Popular misconceptions

Here’s a link to a piece by David Field in which he offers some comments on a Channel 4 offering from Dr Robert Beckford on Christmas Day 2004.  (The documentary was entitled ‘Who Wrote the Bible?’  Other documentaries hosted by Beckford betray, in their very titles, his interest in sensationalist conspiracy theories: ‘The Secret Family of Jesus’, ‘The Hidden Story of Jesus’, ‘The Secrets of the Twelve Disciples’.)

Beckford trotted out many of the usual cliches about the formation of the Bible.  Here’s one:-

Canon formation is all about a group of rich and powerful people putting texts together and deciding who they want to include in orthodoxy and who they want to exclude.  [It was] the work of men rather than the work of God.  [Beckford is clearly worried that] something wonderful might have been lost in what was essentially censorship.

And here’s another:-

Who wrote the Bible? Well, I’ve learned that biblical authorship is messy and it’s messy because life is imperfect and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives, of my life, then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text. Who wrote the Bible? Well, it’s a complex question and it takes some thinking through and that tells me that to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes.

The Wikipedia entry on Dr Beckford unhelpfully claims that he ‘challenges the long standing belief by many Christians that the Bible is the pure, unadulterated word of God untouched by human hand.’  As if any Christian with more than two working neurons imagined that the biblical writings were ‘untouched by human hands’!

David Field has little difficulty in pointing out the weaknesses in all of this (factual errors; false dichotomies; privileging of extra-biblical sources; presentation of complementary perspectives as contradictions; illusion of unbiassed truth-seeking; and so forth).

Field concludes:-

Beckford tells us that, ‘the Spirit gives you the ability to see the ignorance, the bias and the prejudice that was involved and raise questions about the legitimacy and accuracy of what took place’. Since this is clearly what he thinks he is doing in the programme as a whole, it constitutes a not very subtle claim on Beckford’s part to be the mouthpiece of the Spirit. He’s too late. It is true (2 Peter 1.20-21) that ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit’ but the words they spoke are located precisely in Scripture. Here, in the Bible, we have ‘something more sure’ and it is to this written Word of God that ‘we do well to pay attention’, in this New Year and in as many New Years as God grants us.

What do we mean by the ‘canon’ of Scripture?

The term canon (‘rule’, ‘norm’) has been used since the 4th cent. AD to describe the recognised list of books of the Old and New Testaments.

The New Testament writers refer to ‘Scripture’, Jn 20:9, Gal 3:22, 1 Pet 2:6, 2 Pet 1:20 in a way that suggests that a set of authoritative texts was accepted by the Jews at the time of Christ. Indeed, most of the books of the Old Testament are referred to in the New Testament in a way that suggests that they were viewed as authoritative.

The books of the Old Testament were written over a long period of time. Their authority became recognised in a variety of ways, it we cannot be certain when the canon became settled.

A well-defined threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures into Law, Prophets and Writings is evidenced in the book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and is reflected in Lk 24:44f. It appears that this triparttie canon had been recognised for at least 175 years.

It has been argued that the Old Testament canon was not finally settled until AD 90, at the Council of Jamnia. However, apart from the fact that the rabbis did debate the place of the Song of Solomon and Eccleiastes in the canon, nothing else is known of their deliberations, nor does it seem that this council had any authoritative status.

What is clear is the the canon of the Old Testament was pretty much settled at the time of Christ, and probably several centuries before that. The New Testament shows that these scriptures were viewed as authoritative, and that Jesus fulfilled what they promised.

Based on New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, art. ‘Canon of Scripture’

The development of the OT canon

The following is based on an entry by R.T. Beckwith in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

The biblical canon is not a list of literary masterpieces, but of authoritative writings.  Their authority is derived, not from their antiquity, but from the fact that they were believed to be divinely inspired.  With regard to the Old Testament scriptures, this belief was expressed at several points in the Old Testament, became a settled conviction in the intertestamental period, and is everywhere assumed in the New Testament.

The origin of the canon can be dated back to the time that revelation first began to be recorded in writing.  Revelation has been given in spoken words, outward signs and (of course) in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, but for the sake of permanence it began to be put in written form.  One example of a written revelation is the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The importance of a written record is emphasised in a number of ways:-

Writing was used as a ‘memorial’ (Exod. 17:14) and as an abiding ‘witness’ (Deut. 31:26) which would last until ‘the generation to come’ (Ps. 102:18) and indeed ‘for ever’ (Isa 30:8). The finding of the law-book by Hilkiah in the temple showed vividly what happened when the written form of revelation was lost; the revelation itself was forgotten (2 Kgs. 22-23; 2 Chr. 34). In the NT one finds Luke writing a careful record of Jesus’ life and work for the sake of his readers’ ‘certainty’ (Luke 1:3-4.) and John correcting in writing a corrupt oral report (John 21:23).

We see the Pentateuch being recognised as having divine authority at the giving of the covenant at Sinai (Exod. 24:4, 7), at the reformation of Josiah (2 Kgs. 23:1-3; 2 Chr. 34:29-32) and at the re-establishment of the nation after the exile (Neh. 8:9, 14-18; 10:28-39; 13:1-3).

Deuteronomy contains provisions for the book to be regularly read, so that its laws may be known and obeyed (Deut. 17:18-20; 31:9-13).

The Old Testament refers many times to the law of Moses as being authoritative, Josh. 1:7-8; 8:31; 23:6-8; 1 Kgs. 2:3; 2 Kgs. 14:6; 17:37; Hos. 8:12, etc.

The written oracles of the prophets are regarded similarly, Isa 30:8; Jer. 25:13; 29:1; 30:2; 36:1-32, etc; Ezek. 43:11; Hab. 2:2; Dan. 7:1.

The later Old Testament writings refer to the older ones as authoritative with the words, “It is written”, 2 Chr. 30:5, 18; Ezra 3:4; Neh. 8:15; cf. Ps. 149:9, and this usage is common in the intertestamental period and in the New Testament.

In the late 1st century AD the Jewish historian Josephus listed the books as we know them (although grouping them in a slightly different way).

None of the books of the Apocrypha were recognised by Philo (early 1st century AD) as belonging to the canon, and none of them is quoted in the New Testament.  Early Christian scholars such as Origen and Jerome opposed their inclusion.

A stronger case could be made for the inclusion of the Pseudepigrapha, two of which are mentioned in the Epistle of Jude.  But Jude’s mention of them may well involve an argumentum ad hominem for readers who had been influenced by them.

There was some discussion in the rabbinical literature about the status of Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and Esther, but the canon had been effectively settled by the time of Judas Maccabaeus in the 2nd century BC.

The development of the NT canon

Within two decades of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul was writings letters to various churches and individuals.  These would have been valued by the recipients, and indeed some of them were clearly intended to be circulated more widely.  The life and teachings of Jesus were also treasured: although the first gospels were not produced until the AD 60s, by oral and written records would have been in wide circulation before that.

The fact that there was already a fixed canon of the Old Testament would have prompted Christians to gradually collect a list of apostolic writings that were considered authoritative.

Paul’s letters would have been the first part of the New Testament canon to be brought together.  Ths would have happened by the end of the 1st century.  The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) wee brought together by the middle of the 2nd century, with John taking a little longer to be accepted.

It was probably Marcion who produced the first canon-list of New Testament writings, in around AD 140.  This canon, consisting only of a ‘reduced’ Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles, would have challenged mainstream practice in the church.  Likewise, the ‘gospels’ and ‘apocalypses’ produced by the Gnostics would also have done the same.  Then again, it is possible the the Montanists would have claimed the authority of Scripture for their prophecies.

By the late 2nd century moves were made to consolidate the canon.  Many scholars date the Muratorian Canon from this time, although some place it later.  From this time, most of the books that now make up the New Testament were accepted, but with some doubts about a few books, including James, Hebrews and the Revelation.

Three centuries of intense discussion led to the canon of the New Testament being fixed by the end of the 4th century AD – the Easterm church arriving at formal consensus by 367 and the Western church by 393.

A number of principles were at work in determining which writings were considered authoritative:-

1.  Apostolicity.  A writing must bear the marks of apostolic authority – either written by an apostle, or by someone closely connected to an apostle.  The church had been created by the teaching of the poastles and now wanted to ground itself in their writings.  None of the extra-canonical gospels, for example, can claim sufficient antiquity for this criterion to apply to them.  Known forgeries, such as the acts of Paul, were rejected.

2.  Orthodoxy.  If a work taught a theology different from that of Christ and the apostles, it was not considered authoritative.  Heretical writings abounded in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but they clearly did not meet the test of orthodoxy.  One reason why Revelation was doubted was its popularity with the Montanists.

3.  Catholicity.  In order to be accepted, a writing had to be well known and well accepted throughout the church.

These criteria show that the early church valued eyewitness testimony and orthodox doctrine, and looked for widespread acceptance of documents long before they were offcially recognised as canonical.

Includes material drawn from: New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, art. Canon of Scripture.

Recent critiques

During the past 100 years, many ancient texts have been unearthed that not only shed much light on early Christianity, but also raise the question of why some texts were recognised as authoritative while others were forgotten.

Objections include:-

1.  Some of these recently-discovered texts relate to alternative gospel accounts.  Why insist that only the four canonical Gospels are right and all the others are wrong?

Reply.  This objection surfaces in popular literature such as Dan Brown’s The Dan Vinci Code, which bases its plot on alternative gospel accounts, including those of Philip and Mary.  But these accounts were written much later than the canonical Gospels (probably 3rd cent.) by Gnostics who were keen to justify their own teachings.

2.  Recent discoveries have also shown that various canons were in circulation in the early centuries of the Christian church.  If the early church could be sure about the canon, how can we?

Reply.  This objection ignores the fact that agreement in the early church was in fact very substantial.  For example, as early as the 2nd century there was close agreement between Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon.

3.  It is asserted that the canon has been a tool of oppression, used to stamp out minority voices, stifle discussion and legitimise the power of Constantine’s empire.  It is characteristic of postmodern thought to suggest that truth-claims are thinly-veiled claims to power.  The canon is set, not by those with the greatest claims to truth, but those with the greatest power.  Accordingly, to assert one version of the canon is to suppress minority points of view.  The ‘winning texts’ oppressed then, and they continue to oppress today.  Thus, Bart Ehrman has argued that the dominant ‘Christianity’ suppressed the minority ‘Christianities’ and that the insistence on a monolithic ‘orthodoxy’ needs to be replaced by respect and tolerance between a multiplicity of versions of the faith.

Reply.  A canon is not necessarily a tool of oppression at all.  It is a tool of clarification.  Moreover, when we speak of the ‘formation’ of the canon, we might more appropriately speak of its ‘recognition’ by the church.  Texts were viewed as authoritative long before they became canonical.  The canon thus recognises an authority that already existed.  To suppose that the process of establishing the canon was an exercise in state-sponsored suppression of dissent is to read history through post-modern spectacles.  Finally, the church was founded not so much on the canon of Scripture as on the atoning work of Jesus Christ.  This good news was recorded in what later became recognised as the canon.  The canonical Scriptures tell of God’s gracious provision for us; they do not represent an oppressive grab for power.

Based on New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, art. ‘Canon of Scripture’