Canon of Scripture

 “The New Testament is full of what we might call second-narrative moments, short retellings of Old Testament stories in the light of Christ.” One such second-narrative moment is found in the gospel account of Luke as Jesus himself speaks concerning the purpose of the scriptures. In a room in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to those gathered and said: (Steinmetz )

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)

Notice Jesus’ use of the words: “Thus it is written“. However, what he then goes on to say is not actually contained in a single statement anywhere in the scriptures. Rather, Jesus gives a summary of the entire message of the texts of what we now know as the OT. “Thus it is written” may be paraphrased “This is the entire message of the scriptures”. And what is that message? That the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. This is a fine example of what Steinmetz refers to as a second-narrative moment. The long, rambling history of Israel and the nations recorded in the diverse OT texts finds its coherence around the gospel events accomplished by Christ and the consequences of those events. Here is one of many crisp, clear second narratives found in the NT.

When the texts that make up the Bible are discussed, often the term “canon” is used. And as theologian Roger Beckwith writes in his article on “The Canon of Scripture” in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology “every book has a text, but not every book has a canon. Only a book like the Bible, which is also a collection of books, has a canon.” (pp. 27-28) What does the word “canon” mean? Beckwith continues:

‘Canon’ is by origin a Greek word, denoting a straight rod or rule, and thus a criterion, and (together with its cognates ‘canonical’ and ‘canonize’) it began to be applied by Christian writers of the later 4th century AD to the correct collection and list of the Scriptures. … Before the term ‘canon’ was invented, a variety of names were already used by Jews and Christians for the collection of their sacred books, some, such as ‘the Holy Scriptures’, going back to the 1st century (Rom. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:15; Philo; Josephus), and others, such as ‘the Holy Books’ and ‘the Law and the Prophets’, being even more ancient (1 Macc. 12:9; 2 Macc. 15:9). The terms ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ began to be applied by Christian writers to collections of Scriptures in the 2nd and early 3rd centuries. What the language of ‘canonicity’ added was the idea of correctness; this correctness could now be embodied, for the first time, not just in lists but also in one-volume copies. The biblical canon is not, of course, primarily a collection or list of literary masterpieces, like the Alexandrian lists, but one of authoritative sacred texts. Their authority does not derive from their early date, nor from their role as records of revelation (important though these characteristics were), but from the fact that they were believed to be inspired by God and thus to share the nature of revelation themselves.

It is crucial that Bible readers not only appreciate the storied shape of scripture – its plots, themes, characters, settings etc. in terms that we have already discussed, but that they also begin to appreciate the remarkable diversity of literary texts that make up the Bible. What is the relationship between the various books of the OT and NT? Why these books and not others? How did the final versions that we have come into being? Does the order of the books matter? There are plenty of questions around the canon of the scriptures, not least around the so-called apocryphal books – “apocryphal” means “hidden” – books such as Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, 1 Esdras, 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are recognised as OT scripture within some churches and not others. Biblical theologians deal with the whole Bible in terms of both its diversity and unity. Thus literary questions such as these are crucial within biblical theology.


~ by timmywarner on February 1, 2012.

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