What does it mean that the Bible is a canon?

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When dealing with ethical problems the Christian church bases its view on the Bible as its authoritative source. The authority of the Bible is indicated by the notion canon. Meaning criterion or rule, the term indicates that the Bible is the highest authority of teaching for the church. This idea is influenced by different Protestant confessions that indicate a list of biblical books known as “the Word of God”. However, there exist several factors that show that the scope of a canon should be widened to include the role humans have played historically in the compilation and use of the Bible. 

The first factor to keep in mind is that the different sections of the Christian church differ with regard to the number and ordering of the biblical books. In Protestant circles the canon consists of 66 books: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. While the Roman Catholic Church collection fully corresponds with the Protestants’ New Testament selection, its Old Testament includes an additional six books arranged in a slightly different order from that of the Protestant version. It also contains some additions to two of the Protestant books. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have even more books in its collection. One has, therefore, to specify to which specific canon one is referring when using the term canon for the Bible.

A further issue is the worldwide interest in the canon that is found in the agendas of international academic congresses. At the meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature as well as different academic congresses held all over the world during the last decade, different aspects of the notion of the canon were discussed in depth. Discussion on the canon can no longer be conducted in isolation.

Canon indicates a norm as well as a list. The demarcated list of books serves, at the same time, as a criterion. These two aspects of norm and list are related, but are not to be confused. The eventual final list of the biblical canon used in a specific church represents the outcome of a very long history in which norms have played a role all along in the forming process of an eventual final list.

A revolutionary role is played by the discovery of the ancient scrolls at Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea during 1946–1947. The discovery of material from the last pre-Christian era and the beginning of the Christian era opened up totally new vistas for the study of a biblical canon. It became clear that the books of the Bible are a mere selection from a very wide range of literature of that time. Much of the material found in the caves at Qumran are nearly identical to the books found in the present Bible. However, it is clear that although a consciousness about the canon existed at that time, the compilation of the Old Testament was still in process and had not nearly been finalised. These and other materials from surrounding caves broadened our insight into the social and historical circumstances of the time.

History shows that a new trend of conserving and copying material took place after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and after the catastrophic results of the Bar Kochba upheaval between AD 132–6. The Jews had to move out of Jerusalem. They settled in different places in Israel where, among other things, they dedicated their energy to copying and transmitting the holy texts. A group called the Masoretes dedicated themselves to preserving and copying Hebrew scriptures. The result of their work is the so-called Masoretic text. By the time the Middle Ages arrived a form of this text had become the standard text for Judaism.

When the printing press came into use in the 15th century a choice had to be made as to which form of the Masoretic text was to be used to be printed. Turning away from the Greek translation of the Septuagint used in the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestants chose a version of the Old Testament that consisted of the same number of books as found in the Jewish Hebrew Bible, but now arranged according to the order of the Septuagint. 

Many copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were created over the centuries. A new science called Textual Criticism arose which studied the differences between these copies with the purpose of publishing a text-critical edition of the Old Testament. Such scientifically researched editions form the basis of all present-day translations of the Bible. 

Keeping all these factors in mind, this article therefore proposes that the notion of canon should be increased in its scope.

Keywords: authority; Bible; canon; Textual Criticism; tradition


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Wat hou dit in dat die Bybel ’n kanon is? 

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