The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)


canon, English term derived from a Greek word meaning ‘rule’ or ‘standard.’ Among the meanings it acquired early in Christian history was ‘list of religious writings deemed authoritative.’ When such lists first originated, they had the function of helping believers distinguish among the great variety of religious writings available and identify those titles approved within their own religious community for such purposes as reading at services of worship, exposition, or establishing moral or doctrinal norms. Only in about the fourth century a.d. were efforts made to assemble all ‘canonical’ texts into a single volume or uniform format that one might call a ‘Bible.’

The Hebrew Canon: Among Jews, the oldest canon appears to have been the one defining the Torah (the first five books of modern Bibles), which was not only the central document of Jewish faith but also the fundamental law of the Jewish nation. These five books reached final form and were set apart not earlier than the mid-sixth and not later than the fourth century b.c. It is the one canon upon which all Jewish groups, and also Samaritans and Christians, have usually agreed.

Alongside the Torah, most Jews of the first century a.d. appear also to have accepted a second canon of somewhat less authority, called the ‘Prophets.’ This included historical books (Joshua through 2 Kings, but not Ruth), as well as the more strictly prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Prophets (Hosea through Malachi in the Protestant order). The remaining titles of the Hebrew Bible—the total list corresponding to the canon of the Protestant ot—are known as the ‘Writings’ (Ruth, Esther through Song of Solomon). The canon of Prophets may be almost as old as that of Torah, but neither it nor the Writings was accepted by Samaritans or, perhaps, by Sadducees. The canon of Writings probably reached final form only after the first Jewish war against Rome (a.d. 66-70), under the leadership of the rabbinic courts at Jabneh (Jamnia). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were hidden away during that war, a wide variety of writings are found, with no obvious canonical distinctions among them.

The Hebrew canon was developed among Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. Many Jews of late antiquity, however, spoke only Greek. As early as the third century b.c., Greek versions of the Hebrew books were being made for their use. Some of these Greek books have rather different forms from those they took in the Hebrew canon (e.g., Jeremiah and Daniel); others were ultimately excluded from the Hebrew canon (e.g., Ecclesiasticus). There were also original works written in Greek, such as the Wisdom of Solomon, which came to be canonical only in the Greek language realm. The result was a larger, but somewhat ill-defined, canon of writings revered among Greek-speaking Jews.

The early Christian church achieved its greatest successes in the Greek-speaking world and inherited these Greek-language scriptures (often called, collectively, the Septuagint). Christians never fully agreed, however, on the exact boundaries of the canon. Eastern and Western churches used somewhat different lists. St. Jerome (d. a.d. 420) attempted to introduce the Hebrew canon into the West through his Latin translation, the Vulgate, but failed to win assent. The Ethiopian Church continued to revere books such as 1 Enoch that disappeared elsewhere. During the Reformation, Protestants on the European continent used the Hebrew canon to define their ot, while Anglicans granted a ‘deutero’ or secondary canonical status to books not found in the Hebrew canon but long accepted among Western Christians (the so-called ot Apocrypha).

The Christian Canon: While the church of the first century a.d. accepted the existing Jewish scriptures in varying forms, it had, at first, no distinctively Christian canon. In the second century, however, it began to set apart specifically Christian writings and treat them as equal to the older scriptures (for example, by reading from them in worship). The process of making a nt canon (and thus of identifying the Jewish scriptures as an ‘Old’ Testament) was not clearly defined in advance, and the results were consolidated only gradually.

In the early second century, the ‘heretic’ Marcion created a canon consisting solely of edited versions of Luke and of some of Paul’s Letters; he rejected the ot entirely. The first such canons or collections among the ‘orthodox’ were probably those of the four Gospels and ten Letters of Paul (not including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). They date from about the time of Marcion, and scholars debate whether the ‘orthodox’ nt canon was more a reaction to Marcion or an independent development. Not until a.d. 367 does one encounter a canon identical to the modern one (in a ‘Festal Letter’ of Bishop Athanasius), and even thereafter the status of several books (e.g., Hebrews, Revelation, and 1 Clement) continued uncertain for some time. To the present day, there is no universal agreement on the boundary of the Christian canon of Scripture; the Apocrypha which Roman Catholics include is excluded byProtestants from their canon...

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Biblical Criticism

biblical criticism, the study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning and discriminating judgments about these writings. The term ‘criticism’ is derived from the Greek word krino, which means ‘to judge,’ ‘to discern,’ or to be discriminating in making an evaluation or forming a judgment. It has come to refer to a form of inquiry whose purpose is to make discriminating judgments about literary and artistic productions. Thus, we speak of literary criticism, art criticism, music criticism, or film criticism as disciplines or fields of inquiry whose purpose is to review productions in their respective areas in order to discuss and appraise their significant features and judge their lasting worth. Generally speaking, the questions asked in biblical criticism have to do with the preservation and transmission of the biblical text, including in what manuscripts the text has been preserved, their date, setting, and relationship to each other, and what the most reliable form of the text is; the origin and composition of the text, including when and where it originated, how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced, what influences were at work in its production, and what sources were used in its composition; and the message of the text as expressed in its language, including the meaning of the words as well as the way in which they are arranged in meaningful forms of expression...

Canonical Criticism: This more recent type of biblical criticism builds on the results of earlier methods. Unlike them, however, it places greater emphasis on the final form of the canonical text. It is less interested in the stages of development that led up to the writing of the text or even the various literary aspects of a writing. It seeks to take more seriously the fact that the Bible is a collection of canonical writings regarded as sacred and normative in two communities of faith, Israel and the church.

This emphasis on the canonical form of the biblical text implies several things. First, the biblical writings possess another dimension, one that may not have been there when the text was originally composed but one it has acquired nevertheless. Even if a writing was composed without the initial intention or ex pectation that it would eventually become normative for Israel or the church, the fact that it acquired this status means that it must be read from this added perspective. In interpreting the text, readers must not only ask historical and literary questions about the text, but also how and why the text has addressed communities of faith. Their canonical status means that the texts have acquired a universal audience—communities of faith in every age and place who read them not simply to ask what their original authors intended but what they are saying to the living community of faith in the present.

Second, as part of a collection of biblical writings, a book acquires a canonical context. It is no longer read in isolation but along with the other biblical witnesses in all their variety. As such, it is no longer a single voice to be heard alone but stands as part of a chorus of voices to be heard along with the rest. Interpreters can no longer inquire solely into the message of a single text but must investigate this message as part of the entire canonical message, the sum total of all the canonical witnesses heard together.


Harper’s Bible Commentary

edited by James Luther Mays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988)


Various factors favored the crystallization of the Christian traditions in a final written form. The practice of reading in church the letters of an apostle; the analogy of the ot read as Scripture; the special importance for Christian faith of the original witnesses of events and the danger that tradition might become distorted and facts forgotten; the rapid expansion into the gentile world, which made oral tradition, rooted in Jewish Palestine, more difficult to maintain—all these may have contributed. The sayings of Jesus himself were particularly cherished. Once the Gospels came into existence they quickly became central in church life and were liturgically emphasized. Their existence and their centrality in turn probably meant that most oral tradition about Jesus died away fairly soon.

Each Gospel may at first have had an attachment to a particular community; but the grouping of the four is explicit and is regarded as necessary in the writing of the early church leader Irenaeus (about a.d. 180). There are signs that, of the four, John suffered most questioning; it is little quoted in early sources and may have been regarded as favoring Gnosticism; when it was later seen that it could be used against that movement, it achieved acceptance. Mark, though doubtless the earliest, tended to drop into the background in comparison with the “fuller” three. The idea of combining the four into one narrative was tried out in Tatian’s Diatessaron (also later second century), which was widely popular, especially in Syria, but the four-Gospel canon remained official in the main churches.

The Pauline letters seem to have been collected and some letters amplified or rewritten by Pauline disciples. They circulated in a collection of ten, later perhaps supplemented by the three “pastoral” Letters to Timothy and Titus. Hebrews was disputed until a late time, and of the catholic or general letters 1 Peter and 1 John had widest acceptance, James was more marginal, and the others were never widely used and were long omitted in certain areas. Revelation, if early popular, was also long opposed, its authorship disputed, and its standing damaged by reaction against millenarian movements in early Christianity. Conversely, various early Christian writings that in the end were not canonical were in the early years treated by some as on the same level with books now canonical, e.g., 1 Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas, and some famous Bible manuscripts contain one or the other of these.

Thus the core of the nt canon was agreed upon quite early, but complete agreement in all aspects was only slowly reached, and indeed was never completely reached in all sections of the church. The arguments by which canonicity was determined are somewhat better known than in the case of the ot. Basically it came down to the authority of the opinion of respected senior persons in the churches. Authorship was naturally a consideration, but the question of who was the actual author was itself a matter of opinion; several rejected books bore the name of Peter. Theological content was also a consideration, but again the question whether a book accorded with the church’s faith was a matter for the estimation of authoritative persons.

Two conflicts with heresy probably stimulated the creation of a fixed canon. Marcion separated Christianity sharply from its Hebraic past and formed a strictly limited canon of Pauline Letters plus the Gospel of Luke, all modified to remove Jewish elements. The Gnostics, conversely, produced numerous Gospels, apocalypses, and other works expounding their doctrines, often under the names of apostles like Peter or Thomas. Books of this sort are sometimes classified together as “New Testament Apocrypha,” but they are unlike the standard ot Apocrypha in that they never formed part of the canon of the great churches.

With the completion and fixation of nt Scripture Christianity had come closer to joining Judaism in the category of scriptural religions. The “Old” and “New” Testaments had a definite shape. Yet it would be wrong to suppose that these written documents were paramount over all other instances of authority, for alongside them there stood the authority of the rule of faith and that of the bishops. The rule of faith crystallized in the creeds and, though the existing creeds may be later than the formation of the New Testament, in principle creed precedes Scripture, for it expresses the central affirmations of faith out of which Scripture arose and that therefore rightly interpret it. Thus early Christianity was never really a fully scriptural religion. It had a Scripture, the Word of God, but that stood in a complex relationship with other authorities. The idea that Scripture was entirely paramount over all other authorities comes more from the Reformation than from the nt.

Bibliography Anderson, B. W. “Tradition and Scripture in the Community of Faith.” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 5-21. Barr, J. Explorations in Theology 7. London: SCM, 1980. Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983. Sanders, J. A. Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972. Von Campenhausen, H. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972


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