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Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Did The Canon Happen?

How exactly did this canon that we now know as our Bible come to be? This is a contentious issue that neither the left or right theological sides are able to agree upon (less than surprisingly). This post is going to be a bit on the longer side, but I think it's an interesting one, and a topic I absolutely adore. Here is a time line I "stole" from Columbia University, that I consider to be pretty reliable.


adapted from materials of Professor Paul Hahn of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas

Development of the Old Testament Canon

1000-50 BC:
The Old Testament (hereafter "OT") books are written.
C. 200 BC:
Rabbis translate the OT from Hebrew to Greek, a translation called the "Septuagint" (abbreviation: "LXX"). The LXX ultimately includes 46 books.
AD 30-100:
Christians use the LXX as their scriptures. This upsets the Jews.
C. AD 100:
So Jewish rabbis meet at the Council of Jamniah and decide to include in their canon only 39 books, since only these can be found in Hebrew.
C. AD 400:
Jerome translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (called the "Vulgate"). He knows that the Jews have only 39 books, and he wants to limit the OT to these; the 7 he would leave out (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach [or "Ecclesiasticus"], and Baruch--he calls "apocrypha," that is, "hidden books." But Pope Damasus wants all 46 traditionally-used books included in the OT, so the Vulgate has 46.
AD 1536:
Luther translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to German. He assumes that, since Jews wrote the Old Testament, theirs is the correct canon; he puts the extra 7 books in an appendix that he calls the "Apocrypha."
AD 1546:
The Catholic Council of Trent reaffirms the canonicity of all 46 books.

Development of the New Testament Canon

C. AD 51-125:
The New Testament books are written, but during this same period other early Christian writings are produced--for example, the Didache (c. AD 70), 1 Clement (c. 96), the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100), and the 7 letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110).
C. AD 140:
Marcion, a businessman in Rome, teaches that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the OT, and Abba, the kind father of the NT. So Marcion eliminates the Old Testament as scriptures and, since he is anti-Semitic, keeps from the NT only 10 letters of Paul and 2/3 of Luke's gospel (he deletes references to Jesus' Jewishness). Marcion's "New Testament"--the first to be compiled--forces the mainstream Church to decide on a core canon: the four gospels and letters of Paul.
C. AD 200:
But the periphery of the canon is not yet determined. According to one list, compiled at Rome c. AD 200 (the Muratorian Canon), the NT consists of the 4 gospels; Acts; 13 letters of Paul (Hebrews is not included); 3 of the 7 General Epistles (1-2 John and Jude); and also the Apocalypse of Peter.
AD 367:
The earliest extant list of the books of the NT, in exactly the number and order in which we presently have them, is written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter of 367. [Note: this is well after the Constantine's Edict of Toleration in 313 A.D.]
AD 904:
Pope Damasus, in a letter to a French bishop, lists the New Testament books in their present number and order.
AD 1442:
At the Council of Florence, the entire Church recognizes the 27 books, though does not declare them unalterable.
AD 1536:
In his translation of the Bible from Greek into German, Luther removes 4 NT books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelations) from their normal order and places them at the end, stating that they are less than canonical.
AD 1546:
At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirms once and for all the full list of 27 books as traditionally accepted."
 Source:  (Obviously, I don't own the rights to anything from Columbia University, I just thought it would be nice to provide a more tangible time line for people to view. All rights belong to their respective owner.)
Another time line for the New (or Second) Testament is provided by the Professor Dale B. Martin of Yale University. I've gone through his video series on the New Testament, and if you have the time, I would highly recommend it. If not, simply watching his lecture #2 "From Stories to Canon" would suffice. I won't paste this whole thing, but I will provide a link (it's a PDF format) to his note outline for the session which covers a much briefer, but more in-depth look at the early church and the canon. Here is a link to the session you can listen to, or even watch in a flash video.

Another important happening in the "early" church's history was the Council of Carthage (took place over multiple centuries, actually, through various synods or meetings). This essentially established a canon very similar to what he have in the modern day by solidifying what Athanasius (the Bishop of the church of Alexandria) had written to be scripture in 367. A more precise list of what was established at this council is:
  • The Council of Carthage, called the third by Denzinger,[4] on 28 August 397 issued a canon of the Bible quoted as, "Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, 4 books of Kingdoms, 2 books of Chronicles, Job, the Davidic Psalter, 5 books of Solomon, 12 books of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, 2 books of Ezra, 2 books of Maccabees, and in the New Testament: 4 books of Gospels, 1 book of Acts of the Apostles, 13 letters of the Apostle Paul, 1 letter of his to the Hebrews, 2 of Peter, 3 of John, 1 of James, 1 of Jude, and one book of the Apocalypse of John."
Okay, okay, the information I've provided above has all been of the historical-critical tradition, and isn't typically what you would hear in church or consider "orthodox." To be completely fair to every perspective of the history of the Bible (Biblical canon), I'll provide a time line that is more orthodox. Here is the website for this, and I'll paste an excerpt for use here. As always, the rights of this information are the sole property of its owner(s). Legal blah, blah, blah.

"The New Testament


45- 95 A.D. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Pauline Epistles, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the book of Acts are all dated from 45-63 A.D. The Gospel of John and the Revelation may have been written as late as 95 A.D.


There are over 5,600 early Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament that are still in existence. The oldest manuscripts were written on papyrus and the later manuscripts were written on leather called parchment.
  • 125 A.D. The New Testament manuscript which dates most closely to the original autograph was copied around 125 A.D, within 35 years of the original. It is designated "p 52" and contains a small portion of John 18. (The "p" stands for papyrus.)
  • 200 A.D. Bodmer p 66 a papyrus manuscript which contains a large part of the Gospel of John.
  • 200 A.D. Chester Beatty Biblical papyrus p 46 contains the Pauline Epistles and Hebrews.
  • 225 A.D. Bodmer Papyrus p 75 contains the Gospels of Luke and John.
  • 250-300 A.D. Chester Beatty Biblical papyrus p 45 contains portions of the four Gospels and Acts.
  • 350 A.D. Codex Sinaiticus contains the entire New Testament and almost the entire Old Testament in Greek. It was discovered by a German scholar Tisendorf in 1856 at an Orthodox monastery at Mt. Sinai.
  • 350 A.D. Codex Vaticanus: {B} is an almost complete New Testament. It was cataloged as being in the Vatican Library since 1475."
What I've provided is just a very brief excerpt from the website as I don't really want to "overload" my post with way too much information. Like in everything religious, everywhere you go, you're going to find a different opinion. Wrapping up this post, I think there are just a few things you need to know.
  • Canon -- a standard of measuring. In this case of a Biblical canon, this is the "standard" of the Bible, or the books that are included.
  • Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate are two common Bible translations that are historically quite important.
  • The Apocrypha is the group of books that are rejected by the Protestant and Jewish canon, but accepted in the Roman Catholic Canon (excepted as deuterocanonical [second canon] books).
  • And The Council of Carthage which establishes "finally" a canon that resembles something we are more familiar with.
  •  The Council of Trent re-establishes the authority of the apocryphal (deuterocanonical) books.
  • The history of the Bible and the various canons it has developed from is far from a well-paved, easy to travel road. Though what each church now holds as sacred is unlikely to change, there are variations in everyone's Bible depending on where they live.
For those of you who are curious, here is a link to a wiki about the various Biblical canons and the books included in them. Yeah, yeah, I know that wikipedia is "less than reliable," but I think this table is something difficult to find elsewhere, and is really interesting.

P.S. Many thanks to Paul. I've updated the post with a bit more information!

What About Daniel?

It's common among a multitude of theological circles to view the book of Daniel as a prophetic book that should be read along with the book of Revelation as an outline for the future. However, I can't help but think that such a perspective is mistaken at the core by viewing the book of Daniel as book of prophecy when it's more a book of history about the Jews and their persecution. The book opens with the tale of Daniel and his noble friends (Daniel and his friends were something of royalty) who are carried off into Babylonian captivity. What follows are the tales of Daniel and his friends. Later in the book, is what's more important for eschatology (dealing with end times) purposes, though. Daniel has strange visions concerning all sorts of one strange thing after another. What do all these strange things mean? Are they really a prophecy about the future?

Though the answer to this is certainly a bit subjective, I think it's best to view these strange images as history or as a political critique. What this is presented as is a prophecy from the sixth century (the date the book is traditionally considered to have been written around)? However, more modern scholarship has put its date of authorship sometime in the mid-second century. Wouldn't that make this book a little bit of a "cheater" or a "liar" for making "prophecies" about things that have already happened (making a "prophecy" of events from the perspective of the 600s when you're writing from the 200s)? To understand what I mean, we'll look at a fictional scenario. Suppose I'm confronted with a scenario in which there is a briefcase in front of me with a number in it, and I can earn a million dollars by guessing the number that's inside of this briefcase. If I randomly guessed and got the number, I would deserve the money reward.

If I peeked (as displayed by my elegant paint drawing), then guessed the number, that would be cheating and I shouldn't get anything (except punishment, maybe). So why are things different with the book of Daniel? As the link below describes in slightly better detail, this sort of quasi-prophetic writing wasn't foreign to the people of that time period. In fact, it would have been familiar to the people of that time to present a history or past story as a future prophecy. The coded symbolism (strange beasts, horns, statues, and other interesting things) is subject to interpretation, of course. This is from the link below:

"The summaries we have given above indicate the striking double focus of the Book of Daniel.  The stories center on Jews who lived in the sixth century and on issues that were important for people in the dispersion.  The revelations, however, wherever we can be sure of the situation to which they relate, speak to the predicament of Jews who lived in Jerusalem in the second century in the religious crisis brought about in Judea by the political policies of Antiochus IV.
So was the book written in the sixth century or in the second (or some time in between)?  Was it that God led sixth-century believers to put into writing stories that directly spoke to issues that concerned their situation in exile, and also gave them previews of events to unfes no necessary difference to one’s understanding of the contents of the book, so that readers who takeold over the next four centuries which would be primarily relevant to Jerusalem in the second century?  Or was it that God led second-century believers to collect earlier stories of the faithfulness which Jews experienced from God and showed to God, and gave them further revelations regarding their destiny now, which built on that earlier material and which they could add to it?
In discussing this question scholars have taken into account a number of factors such as the nature of the languages in which Daniel is written (a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic with a number of words imported from Persian, Greek, and other languages).  But the most significant determinant of their attitudes has been their attitude to that fundamental question of what God seems more likely to have done.
In my opinion the second view is much the more likely; see further the discussion of the visions in the book at the end of chapter 4 below.  But one’s attitude to this question mak the traditional view that the book was written in the sixth century will not necessarily thereby find that they disagree about the book’s themes - though in practice people who believe that the visions came from the sixth century tend also to assume that they refer directly to events such as the millennium."

I most certainly don't expect everyone to read the entire following document (I didn't), but I skimmed through it, and found some of its material to be helpful. I think the above quote is very important to remember before you start pulling the book of Daniel into your views about the future of the world. How one views these things is undoubtedly up for debate, but everyone should at least be willing to look at other views and to see what they have to offer. Perhaps Daniel is actually written as a book of prophecy yet to unfold, or, as mentioned here, perhaps it's more an inspiring tale of Jewish struggles with a critique of the Roman Empire thrown in.

It should be noted that I don't own the right to the .rtf document I linked here. The rights to that belong solely to its owner and creator, of which I am neither. My use of it was for private purposes.

The Different Perspectives About Revelation

There are five main ways through which the text is commonly viewed that I will highlight in this post. I think it's important to note that there are so many views on the book of Revelation that I couldn't possibly list them all. I think that these views have the most scholarship behind them to merit conversation, though, and so I will briefly list all of them.
  1. The Futurist view – this view is the most familiar and treats the Book of Revelation (and other texts as well) as a prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled and specifically concerns the end of the world. This is probably the most common view by Protestants and is best represented in The Left Behind series.
Strengths: This view typically counts a literal reading of the text as its most prominent strength.
Weaknesses: There is no real reason given in the text that it should be interpreted literally.
  1. The Historicist view – this view sees the book of Revelation as a book of prophecy, but one that does not exclusively refer to the end times or the end of the world. The Historical view asserts that the book of Revelation has been fulfilled throughout history since its writing. Most Historicists believe that every prophecy in the book of Revelation has been fulfilled already.
Strengths: The historicist view can make compelling arguments by displaying how certain passages in Revelation and Daniel seem to line up perfectly with historical events.
Weaknesses: There is no reason to believe that any of the historical events that a historicist points to actually fit the narratives found in the various texts. Most of the texts are vague, and can easily be molded to fit just about any historical occurrence.
  1. The Preterist view – this view is the most common view among the Roman Catholic Church (or at least was for a while) and is somewhat similar to the Historicist view. This view asserts that the book of Revelation is not a book of prophecy but is a “secret” (written in code so as not to be obviously seen as a political or historical critique by the Roman empire) text that records the history of the first century, and especially criticizes the Roman Empire.
Strengths: The text of Revelation was likely written at the very end of the 1st century (between 90 and 99 AD/CE) situating it in the perfect time to write a historical critique. Additionally the Jewish nation underwent a lot of change and unrest in the first century culminating in the destruction of the temple in the year 70.
Weaknesses: There isn't a direct reason to interpret this text as historical other than the rejection of certain oddities that come from a literal interpretation. Certain events or passages described can be seen as difficult to perfectly “fit” with 1st century occurrences.
  1. The Idealist/Radical Discipleship view – this view is probably the least common view both in the modern age and throughout the history of the church. That doesn't mean this view doesn't have a lot to offer, though. The idealist view does not refer to an “optimistic” view of the text, but rather stems from the Greek view of idea which was that of something ephemeral or symbolic of meaning. Essentially, this view looks at the book of Revelation as a worship narrative and as a text that can be viewed personally throughout any age. The Radical Discipleship view is similar asserting that the book of Revelation is a call to grow deeper in a personal relationship with Christ and to truly follow his commands and examples.
Strengths: This view has garnered support through the use of modern scholarship and historical-critical academia. What could be this view's greatest strength is that it views the other perspectives as mistaken at the core by asserting that the book of Revelation is very much a book to be read personally.
Weaknesses: The majority of the support of this view has not been historical, but recent within the last few centuries specifically. Additionally, this view relies on viewing almost an entire text as symbolic without providing a grounds for picking what is symbolic and what is literal.
  1. Social-political narrative – this view asserts that the book of Revelation is largely a critique of the Roman Empire's politics as well as the ways the Roman Empire was affecting the Jewish society and the other societies it had conquered.. This view is different from the Preterist view in that it does not view the book of Revelation as a historical document as well.
Strengths: Many of the passages in Revelation can easily be seen as a political critique or social narrative given the context the book was written in.
Weaknesses: This view has historically never had as significant of support as the Preterist view, and generally lacks a large body of scholarship to back up its views.

Studying A Book of the Bible

There are just a few things that you have to keep in mind when you start to study a book of the Bible. These three things, in my opinion, are as follows: context (political, social, time period), purpose (why the text was written), and intended audience (who the text was written to). You can't fully study or appreciate a book of the Bible till you're willing to do all three of these things.

With all this in mind, there are also a few words that you need to keep in mind as you begin to study a book of the Bible. There are without a doubt more words that are important to the full exegetical studying of a text, but I think that these are the ones of prime importance.
  • Exegesis – the critical explanation or study of a text; this text is typically a religious text.
  • Hermeneutics – the study of how texts are interpreted and the methods with which to do so.
  • Canon/Canonical – a canon is a accepted group of books. Canonical means a book that is accepted into a given canon.
 As you go through a book of the bible, chapter-by-chapter, it's important that you journal your thoughts on the matter and your opinions about it. If something stands out in particular, you should write the verse down, so it's easier to find at a later point. Additionally, try not to single out any particular part of the text as special, but try to view the text as a whole with one unified theme. Admittedly, most texts have multiple themes that are presented in a complicated manner, but if you tie these themes back into the audience they're written for in the context of when it was written, they're normally easier to understand.

With all this in mind, I think we're ready to delve into the complicated but interesting text that is Revelation.