I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Exploring the Canonicity of the Bible




There are many ways of exploring the canonicity of the Bible and what that means for the different Christian faith communities. In this very brief essay it is not possible to cover this broad topic except in the most superficial manner thus I have chosen to discuss this topic by returning to the source of the canon in its Jewish roots and to mainly concentrate on the differences in regard to the acceptance of the Old Testament canon . There has certainly been a development in regards to the New Testament canon especially in the Syriac Church. However today most churches are in agreement with the twenty seven books of the New Testament so I will only lightly touch on them.

            Our idea of the canon and its development and its limits has evolved in the mind of the Church and its faithful over time. There are many competing theories and understandings in every aspect of this topic. This is not only so between the different Christian Faith communities but also between different scholars and schools of thought within the various Christian Faith communities.

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer a famous Protestant wrote: “The Word as inspired by the Spirit exists only when men hear it, so that the church makes the Word just as the Word makes the church into the church.”[1] While some other Protestants would disagree with this and wish to downplay the role of the Church in the canonisation of Scripture process, I think most other Christians would accept the validity of Bonhoeffer’s statement that their particular Church or Faith Community’s teaching play the most important role in the canon of the Bible which they accept whether they are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and the other Syriac Christians, Anglican or the myriad Protestant churches.

            The Greek word canon derives from the Hebrew and Aramaic word kanah or kneh.[2] Scholars believe that it was first used by St Athanasius the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt around 350 AD.[3] In my opinion he (or the Jewish Christian source that he or the Theological School of Alexandria drew on) chose this word because it referred to the ‘measuring rod’ (kanah) mentioned in the Scriptures. This was linked by the Rabbis with the word kneh (aquire) in Proverbs 4:5 “Aquire (kneh) Wisdom (Khokhmah), aquire Understanding (Binah)”[4].  Binah is seen in the Jewish Mystical tradition as the Mystical Mother and female Wisdom or Understanding that sets limits and strict measure. This Celestial Mother holds the ‘measuring rod’ (kanah) in her left hand.[5]  Ramchal[6] associates her with the Bat Reshit  (Daughter of beginning or First Daughter[7]) alluded to in the first word of the Bible Bereshit (in the beginning). [8] The School of Alexandria which emphasised the allegorical and mystical interpretation of Scripture associated this Celestial Mother with Mother Church who provides the canon (kanah/ measuring rod) of the forty-six books of the Old Testament according to the Alexandrian canon of the Septuagint (LXX)Bible.[9]

            One of the major theories of the past in the study of the canon of the Old Testament was that there were two canons – one was the forty-six book Alexandrian canon used by the Jews of the Diaspora and the other was the thirty-nine book Palestinian canon used by the Jews in Palestine. The early Church adopted the Alexandrian canon and the post 70 AD Judaism the Palestinian canon. At the reformation the Protestants adopted the so-called Palestinian canon. However this thesis has been seriously questioned and modified in recent years by many scholars.[10]  It is also important to note that the term Deuterocanonicals to describe the books that differ between the Catholic and Hebrew Bible is a modern term and does not necessarily mean that these books were canonised in a separate process.[11]

            The Syriac churches of the East at first used the Palestinian Canon and only later adopted the Alexandrian Canon. The Nestorian Church also used the shorter canon. Scholars now claim that the Alexandrian Canon was not limited to the forty-six books as demonstrated by the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches which used a wider range. [12] The Syriac church also did not stick strictly to the shorter Palestinian canon as they left out the two books of Chronicles[13] at first and later they added 2 Esdras [14].  Eventhough the 73 books of the Bible had been accepted by the Catholic Church as early as the 4th and 5th centuries the list of the canon was only definitively and infallibly defined at the Council of Trent in the 16th century.[15]

            The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has also affected many scholars understanding of the canon. It would seem that the Jewish Essenes had a wider range of books which is reflected in the canon of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia especially the use of the books of Enoch and Jubilees. The Ethiopian Jews also use these books and have a form of Jewish monasticism. It may be that the Essenes established monastic communities in the south in Egypt and Ethiopia which influenced later Christian monasticism especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. That this wider canon was used in the time of Jesus and the first Jewish Christians can be seen in St Jude in his epistle quoting from the Book of Enoch.[16]

            The Greek translation of the New Testament was influenced greatly by the Septuagint and the quotes in it from the Old Testament are taken from the Septuagint. Thus the Greek Church and the Latin Church adopted the Alexandrian canon rather than the broader Essene canon. The churches influenced by the Jerusalem Jewish, Greek and Latin churches such as the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Celtic Church[17] also used this canon. [18]

            It was only in Babylon that Judaism in the 2nd or 3rd century restricted the Jewish canon to the so-called Palestinian canon. The Syriac and Nestorian Churches included a large number of Jewish Christians influenced by the newly emergent Rabbinic priorities. Therefore these churches were influenced to use the shorter canon. They at first also left out five New Testament books such as Jude which either directly or indirectly alluded to the books included in the wider Essene canon and the deuterocanonical books of the Alexandrian canon. At the Reformation Martin Luther also removed the deuterocanonicals and some of the New Testament books. The Lutherans restored the New Testament books after his death. The Anglicans retained the deuterocanonicals (called by them the Apocrypha) in a section between Old and New Testament until the 19th century. Most Protestants today have canonised the sixty-six books and defend their use of them as the only ones inspired by God as Scripture.[19]

            Julio Barrera mentions a Protestant movement called ‘Canonical Criticism’ which seeks to restore a balance to Biblical scholarship which has taken the Bible from the churches into the privileged and elitist domain of academia since the Enlightenment.[20] He writes: “Canonical criticism claims to be a further step in the development of modern criticism and goes beyond the study of sources, forms, traditions and redactions.”[21] It seeks to move away from breaking the Biblical text into small units in favour of bigger units and the whole Bible. It seeks to return the Bible into the hands of the living church community. He continues: “It (the Bible) is not a source for reconstructing history. Its primordial function is canonical”.[22] However Barerra himself is opposed to this movement’s conclusions.

            Luc Zaman also critiques this movement and considers that it can lead to the canon being cut off from its historical roots. According to Zaman one needs to study the early stages of the development of the canon as much as the time of its final acceptance.[23]   Zaman was also concerned with the Minimalist School of Israelite historiography[24] which he thought would lead to historical nihilism in regards to the study of the Bible and the canon.[25]

            Another interesting article is that of Jonathan R Wilson who discusses the notions of canonicity from the perspectives of  what he calls high Protestant scholastic, high Tridentine Catholic, modernist and high modernist . He considers all these approaches as inadequate because they do not discuss the redemptive aspect of the Biblical canon. He sees canonicity situated in the kingdom of the Messiah and the participation of Christian believers guided by the Spirit in this kingdom.[26] Personally I would be concerned that such an approach may lead to a form of Gnosticism[27] cut off from its Jewish and historical roots.

            It would seem to me that all the churches base their canon of the Old Testament on Jewish precedents. The Ethiopian Church bases their canon on the Essene Judaism of the Maccabean period. The Greek and Latin churches base their canon on the Septuagint tradition of the Hellenist Jewish milieu. The Syriac churches of the East on the canon of the newly emergent Rabbinic Judaism of the Roman exile. There may be some positive ideas in the ‘canonical criticism’ movement of situating the Canon and its discernment to the Church and not slavishly following every whim and theory of academics. However it would be wrong to assume that academics and Biblical scholars are not as much part of the church as anyone else and they may provide deeper insight into the Bible and its text that can enrich us as Christians and human beings.

            For the Catholic the canon has been settled once and for all at the Council of Trent but reflecting on its development in the churches from its original Jewish context can only enrich our faith and understanding of the Bible. Reading those books that are not part of our canon may also aid in understanding the canonical books in their wider cultural and religious setting. Theories and speculations in Biblical studies come and go but the Word of God itself never changes from bringing renewal and conversions for those souls who are hungry for truth, spirituality and divine intimacy.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (120) proclaims: “It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books. This complete list is called the canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New.” Also the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (8) states: “...Through the same Tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16)...”




[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 160-161
[2] Nicolae Roddy, “Introduction” Bible in the Christian Orthodox Tradition, Volume 1:  Old Testament as Authoritative Scripture in the Early Churches of the East (New York ; Peter Lang;2009),3.   
[3] Alice Camille, “Who decided which books made it into the Bible?” U.S. Catholic  (USA: ProQuest Religion, 2012),46.
[4]  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon (Jerusalem; the Temple institute and Azamra Institute; 1999),70-71.
[5] This measuring rod and rod of iron is also found in the New Testament Book of the Apocalypse in chapters 11 and 12 connected with the remnant of believers in the Sanctuary and their connection with the Woman and her (Pope) son. This would make an interesting eschatological study in regards to seeing the Pope leading the Church with the sure measure or standard of the canonical books of the Bible represented by this measuring rod in an era where Catholic truth and the Bible is under attack by secular culture, theological modernism and modern Gnosticism (New Age).
[6] Ramchal is an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.
[7] Ramban or Nachmanides in his commentary on Genesis (Bereshit) also refers to the mystery of this Woman called Reshit who is described as Kneset Yisrael (community of Israel) and Queen, Mother,sister-spouse and daughter of the divine King.
[8] Luzzato, Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon, 71.
[9]JK Elliott, “Manuscripts, the Codex and the Canon” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (UK;Sage Publications;1997),118.
[10] Raymond E Brown & Raymond F Collins, “Canonicity” New Jerome Biblical Commentary (New Jersey; Prentice Hall, Inc; 1990),1035.
[11] George Reid, "Canon of the Old Testament" The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908). .
[12] Brown & Collins “Canonicity”,1043.
[13] Brown & Collins “Canonicity”,1043.
[14] Philip Jenkins, “Which Bible, Whose Canon? The Christian Century(Pro Quest Religion, 2011),45
[15] Reid, "Canon of the Old Testament" .
[16]David A deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James and Jude: What earliest Christianity learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (UK; Oxford University Press; 2012),109.
[17] The Celtic churches originally used the Old Latin or Vetus Itala Bible until the Latin Vulgate grew in popularity. In St Patrick’s writings he mainly uses the Itala but on two occasions he uses the Vulgate. Gildas also used this older Latin version of the Bible in which Colossians is placed in a different order than the Vulgate.
[18] Anthony Maas, "Versions of the Bible." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912). .
[19] Reid, "Canon of the Old Testament" .
[20] Julio T Barrera, trans. By Wilfred G Wilson, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible (Boston; Brill Academic Publishers;2007),417.
[21] Barrera, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible,417.
[22] Barrera, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible, 418.
[23] Luc Zaman, Bible and Canon: A Modern Historical Inquiry (SSN, 50; Leiden: Brill, 2008),3-5.
[24] In Israelite historiography in the 1980’s and 90’s there came a battle between those historians- the Minimalists that believed that very little of the Bible before the time of the Babylonian Exile had any historicity and the Maximalists who believed that it did. Another school has grown up that is somewhere in between these two schools. Of course the Velokovskians and other revisionists question the whole “accepted’ Chronology of Egypt and the Far East and come to very different conclusions and understandings.
[25] Luc Zaman, Bible and Canon: A Modern Historical Inquiry , 273
[26] Jonathan Wilson, “Canon and Theology: What is at Stake?”  Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, literary and Theological Perspective (GrandRapids: Baker Academic,2008), 272.
[27] There are numerous Gnostic writings that all the Churches rejected as part of the canon. Many of these writings were found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 19th century.

Bibliography
The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Fiji: CEPAC,1994.
Barrera, Julio T, translated by Wilfred G Wilson, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. The Communion of Saints. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Brown, Raymond E and Collins, Raymond F, “Canonicity” New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc; 1990,1034-1054.
Camille, Alice. “Who decided which books made it into the Bible?” U.S. Catholic.  USA: ProQuest Religion 2012,46.
deSilva, David A. The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James and Jude: What earliest Christianity learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Elliott, JK.  “Manuscripts, the Codex and the Canon” Journal for the Study of the New Testament UK: Sage Publications, 1997, 105-122
Flannery, Austin (ed) Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents Philippines: Daughters of St Paul,1984.
Jenkins, Philip. “Which Bible, Whose Canon? The Christian Century Pro Quest Religion, 2011, 45.
Luzzatto, Rabbi Moshe Chaim (Ramchal), translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum. Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon. Jerusalem: The Temple Institute and Azamra Institute, 1999.
Maas, Anthony. "Versions of the Bible." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. .
Reid, George. "Canon of the Old Testament" The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. .
Roddy, Nicolae. “Introduction” Bible in the Christian Orthodox Tradition, Volume 1:  Old Testament as Authoritative Scripture in the Early Churches of the East. New York ; Peter Lang; 2009.
Wilson, Jonathan R. “Canon and Theology: What is at Stake?”  Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary and Theological Perspective (GrandRapids: Baker Academic,2008.
Zaman, Luc. Bible and Canon: A Modern Historical Inquiry. SSN, 50; Leiden: Brill, 2008.