Some notes on Canons and translations
The notion of “canon”.
English word “canon” is ultimately derived from an Akkadian word (the language
of ancient Mesopotamia), and comes to us via Hebrew and Greek. Initially
it meant “measuring rod, something used to give a straight line.” In Greek
and later traditions it was used metaphorically for “a norm, rule or standard”
in several fields. It was also used for a list or table (e.g. in mathematics
or astronomy). In church circles it has come to indicate the list of books
comprising the rule of church doctrine. Our “canon” of scripture is the
list of books recognised as authoritative in some way for ordering the
life and doctrine of the community of faith.
Notes on the determination of the various canons:
The Jewish canon was not “fixed” until the early New Testament period.
The canon of the Christian Old Testament was not settled until the 4-5th
centuries CE. So for the early centuries of the Christian era the canon
of the Old Testament was open (as was the canon of the New Testament).
Most Christians in the first few centuries of the Christian era had a Greek
version of the Jewish Hebrew Bible as part of their canon. This Greek
version of the Hebrew is what we call the Septuagint, LXX.
The longer Old Testament canon, which we see reflected today in Catholic
or Orthodox canons, was promoted by Augustine in the late 4th to early
5th centuries. Athanasius of Alexandria and Jerome (4th cent.) both retained
the shorter Jewish canon.
Athanasius was responsible for placing the prophets after the writings,
contra to the Jewish order. The early church saw prophecy in the Hebrew
Bible as pointing to Jesus Christ, often in a predictive sense. They saw
much of the Hebrew Bible as prophecy, even books that we would not associate
with the term, e.g. Psalms.
In the Jewish canon, the order of the books is Law - Prophets – Writings.
This represents a hierarchy of collections. The most important, and first
to be recognised as authoritative, the Law or Torah, comes first. The Christian
order of the Hebrew Bible reflects a supposed historical or “prophetic”
order, past present and future predicted the prophets.
Within Judaism, books were accepted as canonical if they were considered:
To have been written in the prophetic age;
To be consistent with other works; and
If they were accepted widely and hence of use to many.
In the case of the New Testament canon, four external standards were used
by the Church, especially Irenaeus, in the determination of canonicity:
apostolicity, i.e. the book was deemed to have been written by or closely
associated with one of apostles;
universality, i.e. the book was considered to be addressed to the whole
the book was consistent in message with the other canonical books;
the book was considered to be an ancient text.
The rule of faith played a significant role in the development of the New
Testament canon. This was a short summary of what church believed. Eventually
it came to be the creed of the Church. It was the “real” canon of
the very early church, and was called the “canon of truth.”
Some further points:
The value of books to promote and develop faith within a community is the
benchmark for canonisation. K. Aland, says that canon grew “from the bottom
up” and not “from the top down.” The ‘canon’ is not so much the result
of decrees filtering down from a hierarchy to the people of faith but rather
the case of various hierarchies ratifying as canonical books that the people
had long found useful.
Periods of crisis in the life of the communities of faith have proved most
determinative for the development of a ‘canon’.
A canon is in one sense the product of human decisions, not only in terms
of writing the books which are included but in terms of which books are
recognised as scripture. Various communities of faith in the past
have held up before later communities the “authority” or “inspiration”
that has been recognised in the various books of the community’s canon.
So, on the one hand Scripture gives rise to the community of faith. That
is, the Church comes into being because the people sense they are being
called by God within certain books. Those books are canonised as Scripture
for that community. On other hand, Scripture arises out of the community
of faith, out of its experiences, its reflection and its decisions. People
within the community write the books that will later be canonised as Scripture,
again by the community itself.
It is not so much a question of which precedes the other, Scripture or
the community of faith. It is rather a matter of both/and. Scripture gives
rise to the community of faith at the same time that Scripture arises out
of the community of faith. Both together capture something of the mystery
of Scripture, of the mystery of God’s address to God’s people.
Thoughts on the implications of canons and translations:
Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB) is not a single, fixed entity, that
is the same for all communities which have it as part of their tradition.
The canon varies from one community of faith to another, as well as over
The OT for Christian communities over most of Christian history has actually
been the LXX, via the Vulgate. This is the longer of the two major Christian
canons of the OT. The development of the Protestant canon in line with
the Jewish Tanak is a relatively late development (from the Reformation).
The canon of the OT/HB cannot simply be regarded as 'given from heaven'
even though many communities would regard it as 'revelatory'. Communities
of faith have had a significant part to play in the development of the
canon in terms of what books are included as well as what is to be included
in an individual book.
The canon of the OT/HB which we study has come to us by way of a particular
community of faith, or group of communities. It has been shaped by that
community. We need to recognise this even if that community is not our
In addition our OT/HB comes to most of us in the form of a translation
into English (or some other modern language). Even where the text of the
HB is clear, that is, there are no varying ancient witnesses to it, or
spelling mistakes, or very rare words or phrases, there can be differences
in translation and interpretation from one scholar to the next (e.g. Gen
1:1). In places where the Hebrew text is not clear the situation can be
very complex. In many places the theological leaning of the translator
or their community of faith will influence the translation (sometimes considerably).
In some places the Hebrew text may not be clear, or can have various additions
or omissions depending on the ancient manuscript or witness consulted.
Most of these difficulties and variations are slight, but there is still
a considerable number which we would describe as major.
It is important to recognise also that OT/HB can be regarded and studied
(quite properly) just as any other ancient, religious work can be regarded
and studied. It can be studied as a work of human writers, collectors,
editors, copyists, translators etc. It is open, as is any other human literary
product, to interpretation or critique (in the best sense of the word).
This is an important point to recognise. Further, as a human work it is
also open to argument, rebuttal, ridicule, and ultimately rejection.
While we recognise the points above we might also want to talk about the
OT/HB as Scripture, sacred, “Word of God” etc. We can do so only by acknowledging
first the active participation by faith communities in the development
of the OT/HB, and secondly that when we call the OT/HB Scripture etc.,
we are making a faith statement.
If we read the OT/HB as Scripture, Word of God etc., then we do so within
a faith community and as an act of faith. Moreover, we have to think carefully
what we mean by such terms.
Our biblical reading and our interpretation of the biblical text, will
always be undertaken in the context of a community of faith, or at least
be influenced by a community with which we have had considerable contact.
It will influence our reading and interpretation in a number of ways -
theologically, politically, sociologically, economically, geographically,
historically, philosophically, etc..
The task for members of a community of faith is to read the text as Scripture
as human word, and to use all the tools at their disposal in the task of
literary interpretation of the text as human word, yet at the same time
to recognise that as Scripture the OT/HB stands over against them, and
they are not the sole arbiters of the meaning of the text.
Most of our work this semester will focus on approaching the biblical
text as a human religious document. At the same time we will bear in mind
that the OT/HB is also Scripture for various communities. We will constantly
ask questions about how these two perspectives can be kept in balance.
As you might already realise from the brief look at canons and translations,
the matter of reading the text of the OT/HB, and of interpreting it, will
not be a task without ambiguity, and assumptions and choices will need
to be made from time to time. You will find there are cases for different
understandings of the texts we will read in the OT/HB, just as there are
cases for different views on what books we read as the OT/HB. You need
to be aware of these things, and ready to engage them in your study of
Return to Materials for courses