The last bibliology post focused on the composition of the bible: it is multiple books, not one, and it includes various literature types. This installment is perhaps less significant for many of my readers; if you only have time for one or two installments in this series, skip this one . . . or continue for a few more moments in consideration of (1) the place of specific documents within the whole, and (2) Bible versions.
“Canon” (not “cannon”—that’s a weapon!) is a rule, measure, or means of measuring. (For a broader perspective on the word, try this page.) The widely recognized biblical canon includes a grouping of documents all of which have been measured and subjected to rules of sorts. It is commonly assumed that there is but one books-of-the-Bible canon, but the picture is actually more complex than that.
The current, widely accepted Protestant canon is . . . well, widely accepted but not beyond question. Being a neo-Protestant who wishes always to be engaged in reforming and growing, I care comparatively little about ensconcing my understandings within a supposedly static canon recognized by religious bodies for centuries.
I’m much more interested in ascertaining what I can about the authenticity and provenance of a single document/book. Partly as a result of that concern, I end up spending little to no time with some Bible books and a great deal of time with others. (It’s not that non-canonized¹ books are necessarily of less value to me where I am; it’s just that there’s only so much time and energy.) I’ve come to understand that there are some documents not included in our Bibles that nevertheless have an impressive history of inclusion in other canons or that simply have been understood as authentic, somewhat authoritative literature from a faith community (ex: 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Didache).
As one becomes more thoroughly familiar with an individual biblical document, he or she may form educated opinions as to its veracity, its significance, and its place in one or more canons. Personally, I have less knowledge of OT canonical selection (but tend to be curious as the inclusion of a couple of books, all the while wondering why a couple others are not there). In the case of the NT, I would have no trouble if three or more letters were excluded.
The very proposition of canon seems rather stiff, actually, and a bit artificial. As scholarship² expands (or shrinks), perhaps a more fluid view of authenticity and canon would be advantageous, although I doubt anything theologically significant would suddenly emerge.
My 2nd grader Jedd was checking out a book I had sitting out. Noting the wording on the cover—The New Testament in Modern English—I asked him a question.
Me: “Do you know what ‘modern’ means”?
Jedd: “Yes. It means ‘new-ish.'”
Me (smiling): “Yep, that’s it. Good job. That Bible was actually published about 60 years ago, so it was ‘modern’ then.”
Jedd: (happy to have learned, as usual) Oh.
Which version(s) of the Bible should I use? Which is/are best? These questions are always with us. One thing on which most reasonable people agree is this: the use of multiple versions can provide insight. New is not always better, and neither is old, but a variety of wordings can aid immeasurably.
When encouraged by a teacher (of a study program just getting underway) to read Matthew’s gospel, “preferably in a new version,” I took it to heart and began in a version I haven’t spent much time in lately: the one mentioned above. Colloquially known as the “Phillips version,” this is an expansive paraphrase translation in picturesque British English. And I tend to like it. But I don’t read it all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t depend solely on it.
Those who lean on one translation to the exclusion of others may experience significant theological slants and may also deprive themselves of moving outside assumptive confines.
Next and last in this series: contexts, instructions, and design
¹ The process of “canonizing” people, and thereby making them seem to be on a different level with God and other people, would appear to involve a linguistically justifiable—but distinctly biblically unjustifiable—use of the word “canonize.”
² Scholarship in biblical studies (and related fields) is oh-so-significant, and I wish three large groups of people recognized scholarship’s significance as well as the realities of well-attested, ancient texts: (1) agnostics, (2) atheists, and (3) about 97% of churchgoers.