Monday 20 February 2012

Canon article updated

With John Petty kindly linking to my article on the canon, describing it as "a fine piece," I decided I'd better get my act together and give it the once over.  Here is the (slightly) updated text.

Questions About the Biblical Canon
G Rumney

Just how we ended up with the Old and New Testaments as we have them today is an interesting tale, one that most of us know little or nothing about.

Most people are aware that Catholic editions of the Bible include sections (in fact whole books such as 1 & 2 Maccabees) not found in standard Protestant versions. Fewer are aware that the Orthodox churches include even more material in their scriptures (such as 3 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh). So, what about that extra material? Or more to the point, why does the 66-book edition most of us are familiar with not include it, and who decides what is and isn't scripture?

Traditionally, evangelical Christians have circled their wagons around the distinction between genuine writings and "apocrypha". Genuine writings being, of course, their 66-book Bible; apocrypha (sometimes called pseudepigrapha) conveniently being everything else. Evangelicals have been quick to assert, for example, an "obvious qualitative difference" between the two. Unfortunately there is an obvious qualitative difference between books within the Bible as well, as anyone will know who has compared the Gospel of John with the Book of Numbers.  

The Creation of the Canon

But wasn't the whole thing decided at the very start of the Christian Church? Here's where things get interesting. The Jewish canon (what Christians call the Old Testament) first reached its present form sometime after 70 CE, the date when a gathering of rabbis was held at a place called Jamnia (Jabneh), 24 km south of modern Tel Aviv. Lee McDonald suggests that actual decisions were in fact made much later, in the second century. But even with the earlier date, notice that this is several decades after the establishment of the church. Paul has left the scene and the events related in Acts are already history. Notice too that this was a Jewish initiative. There was no Christian input into the process at all. In fact Jamnia was a reaction, in part, to the increasing influence of its loud and troublesome Christian offspring.

It is not surprising then that the Christians rejected this emerging Hebrew canon, and continued to use the Septuagint (often referred to as the LXX), a Greek version of the Old Testament produced in Alexandria beginning in the third century BCE. The Septuagint included several books and additional passages which the rabbis now rejected, and are no longer found in the standard editions today. In part their decision was based on the fact that there were no Hebrew originals for this additional material (ironically, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated that the rabbis were, in part, mistaken).

Christianity, however, was to continue to use the Septuagint based "Alexandrian Canon" for another thousand years! This makes it quite hard to see how modern fundamentalists can justify their present canon as being either "apostolic" or "determined by the Holy Spirit".

What about the New Testament? The New Testament canon was a matter of debate for centuries. It first reached its present form as late as 367 when Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, compiled a list of recognized books which agrees with the ones we now have.

Three hundred years is a long time by anyone's reckoning. If the writing of the New Testament documents had started back in 1840, we wouldn't get to see the final product until the year 2140! Although it seems hard to imagine, during this 300 year period Christians of all persuasions pursued their faith without the benefit of the Bible as we know it today.

As for the gospels, it took till 185 CE for a consensus to emerge about which documents were authoritative, and only then thanks to a pronouncement on the subject by Irenaeus. For another 200 years these four gospels were to put together with a variety of different additional documents according to the best judgments of different Christian communities.

As late as the year 200 the Church at Rome still didn't consider the books of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter or 2 Peter as scripture. However they did include two "apocryphal" works: The Apocalypse of Peter and The Wisdom of Solomon. In the end the final selection was to be a narrow thing, with the popular Shepherd of Hermas missing a listing in Athanasius' canon by a whisker, while the controversial books of Revelation and Hebrews squeaked through. The main criteria used in the selection was that the documents flowed from the pens of those with first hand knowledge of the events surrounding the creation of the church. We now know that Athanasius made several wrong calls. For example, several of the letters attributed to Paul (such as the epistles to Timothy) are in fact later documents.

And one also has to wonder how Christians who vehemently reject Catholic tradition and authority in all other matters, can be so dogmatic in their agreement with this particular tradition. The events surrounding the creation of our New Testament can give little support to a strict biblicist view.  

The Book of Enoch

An interesting example of a book that has drifted in and out of favor is 1 Enoch. It was regarded as scripture in many parts of the early church, and is quoted in the New Testament book of Jude (v.14). In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church it still forms part of their Old Testament canon.

Enoch contains material about the origin of evil and the final judgment, and provides details of the cohabitation between the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" mentioned in Genesis 6. Originally written in Aramaic, the oldest complete surviving text is in Ge'ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, though fragments of the Aramaic original have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. So is 1 Enoch canonical? The author of Jude apparently thought so. The Ethiopian Church, and many of the earliest generation of Christians, affirm that it is. Yet it was never included in the Septuagint, and therefore never became part of the mainstream Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant canons.  

The Reformation

The Reformation brought about a huge shake up when Martin Luther banished the Septuagint (LXX) based Old Testament canon and replaced it with the shorter Jewish canon. The additional books, said Luther, were good to read but not to be considered as scripture. This broke a tradition going back over a thousand years, one which is retained to some degree in Catholicism, and even moreso in Orthodoxy, which still holds the LXX as its official text.

It is this truncated canon of the Old Testament that is now in almost universal use, and is regarded as authoritative amongst traditions as diverse as Presbyterianism and Jehovah's Witnesses. Those churches that seek to identify themselves with the "Apostolic era" to validate their beliefs (rather than later traditions which they believe are flawed), seem to be blind to the fact that their Old Testament canon is far from "apostolic".

Few Christians realize that Luther's bold redrawing of the boundaries of scripture almost flowed through into the New Testament as well. The reformer had labeled the Letter of James "an epistle of straw", and some Lutheran editions of the Bible followed through by relegating it, along with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation, to a special appendix at the back of the New Testament. In effect this placed them in a de facto New Testament apocrypha. Apparently Luther, who coined the very phrase sola scriptura, meant something different by it than modern "confessional" Lutherans and other fundamentalists.

However, the practice failed to catch on (although it persisted through a number of German editions of the New Testament). The precedent is however a fascinating one. It demonstrates that the original Protestant tradition could, during its formative years, happily make major adjustments to the canon of scripture. The criteria was not some Joseph Smith-style revelation, but reason and judgment based on the best scholarship available at the time. Much more could be added. For example:

  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church adds four extra books to its New Testament, and another two (including 1 Enoch) to the Old Testament.
  • Writing around 300 AD Eusebius, the historian of the early church, listed Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation as either dubious or false.
  • The Syrian Orthodox tradition continues to reject 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation.
  • Irenaeus, who is credited with standardizing the number of gospels at the present four, included a book called The Revelation of Peter in his canon. 
  • Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete New Testament manuscript that has come down to us (fourth century AD) includes Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas.
  • As late as the fifth century the Codex Alexandrinus included 1 & 2 Clement.

To complicate matters even further, modern scholars have identified two new gospels that cast light on the church's earliest beginnings. One is the reconstructed "Q" Gospel that underlies Matthew and Luke. The majority of New Testament scholars believe that this 'Sayings Gospel' was reworked by the later writers to fit in with the brief narrative framework created by Mark, as they sought to flesh out the scanty factual material available to them about Jesus. These then (Matthew and Luke) can hardly be eyewitness accounts.

The second document is the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in Egypt in1945. This gospel includes some passages with close parallels to canonical material, but also some entirely new sayings of Jesus that circulated in the early church. Some of this material is believed to be at least as old as the gospels of Mark and "Q".

The canon of the Bible, then, did not drop out of the heavens one day, fully formed and divided tidily into proof texts. A basic knowledge of the process of canonization ensures that any concept of inerrancy is untenable, a weakness of those who have (to quote Luther) "swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all". Even today, there is clearly no single Christian canon of scripture, and in fact there never has been. 

Further reading
  • Borg, Marcus. The Lost Gospel: Q. Seastone, 1996, 1999.
  • Funk, Robert and Hoover, Roy. The Five Gospels. Scribner, 1993, 1996.
  • Gamble, Harry. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning. Wipf & Stock, 1985, 2002.
  • Helms, Randel. Who Wrote the Gospels? Millennium, 1997.
  • Mack, Burton. Who Wrote the New Testament? Harper Collins, 1995.
  • Mack, Burton. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. Harper Collins, 1993.
  • McDonald, Lee M. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Hendrickson, 1995, 2005.
  • Miller, Robert (ed) The Complete Gospels. Harper Collins, 1992, 1994.
  • Nickelsburg, George W. E. & James C. Vanderkam. 1 Enoch: A New Translation. Fortress, 2004.
  • Pearson, Birger. Enoch and Jesus. Bible Review 19/2, April 2003.

Copyright © 1999, 2003, 2012 Gavin Rumney
Last updated February 2012


  1. "The canon of the Bible, then, did not drop out of the heavens one day, fully formed and divided tidily into proof texts."

    Excellent point. Literalists Christians and almost all atheists are persuaded that the Bible should have been perfect from day one or it has no validity. They also believe that it should be an engineering specification something like the handbook that goes along with your DVD player. It should contain repeatable scientific principle. The literalist Christians are surprised at the checkered history of the Bible and the atheists use this checkered history to put another strut under their body of assertions.

    I differ sharply with most Christians in that I believe the the Bible was never intended to be a carefully engineered document with an incontrovertible pedigree. There is the eternal word of God and then there is the Bible. The Bible is a human artifact subject to manipulation by humans as you have carefully demonstrated. The fact that the truth of the Word of God was thrust into the corrupt human realm, so to speak an incarnational document, captured by human instruments,bearing a human imprint, an evolving document, is a part of the penalty visited on man because of man's insistence that God be disengaged from human life.

    The Bible as man would define it has become elusive due to human intervention. The Bible as God would define it would be bounded and definitive. But even in the latter case, it consists of a collection of readings that cover a diversity of topics. This is not a chemistry or physics test. It requires a Teacher to make sense of it. Absent the Teacher, the classroom goes wild and we all sit around flipping boogers at eachother.

    -- Neo

  2. Gavin:

    I agree, as I so often do, with John Petty's assessment. Tis is, indeed a fine piece. I do have a quibble with it, however. It is my understanding that the Council of Jamnia was a supposition that has now been abandined by most biblical scholars as it probably never happened. Rather, the canon of the Jewish Bible, like that of the New Testament, was formed by a more fluid process. I do think that Judaism abandoned the use of the Septuagint (with its additional writings) in favor of the Hebrew canon at least partly as a reaction to Christian use of the LXX.


  3. Neo,

    I have to agree with you that the Bible is not infallible. However, all christian faiths rely upon it. If parts are literally true and other parts are not, the question becomes "where do you draw the line". You say we need a teacher, but where does the teacher get his information?

    I believe it is very easy to show that the Bible is not infallible. However, once you accept that, the christian religion becomes a "slippery slope". How much do you keep and how much is fiction? How does anyone know?

  4. Too bad that for 200,000 years or more that mankind didn't have a Bible to read. Oh, wait, they probably couldn't read...

    But, when writing was finally invented and since there were already existing priesthoods, it just stands to reason that these priests would write down a bunch of stuff.

    Later, this "stuff" gets picked through and edited and corrected and otherwise changed to fit the "orthodoxy" of the time.

    Neo says it takes a "teacher to make sense of it". Well, of course it does, and there are thousands, if not millions, of those "teachers" around too.

  5. Brant: thanks for the comments. Yes, I avoided using the word 'council' in the same breath as Jamnia for the reasons you explained. My understanding is that Jamnia was indeed the beginning of a process.