Monday, April 09, 2018

Christian Biblical Canon Defined by Central Authority?

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Timothy Lim has recently written a post for the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins blog (University of Edinburgh) entitled The Canonical Process Reconsidered (the post is a summary of a recent essay which I have not seen yet). Lim is commenting on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon in this post/article, specifically, questioning the role of "Criterial Logic" for tracing the canon process and promoting what he calls "Indicative Logic" instead. I won't engage those ideas here. However, Lim makes a curious statement in the very first paragraph, which I will engage. He states:
The canon of the Hebrew Bible was defined, if not yet finally closed, by the end of the first century CE. The Pharisaic canon became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism, because the majority of those who re-founded the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans were Pharisees. The process that led to this canonization needs to be explored. How should we think about the books that were eventually included in the canon? Unlike the early church, ancient Jewish communities did not have a central authority that defined the books of the canon. The formation of the Jewish canon was not prescribed by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem, it emerged from the bottom-up with each community holding to its own collection of authoritative texts (emphasis added).
Lim does not explain this analogy further, but surely, he is alluding to the all-too-common picture of a fourth-century council (usually Nicaea) that defined the books of the biblical canon once and for all. The problem with this view? No evidence. In fact, if you look through my and Ed Gallagher's recent The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity, perhaps the first thing you will notice is that there is no list from the Council of Nicaea or similar council from this early period. In fact, we wanted to ensure that even the gathering at Laodicea in the 360's and the one at Hippo in the early 390's were not mistaken for the big councils of the same century. We translated the relevant terms with "synod" to try to convey that these assemblies were more regional and smaller than what the term "council" typically conveys in these discussions.

If there was a canon list that came from a central, authoritative council, we do not possess it today. Rather, our lists show that there was almost certainly no such ruling on the canon, since, although the lists share much agreement, they also evince ongoing disputes and discussions over various books after the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Therefore, both Judaism and Christianity cannot claim that their lists of books go back to some central authority. Both must trace the process of canonization according to the various sources we possess today.

15 comments :

  1. The other side of his claim is also questionable.

    How does he really know that "the Jewish canon was not prescribed by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem"?

    The Temple did have copies of scriptures along with other books. Should we really believe that the priests themselves did not regard any books as scriptures to the exclusion of other books that were not? And if so, doesn't this mean they effectively had a canon, even if we have no extant list of the books they included in it?

    And if the there was a canon of books that obtained in the Temple itself prior to its destruction, are we really to believe that this did not influence the collections of authoritative texts that each community revered?

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    1. Yes, I like where you are going. The problem, of course, is identifying the specific books of the temple library. But from a theoretical standpoint, it does seem that the temple would have influenced the formation of the Jewish canon.

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  2. There's nothing in his academic bio regarding his faith background. His statement about a centralized Christian authority that could create the canon could be related to that, if he is Roman Catholic. It does seem odd to make that assertion as an aside when it is hardly an established historical fact.

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  3. When I first read Lim’s paragraph here on the blog, I thought he was alluding to apostolic authority in general rather than to a specific church council. Apostolic authority compared to temple or Pharasaic authority.

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    1. Huh. I suppose that's possible but unlikely. "Central authority" is not "apostolic authority" in these discussions, usually. And Lim would push the date for a closed canon beyond the apostolic period, I would think.

      Does this make sense?

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  4. History for Atheists had a good writeup on this a while ago: https://historyforatheists.com/2017/05/the-great-myths-4-constantine-nicaea-and-the-bible/

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  5. Has anyone written on the history of the idea that Nicea discussed canonicity?

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    1. See Justin's link above. It had something on this question.

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  6. What do you know of Council of Rome that was alleged to have happened in 382 CE? Is there any evidence that canons of that council are for real and from that time period or was it any later creations? Catholic apologists often cite this council during my interactions with them when it comes to development of NT canon.

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    1. Great question. As I understand the matter, there may have been a canon list given at this council/synod but we know nothing of it until the so-called Gelasian Decree in 495--quite a bit later. That the list matches Trent's is not really that important, since the Synod of Hippo and Pope Innocent the I's already anticipate Trent's list. Make sense?

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    2. I am not fully understanding you. So around which year would you place Catholic Church as a centralizing authority decreed the canon for the church? Would you agree with Catholic apologists with 382 CE date or 100 years later? I have heard few Protestant theologians claiming that it was Council of Trent that decided the canon. Where do you stand on that?

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    3. John, we have no list from 382. We have a list from 495 that purports to be from the council in 382. That’s a leap. Maybe it’s true, but it’s a leap. Still, is Rome in 382 a centralized authority? No. So it’s a moot point for me.

      Does Trent establish a canon for the Roman Catholic Church? Not really. 100 years before, the Council of Florence had already decided on the same canon. These decisions were anticipated by Augustine, Synod of Hippo, and Pope Innocent I. So when was this list decided? Formally for Roman Catholics in 1546 at Trent. But clearly it was known and promoted here and there by 400. Any clearer?

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    4. Okay, good. Thanks for the question. I would like to do more work on Gelasius in the future.

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