Monday, September 21, 2009

More on the Development of the Canon

Before continuing with my history of the development of the canon, I feel it somewhat important to answer a basic question. If we say that the period of the Councils, like Carthage, Hippo and Rome, defined the OT and NT canons, we do have to answer "which OT canon?" Alexandrian or Palestinian? The Alexandrian canon is also called the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX for the Seventy translators who supposedly translated it) and the Palestinian is the 39 books no one disputes.

This is an important question, because many of the Fathers considered the LXX to be inspired. Justin Martyr and St Cyril of Jerusalem come immediately the mind as advancing this view. St Cyril even goes so far as to say that it was not done by the agency of human wisdom but entirely as inspired by the Holy Ghost. He explicitly says this.

This helps to explain why the Eastern Churches accepted the LXX entirely, including all four Maccabees, all the Esdrases, Odes and so on. The West, as I said, adopted the Alexandrian canon only to an extent. As I said before, they had a two-tiered system. Of the 39 books, they largely accepted those as being canonical without exception. But they also inherited some books from the Apostles and the Apostolic Fathers and for this reason called the second tier Ecclesiastical. St Cyril, whom I mentioned before, in saying the LXX was inspired, also tells the people to whom he wrote that not to gainsay the books handed down by the Apostles, because "Children of the Church" should not question their "Fathers." But again, this all had to do with the context of what was read out in the churches. As an aside, and to bring Jerome back into this, he was widely criticised for his new Translation into Modern language. People had gotten to like their old translation that sounded very archaic and could only be appreciated by some, especially those with an education. Sound familiar?

By the time of the aforementioned Councils, things had changed enough that the distinction was dropped.

What resulted was a text that could be used to settle disputes, but the important thing to note is that it wasn't Scripture that ultimately settled the disputes but the Ecumenical Councils making use of Scripture. The Canonisation of Scripture was meant to serve the needs of the Church, not the Church serve Scripture.

This served the Church well for centuries. Scripture inspired a rich prayer-life of recitation of the Psalms, Proverbs, and so on. The pericopes of Scripture became so well known as to inspire art throughout the ages. And of all the books, when the Printing Press came about, what was published first? The Vulgate Bible.

Then came the Reformation and the first challenges to the canon in 1100 years. Why? Well, to an extent there's a very simple and logical reason. Suppose you have determined that no institution of Man, no matter how Divinely instituted can be free from the Fall. So you decide that something immutable and outside the structure should be the element to which you appeal. Hence sola scriptura. Since Fallen Man could not be trusted, but the Word of God was unchanging, so now it was the Word of God itself that held the final Authority. But if you're going to have a final Authority, you need to decide which one that is.

Now, cynics charge that the Reformers removed the books that they found disagreed with their position. Exploring that charge is another post entirely. But suffice it to say we can presume their sincerity. If they looked back throughout time they found that the only books of the canon that never met with any resistance in the Old Testament was the Palestinian canon. The New Testament is a different and sometimes fascinating story. Suffice it to say, if we went with some of the first reactions, our New Testament would be a lot smaller. But again, another whole post, and one filled with nuance upon nuance.

But this invites the question "Who gets to decide?" In all previous times it was the Church who decided. So Trent took up something never before deemed necessary. See in the Patristic period the Ecumenical Councils thought it went without saying that the Councils of Hippo, Carthage and Rome had sufficiently dealt with the question. Nowadays we'd liken it to the Supreme Court of the US determining that the lower courts got it right and see no need to take up the question. But with Trent it was different. We had a huge portion of North Europe saying that some books were not to be read with equal reverence and accepted as equally inspired. The position since the Patristic period had been, if not de jure, at least de facto the opposite.

So Trent took up what all its predecessors had seen unnecessary to do and it issued its now famous decree that all of the books in the Vulgate were to be accepted as equally inspired etc. In essence the Council of Trent finally put the seal of an Ecumenical Council to decisions taken and accepted in the Patristic period. Although the Vulgate was held in reverence by the Council, what they really said is that it was not the Vulgate for the Vulgate's sake, but the Vulgate because it was a correct representation of the correct canon. And thus the differences today between the Protestant and Catholic Bibles (and indeed the Eastern Bibles which I touched on earlier).

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Some of my friends lament the fact that the Apocrypha has been somewhat disregarded nowadays. The Reformers, trying to ape the Fathers, considered the Apocrypha in a high place although not canonical per se. But there was a difference between the Reformers and the Fathers. The Fathers never had sola scriptura. And so their two-tiered approach could survive. But under sola scriptura if it's not canonical it eventually will be excised as "extra-biblical". And thus the eventually leaving behind of the Apocrypha and even the naked hostility to it as a collection of "Romish books" are perfectly understandable. Obviously I don't agree, but it is a logical consequence of what the Reformers did.

6 comments:

あじ said...

Of the 39 books, I believe Esther and Song of Songs were both disputed; the former is missing from many early canon lists. They do, however, find few opponents these days.

Ogden Chichester said...

I am not aware of any of the lists of the Fathers that have left out Esther in its entirety. It is true Canticles (aka Songs) did encounter some disputation (we're told) at Jamnia.

あじ said...

Melito excludes it; the rest I will have to look up as I don't a list handy.

From The Canon Question:
"Esther is a particularly difficult case for the advocate of the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory to make from history. Of all the Old Testament books that the Church Fathers variously excluded from the lists of Old Testament books, Esther is the book most commonly omitted." -- Tom Brown

Ogden Chichester said...

I'll give you Melito; he also dumps Nehemiah and places "Esdras" at the end, which could be any of the books then known under that name. He does include Wisdom, interestingly.

As for Fathers who do include Esther:

Origen (he also includes Songs, the Letter of Jeremiah and the Maccabees)

The Council of Laodicea

Athanasius (who puts it in the grouping with Wisdom, Sirach, The Shepherd and the Didache, etc)

Cyril of Jerusalem

Hilary of Poitiers

Damasus


That's just for the Ante-Nicenes. I have two more volumes if you'd like me to sift through those. One is the Post-Nicenes up to Jerome, and the other is from Jerome to the end of the Patristic Period.

It seems the numbers who included Esther is much larger than those who excluded her, because we've only been able to find Melito so far. ;)

あじ said...

Throw Gregory of Nazianzus in with Melito. Amphilochius of Iconium says at the end of his OT list that "some approve the inclusion of Esther," meaning obviously that some do not. Athanasius places it in the same class as Sirach, Tobit, Didache, Hermas, et. al. More as it develops...

Ogden Chichester said...

I already said that about Athanasius.

Remember that we're not really interested in "some did not accept it" since some did not accept that a) Jesus was fully Man and fully God, b) that Jesus had a corporeal body, etc. In other words, that some did not accept is nice but not edifying.

Gregory of Nazianz's list is identical to Athanasius except that he (Gregory) omits Apocalypse (i.e. the Book of Revelation) and Athanasius does not.


Gregory is in my second volume. I told you I only looked through the first volume. I am trying to write an exegesis on Luke. Do you want me to instead go through every canon listed in all three volumes and list who does and who does not?


What's the point? We already know the vast majority of the Fathers included Esther, at least the Hebrew version.

What is your actual thesis here?