Christian Scriptural Canons

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Most Christians, being accustomed as they are to being able to hold in their hand a single book, containing more or less the same smaller books believe that the canon of scripture (which books compose the Bible) is a settled issue.[1] Some people even argue vehemently that the book they're holding 'must be right', because it's what they're accustomed to. However, even the most cursory examination of the facts prove otherwise. While most churches have a ‘canon’ which they accept as ‘scripture’, but few of these are anything more than merely preferential choices, based on pre-formulated theologies, which may or may not apply to other groups who believe differently.[2]

It seems that few Christian denominations are brave enough in their thinking to take into account the whole real, and true history which we have inherited from the Apostles in its historical context. Their choices are so arbitrary in fact that there are often not even stated reasons for why one book (Esther for instance) should be in the Catholic canon, but not that of “mainstream” Protestants. In the early Church it was common for local bishops to choose the canon of scripture to be read in their diocese, as evidenced by the many such canons of local diocese which were submitted to the Byzantine Councils during the formative years of the western church.[3] Thus which books actually form the Biblical canon is far from being a settled issue, and is unlikely to be settled for some time to come. Many of these books, including works like the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel of Philip, were eventually discarded, because they were not preferred by the people who actually paid for the inscription of the books, and without income for the scribe, a book simply would not be copied.

As we have already said, which books are in and which books are out always depended upon who put the Bible together. In it’s long and varied history the western church (first Byzantine, then Catholic and now Protestant) has used many different canons, and considered many different books as “scripture”.

The earliest exact reference to the 'complete' New Testament as we now know it was actually in the year 367 A.D., in a letter by Pope Athanasius of Alexandria to the Christians of Egypt. This however did not settle the matter as to which book would and would not be included. Varying lists continued to be drawn up by different western church authorities over time as can be seen below, including, but not limited to:



The Orthodox Canon

It is widely believed that the 4th Century Codex Sinaiticus, is one one of the Fifty Bibles which was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine for his churches in Constantinople. This manuscript includes the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, which are both now generally excluded from modern editions, such as the Byzantine Majority Text (2005), which counts the number of divergences in the most ancient Greek manuscripts and then gives the ‘majority reading’ for each verse.

The biblical canon of the Orthodox Churches remains essentially settled in practice, but not necessarily in fact. According to Constantinou, "The most unusual aspect of the canon of Scripture among the Orthodox is that no official canon exists at all and the canon remains somewhat loose"[5], and has "never conclusively defined a canon of Scripture in an authoritative statement such as those ultimately pronounced in the West."[6] This is in part because the "Apostolic writings were not immediately recognized as Scripture when they were penned during the first century. Although the earliest Christians knew of apostolic writings, the life and teachings of Christ were primarily passed along orally for many generations. Christians even considered oral tradition superior to writing because one always knew and had confidence in the trustworthiness of one’s teacher. Books, however, were copied by hand, and one could never be certain that any book was a faithful copy of what the author had actually written, or even whether the book had in fact been composed by that author." [7]

The Tewahedo Canon

The canon of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches is the largest of any of the official canons of scripture, consisting of eighty eight books, divided into two sections, the Lesser Canon and the Greater Canon.[8] The Greater Canon, as well as including all of the Catholic Epistles, also includes the four books of Enoch. The Lesser Canon includes the Didache, Discalalia, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Kebre Nagaste, the Fethe Nagaste and a number of others as well.[9]

References

  1. Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, Clarendon Press, 1997, ISBN 0198269544
  2. Hadrian Mar Elijah Bar Israel (2016) The Canonical Books of the New Testament Sorted by Denominational Grouping, Righteous Endeavour
  3. William G. Pierpont and Maurice A. Robinson, (1991) The New Testament in the Original Greek According to the Byzantine / Majority Textform, Atlanta: Original Word Publishers, ISBN: 0759800774.
  4. John Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), Volume 18 of Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press, 2008
  5. Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, The Canon of Scripture in the Orthodox Church, in Vahan S. Hovhanessian's "The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East, Bible in Orthodox Tradition, Volume 2, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4331-1035-1, page 1
  6. Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, The Canon of Scripture in the Orthodox Church, in Vahan S. Hovhanessian's "The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East, Bible in Orthodox Tradition, Volume 2, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4331-1035-1, page 3
  7. Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, The Canon of Scripture in the Orthodox Church, in Vahan S. Hovhanessian's "The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East, Bible in Orthodox Tradition, Volume 2, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4331-1035-1, page 5
  8. Canonical Books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  9. Orthodox Tewahedo Biblical Canon