The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Sacred Scripture, a contested idea if ever there was one, is also one of the single most fruitful topics in the Great Conversation.
Τὰ Βιβλία (ta Biblia) they were often called in Greek, meaning simply “the Scrolls.” It seems a curiously vague name; the same could be said of another, ἁι Γραφαί (hai Grafai), “the Writings,” rendered in Latin as Scripturæ. After what may have been centuries of sectarian disputes, the exact canon of the Bible was finally settled: the place was the Council of Jamnia, in the year 3850.
Except that that isn’t right, of course. Not because it lies in the future: it roughly corresponds on the Jewish calendar (which, naturally, does not use the birth of Christ as a reference point) to the year 90 in the anno Domini or Common Era calendar. Rather, it is wrong for three other reasons. First, it could apply only to the Tanakh,* or Hebrew Bible; the more general term Bible commonly includes the New Testament (whose contents may not even have been complete in 90 AD); besides which, depending on the person or tradition under discussion, holy books might include the Quran, the Lotus Sutra, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, the Guru Granth Sahib, and numberless others. Simply saying “the canon of the Bible” is too vague. Second, if we do concentrate on Judaism and consider certain small but extant Jewish groups, such as the Samaritans and the Karaites,** we shall find that dissent over which books are canon does still exist among the Jews today (though this dissent is admittedly irrelevant to most practitioners). And finally: there probably was no Council of Jamnia. The theory that there had been, proposed by a nineteenth-century scholar from Germany, was based on suggestions in the Mishnah† that one part of the Hebrew canon (the Ketuvim*) was settled around the year 90, and even this is conjecture.
What “the canon” consists in is one of the classic—because interminable—debates of Biblical studies. The term canon comes from Greek, and means simply “rule” or “guideline,” perhaps referring originally to a physical object like a ruler. Whether it is set down in writing or not, virtually every religion has some sort of canon, from the elaborate ritual and philosophical mysticism of the Hindu Vedas down to the simple eight-word Wiccan Rede. On the whole, those religions that have achieved the vague but prestigious status of “world religions” have longer canons; the ones we know best in Western culture are the Bible, in a few different recensions, and, to a much lesser extent, the Quran—with a touch here and there from the Bhagavad Gītā and other influential volumes of the Far East.
What makes something a canon, a rule? Does it need to be divinely inspired? What does divine inspiration mean, and how does—or did—it operate? Inspiration need not mean the same thing to everyone who believes in holy books; even within a single tradition, such as evangelical Protestantism, there are some who consider inspiration almost akin to a benign version of possession, while others believe that God subtly guided the native gifts and inclinations of the inspired author to produce work which perfectly fulfilled a divine aim. These two views tend to go along with two divergent notions of what truth scriptures contain. The latter generally go with a more modest claim—inasmuch as any claim to divine inspiration can really be called “modest!”—that an inspired book contains all of the truth which the pertinent deity wanted it to, without necessarily being correct on other matters that might come into the book in passing: thus, for example, the Catholic Church maintains that the God whose temple is described in the Tanakh is the one true God, because the Tanakh is concerned with teaching us that truth, yet she is not perturbed by I Kings 7:23 implying that the value of π is exactly 3, because neither I Kings nor any other part of the Tanakh is or pretends to be a mathematical textbook. Proponents of a more “robotic” idea of inspiration are often associated with churches or traditions called fundamentalist, and are likelier to insist that their holy text is absolutely without error, about irrelevancies as well as principal concerns.
Even the shortest canons are almost invariably written down and codified at some point. This is frequently a response to some threatened catastrophe, or even to a catastrophe actually in progress. The need to establish a New Testament canon, for example, came with the rise of certain heresies among Christians as the Apostles died off, and were accordingly not available in person to settle the issue.
One second-century dissident in particular, Marcion of Sinope, may have done more than anyone else to provoke a formal canon of the New Testament—because he produced one. Denouncing the other apostles as frauds, Marcion claimed to have received an untainted tradition from Christ through St. Paul, and produced a strictly Pauline New Testament. It had just one Gospel—probably a heavily redacted version of Luke, which was held to be roughly Pauline as St. Luke was a companion of Paul’s—plus ten Pauline epistles, excluding the Pastorals and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Marcion’s theology was one of the many forms of what scholars now call Gnosticism, a quasi-Christian collection of sects which also drew on esoteric ideas in Greek, Jewish, Syriac, and Persian thought, existing mostly in the second and third centuries. Christian leadership responded to the challenge of Marcion’s canon in two ways: by excommunicating him in 144, and by compiling a consensus list of what documents were confirmed to be apostolic. The twenty-seven book canon of the New Testament familiar to us today thus took shape.
We have already mentioned the difference between mainstream or Rabbinic Judaism and minority schools; there is also, famously, the dispute between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches on the one hand, and a majority of Protestant believers on the other, over the collection of books misleadingly known to most English speakers as “the Apocrypha”: I Maccabees, II Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (or in older works Ecclesiasticus), the Wisdom of Solomon, and Baruch, plus certain additions to the books of Daniel, Esther, and Baruch itself. One or two obscure and long-isolated Christian Churches have even odder peculiarities in their canons. The Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia‡ embraces such exotica as Enoch, Jubilees, and I, II, and III Meqabyan—not to be confused with I and II Maccabees, or with the entirely unrelated books of III and IV Maccabees!—as holy Scripture. Time would fail, as St. Paul does not say, to tell of all the variations among Christian canons of Scripture. (If you ever find yourself with several weeks to kill, just try to sort out which is which among the books that have been called some version of the name Esdras.)
To be continued …
The Bhagavad Gītā
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
St. Augustine, Christian Teaching
Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament
*Tanakh is an acrostic term, derived from the three principal divisions of the Hebrew Bible: the Law (תּוֹרָה [Torah]), the Prophets (נְבִיאִים [Nevi’im]), and the Writings (כְּתוּבִים [Ketuvim]). The contents of a Tanakh and the Old Testament of a Protestant Bible, although the same in substance, are differently organized. Protestant Bibles follow an order inherited from the Septuagint, which was the standard Greek translation of the Bible in the time of Christ; it divided up several books to suit the length of the standard papyrus scroll of its day (and made a few other divisions as well). The result is that the Protestant Old Testament has thirty-nine books where the Hebrew Bible has twenty-four, even though the actual books are the same!
**These are descendants of the first-century Samaritans; they number in the hundreds (or possibly low thousands), living mainly in Palestine and Syria. The Karaites are a Jewish group whose origin and history remain uncertain. Both groups accept only the Torah (a.k.a. the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) as Scripture. The Samaritans have an independent textual tradition of the Torah with several different readings; the Karaites accept the mainstream Masoretic Text.
†The Mishnah (from a Hebrew verb meaning “to review”) is a late first-century compendium of what had been primarily oral traditions on the Torah. The Pharisees, who were the only important theological group to survive the Jewish Wars effectively intact, held these traditions to be of the same origin as the written Torah. The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud, the chief commentary on the Tanakh for Rabbinic (and thus very nearly all) Judaism.
‡The Tewahedo Church is one of what are known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These are similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, but with important doctrinal and historical differences.
Gabriel Blanchard is the proud uncle of seven nephews, CLT’s editor at large, and a freelance author. He lives in Baltimore and has, thus far, killed only one orchid.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like this essay on the idea of angels, this series on liberty, or this one on change. Thank you for reading the Journal!
Published on 16th February, 2023. Author image taken from a folio of the late sixth-century Syriac Bible of Paris (created in northern Mesopotamia, possibly by Armenian or Assyrian Christians, and housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale since 1909), depicting Moses in the presence of Pharaoh.