Canon Wars

Posted on May 8, 2010


Modern Christians live in a unique historical position compared to our predecessors.  We can read, and we have a great deal of information, technical and scientific capabilities, and a vast collection of ancient writings that can help us understand the Bible.  We also have a Bible.  When Paul was writing his epistles, the Gospels most likely had not yet been written.  Early Christian communities may have had various books of what we now call the New Testament along with other Christian writings of the time that we do not consider inspired.  Many have been lost to the ages, and some we only know from the pieces quoted by the Church Fathers.  Paul even mentions other letters he had written that may never be found.  For example, in Colossians 4:16 Paul instructs his readers to pass the letter on to be read by the church of Laodicea and “in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”  Is this another epistle from Paul?  If we find it, should we add it to the New Testament?  Did Paul make a doctrinal mistake or was it in some way not “inspired” and God made sure it was lost?  These questions get to the heart of your personal view of how the Bible was put together.  Is the canon closed, or can books be added or removed?  Did God oversee the original writing, the transcriptions, the assembly, and each of the translations?  If so, why did He allow so many differences between texts and collections?  Which canon is The Canon?

These are serious questions for Bible scholars today, but they may not have troubled more Christians in the Early Church.  Since the majority of early Christians would not have been able to read, they had to trust their bishops to gather writings and the Church to decide which books should be in the Bible.  Generations of believers were unable to read the languages they spoke, let alone the Latin translations or the original Greek and Hebrew texts.  As literacy began to become more common, the language barrier and the Church’s authority still prevented Christians from examining the texts for themselves and coming to their own conclusions.  It was at this point in history that a radical movement began.  People started to question the Church’s authority, translate the Bible into familiar languages, and even judge whether or not certain books should be included.  Martin Luther led this movement, and he personally translated the Bible into German.

Luther’s Bible included German translations of most of the books recognized as canonical at the time, including Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch as well as some sections of Daniel and Esther which no longer appear in most Protestant Bibles or the Hebrew Tanakh.  He placed those seven books and the disputed parts at the end of the Old Testament and labelled the section “The Apocrypha,”  lowering the status of the books.  He said they were “not to be esteemed like the Holy Scriptures” but that they are “useful and good to read.”  This distinction eventually led some publishers to leave them out of printed Bibles.  The King James English translation followed Luther’s example and marked those books Apocryphal, but included 1 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh-which did not appear in the German Bible and failed to be approved for the Catholic Bible at the Council of Trent.  Interestingly, Luther also doubted the canonical status of several New Testament books: Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.  He placed those books at the end of the New Testament in his Bible.  He explained his criticism in the prefaces to these books for his published New Testament.  Many of these books and others were also disputed by the Church Fathers, and a distinction was made regarding the seven Old Testament books even by Jerome in the 4th century while he was working on the Latin translation.

There are so many interesting stories surrounding the history of these books and the assembly of the different canons.  I’m pointing all of this out only to demonstrate this fact:

The Bible is a collection of books, and the choice of books differs between several Christian denominations (the Eastern Orthodox Church has the largest canon) and Jewish scholarship.  We may read it as one leather-bound book, but it’s still a collection, a sacred library, and the list of books and their wording contain some variation.

This is not to say that these additions and deletions are arbitrary or disingenuous.  A great deal of scholarship, study, and debate took place, and many books were rejected for good reasons agreed upon by every group today.  For example, we have a deluge of late Christian texts falsely written under the names of figures close to Jesus and appearing only in foreign languages such as Coptic and Syriac and as such were deemed inauthentic (regardless of how they were presented in the Da Vinci Code.)

Scholarly guidelines were used to judge the works, and different groups worked with different criteria to come to their conclusions.  You may choose to agree with Luther, the King James translators, the Council of Trent, the people who compiled the Tanakh, or those who made the Septuagint translation used by the early church and modern Orthodox churches.  Either way, you can’t read “the Word of God” until you accept the reliability of one or another human being or institution.  From each unique position in history, the information available to these experts has been different.  For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered only sixty years ago, and have provided incredible insight into that time period and given us much older Hebrew texts to study.  The findings contained the oldest manuscripts of the Law and the Prophets along side many other writings and apocryphal works.  Jewish experts once believed that Tobit was written in Greek, but fragments written in Aramaic and Hebrew were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Modern scholarship also suggests that Judith was originally written in Hebrew.  If those two books were excluded from the Tanakh because the compilers couldn’t find an early Hebrew version, are they not eligible for reconsideration in light of the new evidence?  If one of Paul’s disputed epistles is found to be authored by a secondary source in Paul’s name, should it be removed?  What about the ending of the Gospel of Mark? Most Bibles include the longer ending of Mark-verses 9 through 16-which feature verses about handling snakes and drinking poison. There are also ancient texts featuring a shorter ending, and the oldest copies stop at verse 8 and appear to lack a conclusion. If an older manuscript of Mark is unearthed with a different ending, should we “fix” Mark 16 and eliminate the questionable verses about snake handling and drinking poison?

These important questions highlight the need for scholarly work to better understand the Bible, and to examine each text’s authenticity and reliability.  I think that the Bible is worthy of in depth study inside and out, and this tradition can be seen throughout church history.

Some resources:

Posted in: the Bible