The Bible and its Interpretation
Section I: Characteristics of the Scriptures
Excursus #3: A Question of Canon
What Do We Mean By Canon
In matters of religion, the word canon comes up quite a bit. You may have heard of Rome's Canon of the Mass. If you have heard the phrase, rule of faith is actually canon pistou in Greek. And then of course, we have the canonical books of the Bible. Canon come from the Greek, and it is something like a list, a rule, an order. A Greek looking at a recipe could say it is a canon. It lists items and their proper order. What is the Canon of the Mass? It is the liturgy of Communion, of what you do in what order. The Rule of Faith is the list of the things, which a Christian believes. If you open up to the table of contents in your Bible, you will see a canon of Scripture. A canon is also a rule, a form of measure. It is the standard to which other items must measure. We do not just say any book is part of the canon; it must meet certain standards. Thus, a canon is an exclusive listing, in the proper order, of things that are good, right, and salutary.
What Makes The Cut
Throughout the history of the Church, both Old Testament and New Testament, there has been disagreement on what books ought to be part of the canon. We see this even in the New Testament Gospel accounts. Read Luke 20:27-38. The Sadducees, who are disputing with Jesus, accepted only the first five books of the Bible as Scripture. Note what Jesus quoted to them to prove the resurrection. The Sadducees' claim concern the canonicity of just the books of Moses was just one example of disagreements over what should be in the Bible. What we will do now is look at both the Old Testament and the New Testament, see what some of the other disagreements were, and see why our Bible looks the way it does.
The Old Testament
Moses, Prophets, and Writings
One can divide the Old Testament into three categories. These are the books of Moses, the Prophets, and then the Writings. The books of Moses are the first five books of the Bible. Why are these called the Books of Moses? Then there are the books of the Prophets. These include the former Prophets (like Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel) and the later prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Micah, etc.). Also of note, in most Jewish accountings of Scripture, all the minor prophets are referred to as one book, the Book of the Twelve; then, the rest are the writings (like Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, or Daniel). Take a look at Luke 24:44. This is the verse to which scholars refer to demonstrate that Jesus held to this "three-fold division" of the Old Testament. However, not everyone agreed that all these books that we have today should have been considered Scripture. The Sadducees only accepted Moses. Others did not accept some of the writings – called the Megilloth – which were considered dubious by some, but later on ended up being part of the five major holidays of the Jewish Calendar: Song of Songs with Passover, Ruth with Pentecost, Lamentation for the commemoration of the Fall of Jerusalem, Ecclesiastes for the Festival of the Booths, and Esther with Purim. Why were these questioned? For example, Song of Songs and Esther do not mention God explicitly. Hence, many asked how they could be part of Scripture then
The Greek Old Testament
After the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., Israelites were scattered and scattered all over the Mediterranean world. Some relocated to Alexandria, Egypt; while there, many of the Jews lost the ability to readily speak or read Hebrew, so a translation of the Old Testament into Greek was done, commonly called the Septuagint (in honor of the seventy men who worked on it). This work included all of the books in our Old Testament. However, books continued to be added to it as they were written in Greek by various authors in various places. These addition books in Greek are what we commonly refer to as the Apocrypha or the “hidden books." While some Jews in Palestine did not recognize these latecomers, they were read almost everywhere (just perhaps not as Scripture). More and more books were being considered in various places as Scripture, so that began to create some confusion. As a result, an attempt to establish canon began, to say what should be in there and what should not be.
The Old Testament in Early Church Times
Some Christians in the early Church used the Greek Old Testament with the Apocrypha included. That tradition has continued to this day in the Roman Catholic Church. However, there was opposition to the Apocrypha from both Jewish and Christian Sources. After the rise of Christianity, most Jews viewed themselves as in opposition to Christians and after a time came to completely reject any book written in Greek, so the Apocrypha got the boot. As time passed, interest in the Hebrew Old Testament also increased among Christians, reaching its early Church peak in Jerome around A.D. 400. Jerome was the main translator of the Vulgate, or the standard Latin translation of the Bible. He himself only counted as canonical the books which were written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Thus, Rome kept the Apocrypha, but kind of gave it a lower status.
Luther and the Old Testament
When the Reformation rolled around, an interesting twist is that it was led by an Old Testament Hebrew scholar named Martin Luther. That was what Luther taught, that was his specialty at Wittenberg (Melanchthon was the New Testament Greek scholar). He followed Jerome, that while the Apocrypha might have some good wisdom in it, it was not part of Scripture. Calvin followed suit, and thus the non-Roman Western Churches dropped the Apocrypha. The easiest and simplest reason for why they did not recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture is the language written in. Hebrew is for the Old Testament and Greek is for the New Testament. However, other issues come up, such as how Christological the Apocrypha is. If it does not focus on Christ and draw our eyes to Him, then it is not Scripture. There is a slight difference between what Lutherans and Protestants end up doing, though. Lutherans never define a canon as part of their Confessions, whereas Protestants often will list the books of the Bible in their confessional statements.
The New Testament Canon
What is Read in the Church
When it comes to which books made it into the New Testament Canon, we first must pay attention to the liturgical usage of Scripture. In the early Church, when questions of what books ought to be considered Scripture, a common way of introducing them are as the books which are read in the Church. That is the distinction. If you recognized a book as being the Word of God, you would read it in the Divine Service.
Some Early Objections
Some books of the New Testament were questioned early on by various people (mainly heretics). The chief example of this is Marcion, a heretic who lived ca. A.D. 150. Marcion was convinced that the God of the Old Testament was actually the Devil and that Jesus and His Father were entirely separate and in opposition to the Old Testament God/Devil. So, he removed the entire Old Testament from his canon, and also only accepted an edited version of Luke and edited versions of some of Paul's epistles. He opposed everything else. Quite a few people (some even solid Christians) opposed the Gospel of John, because a heretical group, the Gnostics, liked to use it so much. However, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon around A.D. 170, used John a lot in his massive refutation of Gnostic Heresy (" Against the Heretics") and after his skilful use of the book, opposition to it dies down.
The Problem of Letters
In the early Church no publishing houses, such as CPH or Zondervan, existed; no printing presses were available to print rapidly copies and copies of the Bible; copies, because scribes wrote by hand, were rare and expensive. Also, quite a few of the books of the Bible are epistles, or letters. The matter of the distribution of these epistles played a factor in the Bible. Some simply are not spread around. The Pauline epistles seem to spread quickly and early, but some of the catholic epistles, like Peter, James, and Jude, are not distributed as quickly. The Epistles of John were circulated throughout Asia Minor, but were not spread to other places. Thus, in the 4th century, when Christianity became legal and public, and when church councils drew people from all over the Empire, confusion resulted when the bishops from various areas refer to books that other people have not heard.
What Makes the Cut
In A.D. 381 the Council of Constantinople, the 2nd great Ecumenical Council of the Church, was held. By then, a general consensus had been reached as to what is in the New Testament. (Although only smaller local councils, normally called synods, actual spend time writing up clearly defined lists.) Several factors played into the decisions. The first factor is orthodoxy. Simply put, if it does not speak the Truth, it is not Scripture. Many writings in the early Church were completely rejected. The Gospel of Thomas is an example; so is the Gospel of Peter. Those deny Christ's human nature, so they were rejected. Those books were not even to be read on the side by the Christian. The second of these factors is apostolicity. In order to be counted as Scripture, an apostle needed to be involved in its writing (or guide it, as Paul guides Luke and Peter guides Mark). Hence, many books that the early Church Fathers laud and praise, such as Barnabas, or the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch were not considered part of the Bible. One could read them, but they were not to be read in the Church service as God's Word. Another writing that was rejected is the Shepherd of Hermas. Another major factor was catholicity. The word catholic means universal. Hence, there was a question as to whether or not a book was universal, or used throughout the whole Church. Some books were not accepted because of their limited usage, like the Revelation of Peter. If something were God's Word, it would spread. The Church would know what the Word of the Shepherd sounded like. One more thing to bring up is self-authentication. A book of the Bible shows and acknowledges itself to be Scripture. For an example, look at I Corinthians 1: 1-2 and 16:19. This is a book for the faithful everywhere; all the churches of Asia recognize it. Suddenly, we see its orthodoxy, apostolicity, and catholicity. I Clement, which is a letter from Clement, an early Bishop of Rome (ca. A.D. 80-100) to the Church at Corinth, does not have this feel to it. While it was read in the region surrounding Corinth, it did not authenticate itself like the Corinthian correspondence.
Remember the problem with Epistles? That still was not quite solved by the time of Council of Constantinople. The books of the New Testament can be divided into two groups: the homolegomena and the antilegomena. Homolegomenon means "speaking the same;" antilegomenon means “spoken against.”
The homolegomena are the books of the New Testament that everyone spoke in favor of. That category included the four Gospel account, Acts, the Letters of Paul, I Peter, and I John. However, some churches remained skeptical of certain books that were widely used else where, and spoke out against those books. Hence, they were labelled the antilegomena or the "spoken against" books. Those were Hebrews, James, II Peter, II & III John, Jude, and Revelation. Opponents of those books yielded to the broad support and eventually they were accepted church-wide. A more recent example of this is Luther, for he did not like James and Revelation; however, he never insisted that they no longer be recognized as Scripture – he yielded to the Church. Other books, like I Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas, although read in many places, were no longer understood as Scripture as their supporters also yielded to the rest of the Church.
So why does this question of canon matter? If we claim that the Word of God is the sole rule and norm of the faith, what we claim to be the Word of God is of the utmost importance. Today, we breathe a sigh of relief, because everything is completely settled and we never need worry about this again, right? Within the last few generations, many "Christian" scholars have wanted to find the "broader base" of ancient Christianity. Gnostic literature is being re-introduced (a huge cache of gnostic writings were found at a place called Nag Hammadi in the mid-20th century); some people began asking, "Shouldn't we read those writings and find them to be just as valid an expression of the faith of the early Christians as the books in the Bible?" How do we respond to that challenge? Is Romans just an “expression” of Paul’s faith, a faith that is no better than the faith of anyone else? When others attempt to elevate non-biblical writings to the standard of Scripture, those efforts will also try to undermine the faith of Christians and to weaken the character and purpose of the Scripture. Hence we must remain vigilant, discerning all endeavours that would consider the Bible as merely one book among many books, and maintain our confession of the Bible as the Word of God.