What’s in a canon?

When I talk about the canon in my New Testament class, I often have students who are surprised that the current list of 27 books that are in our New Testament have not always comprised canon lists. In fact, I tell them, it was not until 367 that the first list that matches our current 27 shows up and that was by no means the last list to be made. Some church fathers wanted to include the Shepherd of Hermas and some wanted to exclude Revelation.

It is easy to take something like our modern canon for granted. After all, it has not changed since we have been alive. It is a fairly safe assumption that if you order a New Testament, you know what it will include. But our canon is not “closed.” The canon is not stable. Many Protestants consider the Apocrypha to be “non-canonical,” largely because it is not in the King James, but they do not know that the Apocrypha was included in the KJV and included apocryphal texts in lessons to be read until around 1826 when the British and Foreign Bible Society decided that they would no longer fund the printing of apocryphal books. Money is power.

The reformer Martin Luther vehemently tried to get James struck from the New Testament. After Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a group of pastors suggested adding his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” added to the New Testament.

Some will suggest that both of these suggestions were blasphemous. I think that neither is. What were Luther and King doing differently from what the early church fathers did? To be sure, we can compile a general list of criterion that a text should meet to be canonized, but these change from author to author in the ancient world and are often rather self-serving. In other words, I have never come across a canon list from the early church in which the author included texts in his canon list because they met some abstract criteria but that he did not think people should read or consider authoritative in any regard.

My question today is, what is the benefit/purpose of our canon? We cannot argue that the canon establishes what should considered be correct belief or what should be considered correct practice, for even just taking the four gospels we quickly find different understandings of who Jesus was. Mark has a very “low” christology that presents Jesus in very human terms and gives no indication that its author believed Jesus was fully divine, preexistent, etc. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, contains a “high” christology, not letting us get past the prologue before we know that its author believed Jesus to be preexistent, to have been with God in the beginning, and, in fact, to actually be God.

Or what about entrance requirements for Gentiles (read: non-Jews)? Do they/we have to follow the Law and become Jewish to follow Jesus as members from the Jerusalem Church taught or do we not have to as Paul taught (see Acts 15 and Galatians 2 for different sides of the argument as well as the arguments put forth by Paul’s opponents in Galatians)? Must women remain silent in church as 1 Timothy 2 proclaims or is it acceptable for women to be deacons as Phoebe was (Romans 16) and apostles as Junia was (Romans 16)? The New Testament presents differing perspectives on a multitude of issues, so we cannot say that the existence of a canon is beneficial for establishing doctrines, beliefs, or practices.

One criteria often cited was apostolic authorship or at least a clear and close apostolic connection. Hebrews got in largely because people believed Paul wrote the anonymous text; almost no one today thinks that Paul wrote Hebrews and yet it remains in our canon, in direct violation of this criteria. Or what about the Gospels? Tradition connected names with them, but all four are anonymous and almost certainly were not written by their traditional authors, all of whom are understood to have been apostles or the disciple of an apostle. Or what of the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)? They bear Paul’s name so this gives them an “apostolic” connection but most scholars now today believe that Paul did not write them because of how drastically they differ from Paul’s undisputed letters in language, syntax, and content, as well as on dating grounds, yet these remain in our canon. So, the apostolic claim seems to also be out.

At this point it seems that 1st or 2nd century date and tradition are what is holding the canon together. The next natural question, then, is why other 1st and 2nd century texts written by followers of Jesus should continue to be excluded like the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the letters of Ignatius, etc.

If people are, as I know they are, finding inspiration and encountering God in countless ways beyond the current canon and in numerous “non-canonical” texts, then why are we still holding on to our current list? Of what are we afraid?

I’m not advocating throwing out everything or throwing in everything else. I’m just hoping we can begin to have an open and honest conversation about what the canon means to us and whether it might be time to consider some changes.

Thomas Whitley

Author's Website
About the Author
Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

Read more posts by