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“Scriptures” and “Canon”

August 30, 2011

A few days ago a former PhD student shared with me the anonymised reviews of a book proposal, one of which was a bit ill-tempered, and also ill-informed (and which also directed some of its ire against me).   One of the substantive errors was the claim that it is anachronistic to refer to texts as functioning as “scripture” in the second century, the reviewer asserting that this is to import a concept from the fourth century. 

 The reviewer’s core confusion here is to fail to differentiate between “scripture” and “canon”.  A biblical “canon” of texts refers to “a fixed collection of scriptures” (to quote from the Introduction to L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders [eds.], The Canon Debate [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2002], 11).  Such a fixed collection of the 27 writings that make up our familiar NT is commonly dated from the late 4th century.  But “canon” refers to a fixed collection of texts functioning as “scripture”, and “scripture” refers more to the regard, function, and status of writings in given groups of people. 

It is evident that from the outset early Christian circles regarded certain writings as “scripture”, initially of course, writings of what came to be the Hebrew Bible and Christian OT.  The NT is replete with references to “scripture(s)” (Greek γραφη/αι), e.g., Matt 21:42; Acts 1:16; 1 Cor 15:3).   Probably the earliest reference to Christian writings as “scripture” is with reference to Paul’s letters in 2 Peter 3:15-16, (2 Peter dated variously ca. 70-150 CE).  So it is incontrovertible that at least some Christian circles began to regard some Christian writings as scripture at least by sometime in the 2nd century.  There wasn’t yet a fixed “canon” widely accepted, but there surely were Christian “scriptures”.

In fact, of course, there also was a canon, that of Marcion, which takes us back to ca. 140-150 CE, a closed list containing solely the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul, the OT writings and all others excluded.  That is, although what became the mainstream body of Christians (whom we refer to as “orthodox” and “catholic”) took a good time longer to work out their closed canon, the issue of what should comprise a “canon” was put on the table by Marcion already in the second century.

So, when I say that 2nd and 3rd century Christians seem to have preferred the codex over the roll particularly for writings that they regarded as “scripture”, contrary to that anonyous and ill-informed reviewer, that is not use of an anchronistic term.  And it is simply the case that earliest Christian copies of texts that we know were widely regarded as “scripture” (OT writings, and writings that came to form part of the NT such as the Gospels) are almost entirely codexes.   Christians tended to prefer the codex for other writings too, but not nearly so strongly.  About 65% of 2nd-3rd century copies of other Christian literary texts (e.g., theological treatises, other gospels, etc.) are codex form, and the rest are rolls (i.e., about one-third).

So, copying a text in a codex doesn’t necessarily mean it was regarded/treated as “scripture”.  But I contend that copying a text on a roll, for most 2nd-3rd century Christians at least, meant that the text (or at least that copy of it) wasn’t regarded as “scripture”.

In any case, other than in Marcionite circles, in 2nd-3rd century Christianity there wasn’t yet a fixed “canon”, but there certainly were “scriptures”.

(The McDonald/Sanders edited volume mentioned above is now probably the best single resource-volume on the many issues and bodies of data involved in the formation of the OT/Hebrew Bible and the NT.)

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6 Comments
  1. Eric Sawyer permalink

    Larry, recently I came across a video lecture on you-tube which contained many varied views about the Bible and Canon. It is rather long, but I’d appreciate it if you’d either write me of your thoughts or compile a blog response. Here is the link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOvbZinNGj0

    • Sorry, but I can’t spare the time. I’m behind in writing things committed to publications.

  2. “The NT is replete with references to ‘scripture(s)’ (Greek γραφη/αι), e.g., Matt 21:42; Acts 1:16; 1 Cor 15:3). Probably the earliest reference to Christian writings as ‘scripture’ is with reference to Paul’s letters in 2 Peter 3:15-16″

    But what you fail to recognize is that the word graphai which we translate as “scripture” simply means “writings.” This makes it extremely ironic when you says “the earliest reference to Christian writings as ‘scripture'” using the word graphai (writings) to mean scripture. To call writings graphai is simply to call writings “writings.” We, today, in ENGLISH have put the special meaning “scripture” to that word which in Greek just means writings. Further, it is rather obvious that by “as they do the rest of the graphai” Peter here is using “the” to mean “his” (as is often done in Greek) and by graphai he simply means writings, thus it ought to be translation “as they do the rest of HIS writings” — that is, he is comparing two classes of Pauline writings to each other, namely those in which the end-times is discussed and those in which it is not: they twist those Pauline writings that discuss the end-times “as they do the rest of HIS writings.”

    • First, “writings” isn’t the issue. The question is what use is made of this or that “writing” and what significance is attached to it. When, e.g., NT writers cite this or that “writing” as in some sense authoritative for their argument, as in some sense conveying “word of God”, as second-temple Jews did for a number of the writings that now make up the OT, then that/those writings are “scriptures”.
      Second, your exegesis of 2 Peter 3:16 is faulty. The author of 2 Peter refers to Paul’s letters affirmatively as instructive and also as writings “twisted” by those with whom he disagrees. So, both this author and those “heretics” he condemns agree in treating Paul’s letters as worth fighting over, i.e., as in some sense authoritative. I.e., as “scriiptures”. And “the other scriptures” are (sorry) rather plainly (and I think as pretty widely among commentators) to be taken as those writings revered as “scriptures”, i.e., OT writings.

  3. W. Andrew Smith permalink

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that the reviewer also happens to follow your blog…

  4. I think a lot of this just boils down to semantics, with some defining terms one way and others using them in a different way. I tend to see the distinction between Scriptures and canon in the same way that you’ve outlined here. I think that if we define “Scriptures” as “religious texts that function authoritatively for a group or person,” then it’s undeniable that many Christian writings were considered Scripture in the 2nd century. I think Justin’s description of Christian worship in the mid-2nd century provides a good illustration of the “scriptural” status of some gospels:

    “On the day which is called Sunday we have a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as there is time. Then, when the reader has finished, the president of the assembly verbally admonishes and invites all to imitate such examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer up our prayers, and, as we said before, after we finish our prayers, bread and wine and water are presented.” (1 Apol. 67)

    Whatever status the prophetic writings held for this Christian group, the gospels functioned in the same way.

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