Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I'm taking a class about the formation of the biblical canon, and today I was doing the reading for it. We're reading a book by my professor called (what else) "The Biblical Canon," by Lee Martin McDonald. One thing that particularly stood out to me was about the definition of the word "canon." Now, this seems like it would be pretty straightforward: in common usage, canon means the group of material that is considered standard in that field (whether it's art, literature or scripture). No one knows exactly where or when this word came to refer to the Hebrew & Christian scriptures, although I read many pages of speculation about it today, but we do know that now that is the term we use.

The interesting thing is that in ancient usage, this term never meant a fixed collection of materials. A canon of literature could be updated if someone were to write a new classic, and some works dropped out of the canon as they became less useful to the current generation. Likewise in present usage for the literary canon, the "classics" of literature are changed each generation (although, of course, there are some fairly well-established stand-bys that don't change).

It's apparently true that at first the Jewish & Christian "canons" were not fixed, either--they were made up of whatever texts were relevant at the time, that a particular community felt aided them in their understanding of God and God's story in the world. These canons were similar but not the same in different churches/synagogues and in various areas. It wasn't until the 4th century that the Christian canon became more or less fixed, and even then, for those of us who use a Protestant Bible, it was changed in the 16th century when Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders said the Apocrypha, although it could be helpful, was not scripture.

So this apparent set-in-stone canon of a text we have for our Christian scripture, thinking that it's so ancient, was only really fixed as it is now 450 years ago. The texts in our Bible have been thought of as scripture for much longer than that, of course, but the fixed nature of it--these books and no others--is not so ancient. (All of this I had known before, so now we get to the part you may not have heard before.)

In our textbook, McDonald talks about a scholar named Sheppard who suggests a way of thinking about the canon as "canon 1" and "canon 2." These are two phases of the canonization process, basically. In canon 1 stage, the text is seen as authoritative by the community and is used as an edifying piece of literature that speaks of God and may even speak God's words. Sometimes this is called scripture and sometimes not. In canon 2 phase, a particular group of literature becomes a fixed standard by which other texts are judged. This group is called scripture and nothing else can be called scripture, although things that line up with this standard can speak the word of God to the people.

I think this is a very helpful distinction, because there are many texts that various groups see as authoritative, but that don't become "canonized" in the usual sense of the term. Nevertheless these texts have authority within that group.

McDonald suggests that a major reason the texts we now have in the Bible became canonized was because of their relevance in diverse situations and their adaptability. These texts can be reinterpreted over and over again and still speak meaning into the lives of those who use them as sacred scripture. Other texts may speak meaning to a particular generation or subset of people, but they don't have the relevance over time of the biblical texts.

I think it's probably a good thing to have a canon, and although I'm skeptical about the way the canon was put together, I nevertheless believe the books in the Bible tell important parts of the story of God's relationship with people. I think even though they were written by people, God speaks through these texts in profound ways.

At the same time, I think we should revive the idea of the "canon 1" phase. We do this anyway, of course, without admitting it--various groups of Christians read certain theologians or scholars or prophets more than others, like Lutherans look to Luther for authoritative judgments on various matters, Calvinists look to Calvin, Quakers look to Fox and other early Friends. These are sort of our "canon 1" texts, texts that have authority in our community and speak meaning into our spiritual lives, but don't necessarily speak truth to all times.

I hope we as Christians can begin to add to the books we allow ourselves to hear the voice of God through. The Bible will always be important for Christians, but perhaps we could also listen to the voices of women and the voices of the oppressed around the world through their writings, and our canon would be enriched because of it.

Another interesting topic for another post, perhaps: one way of looking at canon 1 and canon 2 is that canon 1 is the person, the ultimate authority falls to them--either Jesus or Moses or whomever. Canon 2 is the writing about that person. This seems like what we do as Quakers, only the rest of the church tends to give more weight to the "canon 2" phase, while we give more weight to the "canon 1" phase in this definition. It is Christ who is the standard by which everything else is measured, even the books which purport to speak in his name. Maybe I'll write more about that tomorrow...


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I have a question.

The Greek Orthodox Church is willing to include John's book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) in its bibles, but refuses to use it in its liturgy.

The Ancient Eastern Church of Syria is willing to include the book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) in its Greek-language bibles, but still excludes it from its Syrian-language Bible, the Peshitta.

Does that make the book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) "canon 1" or "canon 2"?

cherice said...

That's interesting about the different groups' use/belief in Revelation. I believe that makes it "canon 1," since it's seen as an important work but it didn't make it to full canonization. Although it probably mostly makes it "non-canonical," because it's not seen as important enough to make it in the Bible. It's a little confusing because I think some of the people our text referred to thought of "canon 1" as stuff that was on its way to canonization before it was canonized, and some think of it as the "purer" form of the canon, that stuff (or person) that was/is used as authoritative but before it's been officially canonized. So good question! I don't know that there's a right answer, but the question shows that more work in definitions needs to happen before we can really communicate effectively. This book I was reading (Biblical Canon by Lee McDonald) was working on defining the term "canon," which he says is not done well yet, and I think he would agree that there is a lot more work that needs to be done in this area. A book we read for this week, "Holy Scriptures, Sacred Text" or something like that, was talking about how many scholars put forward ideas that sound contradictory because of their different uses of the word "canon," but they're actually all correct in some ways, just talking past each other because of the way they're defining canon and other such words. So I think that sort of question still needs to be defined more clearly in order for the classifications of "canon 1" and "canon 2" to be useful.