• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Sunday, December 06, 2015

    The Formation of the Canon

    This post is number 2 in a series looking at the idea of canonicity and how it might relate to the subject of film and the Bible. Image info below1

    In the first part of this series I laid out three main areas where the idea of canonicity might be helpful, but it seems obvious that before I get into each of those in turn that I should make a few observations on the canon in general and it's formation in particular. There's no shortage of pieces on the internet about the formation of the canon, of course, but it will be useful for me to reacquaint myself with the subject as well as letting those reading the subsequent posts being able to see where I am coming from.

    The first thing that strikes me is that Christians and scholars tend to talk about a canon, whereas it might be more helpful to think in terms of their being two - that of the Hebrew Bible and that of the New Testament. Certainly the process by which the two collections of books became accepted by the church is rather different.

    The Hebrew Bible
    In terms of the "Hebrew" Bible2 the question of when the matter first came on the agenda and, conversely, was finally settled very much depends on who you are talking too. For some the first major formalising step in the process was the creation of the Septuagint sometime between the third century BC and 132 BC. Since this version is quoted by several of the New Testament writers it's clear it had gained a degree of acceptance by the church by the time Jerome emerged on the scene. It's particularly interesting that Jerome translated the deuterocanonical books even though he was rather disparaging about both them and the Septuagint. Nevertheless many of those who in favour of the deuterocanonical books being included in the canon like to trace the discussion back to the formation of the Septuagint. Ultimately the deuterocanonical books were included in the canon ruled on by the Council of Trent and were also included in the King James Bible.

    Others, however, are less keen on the significance of the formation of the Septuagint. They argue for the main importance of the later Jewish discussions about the canon which took place somewhere during the Jewish-Roman wars between 66 and 136 AD. It's often pegged on the Council of Jamnia (said to be held around 90AD) but this has been heavily questioned with many scholars even questioning whether such a council even occurred. Nevertheless, somewhere within the late first to mid second century the Jewish faith accepted that it was only the shorter canon of 39 books that had such special status and so in the 16th century the majority of the Protestant reformers held that the deuterocanonical books ought not to be part of the canon.

    What's clear from the above (other than the fact that this post is going to be far longer than I initially imagined) is that:
    1 - there is a degree of disagreement about what is actually included in the canon,
    2 - the process of how it actually got there is disputed, and that
    3 - who accepts who's version of events/decisions mostly divides along denominational lines rather than being decided by the substantially more difficult process of individuals sifting the evidence to make an informed decision.

    The New Testament Canon
    The New Testament canon formed gradually over the period between the end of the first century AD and the end of the fourth. Contrary to the claims of "The Da Vinci Code" it wasn't all done and dusted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Athanasius' use of the term canon in 367 CE to describe the same set of books or the 397 Council of Carthage where the decision of a previous synod to accept those same books as a canon are thought to be significant. And then of course there's Jerome finishing the Vulgate in 405.

    But of course that's only the story in the West. The eastern churches went their own route with the the Syrian "Peshitta" Bible, only comprising of 22 books (even through to the present day3); the Armenian Bible including and then rejecting 3 Corinthians but not accepting Revelation until 1200; and the Coptic and Ethiopian bibles including texts not accepted by any other groups. And then of course there's the reformation where Luther, amongst others, indicated their displeasure with books such as the "right strawy" James.

    All of this raises the question why certain books made the cut and others didn't. What was it that put Matthew and Colossians in a different bracket to Thomas and The Shepherd of Hermas? Different commentators break-down the various, interrelated aspects of this process slightly differently, and at best the criteria are slightly fuzzy, but the main ideas are as follows:

    Apostolic Authorship
    Essentially this is the idea that a work's author had some kind of direct link to Jesus. So for example Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus gave his books special merit. Even at the time here was clearly some fudging around this one. Mark for example qualified through the connection with Peter, Hebrews seems to have been accepted as being Pauline even though hat was disputed even then.

    Of all the criteria this is the one that is most undermined by modern scholarship. It's alright for Romans but what about 2 Timothy? What happens if the author of Matthew wasn't the tax collector? If we accept that as many as three or four John's behind the gospel, the letters and the apocalypse that bear his name, what are the implications. Many conservatives may cling to the traditionally assigned authors but few would argue that this criterion fits in a manner that most moderns would accept. "[It] is possible that certain writings had already asserted themselves as eminently useful and sound before for apostolic contact was discovered".4

    Existing Usage
    Perhaps most important criterion for the early-ish church was the books that were already being widely used. There were no last minute entries into the canon which came from left field. Even at what we would think of as an "early stage" the church already placed high value on the texts that other congregations were using and those that had been used by earlier generations. There were no surprise late additions to suit the zeitgeist. Conversely the reason certain potentially controversial gospels never made the cut is more to do with their limited popularity than a complex conspiracy theory.

    Not dissimilarly from the previous criterion is this one: provision was generally made for those books which were used in the church's liturgy. In other words, were the texts being used in worship? The church was not just looking for texts that intellectually suited their theology it was also important that something more deep routed was occurring as well. "[Had] the book proved its worth?"5

    The last of these questions was how a writing conformed to established orthodoxy primarily in terms of belief, but also in terms of the style of writing. Indeed this may be what left Revelation in the disputed pile for so long but allowed Hebrews (which still had it's detractors) through. The bigger issue however was the theological conformity; or rather the absence of that which was "contrary to orthodoxy".6

    It should be stressed that these criteria were not applied as some kind of rigorous checklist at the hands of bureaucratic pedants, merely that they were the kind of ideas the church fathers were thinking about as they compiled their lists and latterly subdivided them into acknowledged, disputed or rejected texts.

    Overall I have rather mixed feelings about the process. Was it a good way of doing things or a bad one? And does it give the canon some kind of credibility in the modern era or not? Furthermore what principles can we draw out that might relate to how the modern era in general, and film in particular, have shaped the canon and its perception?

    One the one hand, it's all rather messy and inexact and some might argue that if this process was the outworking of a single, divine mind then it would suggest a rather muddied and muddled intellect. Yet it seems unlikely that a more decisive process would be any less open to criticism. A sudden decision made by a single person, or group of individuals would be far more open to abuse. Indeed it's interesting that "The Da Vinci Code" skews its "history" in order to present the rather long, drawn out process into the result of a single council.

    Secondly, the role of the church in this process is vital. Certain church traditions hold to sola scriptura - the primacy of scripture above all else. That, I must admit, is the approach I am most comfortable with. But, of course, there's a big problems with that because what was included in scripture is very much down to the role of tradition. There are undoubtedly those that would have preferred it if the handing down of the Bible came to us in a similar fashion to revelation of the words of the Koran.

    A third observation is that just as evolutionary theorists developed the idea of punctuated equilibrium, often the process of canonisation often seems to have been spurred on by the need to react to heresy. Indeed often it is Marcion who is credited with creating the first canon. Often it is a threat - perceived or unperceived - that has been a catalyst for how the true/important parts of Christian writing have been given greater significance.

    Fourthly, whilst there have clearly been key stages in the process, it's notable that evolution and diversity continue to have a role when we consider the world-wide/history-deep church. Yes the end of the fourth century is important, but disagreement continued between East and West (and between the different parts of the Eastern Orthodox church) and furthermore the reformers challenged and changed some of what was considered canonical.

    Following on from that it is important to note that whilst there may well be an approved canon, that in practical terms it has only ever represented part of the story. Few would argue that Habakkuk is of the same importance as the Gospel of John. Many protestants, including myself, would give lip-service to the importance of the deuterocanonical books, but are yet to read them all. Other might pay far more attention to "The Imitation of Christ", "Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Purpose Driven Life" than they do to many of the writings in the actual canon.

    Indeed even the lectionary leaves out certain parts of the canon, or at least leaves them for the midweek services not widely attended, and Sunday Schools and those church traditions that don't adhere to the lectionary especially strongly have always ended up picking and choosing a canon within the canon that expresses the essential truths. When it comes to the question of how film has handled the canon, I think this might prove to be particularly telling and the next post in this series will address that very point.

    1 - The image used at the top of this post is a comic strip from "Winebibber" a sort of Evangelical version of Viz which greatly amused me as a teenager. "Winebibber" was created by Mike Stonelake and Mike Brooks and whilst this is not their funniest ever piece, this particular strip was the first time I really became aware of the idea that there were other texts that didn't make it into the canon. This is only the first half of the strip - I'll use the rest of the strip next time. The image is used with permission.
    2 - It's difficult to find a term here that covers all the bases. Generally I prefer the term "Hebrew Bible" to the "Old Testament", but here it risks confusing the issue because of the division between the texts in the Hebrew language and accepted in Hebrew speaking countries and that of the Greek Septuagint.
    3 - Although a 1905 translation also translated the omitted books.
    4 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.190
    5 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.190
    6 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.189



    • At 8:22 pm, December 06, 2015, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Comments would be very welcome on this post, particularly from those with different backgrounds to my own or with greater expertise. Please be gentle with me though. This is very much a first draft and at some point I have to draw the line between absolute accuracy and fairness on the one hand, and actually get something published on the other.

    • At 11:34 pm, December 24, 2015, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Excellent post, Matt.

      Regarding the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: My understanding, based partly on the writings of Jaroslav Pelikan (a Lutheran turned Orthodox!), is that the Septuagint was always normative for the Greek-speaking churches and, thus, there was never any real debate in the East over the canonicity of the "deuterocanonical" books, whereas in the West, there was some ambiguity around the status of those books for over a thousand years, starting with Jerome's efforts to translate the entire Bible into Latin and his discovery that some of the Old Testament books were no longer available in the original Hebrew. The way Pelikan puts it, there was a question mark over the "deuterocanonical" books in the West that was finally resolved when the 16th-century schism took place and different churches took different sides (with the Protestant churches largely rejecting the "deuterocanonical" books and the Catholic church finally embracing them). But that question mark didn't exist in the East, because the Greek translation pre-dated the Church and was never a product of the Church in the way that the Vulgate was.


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