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Canon History

{This lecture comes from an old course called "Biblical Backgrounds". It is largely unchanged}

- literal meaning of canon is "measuring instrument" or more to the point "rule of action"

- canon is about God speaking authoritatively to us

- the bible as a whole is canon.

- our theology must arise from the canon as a whole rather than individual passages. eg: heb 6, Rev 3:14ff - totally opposed to each other. Out of their oposition must come the theology

- despite various source theories - JEDP of pentateuch and the source theory of synoptics etc only the final layer is canonical

- ie we delve into the sources (when necessary) to gain insight into the canonical layer - the layer we have in the bible today.

- we delve into the separate theologies of different books/works to gain insight into the theology of the whole. For example in Luke-Acts there is little or no relationship between conversion and the Holy Spirit. The baptism in the Holy Spirit is emphasized as well as his coming at other times. In Paul there is little or no mention of a coming of the Spirit after conversion but a very strong indication that conversion is all about regeneration by the Spirit.

- date of composition of a document, who wrote it doesn't determine place in the canon.

- Hebrews has no known author. Most books, even when claiming an author have no date attached.

- Gospel of John has no named author - closest we come is the disciple that Jesus loved.

- Early church recieved the large part of the Old Testament from the Jews.

- It is clear that the first books to be considered canon - officially or otherwise were the pentateuch.

- note as soon as they got this status then redaction ceased if only because people would notice and scream

- the pentateuch was almost certainly the first to be accepted on this status.

- note the status of canon was really a feeling about the books until 367AD

- Whether you wish to follow the ultra conservative view that Moses wrote them all bar the death passages and a few acretions or the liberal view that the final redactor P finished around 450 BC is irrelevant.

- It is probable that they were accorded unique place by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

- certainly the law book that was read to the returned jews must have been some or all of this.

- this is also the case with the book of the law found in the reigh of Josiah and formed the basis of their revival.

- The prophets - note the historical books  called "the former prophets" were later.

- The prophets supposedly were accepted around 350-300 BC

- the writings - proverbs, Ecclesiastes etc much later around 100BC

- There were two forms of the old testament the greek and the palestinian.

- After the exile, not every Jew returned to palestine. Lots had settled into their own little niche and were doing well

- shortly after the exile, greek culture was completely pervasive.

- Greek was used for everything. This meant that outside of palestine hebrew quickly fell into disuse.

- this is the case today - many jews know just enough hebrew to read the prayers for minyan

- There was a growing need to provide the scriptures in a form that the ordinary person could read.

- hence the greek version the septuaguinta - generally LXX

- means the seventy. According to legend it was translated by seventy two scholars in seventy two days.

- location was Alexandria in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus.285-246BC

- after the translation, it was read to the community of the jews there to loud applause.

- It is more likely that the pentateuch was translated first and then the other books including the apocrypha were added piecemeal later.

- The greek ranges from indifferent to good. In some places it follows hebrew idiom instead of greek.

- In some places the translators alter the text to suit their audience avoiding anthropomorphisms distateful of alexandrian jews.

- other places repetition is abreviated, has mistakes or even ommitted.

- one of the translators of Jeremiah had a habit of translating words to those of similar sound but completely different meaning.

- The majority of the early church was either gentile or jew that didn't have much hebrew. The early church took the LXX as their bible

- this had important implications for their understanding. some words changed meaning subtley.

- Isaiahs prophecy that the virgin will be with child is an example. The hebrew says young woman, ie not necessarily a virgin: New Dictionary of the Bible (NDB) defines Alma as "a woman of marriageable age who has not yet borne children, though she may be married." p 1312

- the greek translation literally meant virgin

- the other major result was that the apocrypha was included. Essentially the apocrypha was included until the councils that fixed the canon.

- After the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, the sanhedrin was reformed in Jamnia around 90AD.

- Jamnia was to become the centre of jewish society at this time.

- one thing they did was settle on the canon. Essentially they chose the palestinian canon that excluded the books of the apocrypha.

- the split between judaism and the church really dates from about this time.

- the jews went on to add the mishnah - a collection of legal interpretation mainly and then the rest of the talmud

- during the first two centuries the books of the new testament were written.

- the liberals put the last book - (2Tim ???) around 250AD

- of course the conservative position has all books completed before 100AD.

- there were a number of other books that were written that didn't get into the canon

- Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were both influential books in the life of the church from early second century.

- other books - gospel of peter, gospel of thomas were written with definite gnostic leanings. Jude 9 actually quotes from an Old Testament also ran.

- gnosticism was a definite threat to the church. It could accept any religion and reform it to its own purpose making it very difficult for the church to distinguish.

- a major figure in the formation of the canon was Marcion. He broke with the church in 150 AD. He had the idea that there were two Gods - a loving God of the new testament and a wrathful God of the Old testament.

- the jews had managed to corrupt the bible to the point where it was hard to find out about the good God.

- he proceeded to drastically edit the bible to only produce the good God.

- the apostles were given the gospel but failed to keep it uncorrupted. He turned to Paul the one preacher of the Gospel.

- the result was that he rejected all the old testament and most of the new.

- he retained luke and ten highly edited epistles of Paul.

- with this kind of thing going on the church leaders were under pressure to meet the threat of Marcion on one hand and gnostics on the other.

- hence the canon.

- This began as a series of lists of books or writings that were considered to be helpful.

- as time went on the lists became more and more similar as different books drifted in and out of the lists. Some championed by one leader, others used by another

- The four gospels were included very early on, together with most of the pauline epistles

- by the third century - most books included as we have them now.

- doubt remained about Hebrews, the Jewish epistles and Revelations.

- some uncanonical gospels were also included and some works of the apostolic fathers such as the epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the first epistle of clement

- Eusebius a 3rd C church historian describes three types of books:

acknowledged : four gospels,Acts, Epistles of Paul, 1Pet, 1Jn, and (according to some) Revelations

Disputed but known to most: James, Jude, 2Pet, 2&3Jn,

spurious: acts of paul, shepherd of hermas, apocalypse of peter, epistle of barnabas, didache, gospel according to the hebrews and according to others revelations.

- the spurious works, Eusebius suggests, might well be in the second class, disputed, "were it not for the necessity of guarding against deliberate forgeries of Gospels and Acts under the names of Apostles made in strictly heretical interest. As examples of these he names the Gospels of thomas,Peter and Matthias and the acts of andrew and john. These 'ought to be reckoned not even amond the spurious books but shunned as altogether wicked and impious'" (NDB p197)

- For the eastern church the canon was fixed by paschal letter by Athanasius in 367AD. For the west it was set at the council of Carthage in 397AD

- Athanasius listed the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas as material permitted to be read but not canonical.

- it is important to realise that the books were included in the canon for some specific reasons:

- they were to be traced to authentic apostolic teaching

- they were to be useful in the life of the church

- The process leaves us with the feeling that it was not a case of God taking out a big stamp and placing his imprimature on the books but rather the realisation of the church of the inherent testimony of the bible.

- Note at the time that the canon was set, the apocryphal books were left out.

- They slowly floated back in until the reformation when the reformers left them out and the catholics put them in.

- Our position then is that we have this body of books that were accepted by the church in the late 4th century as being authoritative.

- why should we believe them today. Modern critical method has largely destroyed the assumptions those men had about the bible

- besides we had no say in it.

- As we begin to delve into the theology and the themes that are expressed throughout the bible we begin to find that those guys didn't do such a bad job.

- there is material that was perhaps not written when they thought it was but is still speaks to us today.

- that is the characteristic that is important.

- it begs the question in what way is scripture the word of God.

- 2Esdras records the story of Ezra in Babylon complaining that the books of the law had been burnt. God then proceeds to dictate 94 books of the law.

- 70 were sealed up and the final 24 were left for all to read.

- was the bible dictated by God to his people - I don't think so.

- I am sure that if it had been dictated by God then all the little things like the number of animals going into the ark would have lined up - but then maybe not  - My God has a sense of humour.

- Another suggestion was that God played the writers in much the way a musician plays a flute.

- I don't think that is right either.

- I believe that the bible was written by the people of God to express God to their situation.

- the text was picked up over and over again as it was reapplied.

- we are still reapplying it, we are just not adding to the canon

- consider it to be a huge sermon or set of sermons and you come closer to the mark.

- Having said that I must say that if you had a divine finger print kit and dusted the scriptures you would find Gods fingerprints everywhere.

- the truth is that we know the bible is the canon because it acts that way. It is self authenticating - it radiates divine authority. Hence the many stories of people being helped or even saved just through scripture.

Books outside the Canon:

- while the apocrypha is not considered canonical by the protestant church it is considered at various levels of usefulness

- The Catholics consider it to be deutero-canonical - same level of inspiration but admitted at a second level

- The Anglicans and I think the Lutherans enjoin their priests/ministers to read them because of their usefulness spiritually

- other denominations either make the sign of the cross at them or use them as background to the rest of the bible.

- they can be useful devotionally or in bible studies.

- I did a good study a little while ago on Esther - the apocryphal additions added the opportunity to discuss formation, added interest and life etc

- the books of macabees offer a source for the history between the testaments.

- they come from the LXX as said above

- There are twelve books that are considered part of the Apocrypha.

- Note there is a large body of material that is not considered apocryphal called the pseudipigrapha

- 1Esdras - largely parallels the events of chronicles, ezra and nehemiah.

- one major addition is the debate of the three youths

- in this debate, Zerubbabel a guardsman of Darius wins a debate on which is the stronger - wine women or truth - and gets to remind Darius of his obligation to allow the temple to be rebuilt.

- 2Esdras also known as the apocalypse of Ezra.

- some additions and editing by christians.

- it contains a series of seven visions discussing why Zion is being oppressed and what God is going to do about it

- the most interesting thing is the solution to the loss of the books of the law as mentioned above

- Tobit is a pious story of a rigteous hebrew of the northern captivity and this son Tobias.

- Tobit suffers because of his help to the Jews under the reign of Esarhaddon.

- He accidentally gets blinded and has to suffer more shame being supported by his wife

- His son goes on a journey during which he saves a young woman haunted by a demon who kills her husbands on their wedding night and returns with the cure for his fathers blindness

- Judith tells the story of a jewess widow living in Bethulia.

- Bethulia is besieged by Nebuchadrezzer. She goes out to the Assyrians with the excuse of giving away secrets. Entices the general and banqueting alone with him at night manages to behead him

- She takes the head back to the city amid much rejoicing the Assyrians leave.

- pure fiction the NDB comments - highly inaccurrate in details eg - Neb and Assyrians

- There are also apocryphal additions to Daniel. Firstly the prayer of Azariah and the song of the three holy children linked to the story of the furnace

- The story of Susanna who in fighting off the lustful advances of two elders of the people, is accused of adultery. Condemned to death, she is saved when the youthful Daniel intervenes with a retrial that establishes the truth

- Bel and the dragon recounts how Daniel overcomes the mighty dragon worshiped in Babylon

- for killing the dragon he is cast into a lions den for six days.

- while there he is miraculously fed by the prophet Habbakuk transported from Judaea.

- on the seventh day he is released by the King

- additions to Esther consist of the text of some of the decrees by the king, some additional work to fill holes in the story and some melodramatic enhancements.

- scholars are divided as to whether these are additions to the original or the canonical version is a cut down version and this version is a translation.

- I have to note that apart from the decrees, the quality of writing is much less in the apocryphal additions - I have refered to it as Mills and Boone

- The Prayer of Manasses claims to be the prayer uttered by the bad king Manasses on his repentance 2Ch 23:11-19

- The epistle of jeremiah is a typical helenistic-jewish attach on idolatry.

- Baruch was the friend and scribe of Jeremiah - he also gets a book.

- Baruch addresses the exiles offering confession of sins, prayer for forgiveness and prayer for salvation.

- then praises wisdom in the Law

- finally a lament over Jerusalem the hope of return

- Ecclesiasticus is the greek name for the Wisdom of Joshua ben-Sira

- this book is predictable wisdom literature - advice for life

- The wisdom of solomon is another wisdom book of very high standard

- 1Maccabees discusses the struggle of the jews against the seleucids between 175 and 134BC

- the aim is to glorify the family of the maccabees the champion of judaism

- 2Macabees covers a most of the same material but with less accuracy.

- both tend to be incredibly blood thirsty

- as I said for the life of the church it can be useful to make bible study a little different. These books are generally available in the catholic versions.

Battle of the Bible

- Up until c1880, bible seen as a whole - the word of God

- then the rumblings of higher criticism were noticed by the rest of the world.

- The germans had discovered that the methods of literary criticism could be applied to the biblical text with interesting results

- Time of the original liberals - interested in finding the real man Jesus - writing biographies of his life.

- Varying countries discovered the problem at different times and the conservatives began a desparate rear guard action.

- In England this consisted of the lower ranks of the church raising the pastoral issues of the changes

- It was felt that these new techniques and the theology that they resulted in would have grave effect on people's faith

- Since they were the lower ranks of the church they were both accurate and ignored.

- In America the fight centered around Fuller seminary led by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

- The fight was higly polemical - slanging matches between the two sides

- The conservatives led by BB issued a pamphlet entitled "The fundamentals"

- this is the origin of the term fundamentalist now a pejorative term used to mean someone of low intellect who mistakenly believes the bible to be word for word from God

- originally meant someone who fought for the traditional fundamentals of the faith.

- Australia, although later to have this problem, also experienced this issue.

- The fight in the methodist church revolved around the introduction of Peakes commentary as required reading for ordinands.

- This was the beginning. The height of the matter is perhaps demonstrated in the findings of I think the second heresy board trying Ted Knoffs - how could they condemn someone on the basis of the confessions or scripture if 60% of the church didn't believe them either.

- The important thing to realise is that at the time of the development of a lot of the underpinning of this method, scientific method meant Darwinism.

- everything evolved and evolution was applied to everything.

- I am happy to say that there is the beginning of a swing back to more conservative theology or a saner view of the bible.

- our theology, ministry and christian life depend on the revelation that God gives us primarily through his word.


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material of the course was based on the following books:

"The New Bible Dictionary" (InterVarsity Press 1962)

"The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible" (Abingdon Press 1962)

"The Lion Handbook of the Bible" (Lion Publishing 1973)

"The Story of Jericho" 2nd Ed. by J. Garstang and J.B.E. Garstang (Marshall Morgan and Scott 1948)

"How to Read the New Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"A Way into the Old Testament" by C.R. Biggs and A.L.G Catlin (Uniting Church Press 1983)

"The New Testament Environment" by Eduard Lohse (SCM Press 1976)

"How to Read the Old Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"The Background of the Gospels" by W. Fairweather (T & T Clark 1911)