The Canon

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”.  A biblical canon is a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture.  Because the Bible is considered by most believers to be the ultimate authority on questions of Christian doctrine and practice, I think that it is very important to understand its development over the centuries following the life and death of Jesus.  This will be the main focus of my study and blog posts for a while.

Along with the study of the documents, it will be important to consider the people who were most instrumental in bringing us our modern day scriptures.  I was just reading about  Irenaeus, who was a church leader in the second century.  He was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France.  He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself was a disciple of the original apostles.  His writings, with those of Clement and Ignatius, are taken as among the earliest signs of the developing doctrine of the primacy of the Roman-centric church hierarchy.

Irenaeus is the earliest church leader known to recognize the canonical character of all four gospels.  This is important, because prior to that time many Christian groups recognized only one or two of the gospels as authoritative.  Many did not accept the Gospel of John as authentic until it was declared so by Irenaeus.  It is also important to understand which writings were rejected by Irenaeus, such as the Gospel of Thomas.  Many of the rejected writings were ordered to be destroyed, so it is often difficult to recover the history of any Christian thought for that era that was outside of the mainstream church doctrine.

The amount of information on the development of the Bible is staggering, but I will do my best to sort through it and share my findings as I go.

Here is a link to a useful summary timeline of the development of the scriptures:

I found two other links that will get us started.  There are many, many others.

I have two books that I will use to begin my studies.  One is Early Christian Writings, published by Penguin Classics.  The other is The Journey from Texts to Translations, The Origin and Development of the Bible,  by Paul D. Wenger.

You can always check the Bibliography and Related Web Sites pages on this blog for additional resources.

More Books

I love bookstores.  I discovered a nice little bookstore in Cottonwood, Arizona yesterday.  Their inventory was pretty unusual, and I found a couple of books (at half price!) to add to my collection.  That is one reason why I entitled this post “More Books”.

The other reason that I chose that title is that are many more books and writings that were written in the early years after Christ than those which are included in our Bibles today.  They are sometimes called the New Testament Apocrypha.  Many are similar in form and content to the gospels and epistles that are in our Bibles, but they were not judged suitable to be included with the canonical books of scripture.  The names of these books could lead one to believe that they were written by apostles or other prominent figures of Jesus’ day.  However, actual authorship is often questionable.

The two books that I just purchased are text and commentary on The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Judas.  I already had a book on the New Testament Apocrypha which includes a large number of early writings, including The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew and The Gospel According to Mary.   I have a lot of studying to do!  Even if we accept that the early church leaders were correct — or even divinely inspired — in their selection of the canonical books, these writings of the first centuries after Christ can inform us on what the earliest Christians thought was important.  They are part of the history of Christianity.

Another subject for my future studies and future blog posts will be the history of how we got our Bibles.  The selection of the books to be included is one major aspect, but there are also issues surrounding the identification of the earliest/original texts, the accuracy of the copies made by scribes, and the accuracies of the various translations.  For example, I came across some information a while back that theorizes that the original gospel writings weren’t in Greek at all.  That theory is based on some textual analysis plus the idea that the Jewish apostles would almost certainly have written in their native Aramaic language and not the Greek trade language.  In that case, what we consider “original Greek” texts today would actually be early translations from Aramaic.  The more I dig into the earliest Christian history, the more I learn that those formative first centuries were much more complicated than I thought!