Re: canon

From: Larry Swain (
Date: Mon Mar 10 1997 - 02:15:33 EST

This issue seems to come up frequently. Actually I think the majority of
evidence suggests that most groups of Jews and Christians agreed on most
of the canon-there are always minor differences just as there are in the
modern period among various Christian groups.

Here are a few common assumptions that seem to me to be part of the
discussion that need to be done away with:

1) That someone(s) decided the canon. Sorry folks, didn't happen, neither
for the Hebrew Bible nor the Christian. Rather the content of the canon
is always an organic, bottoms up, active thing, never a static, cut and
dried issue.

2) The use of other literature in some authoritative fashion indicates
canonicity. Let me try to explain this by analogy. I have many copies of
the Bible in my personal library-several English translations, Greek
texts, Latin, Hebrew, German, French, Anglo-Saxon psalters, Middle English
reproductions, reproductions of Wycliffe's uses of Scripture in his
sermons, etc.....I also have most of the published writing of CS Lewis,
CFD Moule, Nahum Sarna, Brevard Childs, Martin Hengel, among other
theological scholars. In my own research and even "creative" writing I
refer to these scholars and their ideas-so do I then consider them to be
canonical in the same way as the Scriptures are? Of course not, anymore
than anyone else on this list considers scholars and works to whom they
look to be on the level of the scriptures. So the point is that because
NT writers were more widely read than we expect, and influenced by
literature in addition to what we now call the Scriptures, does it follow
that this other literature then was considered "canonical" by the NT
writers who refer to it? My answer is no, and I encourage us to consider
carefully both the definition of canon, what we mean by it, and the
criteria by which we measure it.

3) Qumran considered Tobit canonical? I would like to see evidence of
that-prescence in the caves is not evidence of canonicity-importance
perhaps, but not necessarily canonicity.

4) John's reference to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Daniel etc have a "rough
ride" in the Jewish canon probably refers to the Mishnaic references to
"making the hands unclean"-there is no room to here to fully discuss the
misuse of this phrase in Christian writing on the canon, so let me point
you to Sid Z Leiman's work and the literature he cites.

5) This has happened in other discussions, though not in this one yet.
But let me issue a caveat that because other literature is being written,
in the guise of and imitation of what we now call Scripture does not mean
that canon is still open question-rather it is indicative that canon is
closed a) because a canon invites by its nature imitation, discussion,
argument, and creativity-it is the STANDARD, afterall, against which all
else is measured, and b) this additional material embeds what is
considered canonical for more on see below.

Let me suggest some things for thought. Canonicity must be measured in
some fashion-authority and canon go hand in hand, but are not mutually
inclusive. SO let me suggest some tools we can use to determine if a work
were canonical:

1) Formulaic citation-"As it is written" "as the Lord spoke through his
prophet..." "written in the book of the prophet...." or some similar
formula which sets Isaiah, or Psalms apart from other books.

2) Widespread use in an authoritative fashion-for example, that almost all
the literature Christians produced in the first two centuries refer to the
Psalms and Daniel would indicate that those two books were considered at
least by the Christians to be canonical. The fact that Jude refers to the
Assumption of Moses demonstrates only that Jude and probably his audience
were familiar with it with an eye that this work may have been considered
authoritative in some fashion by that community-that is about as strong as
you can state it.

3) Commentary. The fact that a work is interpreted and applied to a new
day and situation indicates that it is a "canon"...._The Vampire Lestat_
is not resulting in a host of commentaries and interpretive articles, but
Hemingway is. Conclusion: Hemingway at least in some quarters is
considered part of the literary canon, Ann Rice is not. So, at Qumran for
example, the fact that we have commentaries on Psalms but not on Tobit
suggests that perhaps Psalms held greater importance and authority....

4) Imitation-Only standards tend to be imitated-so additional Psalms,
stories told that sound suspiciously like "Biblical" stories, etc indicate
some degree of canonicity

5) Standardization-in the first century BCE and first century CE there
seems to be an effort (yes, before the Targumim) to standardize the Greek
texts to a Hebrew text, and these include texts of almost all of what we
currently include in the OT, or Hebrew Bible, but not books such as Enoch
IV.... And we also have the injunction in the Mishnah that only
books written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic are "canonical" which
indicates that well before the end of the first century CE the process is
well underway, if not complete

6) References in literature-by this I mean things like the introduction to
Sirach and the fact that Sirach 48 ff list "biblical" heros and references
(even from the Ketubim) in CANONICAL order-that is in the order we later
find the canon in. Further, the last reference made to "collecting" books
into the Temple is the restoration in 165 BCE of the Temple-no further
mention is ever made of collecting books into a collection, library etc.

7) Tradition-when something is later said to be tradition and handed
down-by the time this story gets into written form and is dressed in hoary
antiquity, it is hoary to the writer-that is they may be mistaken about
just how long the "canon" has been in place, but for them it is so long
that it makes no difference to be off a century or two-and since the
Mishnah recording first century discussions (if it can be trusted) does
precisely this, it is indicative that for people in the first century, the
canon is already an "old" thing

8) Related to Commentary-when you begin to get Oral Tradition based on
something, it usually indicates that the base is canonical-so since a
great deal of Oral Tradition cites and refers to Psalms and Daniel, this
may indicate canonicity

9) Logical disconnects-when you begin to get faulty logic in upholding a
position-time to reexamine the position. For example, most of those who
take the "late canon" stance fail to note that Ezekiel had a "rough" time
getting into things if I have understood John's reference correctly-if not
I'm referring to the Mishnah's statement that Ezekiel does not make the
hands unclean-and that in addition to that there are many prophets in the
60s CE, many "prophetic" works being produced-does this mean that the
canon of the prophets then is also still open in the late first century?
And the "Rule of the Community" reads a lot like the Torah, as does the
Mishnah for that matter-does this indicate that perhaps the late first
century and even the second century held the canon of Torah to be open as
well? If the answer is no, then I think we need to restudy the position
that the Ketubim were open on the same grounds.

Well this was meant to be a brief outline of a few issues, but I seem to
have become long, long winded. In my opinion the late canon position is
the least tenable and the evidence seems to me to weigh heavily the other
direction, but we don't really have room here for a lengthy and detailed
discussion. I recommend Sid Z Leiman and Roger Beckwith to start with,
and there are some other rather fine treatments as well.

With Respects,

Larry Swain

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