Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Development of the Canon of Scripture

To understand the development of the canon, which I touched on a little in the previous post, we have to understand what the Fathers saw as important and how that changed.

Before the Council of Nicaea, the Fathers (the Ante-Nicene Fathers), especially the Apostolic Fathers (those Fathers who knew the Apostles personally) had an interesting way of approaching this subject. For them, what was important about Scripture was which ones were to be read in church. But what we learn is that many churches allowed a wide variety of works to be read in church that later did not make it into the canon: like the Shepherd by Hermas, Pope Clement's First Epistle to the Corinthians, and the Didache to name a few. Some that did make it into the canon of Scripture were contested from the earliest days, this is why some Churches in the East -- to this day -- do not have Revelation in their Bibles. The doctrinal/dogmatic argument-ender for the Ante-Nicene Fathers was "the Apostolic Witness." If anyone could demonstrate conclusively that the Apostles taught X instead of Y ... end of discussion! Scripture was used to corroborate the Apostolic Witness, especially the Pauline Corpus. After all, Paul was an Apostle, and if he taught it, it confirmed the other Apostles taught it, since he learned from them. If Papias or Polycarp claimed that John taught X, that was that. Scripture, while important for educating churchgoers, especially catechumens (they spilled a lot of ink debating which books and which pericopes should be shown to the catechumens) the doctrinal discussion-stoppers were the Apostolic Witness.

But by the time of the Council of Nicaea, indeed the whole reason for it really, the Apostolic Witness was becoming harder to discern from spurious accounts. All of those who knew the apostles and those who knew them were dead. So the Church needed to come up with a way of maintaining right belief (orthodoxia) in union with the Apostolic tradition. This spurred them to determine which Scriptures were canonical and which writings were merely inspired. They would know the canonical Scriptures because they agreed with the Apostolic Witness.

Here are the criteria they used. First and foremost, these Scriptures had to be read by all of the churches and not just some. This seems to affirm a congregationalist polity. But in reality this was a simple, common sense rubric. If all of the churches read these Scriptures it is because they were either taught to do so by the Apostles or they conform to the Apostolic Teaching. The Gospels are a good example of this concept. Not only did they have to deal primarily with Jesus (some contemporary Gospels dealt with other people as well. Luke is the closest to this of the canonical Gospels. He spends quite a bit of time on Jesus' relatives. Other Gospels that did not end up being considered canonical spent more time on others than Luke), and they had to agree completely with what the Apostles taught about Jesus. So the synoptics and John got in, but Gospels were Jesus elevated Mary Magdalene above the Apostles or where Judas was the Good Guy did not, because they disagreed with the Apostolic Teaching.

There was also another consideration that was very important to the Fathers. Nowadays we'd consider this silly superstition, but they took it seriously. Basically, the number of books in the OT had to equal the number of Hebrew letters, and the number of NT books had to equal the number of Greek letters. Here's one example:

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

-St Athanasius, 39th Festal Letter

Indeed, in the same Festal letter, Athanasius describes what then went on in their minds when they realised they had books left over. Essentially, they had three designations: Canonical, Ecclesiastical, and Apocryphal. Nowadays, we'd call them Protocanonical, Deuterocanonical and Pseudopigriphal. In this second category they included the Old Testament Deuterocanon, of course, but they also included a NT variety, which often included the Shepherd, Clement's Epistle, and so on. They called it Ecclesiastical, because the Apostolic Fathers had ordered them to be read in church. This is behind Jerome's remark in his prologue in my previous post.

By the Councils of Hippo, Carthage, Rome etc it was decided, with respect to the OT, to leave off the artificial designation of canonical and ecclesiastical, and instead to include them altogether. The New Testament fared differently. After much debate certain disputed works were excised and others included.

The purpose for doing all of this though was simple. If the Apostles and their immediate successors are not present to ask about certain points, we need a base text upon which we can debate. Then when the Arians and Nestorians make their claim, we'll have one work to consult. If what they claim is not therein, they're wrong.

(continued tomorrow)

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