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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


1. Why We Call It the Canon

The etymology of the word canon goes back at least five thousand years to the Sumerian word gi. From Sumerian it passed into other languages. In Ugaritic it was qn, in Akkadian qanû, in Arabic qanā, in Ethiopic qanōt, in Hebrew qaneh, in Greek kanna or kanôn, and in Latin canna.

We use an English form of this ancient word when we speak of sugar cane, walking cane, or—if you grew up near a river with catfish in it—fishing cane. This in fact has been the meaning of the word and its derivatives for all of these five thousand years: a cane, or reed, or stalk, or stick: the hollow or pithy, usually slender, flexible, jointed stalk of a plant.

Such a stalk makes a nice measuring stick, and in Sumerian this was called a gi as well. This secondary meaning of the word also travelled into later languages. For instance, when the prophet Ezekiel saw a man in a vision measuring the temple, the man had a qenêh ha-middah in his hand, a “measuring cane,” and the man called out the dimensions in “canes” (Ezek. 40–42; see especially 40:5).

In Greek the words kanna and kanôn split off from one another. Kanna remained conceptually close to “cane” as the material of ink pens, mats, and fences. Kanôn, on the other hand, meant the rod that a builder used to keep walls straight and plumb. The expression easily acquired a metaphorical meaning, in the sense of “norm” or “model.” Thus you have Aristotle calling the good man the “model and measure”—kanôn kai metron—of what is noble and pleasant (Nicomachean Ethics 3.4). Thus you have Polykleitos’ statue of the spear-bearer described as the kanôn which artists study for the ideal human form (Pliny Natural History 34.8.55).

The metaphorical meaning of kanôn appears in the Apostle Paul. At the end of Galatians, he adds a postscript in his own handwriting in which he says that the cross of Christ, as proclaimed in the gospel, has made a new creation, and the Israel of God consists of those who walk by this kanôn (Gal. 6:16). We might say, then, that Paul’s opponents, who proclaimed what amounted to another gospel, walked by a different kanôn, a different model of justification, based on works and not on the gospel alone.

As church history unfolded over the next few centuries, the need to distinguish between the normative and the aberrant continued, even increased. The word kanôn came more and more into use to identify this norm, in the expressions “canon of truth,” “canon of faith” (the regula fidei), and “ecclesiastical canon” (that is, normative church law).

Certain kinds of norms can be put into a list or table, and such a thing can also be called a canon (employing kanôn and related words). Examples include the astronomical tables in Ptolemy’s Almagest, the astrological tables of Vettius Valens, charts constructed by historians and mentioned with some disdain by Plutarch (Solon 27.1) because he wanted to record a good story about Solon and Croesus which was, alas, impossible according to some historians’ piffling chronological tables (χρονικοῖς τισι λεγομένοις κανόσιν), and tables of parallels in the Gospels constructed by Eusebius of Caesarea.

In this context, it was natural that the books of the Bible, insofar as they were acknowledged to be normative for the church, eventually came to be called “canonical” (κανονικά or κανονιζόμενα). Language of this kind came to be used by the mid fourth century, when people were making lists of the books which might be read in church and which served as primary sources of doctrine and teaching. These books were distinct from those with similar-sounding names but which were nonetheless secondary and often heretical.

One widely known list of normative books is that given by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his annual Easter letter for the year 367. The purpose of these letters was to inform Egyptian churches of the date of Easter year by year. But Athanasius wrote of other matters, too, and one year he thought it beneficial to revisit yet again a matter which people had already discussed to the point of exhaustion: which books were canonical and which were not. “Bear with me,” he wrote, “for writing things you already know about. I do so on account of the present stress and for the good of the church.” He then proceeded to set forth by name the books of the Old and New Testaments. These books, he said, and not the others, are canonical (κανονιζόμενα) and have been handed down (i.e., from the early church) and are believed to be divine.

This then is the historical process by which the church came to call its literature the canon of Scripture.

Indeed, it was only in the mid fourth century that people first began to speak of the “canon.” But this does not mean that the canon was something new. The church, and the synagogue as well, had always had the thing; they had just called it something else.


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