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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


2. What They Called It before They Called It Canon

The rabbis said it like this: “All the Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean.” The Mishnah records a discussion among the rabbis which concluded with the consensus that the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes both render the hands unclean (M. Yad. 3.5). So that’s what the rabbis called it: books which were holy scripture and inspired and authoritative were said to “render the hands unclean.”

The earliest Christians were Jews, so they too spoke of the Hebrew Bible as “scripture.” In addition the Christians soon possessed the Gospels and the letters of Paul and some other books, and they viewed them as scripture, too.

As time passed, Christians developed a more-or-less informal vocabulary to distinguish authoritative books from other books. But they didn’t use the word canon at first.

Around the year 300, Eusebius of Caesarea, in Church History 3.25, gave the current status of Christian literature. His classification listed books in three categories:

(1) Recognized or “acknowledged” books (ὁμολογουμένοι).

(2) Disputed books (ἀντιλεγομένοι). This doesn’t mean that every Christian disputed every one of these books. This is just Eusebius’ category for books known to most Christians and accepted by some and disputed by others, although some must be said to be spurious [νόθοι, i.e., “bastard books,” not written by who they say they are].

(3) wicked and impious books (ἄτοπα πάντῃ καὶ δυσσεβῆ) put forward by heretics.

We will come back to the books Eusebius reported as being in these categories. The point now is to notice his vocabulary.


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