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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Canons in Antiquity

Christians in the fourth century made use of a familiar Greek term, ‘canon’ (Greek kanōn), to describe a closed collection of sacred scriptures. Originally the word referred to a measuring instrument, a standard to follow, and eventually a rule or guide. The notion was applied to art, sculpturing, and architecture, such as in the perfect frame to be copied, as well as to music, where the monochord was the canon by which all other tonal relationships were controlled. It was also used by Alexandrians in reference to grammar, and they produced a canon of classical writers whose Greek was used as a model for other writers. They were connected with the famous Alexandrian library, and compiled a body of literature, even lists, that reflected the literary standards of their day (VanderKam 2000: 29–30; Pfeiffer 1968: 123–51). This example may be the context of the Letter of Aristeas that told of the famous Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was presented to the Pharaoh in Egypt (c.280 BCE). This idea may well have given rise to notions of canon in the Jewish and Christian communities, but the lines of dependence are not clear.

In the second-century church, kanon was employed as a ‘rule of faith’ (Latin regula fidei, Greek ho kanōn tēs pisteōs), and even a ‘rule of truth’ (Latin regula veritatis, Greek ho kanōn tēs pisteōs), and even a ‘rule of truth’ (Latin regula veritatis, Greek ho kanōn tēs alētheias), to designate a core of beliefs that identified the Christian community (Metzger 1987: 251–2).

In the Graeco-Roman world, Epicurus of Samos (c.341–270 BCE) argued that logic and method in thought stemmed from a canon (kanōn) or criterion (kritērion) by which one could measure and determine what was true or false and what was worth investigating or not. For him, philosophical inquiry enabled one to discover what was both true and false, and he wrote a treatise on the matter entitled ‘Of the Standard’ or ‘Canon’ (Peri kriteriou; Kanōn). Diogenes Laertius writes: ‘Now in the Canon, Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards or truth’ (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, x. 31, ‘Epicurus’, (LCL, italics added); see also 27, 30; and Seneca, Epistles, 89. 11–12). Epictetus argued that the goal of philosophy is to determine a ‘standard of judgement’ and adds that whatever subject needs to be investigated, it needs to be ‘subject to the standard’ (hupage autēn autēn tō kanoni) (Dissertationes, ii. 11. 13, 20; cf. ii. 23. 21). Aeschines of Athens (c.397–322 BCE) likewise writes:

In carpentry, when we want to know whether something is straight, we use a ruler (kanōn) designed for the purpose. So also in the case of indictments for illegal proposals, the guide (kanōn) for justice is this public posting of the proposal with accompanying statement of the laws that it violates. (Against Ctesiphon 199–200, trans. Danker)

This is not unlike the way that biblical scriptures have been understood and employed in the Jewish and Christian communities of faith: namely, as a standard of faith, mission, and conduct.

The works of Homer were reverently esteemed by the Greeks, and the gods referred to in his Iliad and Odyssey became the acknowledged gods of the Greeks. Unlike other ancient writings of the time, each of these books was divided into twenty-four parts or chapters, each identified by a letter of the Greek alphabet. The use of the alphabet as a sign of the divine source and importance of those works is helpful in understanding the NT reference to God and Jesus as the ‘Alpha and Omega’, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (Rev. 1: 8; 21: 6; 22: 13). Like those who revered Homer and used the alphabet to designate chapters in his works, the Jews identified the number of books in their sacred collection with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet (twenty-two) and later adopted the number of the Greek alphabet (twenty-four). Before that time, several psalms were divided by the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g. Pss. 25, 33, 34, 103, and especially 119, which has twenty-two sections, each beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Homer became ‘canon’ for the Greeks, and it is also interesting that Alexander the Great, under the influence of Aristotle, worshipped Homer and even founded a cult of Homer at Alexandria (see Graham 1987: 52). In other Graeco-Roman literature, ‘canon’ was employed as a means of determining the quality of something, whether it ‘measured up’ (Euripides, Hecuba 602; Demosthenes 18. 18, 296; Aeschines, In Ctesiphonem 88; Plutarch, Consolatio ad Apollonium 103a; Epictetus, Dissertationes i. 28. 28; Lucian, Piscator 30).

In the New Testament, kanōn is found only in Paul's letters where he speaks of guidelines established by God, the limits of Paul's ministry, the boundaries of another's ministry (2 Cor. 10: 13, 15, 16), and once as the standard or norm of true faith (Gal. 6: 16). Later, Clement of Rome (c. 90 CE) uses the term in reference to the church's revealed truth, that is ‘the rule of our traditions’ (1 Clem. 7. 2). Similarly, in Irenaeus ‘canon’ refers to the essence or core of Christian doctrine. Irenaeus contends that a true believer retains ‘unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism’ (Adv. Haer. 1. 9. 4, ANF). Eusebius (c.320–30 CE) indicates that Clement of Alexandria spoke of an ‘ecclesiastical canon’ or ‘body of truth’ (HE 6. 13. 3). The word was also common in Jewish writings; for example, Josephus refers to Josiah's ascension to the throne (2 Kgs. 22: 1; 2 Chr. 34: 1) and says that he used King David ‘as a pattern and rule (kanoni) of his whole manner of life’ (AJ 10. 49; see also Ap. 2. 174; Philo, Leg. All. 3. 233; Test. Napht. 2. 3; 4 Macc. 7: 21; Ep. Arist. §2).

Athanasius (367 CE) was the first to use kanōn in reference to a fixed collection of sacred books, and also to identify the twenty-seven books that eventually made up the New Testament. In his Festal Letter of 367 CE, he also uses a verbal form of kanōn (kanonizomenon = ‘canonized’) to refer to a body of sacred scriptures. Following Athanasius, a closed list, or fixed collection, of sacred scriptures came to be referred to as a biblical ‘canon’. Earlier (325 CE), Eusebius described sacred books in the church as ‘covenanted’ (Greek endiathēkē, literally, ‘encovenanted’) writings (HE 3. 25. 6), or ‘recognized’ (Greek homologoumenon) (HE 6. 25. 3). The word he uses for a list of sacred books is ‘catalogue’ (Greek katalogos) (HE 3. 25. 6; 4. 26. 13). When he uses the term kanon, he generally focuses on the church's rule of faith. Of the ten instances of this word in his writings, two are possible candidates for referring to an exclusive list of sacred scriptures (HE 5. 28. 13 and 6. 25. 3). Eusebius provides the first datable lists of recognized canonical books in the church (HE 3. 25. 1–7), and he presents what he claimed was Origen's collection of scriptures as follows, saying ‘in the first of his [Commentaries] on the Gospel according to Matthew, defending the canon of the Church (ton ekklesiastikon fulattōn kanona), he gives his testimony that he knows only four Gospels’ (HE 6. 25. 3). The only question here is whether the ‘canon of the Church’ refers to the rule of faith (teachings) or to a body of sacred Christian literature, a catalogue. Eusebius cites Origen's ‘encovenanted books’ (endiathēkous biblous) as a collection of Christian scriptures (HE 6. 25. 1).

The writings of the prophets became authoritative both for the Jews and later also for the Christians, but initially those writings, and even their textual forms, were not yet fixed or inviolable. Early on they were welcomed as divinely inspired messages from God, but for centuries there was considerable freedom in the church to alter those writings. A NT example of altering an inspired text is found in the quotation of Ps. 68: 18 in Eph. 4: 8.

In time, these prophetic writings became known among the Jews as the Tanakh, a term derived from the first Hebrew letter of each division of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nebiim, Ketubim (the first two followed by a vowel), and by the end of the second century the Christians began calling them their ‘Old Testament Scriptures’. At the end of that process, the writings that made up those collections were looked upon as sacred and inviolable, and they were placed in a fixed sacred collection called the Holy Scriptures. In the early and fluid stages of development, the writings were often changed or dropped out of use in churches and synagogues, but they nevertheless had an impact on the life, worship, conduct, and mission of these two communities of faith, if even for a short time. The distinctions between scripture and canon, as well as the various processes or stages of canonical development, have been variously represented in recent scholarship (Sanders 1987; Sheppard 1987; Ulrich 1999, 2002). At the beginning of the process, one can only speak of a biblical canon anachronistically, and it is difficult to find appropriate vocabulary to identify the processes of canonization. This is because the ancient religious communities showed little interest in biblical canons, and even less in telling the story that led to the final fixing of their biblical canons.

It is not unusual for scholars today to speak of ‘canon’ in reference to the early recognition of the authority and value of the biblical writings, but such uses did not exist in the ancient church until the fourth century CE. It is probably better to speak of a canonical ‘process’ or ‘processes’ at these early stages (Ulrich 1999). There is no precise language to describe canonical formation in antiquity, a factor that suggests little interest in the matter for several centuries. The following is a survey of the processes that led to the recognition and stabilization of the Christian Scriptures.

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