This Sunday evening we’re meeting for another Table Talk. There will be good food, drinks, and conversation, as we continue working our way through the topics of systematic theology. This week’s topic will be the formation of the canon of Scripture. We’ll be talking about the major questions concerning canonicity: what it is and how we got it. We will also talk about the theological issues related to canonicity like biblical inspiration and authority.

Here’s the discussion outline:

Some Key Terms

  • Canon– means “rule” or standard of judgment
  • Hebrew Bible– This refers to the torah, the writings, & the prophets
    • Sometimes this is called the “Palestinian Canon”
    • It includes the 39 books of the “Old Testament” (no apocrypha)
    • Protestants use the Hebrew Bible as their foundation for the OT
  • Septuagint– Greek translation of the Old Testament
    • Often abbreviated as LXX
    • This does include the apocrypha but has many textual questions
    • Some scholars question whether there is only one Septuagint or whether there are many differing collections of Greek-Jewish manuscripts
    • Catholics and Orthodox use the LXX as the foundation for their Old Testament, though they have some disagreements
  • Apocrypha– literally means “unknown authorship”
    • There is a very large group of writings considered “apocryphal,” even beyond those books used by the RC and EO churches
    • RCs prefer to call them “deutercanonical” or “intertestamental”
    • These book were written after the Old Testament and before the New
    • They are of uneven value
      • Some are clearly inauthentic
      • Some are helpful for historical references
      • Some have questionable theology and political motivations
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
    • These are ancient Jewish books, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and some Greek, discovered in 1947
    • Include the “Palestinian” canon but not the Septuagint or apocrypha
    • They also include other manuscripts & liturgies whose authority is unclear
    • Research on the DSS is relatively young
    • There have been no breakthroughs in terms of rewriting orthodoxy
    • But we have learned a lot more about 1st century Judaism
  • New Testament– Matthew-Revelation
    • These were originally “Jewish literature”, though Luke was a Gentile, but were all written in Greek
    • No current Christian tradition disagrees about the content of the New Testament
    • Non-Christians and liberals often question certain books but are losing influence
    • The early church did debate certain books as well
      • Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, Jude, and Revelation were disputed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries for various reasons
      • The Epistles of Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache were believed to be inspired by some early church fathers
      • By the end of the 4th century a nearly-universal consensus had emerged accepting the 27 books which we today call the New Testament
      • This was actually not the result of a council or “official ruling”
        • It happened as a consensus developed over time
        • This shows that the manuscripts themselves proved their worth rather than an outside authority
        • The Scriptures are self-authenticating

Was the Canon Closed? When?

  • This is actually a widely-debated question
    • Some faithful and even conservative Christians hold to an “open canon” view
    • While there were authoritative statements concerning the content of the canon, debates about it persisted up until the Reformation
  • The traditional view is that the OT was closed by the time of the 1st cent.
    • The Babylonian Talmud claims that “the men of the Great Assembly” decided on the Hebrew canon in 450 BC
    • Modern scholars used to point to the Council of Jamnia shortly after AD 70, but its authenticity is now disputed
    • Ben Sirach– Jewish wisdom book that is included in the Apocrypha
      • It was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in 132 BC
      • The translation’s prologue says that his grandfather was a student of “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers”
    • Josephus– Jewish historian writing at the end of the 1st cent.
      • He has a different ordering of the Hebrew canon, but same content
      • He states that the canon is considered closed: “From Artaxerxes to our own time a detailed record has been made, but this has not been thought worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because there has not been since then the exact succession of prophets.”
    • Dead Sea Scrolls– Religious writings of a Jewish sectarian group
      • There are about 500 different documents in the collection, including Jewish apocryphal books (not the RC apocrypha)
      • However, there are commentaries written for the torah, the prophets, Psalms, Daniel, and Job, showing their “canonical” status
  • Questions for the Hebrew canon
    • Priority of Torah- Some Jewish rabbis gave the Torah highest standing
    • Doubted books- Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon raised questions in antiquity but eventually came to be regarded as canonical
    • The Book of Enoch– This book is not received by any current Jewish or Christian group, but it does show up regularly in the 1st cent.
  • The New Testament’s recognition of the OT canon
    • The NT clearly refers to an authoritative collection of “Scriptures” (Acts 17:11; Rom. 1:2,2; 2 Tim. 3:!5-16, 2 Peter 3:!6)
    • Jesus references a canon: Luke 11:50 & Luke 24:44
    • The New Testament canon was not formally closed until the time of the Reformation
    • It had practically closed by the 4th century, though questions remained
    • Apocryphal books were held in a secondary position but not excised until the Reformation
    • There were many obviously heretical or false books floating around
    • There were about five books which had some recognition in the early church but eventually fell out of favor

Criteria for Canonicity

  • Inspiration– Must be more than the writings of man
  • Authenticity– Needs to have been written by the person who claims to have written it and at the time claimed
  • Apostolicity (in the case of the NT)
    • Does not have to have been written by an apostle
    • But did have to be written by someone working with an apostle or with immediate access to the teaching of Jesus Himself
  • Antiquity– Must have been written in the 1st cent. (in the case of NT books)
  • Orthodoxy– Must not contradict other Scripture
  • Catholicity– Must have universal or near-universal recognition as canonical
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