Tag Archives: canon

Errant Notions Part Two: Misfiring the Biblical Canon

The second in a series of posts examining common arguments and assumptions about the doctrine called “biblical inerrancy,” the claim that the entire Bible is without error in all that it affirms.

Some Christians assume that canonization was an indication and perhaps even a function of the Bible’s inerrancy. We are so far removed from the world and church which produced our canon, we presume a great deal about what it even means to have a canon. We might easily imagine that the texts of the Bible had been subjected to some kind of lab test for infallibility and stamped either “BIBLE” or “HERESY” by church technicians. In reality, canonization is not about the inerrancy or divinity of the texts, but about ownership and authority. A canon is a “standard” or a “measure,” and the biblical canon is the standard by which certain texts are designated as belonging to the church. These are our texts, and not some others. But the journey to a Christian canon was far more fluid, subjective, and “open source” than we might imagine.

Canon Criteria

Christian communities in the second century CE were geographically scattered and had no mass market publishing or real-time correspondence between them. Each community had their own apostolic leaders, their own storytellers, their own scribes and, eventually, their own texts. These included gospels, letters, creeds, hymns, histories, legends, and apocalypses. No two communities had the same collection, and each considered its own library to be authoritative and sacred. These contained the books we know and cherish as “the Bible,” some that we study as “apocrypha,” and many that are now lost to history.

Later in the second century, as the church grew in numbers and began to organize itself as a governed network of communities, and as a stream of “orthodox” Christian doctrine emerged, canonization became a necessary project. The process of forging the canon involved debates and decision making by prominent presbyters, who developed a set of criteria for determining which books might make the grade. These included:

  • Which texts were the most widely read and copied?
  • Which texts were older?
  • Which texts were most likely to be authentic works of apostles or companions of apostles?
  • Which texts best conformed to the emerging orthodoxy?
  • Which texts were least likely to be used to proliferate heresies?

There is nothing scandalous or unexpected about these guidelines if you are familiar with the early history of the church. For the purpose of our discussion, however, we note that each rule represents a subjective criteria based on the judgment of a human thinker which implicitly acknowledges the subjective human origins of all the texts in question. Even as the goal of the process was to identify trustworthy and authoritative documents, the only means of selection was for human beings to employ collaborative personal discernment. These decisions were made by people, concerning books written by people.

The Long, Rough Road to a Canon

The process of canonization, as subjective as it was, was also drawn out and often contentious. It took two more centuries for the canon-as-we-know-it to solidify, and debates continue to this day. (I gave a quick overview of the history of the canon in this podcast.) On the one hand, the orthodox canon was never very different from the collection of 27 books we read today. At the same time, small variations and ongoing disagreements indicate that a very different form of Christianity might have taken shape if not for the tenacity of some opinionated church fathers. Here are some eye-opening facts:

  • The first known Christian canon was actually developed in 140 CE by a man later branded a heretic. Marcion of Sinope assembled his own (butchered) collection of texts which conformed to his very eccentric docetic views. Some scholars speculate that this was the impetus for the creation of an official orthodox canon.
  • Early versions of an orthodox canon from the second century contain books like the Letter of Barnabas and the Apocalypse of Peter. The former is a virulently anti-Jewish screed and the latter features a grotesque vision of the torments of hell that goes far beyond anything in our Bible in detail and cruelty.
  • In the 16th century Martin Luther expressed a desire to remove four books he found either offensive (Hebrews and Revelation) or inadequate (James and Jude). Ultimately he decided to respect the historical canon, but Lutheran Bibles still group these books together at the back.
  • The Letter to the Hebrews was canonized because it was believed to be another epistle of Paul, and Revelation was accepted as a work of John the son of Zebedee (the “Beloved Disciple”). Scholarly consensus now considers both attributions to be mistaken, and some in the church have called for those books to be removed. Technically, the church has the authority to alter the canon at any time, but it is highly unlikely that this will ever happen.
  • Uncanonized books were not burned or repudiated, they were simply not transmitted as part of the canon proper and so most disappeared with time. Many remained beloved by their communities of origin and some have been preserved as apocrypha or deuterocanon.

Reliable and Material, But Not Inerrant

The effort to produce an orthodox canon of Christian texts was a monumental undertaking drawing on the full resources of the early church, and we are its beneficiaries. However, we cannot delude ourselves that decisions made by fallible humans in centuries long past relieve us of our obligation to engage the texts of the canon today with diligence and humility. The canon is a gift from our forerunners, a robust and living witness to Christian origins. These books did not fall from the sky (unless dropped from a lofty window).

Nothing in the history of the canon suggests that Christians should not trust the decisions of the church fathers and receive the books of the Bible as authentic and reliable witnesses to the earliest traditions of the church. At the same time, the clearly subjective and contentious nature of the process means that canonization cannot possibly speak to the Bible’s inerrancy. The canon does not represent divinely assured infallibility, but the result of human collaboration to reach a consensus decision. This is a story about a community forging its own identity. That they did so with God’s blessing and under the guidance of His spirit is a matter of belief, hope, and trust.


Break Your Bible: Numbers 25 and the Zeal of Phinehas

In this series of posts I want to use selected texts from the Bible to illuminate and challenge the way we read and interpret the whole collection. By saying “Break Your Bible” I’m not advocating that we reject, redact, or revise the contents of the biblical canon, but rather that we allow difficult components of the canon to stretch and complicate the things we think we know and believe about how it all fits together. This first post will focus on a story from the Hebrew Bible that defies simplistic interpretation, the second will examine a prophetic text that complicates our reading of the Torah, and last we’ll look at a Greek passage that raises similar issues in the New Testament.

The Myth of Phinehas

Numbers 25:6-13 is a brief account tucked away among the lengthy annals and genealogies of the Torah, but it resonates throughout the Bible. It’s a mythic story, which is a comment on its function, not its veracity. This is an interpretive re-telling of an ancient crisis. In the story, Israel is devastated by a mysterious plague that kills thousands, and a man named Phinehas takes matters into his own hands. When he discovers that an Israelite man has taken a wife from among the Midianites (their pagan enemies), Phinehas runs his spear through the couple, murdering them. The plague subsides, and God is so impressed with the “zeal” of Phinehas that he honors him, granting him an “everlasting priesthood.” The myth succinctly describes a problem (sinful marriage) and its solution (summary execution), leaving no question in the mind of the reader that this is the way the world works; our problems emanate from an angry God who can be appeased by acts of ritual violence.

The problems with this myth and its native interpretation are many and obvious, I hope. Most of us today, even Christians, do not believe in the theology that this story presents. In fact, those who do appeal to this kind of thinking usually end up making public apologies. We don’t believe that diseases and natural disasters are sent by God to punish us for our sins, and we don’t believe that assuaging God’s wrath is a matter of identifying and murdering the right sinners. We recognize that this type of “zeal” reflects an archaic and dangerous way of thinking about God and other people.

But It’s In the Bible!

At the same time, Christians who appeal to the Bible as a perfect and inspired authority must find a way to fit this story and others like it into the grand narrative of “what the Bible says.” That would probably go something like, “God hates sin, and this is how He dealt with it in ancient times.” And that might give way to, “But now we have Jesus, so God has dealt with sin in a better way!” This appeal to an “old covenant/new covenant” upgrade is a common way for Christians to interpret unsavory passages from the Hebrew Scriptures without having to judge them or disagree with them. This approach might have some merit when suggesting, for example, that the old system of animal sacrifice has been fulfilled and supplanted by the self-sacrifice of Jesus (an idea we will scrutinize in the next post). But it’s quite another to suggest that killing human infidels in God’s name used to be OK “back then.”

Attempts to gloss over a Bible story like this one are motivated by ignorance and/or fear. Either we haven’t bothered to look this kind of ugly “zeal” fully in the face, or we’re afraid to do so. If it doesn’t bother us, there is something deeply wrong. If it troubles us, we need to respond. The “zeal of Phinehas” makes an excellent test case for our ability to discern and address different traditions and voices in the Bible. It demands that we do what most Christians seem to fear the most, to make a personal judgment about something we read in the Bible.

The Zeal Tradition

The “zeal” modeled by Phinehas was idealized and lauded by later generations as reflected by a text like Psalm 106. The poem, reflecting on Numbers 25, says that Phinehas’ bloody deed was “counted to him as righteousness,” a strong statement echoing a famous reference to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. So bold and righteous was Phinehas that he is placed on a pedestal next to Abraham, the great father of the faith. Eventually “zeal” evolves into a code word for religious violence. “Zeal for the LORD” and “zeal for the Law” mean fierce allegiance to God and Torah, by the sword if necessary. By the time of Jesus an entire Jewish sect known as “Zealots” had dedicated themselves to liberating Judea by making war against Rome.

Religious zealotry was not some artifact of ancient life that fulfilled its purpose and became obsolete when Jesus arrived on the scene. It was, had always been, and continues to be a toxic and insidious element wherever religion is practiced. In the Bible, it’s not just relegated to the “Old Testament.” It pervades the entire library. The question is, are there other voices represented in the canon which offer an alternative vision of God and a counterpoint to the zeal of Phinehas? What an excellent question.

Jesus and Holy Violence

The same Bible that celebrates Phinehas also gives voice to Jesus, who was first and foremost a Jewish prophet and heir to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (not a Christian critiquing them from the outside). Not only did Jesus’ message center around peace, nonviolence, and enemy love (Matt 5-7), he unequivocally refuted the theological assumptions at the heart of the Phinehas myth. Jesus rejected the idea that victims of violence and sickness were “sinners” who deserved their fate (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). He rebuked his followers when they suggested that God should smite those who reject his message (Luke 9:51-56). And he forbade Peter from defending him with a sword (Matt 26:52-56). In fact, his chief prophetic critique of his beloved Jerusalem was her addiction to retribution and violence (Luke 19:41-44).

Jesus does NOT say, “Well, I’m going to die on the cross so religious violence won’t be a necessary evil anymore!” No. His message is ethical as much as it is theological. Holy violence is wrong and it has always been wrong. God was never like that, and we must repent of having ever believed it was so.

The Zeal of Paul

The apostle Paul has a more direct confrontation with the “zeal” tradition. In fact, it’s part of his own story. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul lays out his credentials as a Jew and says the following: “…as to the law [I was] a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul followed the zeal tradition vigorously, and it led him to orchestrate the violent persecution (in some cases the execution) of Christians. But Paul reports that he counts his old identity as “trash” since he became a follower of Jesus. Paul is converted from the way of violent zeal to the way of peace and “the surpassing worth of knowing King Jesus my Lord” (3:8).

Break Your Bible Open

This is not as simple as “Old Testament” versus “New Testament.” The Hebrew scriptures offer countless visions of the beauty of God and prophetic rejections of religious violence, while the bloody legacy of zeal continues beyond Jesus into the New Testament and even in our own day. There is no easy formula, we cannot avoid the hard work of interacting with each unique voice we encounter in the pages of scripture.

This exercise is meant to challenge and complicate the way we navigate the texts of the Bible. Why would we want to do that? Because it affords us the opportunity to wrestle with real and challenging questions instead of conducting a scavenger hunt of our own assumptions and predetermined beliefs. It puts us at risk of genuine shock, revulsion, illumination, and revelation. The familiar old approach, which presumes that the Bible is flat and univocal and must always agree with itself, leaves us deaf to the diverse claims, counterclaims, and arguments of the collected traditions. It dulls the edges of the Bible’s words so they cannot cut into our hearts.

The myth of zeal says that law keeping is more important than human lives. Jesus says that love for other humans is law keeping. This is what the Bible says. What next?


What Do I Mean When I Say “Bible”?

A thoughtful reader noticed that I frequently leave the word “bible” uncapitalized in my blog posts and podcast transcripts and asked me to explain my thinking. For example, I might write about “what the bible says” or “bible authors.” While I do not deny that this is a conscious stylistic choice, I actually had to think long and hard about precisely why I do it, as I developed the habit some time ago. So am I grateful to my friend for the opportunity to self-examine.

My choice to leave “bible” uncapitalized is never an overt theological, doctrinal, or political statement, though it surely has all sorts of ramifications. Primarily, it has to do with what I mean by the term “bible,” and more often than not I am using the word as an umbrella or category rather than a proper title. I employ standard capitalization when referring to a specific text (“Revelation,” “Qohelet”), a specific collection (“Hebrew Bible,” “New Testament,” “Catholic/Protestant Bible”) or a published version of a Bible (“NIV Bible,” “ESV Bible”), but I intentionally type “bible” when referring to the broad category of biblical texts. In this way, in my mind, it’s interchangeable with a word like “scripture,” which just means “writings.” I’m talking about the texts we know as the canonized books of our “Bible,” but which also feature historically in other collections and contexts.

When I write “The Bible,” it activates certain presuppositions in the mind of a reader, most likely involving the printed English translation of the Protestant canon that is sitting on a nearby bookshelf. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but one of the major thrusts of my writing is the appreciation of texts in their original settings, with an emphasis on origins and first meaning. Using “bible” as a category rather than a proper name is my attempt to avoid getting stuck in some of our Christian presuppositions. Maybe a quick, practical example would be helpful.

I’ve talked about Daniel 12 in a couple of blog posts and podcasts. This is a passage about resurrection and judgment. In the context of the Protestant canon, it often serves as a proof text in discussions of rapture, heaven and hell. In the context of the Hebrew Bible, however, it is primarily about vindication for Israel and punishment for pagan empires in the wake of the exile. A robust discussion will consider a full range of context and possible meaning, and by referring to Daniel 12 as a “bible text” or “scripture,” I am inviting readers not to bypass its rich history and consign it by default to a modern post-Protestant context.

This distinction isn’t only important across Testaments or canons. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells a young pastor that “all scripture (sacred writing) is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…” Far too often, I have seen this verse used to self-authenticate and self-validate the Protestant Bible, as if the author was aware that he was writing one of the sixty-six books of the Christian canon. Of course, not only was there no Christian canon at the time of writing, there wouldn’t even be a Jewish canon for another generation. There was some standard by which texts were considered “scripture,” but it is unknown to us. Paul is talking about “bible,” but not “The Bible™.”

This is not a hill that I will die on. It is not a stand that I’m taking against any traditional conceptions of the Bible. It is just my own attempt to navigate the often messy and complex straits of biblical literature without losing sight of the big picture. It’s the forest and trees and whatnot. I have no idea if it’s actually constructive or helpful. For all I know it might come across as obtuse or even disrespectful, but that was never my intention. I hope this gives you a little more insight into my crazy bible brain.