Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Canon as an Authoritative List of Books or a List of Authoritative Books?

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There has been some good discussion of canon on the blog of late, and as usual, the matter of the meaning of canon arises. Does “canon” apply to particular text forms of books (e.g. the Gospel of Mark with or without the longer ending; or the longer and shorter versions of Daniel)? Note the results of the recent poll here. Should we translate the term “canon” as “list” and describe books as “listical” rather than canonical (per Peter Williams)? Does canon refer to an authoritative list of books or to a list of authoritative books (à la Bruce Metzger)? What is the relationship between the ontological canon and exclusive/historical canons?

There are many questions about the nature of the canon, and the evidence of the canon lists remains part of the answer. First, “... lists often (not always) date to a time when the major formative stages of the biblical canon had already taken place. We usually see in the lists the results of a long process of development” (The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity [BCLEC], p. xviii). This is probably more true for the Old Testament than the New, since some of the NT lists (e.g. Muratorian Fragment [regardless of date] and Eusebius’s list) seem to be drafted in the midst of the process. The point here is that the lists do not initiate a canonical process, rather usually, they appear near the end of the process. By the time Josephus commented on “only twenty-two” books, it appears that the OT canon was long established with some on going dispute over Esther and perhaps Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes. Much of the NT canon solidified by the end of the 2nd century before a NT list was drafted.

Second, terminology in the early sources. It is difficult to find the use of the noun κανών with the sense of “list” to describe a list of books in early Greek sources, even in the fourth century (cf., e.g., Amphilochius of Iconium in BCLEC, p. 154n411). An author could use different terminology or derivatives of the term “canon” to describe the books within the list (cf. Athanasius in BCLEC, p. 124). The use of “canon” and derivatives seemed to catch on more readily in Latin authors. Augustine would use the term to describe the list (cf. BCLEC, p. 227; but on the same page, cp. his usage of “canonical scriptures”), while the Breviarium Hipponense used the adjective for “canonical scriptures” (BCLEC, p. 223). The list of the Synod of Laodicea described the books in its list as possessing or having authority (BCLEC, p. 132). The evidence for an authoritative list of (authoritative) books is not strong in the early period. Not only did early Christians refrain from speaking of their lists this way, but the variance between the contents of the lists themselves manifest that there was no single authoritative list of scriptural books. Furthermore, logically, the list would be a recognition or acknowledgement of books long considered authoritative scripture and there does not seem to be any evidence from the early period that a list conferred more authority on a book than it already possessed.

Even today, the New York Times Best Sellers List does not confer more popularity on a book than that book already had in order to get on the list in the first place. The act of recognizing a particular book highlights it as already possessing the qualities necessary to be placed on the list in the first place. Probably, the canon list defined more clearly the books, more or less, that already possessed authority and divine characteristics, which the churches had already long recognized. Perhaps a list of recognized books was useful to promote these certain books, but it did not add anything essential to them that was required for their inclusion in the list in the first place.

Third, does a list of authoritative books imply an authoritative list of books, even though an author does not say this explicitly? Perhaps, but it is important to remember that the list of an author or synod would only have had a limited measure of authority. In later collections of Byzantine canon law patristic letters such as the kind Athanasius wrote had diminished authority compared to an ecumenical council or even a regional synod. These letters were included in the canon law collection but were recognized to have reduced authority. This must be true regarding Athanasius’s 39th Festal letter on the canonical books since Eastern Orthodox churches continue to discuss the matter today and Athanasius’s letter does not settle the debates. Therefore, no one seems to recognize an authoritative list of books that would settle the debates.

Attempting to weigh all of the evidence, it seems clear that a canon list did not add authority to books already recognized as fit to be on the list. Those discussions happened before the drafting of lists. Thus there is not an authoritative list which confers authority to the books within it. Rather, canon as an exclusive list of authoritative books is what is more plainly rooted in the church’s history.

8 comments :

  1. John Meade,

    A canon-list is a list of authoritative books; i.e., books recognized as authoritative by the folks making the list. This is universally agreed upon is it not? Who wants to say, "These books would not be authoritative if we had not said so"?


    JM: "Does “canon” apply to particular text forms of books (e.g. the Gospel of Mark with or without the longer ending; or the longer and shorter versions of Daniel)?"

    This overlaps, i think, with the recent poll. Alas, the poll ended before I could vote. But my answer = Yes; there is a natural extension between saying that a book is authoritative, and that a particular text of a book is authoritative. But historically speaking, in the early church the authoritative *form* of the text was a matter of ruling out *noticeable* change. So, Irenaeus, if someone had asked him, would not consider a text of Mark to be the canonical text if 16:9-20 was missing. Nor would Ambrose and Augustine consider a text of John to be the canonical text if John 7:53-8:11 was missing. All, however, would consider texts canonical that differed only at points of orthography.

    One might make a comparison that bishop:canonical books is like shepherd:canonical flock. It does little good to say, "The flock has 27 sheep" if one does not care to recognize the sheep enough to know when one has an ear and a leg missing, for there is a difference between 26 and a half sheep, and 27 sheep. But if a close examination reveals that a bit of wool has been claimed by cockleburrs, the sheep is not considered maimed; it has just undergone a benign and minor loss.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, James. In the opening paragraph, I allude to Metzger's "The Canon: Collection of Authoritative Books or Authoritative Collection of Books?" He says, "In most discussions of the canon of the New Testament little or no attention is paid to the basic question whether the canon should be described as a collection of authoritative books or as an authoritative collection of books. These two formulations differ fundamentally and involve totally different implications. (A third formulation, that the canon is an authoritative collection of authoritative books, is merely a modification of the second formulation, and may be set aside in the present discussion.)." This issue has also come up in various threads on this blog, and thus it needed to be addressed.

      I'm not going to go into the matter of canon and text form on this thread. Others can do so if they wish. I'm more interested in discussion of the question of the post at present.

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    2. What evidence is there that the early church tied canonical status to textual form?

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    3. PG,
      It seems to me, that not only is such evidence lacking, but the evidence we have is overwhelming that this was not the case. Even with acknowledged differences in the Greek manuscripts, with some being classified negatively, ‘anyone with the barest knowledge of Greek creates their own copy’, I don’t know of any Church Father who claimed that these copies were not canonical scriptures. Additionally, the same applies to the variety of forms of quotations of scripture, not only among the Church Fathers, but even by the same Church Father. Admittedly, my knowledge is not exhaustive.

      Tim

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  2. “We may look at sacred texts as being those which contain a power and authority and are given certain status within a given community. Such communities and traditions are held together most typically through liturgical acts, which help to focus life upon that which is ultimate and to which the sacred texts give testimony. The status of the sacred text is canonical: as well as being normative for a community or tradition, it is also that community or tradition's canon or canonical text. The term 'canon' has a variety of meanings, but in the context of sacred texts it means the defined groups of texts for the community or tradition . . one does not add to or subtract from them.”

    Ninian Smart and Richard D. Hecht, edd. Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. xiii-xiv.

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    1. Thanks for this description, AJ. If we parse it out, it describes (1) sacred texts that possess authority, (2) these texts are given a certain status within a community, (3) the status of the sacred text is canonical, and (4) the canon is the closed, defined groups of texts for a community or tradition.

      If these are the operative four elements in the description, it would be element (2) "sacred texts are given certain status within a community" (and this leads to element (4) on the canon of the community) that would be the issue related to this post. Indeed, Smart and Hecht appear to suggest that the community gives the texts a certain status by their use of them in liturgy etc. and this leads to their inclusion in the canon. The question is whether that is true or not.

      It seems to me that the canon lists of Christianity, at least, suggest that the sacred books contained in the list had already the status necessary to be included in the same list, and Christians were acknowledging or recognizing this status not granting it to them. This is why many Christians used derivatives of the verb ὁμολογέω with the sense "recognized" or "acknowledged" to describe their books. There are statements from later fathers about a book's earlier or ancient use and perhaps this evidence could be interpreted as the "granting of a status," but it could also be understood as a later father's appeal to earlier evidence of the book's recognized authority among the churches in an earlier period.

      Thanks again, AJ, for this description. I want to think about it more, especially element (2).

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  3. JM,
    I would agree wholeheartedly with your final paragraph. I believe you have correctly identified the historical and theological realities.
    As to #2 above, it would appear to me, that the sacred text had already achieved an exalted status which results in these texts being set apart within a community. Once books achieve this exalted status, the historical reality seems to be that there will be a movement to identify which books or sacred text are included, hence a canonical list.
    Tim

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Tim. That could be another way to read #2, but the question is over the "sacred texts were given a certain status." I'm assuming that in this description there was a wide group of sacred texts to start with and then some were given a certain status which led to their eventual canonical status. But you may well be right in your reading of the description.

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