10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #1: “The Term ‘Canon’ Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books”

by Michael Kruger

1Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.

Graham Stanton has correctly observed, “In discussions of the emergence of the canon, whether of the Old or the New Testament writings, definitions are all important, and the devil is in the detail.”[1] Indeed, one’s definition of canon drives one’s historical conclusions about canon–particularly regarding its date.  And precisely for this reason, there has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.”  However, in recent years, that debate has taken an interesting turn.  One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one.  In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.”  This can be called the exclusive definition.

The impact of this new “consensus” has been profound on canonical studies:  If you cannot have a canon until books are in a closed, final list, then there could not be a canon until the fourth or even fifth century at the earliest.  Thus, this definition has been used to push the date of canon further and further back into the later centuries of the church. Remarkably, then, the date for canon has become later and later while the historical evidence hasn’t changed at all.

But, is the exclusive definition the best definition for canon?  And are we obligated to use it to the exclusion of all others?  Although this definition rightly captures the fact that the boundaries of the canon had fluid edges prior to the fourth century, I think it creates more problems than it solves…


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