Friday, July 25, 2008

Drawing the line that separates canonical from not

I have a question for friends and readers who have been to seminary or otherwise have studied such things: How exactly is the line drawn between canon and noncanon?

At the time the Christian Scriptures were being written in the first century, there was a host of other communication, discussion and even writing going on that formed the context in which the church understood the epistles and other books we now regard as canon. Take the book of Enoch for example.

Ostensibly written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, the book of Enoch dates to about 300 B.C.E. It tells the story of the watchers, a group of angels who fathered the Nephilim in Chapter 8 of the book of Genesis. Other parts of the book include a series of eschatological parables that include references to a righteous messianic figure called the "Son of Man," a detailed work of astronomy that lays forth a 364-day solar calendar, and finally a series of visions meant to foretell the history of Israel down to the Maccabees.

Protestants and Catholics alike take their lead from the Council of Nicea, which in 325 C.E., rejected the Book of Enoch from the canon. But at the time the New Testament was being written, Jude didn't know that. He cited the Book of Enoch twice.

The first time Jude cites the Book of Enoch, he refers to a dispute between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses. Jude uses this as a caution against judging one another. Later in the book, he refers to God binding angels in chains of adamant for their rebellion, as an assurance that God will judge those who teach unsound doctrine.

We can get the essentials of Jude's message without knowing the particulars of the Book of Enoch, but surely familiarity with the book helps.

This isn't like reading a commentary by Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley to understand a parable or a difficult passage of the Bible. In this case, one of the authors of the Bible was familiar with a book that we reject and saw so much value in it that he drew on it to make his point. How much wisdom are we meant to draw from the Book of Enoch when we read it to illuminate Jude's writing?

This isn't confined to Jude. There are a lot of ahas we either miss or misunderstand because we lack the background noise that the writers took for granted. Noah flips out because Ham saw him passed out naked. Zipporah stops God from killing Moses by circumcising her firstborn son and throwing the foreskin at his feet, How much do you want to bet these passages would make sense if we had more extrabiblical material from that era?

I'd really like to know how that line was drawn, and what implications it has for understanding the Bible the way we do today.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Brucker said...

Okay, I don't know where my next post is going (I had a good idea, but lost it.) so I'll leave a quick note here on what I mentioned in the e-mail I sent you.

Many people who are skeptical of Christianity point out the differences between Catholic canon vs. Protestant canon, and of course, that dichotomy is just a scratching of the surface. However, it occurrs to me that there is certainly room for disagreement in some matters of faith, and it may even be possible that canonicity is one of them.

I've thought for years (and maybe this is my idea that I lost) that it's not just possible, but likely that God wants some Christians to be Republicans, and others Democrats. The will of God does not fall squarely within the aims of either party, but it seems that God could easily use groups of believers from both sides of the poilitical fence to direct our government to somewhere in the middle, so to speak. An excellent ananlogy might be that of a shepherd with two sheep dogs: one goes to the left of the flock and drives it to the right, while the other goes to the right of the flock and drives it left. It might sem like a contradcition, but it causes the flock as a whole to come together in the middle and move forward.

Could the same be true of canon in a similar fashion (or even in a completely different manner)? Why could God not say, "This book is a book that I have inspired for the purpose of guiding these people over here, but those people over there do not need it." This isn't such a far-flung idea, as most Christians accept that the Torah is a book that was inspired by God for the purpose of guiding the nation of Israel, and yet it contains laws that do not apply to the Christian. Yet we stil revere the book of Leviticus, don't we?

Clearly, while Protestants don't accept the Book of Enoch as canon, we do respect that Jude saw something noble in it. We also respect the teachings of Paul, even when he quotes pagans. Is it so impossible to respect that Catholics like 1&2 Maccabees, and the Orthodox like 3&4 Maccabees? There may be good reasons for us (Protestants) not to accept them, but does it automatically follow that everyone should reject them?

...and that's what Brucker deems "a quick note".

Brucker said...

One more thing about canon. What's supposed to be so great about the Bible? Among other things, its internal consistency, right? Wikipedia lists the definition of Star Wars canon as "...Star Wars stories not contradicting the films." Do youever wonder if Biblical canon shares a similar unwritten definition? It seems like circular reasoning.

David Learn said...

My big problem with the canon is that it keeps going off while I'm still trying to load it.