefit from those canons.
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JAMES A. SANDERS