The borders of the Bible are defined by the borders of its two canons: the Old and New testaments.
The English word “canon” is derived from “kanwvn,” a Greek word meaning “rule” or “standard.” By the fourth century AD, “kanwvn” had come to mean a “list of religious writings deemed authoritative.” Such lists guided believers in distinguishing among the great variety of religious literature available and identifying those that were approved within their religious communities for such things as devotional reading, worship, preaching, doctrine, ethics, or morals. Key concepts of canon formation are . . .
- The authority of particular writings preceded their canonical status. In other words, a literary work did not suddenly become authoritative by its inclusion in a canon; but rather, it came to be included in a canon because it was already authoritative.
- Canon formation was stimulated by some kind of threat. The threats that spurred formation of the Jewish OT canon were risk of national oblivion in the aftermath of the Roman-Jewish War of 68-70 AD and the challenges to Jewish life posed by Christianity. The threats that motivated formation of the NT canon were primarily from false teachers within the Christian fellowship– Marcion and gnostics for example who promoted “innovations” not found within the apostolic tradition (rule of faith). Before the “bible” could be interpreted against such innovators, it had to be identified.
- Canon formation implies “closure”– Dt 4:2, “You shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of Jehovah your God which I command you.” Also see Rev 22: 18ff, “I testify unto every man that hears the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: 19 and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book.”
- The OT canon of the Jews appears to have been accomplished in three stages corresponding to major events in Jewish life. Each stage assimilated a different collection of material (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) into the Jewish canon. The Law came first followed shortly thereafter by the Prophets and then by the Writings. Each collection more or less carried a different weight. Jewish tradition sets the closure of the entire canon at the Council of Jamnia (Jabneh) in 90 CE.
- Christians were less discriminating in their attitude toward the OT and wound up with additional materials (the Apocrypha) in some of their canons.
An understanding of canon formation is useful in interpreting scripture. For example, the sweep of Jesus’ statement in Mt 23:34 (“upon you (Jerusalem) may fall … the blood of … Abel to …Zechariah) cannot be appreciated without understanding that Abel is the first innocent victim in the Jewish canon (Genesis) and Zechariah is the last (Chronicles).
Canon formation is also closely related to the subject of versions. The early church had several, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (the Septuagint). Many problems in reconciling NT quotes with OT passages can be resolved by recognizing that NT writers generally do no quote from the Hebrew (Masoretic) text that underlies the OT in Christian bibles, but from the Greek OT and Aramaic Targums. For example, the problem with Paul’s quote of Ps 68:18 (“received gifts from men”) in Eph 4:8 (“gave gifts to men”) disappears when the reference is changed to an Aramaic Targum on the Psalms which actually says “gave” instead of “received.” The difference between Amos 9:11 and James quotation in Acts 15:16 is similarly due to James’ use of the Greek OT instead of the Hebrew. In general, early Christians used the Greek OT so effectively in preaching the gospel that some Jews cursed the day their Hebrew bible was translated into Greek.