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Can (or Should) We Change the Canon of Scripture? A Blast from the Past

  Digging around in posts from five years ago now, I came across this one --as interesting to me now as it was then!  Hope you think so too.  It's a response to a penetrating question. QUESTION: Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren't authored by Paul or why are they still in the NT? RESPONSE: Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy (because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years).  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote. And that’s the problem with Hebrews [...]

Did the Council of Nicaea Take Away Reincarnation and Give us the Bible?

In this Readers’ Mailbag I’ll deal with two questions that involve modern myths about the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.  Is it true that this is when the church fathers decided which books would be in the New Testament?  And that these authorities also removed all references to reincarnation from the Bible?   If you have a question you would like me to address in a future Mailbag, go ahead and ask!   QUESTION:  I've noticed many people have the misconception that the NT canon was decided at the Council of Nicaea. Where are people getting this misconception, and can it be quashed? QUESTION:  I have often heard that original scrolls make reference to reincarnation but that such references were removed at the Council of Nicaea to strengthen the Church's position that the imperative for living a Godly life this time around necessitated immediate adherence. Is there any truth to this claim?   RESPONSES: First, on the canon of the New Testament, let me say categorically that the Council of Nicaea did not debate [...]

How We Got the New Testament (and not some other books!)

Many people (most people?) don’t realize that the collection of the books into the New Testament did not take a year or two.  It was *centuries* before there was any widespread agreement about which books to include and which to exclude (why include the Gospel of John but not the Gospel of Thomas?  Why include the Apocalypse of John but not the Apocalypse of Peter?). Yesterday I started to explain how it all happened.  In this post I finish the task, by explaining the grounds on which the decisions were made and something of the historical process involved.  I’ve always thought this topic was unusually interesting – it was my first passion in my graduate school days (and the first topic I ever wrote a scholarly article on). Again, this discussion is taken from my Introduction to the Bible, published a couple of years ago. *************************************************************** The Criteria Used The “orthodox” church fathers who decided on the shape and content of the canon applied several criteria to determine whether a book should be included or [...]

Why Did We Get a New Testament?

In my past couple of posts I’ve talked about how the canon of the Hebrew Bible was formed.  That raises the obvious corollary of how the canon of the New Testament was formed.  Who decided we should have the twenty-seven books we do?  Why these books and not others?  Why were any books chosen at all?  When were these decisions made?  And what criteria were used to make the decisions? To my surprise, I haven’t talked much about the process on the blog over the years.  So here I will devote two posts to the issue.   I have written at greater length about the matter in several of my books, especially Lost Christianities.  Here is the most direct and to the point discussion that I provide in my textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. ********************************************************** THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT We are much better informed about the formation of the canon of the New Testament, in no small part because we have the writings of later church fathers who explicitly discuss the [...]

How We Got the Hebrew Bible

Here at last I can summarize what modern scholars say about the formation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).  It’s a fascinating topic, of relevance, of course, to Jews, Christians, and anyone else who thinks the history of our civilization matters!  This summary is taken from my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (If the terms I use here don’t make sense: read the preceding two posts!) ************************************************************* Contemporary Views of the Formation of the Canon Today scholars tend to present a somewhat fuzzier picture of when and why the canon came to be formed, although there do seem to be some fixed points. It is widely held that the five books of the Torah were accepted by nearly all Jews as a set canon by the fifth century b.c.e., in the early postexilic period. One piece of evidence comes from the Bible itself, in a post-exilic book, Ezra. The scribe Ezra himself is described as being “skilled in the Torah of Moses that the LORD the God of [...]

2020-06-03T15:53:31-04:00January 3rd, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Older View

Now that I’ve given some terms and definitions (in yesterday’s post) I can start talking about how it is we got the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: who chose the books to include, when they did so, and on the basis of what criteria.  Before laying out what scholars today tend to think, I need to provide some information about what *used* to be the standard view (this older view is still held by some, who are not abreast on changes in scholarship over the past twenty or thirty years.)   That will be today’s post.  Again, this information comes from my textbook on the Bible.   ****************************************************************** The term “canon” comes from the Greek word for “reed” or “rod.” A canon was a straight edge that was used, for example, by a carpenter to make sure that an alignment was correct; but it could also be used as a measuring stick. Eventually the word “canon” came to be applied in other contexts, by analogy, to refer to a rule or standard by which something [...]

2020-04-03T02:42:22-04:00January 2nd, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Taming the Diversity of the New Testament

In my previous post I started to show why it is difficult to use the New Testament itself as evidence that Christianity started out as an original unity, only to come to be fragmented with the passage of time into the second and third Christian centuries. It is true that the NT is the earliest set of Christian writings that we have, and that most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century.  We don’t have any other books (well, virtually any other books) this early (I don’t think the Gospel of Thomas can date to the first century; the one exception to the rule would probably be 1 Clement, which is usually dated to the mid 90s CE, and which is, indeed, a proto-orthodox writing). The two problems I’ve isolated with using the NT to demonstrate early Christian unity are that:  1) The reason we have these books and no others from the time is that these are the books that later orthodox church fathers deemed scripture and worked to [...]

Autobiographical: Metzger and Me. The Seminar on the Canon

THIS RETURNS TO MY SERIES OF POSTS ON MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MY MENTOR BRUCE METZGER. EVENTUALLY, MANY POSTS FROM NOW, I'LL GET BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION: WHAT HE THOUGHT OF MY MOVE AWAY FROM THE FAITH. THAT'S WAY DOWN THE LINE. I return to the early years of my relationship with Bruce Metzger.   That graduate seminar that I took with him, my first semester in my PhD program, was exhilarating, and in some senses life changing.   To be sure, most of the work we did for the seminar was difficult and detailed.  Every week we had to translate from Greek or Latin an ancient “canon list” – that is, a list of books that this or that author thought should be considered canonical scripture – lists and discussions of canon from Origen, Eusebius, Codex Claramontanus, Athanasius, and so on.  One of the students in the course, as it turns out, was a Greek orthodox priest studying for a PhD.  He obviously knew Greek extremely well, better than any of us (except, of course, Metzger).  [...]

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