Thursday, January 27, 2011

Canon (not the thing you shoot)

I am frequently asked, "How did these books end up in the Bible?" The implication of this question is that there were some books that might well have been included but were not. For many Christians this idea can be unnerving. How can it be that God's inspired word was pieced together? How do we know if they got it right? Who is the "they" that decided what books made the cut?

The recent media frenzy over the so-called "secret gospels" has only made the questions more confusing. In addition, Dan Brown's wildly popular The Da Vinci Code plays on this confusion in portraying the final cut as the decision of a pagan Roman emperor centuries after the apostles died. These are just two prominent examples of the kind of sensationalism that often passes for historical inquiry about the Bible at the popular level.

Being from a protestant tradition in an area with quite a few Roman Catholics, I am often asked why my Bible is slimmer than the one Joe Ratzinger uses. Usually people only ask me to confirm that "Bible-believing" Christians do not have to pay attention to Joe's extra books. Still, there is doubt. Are we missing something? Are they adding something?

These questions and concerns revolve around a concept called "canon." The word "canon" comes from the Greek word kan┼Źn (pronounced: CAN - O [as in open] N), which refers to a "measuring stick" like a ruler. It means a "rule," "standard" or "limit" and appears only rarely in the NT (Gal 6.16; cf. 2 Cor 10.13, 15, 16). Today, when people talk about the books in the Bible, they are talking about the "canon" – which books are read as Bible and which ones are not.

When it comes to the canon of scripture, what questions do you find yourself asking most often? Or what questions do you find yourself asked most often?


Jordan D. Wood said...

My question is: why was I taught that the "OT Pseudepigrapha" was not in the "canon" until the Council of Trent (for Catholics), when St Augustine lists several of them as being authoritative Scripture in his De doctrina christiana, written b/t 395-425)? He lists Judith, Tobit, 1-2 Esdras, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, etc.

Jordan D. Wood said...

Unless we think of "canon" as only canon when an official ecumenical council recognizes it as so, which most would contest (since it would imply that the canon is only 400 years old), we have to wrestle with the fact that many of these books seemed to have been accepted quite early (at least in the West).

Unknown said...

Good questions Jordan. The Council of Trent is the typical fall-back position of protestants defending their canon. These books weren't recognized as "scripture" until centuries later, so we don't have to pay attention to them.

You have drawn attention to one example among many which shows that the situation was significantly more complicated. I have to admit, it doesn't surprise me that Augustine, writing in North Africa, would have included those books as Scripture. Just because he did doesn't necessarily mean we should because there were plenty of people who did not read those books as "scripture." Either way, you raise an important point about the complexity of the question.

I think as protestants it is important to ask why books were added at Trent. What was the motive? The logic? Why did they feel that after so long they needed to add to the canon.

These are precisely the kinds of questions I want to address in a series of posts I'm planning. I hope others weigh in with their own questions or comments so that the series can be improved.

Jordan D. Wood said...

A note on the council of trent: I don't think that Catholics would say the books were "added" at the council of trent, but "recognized." And as for books such as Tobit and Wisdom, that would seem closer to the truth. These books are noted by Cassiodorus in his "Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning," written in the 6th century. His work became the basis of much Medieval education, and writers such as Thomas Aquinas frequently cite books such as Wisdom as Scripture (Though it is true that writers such as Jerome listed them among "the apocrypha").

I look forward to your series.