Monday, October 30, 2017

New Book: The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity

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The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (OUP) by yours truly and Ed Gallagher releases in the UK this week (see the preview on Google Books here; see Amazon UK here; see Amazon USA here). It will be available on the tables at SBL in Boston, MA, and it will release in the USA on Jan. 2.

What is the relevance of this book for canon studies? The biblical canon of the Old and New Testament was formed over centuries. There were many Jewish “scriptures” or sacred writings of inviolable authority as shown from the MSS from Qumran and the deuterocanonical literature from Palestine and Alexandria. Even significant works such as the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas reveal the early impulse for Christian literary output. Answers vary for how and why the churches settled on the same core Jewish canon with variation at the edges (N.B. the differences between the modern HB/OT Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox canons). Furthermore, the answers differ over the formation of the twenty-seven-book NT canon. These questions focus on the quantity and the quality of our evidence. Scholars have noted the variegated nature of the evidence for the biblical canon. What do we learn from MSS (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls; Christian codices), citations of religious literature (e.g. early Christian usage of the Shepherd), ancient translations (e.g. Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), ancient notices (e.g. “The Law and the Prophets”), and canon lists? Thus, a book on canon lists will necessarily not tell the whole history of the canon, but we suggest that the various, early lists provide the most specific information about the ancients’s canon.

The biblical canon lists once dominated scholarly discussion of the development of the biblical canon, culminating in B. F. Westcott’s A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (7th ed. 1896) and Theodor Zahn’s Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (1888–1892). The twentieth century saw a turn toward other pieces of evidence; the canon lists were not ignored (see, e.g., Hennings and Kaestli and Wermelinger) but they were afforded a much reduced role, perhaps even a marginal status. Canon studies instead occupied themselves chiefly with the material evidence of MSS and the usage of scripture in citations, allusions, and echoes. Focus on these sets of evidence yielded mixed results. On the one hand, we became more aware of the wide contents of religious writings or scriptures from the second temple period into late Antiquity. Church fathers cited verses as scripture from more books than we have in our modern printed bibles. Codices contained more books than have found their way into modern bibles of any church (e.g. 4 Maccabees; Shepherd of Hermas). All this research is useful as it contributes to the overall picture of an ancient’s scriptural corpus. On the other hand, due to this research over the past one-hundred years, scholars lost sight of the window through which—as we argue—we see clearest the ancients’s canon of scripture: the canon lists.

Our purpose for writing The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis is to return this evidence set to the prominence we believe it deserves in the conversation so that readers can rediscover its significance for the formation of the canon. To that end, after a substantial opening chapter in which we survey the early history (through 400 CE) of the canons of the Old and New Testament, we present the early canon lists in the original language (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac) with a parallel English translation, notes, and further commentary. The lists of Athanasius, Jerome, Eusebius, Baba Batra (yes, we include the Jewish lists of Josephus, more of a discussion than a list, and Baba Batra) et al. are all finally available in one volume. We also include a chapter on select manuscripts of the first millennium. The book concludes with a major Appendix summarizing the evidence of reception for the more popular Antilegomena and Apocrypha.

The remarkable agreement among the canon lists (though the reader will note important differences in some contents and orders of books between lists) probably shows that we should not interpret the appearance of a canon list as the point at which a canon was introduced; that is, the canon lists are evidence of nearing the end of a long process—not the beginning of one. Therefore, even though scripture proliferated in the earlier period, the early Jewish and Christian canon lists in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac from around 100–400 probably reveal that there was a core of authoritative scripture upon which most Jewish and early Christian groups could agree. The later lists could be used to corroborate this point shown also from some of the analyses of the evidence from the earlier period.

Although canon lists provide a window into an ancient’s canon of scripture, they do not provide a window into the same author’s functional canon. 2–3 John are included in many canon lists, but the author that includes them may not ever cite them, while the same author may cite the Shepherd, a book not in his list. Furthermore, canon lists do not reveal the textual form of certain books such as Daniel (see post on “Daniel” for an example). The best of canon scholarship is cross-disciplinary, and we think our book contributes to this larger project.

About the Authors

Ed Gallagher is Associate Professor of Christian Scripture at Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama. Ed blogs on his various research projects at Our Beans.

John Meade is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to the ETC blog, John also blogs at Septuagint Studies.

6 comments :

  1. I'm looking forward to getting hold of this (if I can afford it).

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    1. Thanks, Peter. We fought for the current price point. I had nightmares of the book costing $100 or more. OUP's table at SBL should have it at a discount, and it will probably fit in your carry on for the flight home :).

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  2. This looks like a great book. I'm anxious to take a closer look at it.

    Here are a couple thoughts about quotes from the above description:
    1) //The twentieth century saw a turn toward other pieces of evidence; the canon lists were not ignored (see, e.g., Hennings and Kaestli and Wermelinger) but they were afforded a much reduced role, perhaps even a marginal status. //

    After this stage of 20th century canon studies, I think there seems to have been another stage where canon lists returned to greater importance, based on refinements of the way scholars use the word "canon." Some scholars have insisted that the word "canon" should be rather narrowly defined so that a canon only effectively exists when a list exists. I have in mind Eugene Ulrich's chapter on defining canon in The Canon Debate. But I know others have taken the same position.

    2) // Furthermore, canon lists do not reveal the textual form of certain books such as Daniel (see post on “Daniel” for an example).//

    True. But on the other hand, canon lists sometimes do explicitly reveal the textual form of certain books, such as several Christian canon lists that define the OT as essentially the same as the Protestant OT/Hebrew Bible, but that explicitly specify that Jeremiah includes the Letter and/or Baruch (I think). We might be inclined to think of these as separate books, rather than different forms of Jeremiah. But the wording of these lists suggests that their authors were simply defining the form of Jeremiah they had in mind, over against a form that lacked those additions.

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    1. Good comments, Eric. In our Introduction we define what a canon list is. I've tipped my own hand in the post when I said, "The remarkable agreement among the canon lists...probably shows that we should not interpret the appearance of a canon list as the point at which a canon was introduced; that is, the canon lists are evidence of nearing the end of a long process—not the beginning of one."

      But our book is first and foremost an entry point into the evidence of the lists. Others will have to draw their own conclusions about the term "canon" and the ancient and modern use of the term.

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