Canon Lists

I’m a lists person. I have hundreds of lists. Lists for projects. Daily to do lists. Lists of my lists. They’re everywhere and surprisingly they help me get a lot of things done. Something I learned early on in my academic career was that if I tried to keep everything in my mind, I would get anxious and, of course, forget what I needed to do! Lists help me remember things. Yes, they help me maintain a sense of “control” over the chaos that can be research and teaching and life.

One kind of list that bible scholars—especially New Testament scholars—are obsessed with are canon lists. Canon lists are lists in early Christian documents, letters, writings, etc. that detail the texts that are in the NT used by early Christians. Early Christians were prodigious writers of scripture-like texts. The first thousand years of Christianity saw many different types of literature generated. Not all of it became Scripture (big S), but there were many that contended for top spots based on usage, catholicity, apostolic relationship, and so on.

Scholars analyze “canon lists” in order to see how the New Testament canon developed over time. Who used what texts? Why were some texts excluded? Why were some texts included?

A brilliant recent article by C. Rebecca Rine, research professor at Erskine Seminary, shows how a lot of the so-called “canon lists” that NT scholars refer to aren’t lists at all. True kinds of canon lists are those that occur in manuscripts, e.g. Codex Claromontanus, that actually list scriptural texts. A lot of the canonical lists that NT scholars talk about, such as those found in Eusebius or in Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter, are not lists per se but catalogues of texts embedded in broader and sometimes very situational contexts.

Dr. Rine argues that if we remove the “canonical lists” from their wider literary contexts, we can easily miss the fact that not all of them are making universal claims about what is scripture, what is in and out of the canon, or even what readers should or should not be reading. Some of the lists specify only scriptures now known as canonical because they are for initiates (called catechumens), who were new to the Christian faith. For more seasons believers, other extracanonical texts could be handled, digested, and read (although perhaps not always isolated from the wider community).

So, if you’ve never read any biblical apocrypha, why not try some today?

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