The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation
1. Why We Call It the Canon
The etymology of the word canon goes back at least five thousand
years to the Sumerian word gi.
From Sumerian it passed into other languages. In Ugaritic it was qn,
in Akkadian qanû, in Arabic qanā, in Ethiopic qanōt,
in Hebrew qaneh, in Greek kanna or kanôn, and in
We use an English form of this ancient word when we speak of sugar
cane, walking cane, or—if you grew up near a river with catfish in
it—fishing cane. This in fact has been the meaning of the word and its
derivatives for all of these five thousand years: a cane, or reed, or
stalk, or stick: the hollow or pithy, usually slender, flexible, jointed
stalk of a plant.
Such a stalk makes a nice measuring stick, and in Sumerian this was
called a gi as well. This
secondary meaning of the word also travelled into later languages. For
instance, when the prophet Ezekiel saw a man in a vision measuring the
temple, the man had a qenêh ha-middah in his hand, a
“measuring cane,” and the man called out the dimensions in “canes”
(Ezek. 40–42; see especially 40:5).
In Greek the words kanna
and kanôn split off from one
another. Kanna remained
conceptually close to “cane” as the material of ink pens, mats, and
fences. Kanôn, on the other
hand, meant the rod that a builder used to keep walls straight and
plumb. The expression easily acquired a metaphorical meaning, in the
sense of “norm” or “model.” Thus you have Aristotle calling the good man
the “model and measure”—kanôn kai metron—of what is noble and
pleasant (Nicomachean Ethics
3.4). Thus you have Polykleitos’ statue of the spear-bearer described as
the kanôn which artists study
for the ideal human form (Pliny Natural History 34.8.55).
The metaphorical meaning of kanôn appears in the Apostle Paul. At the end of Galatians, he adds
a postscript in his own handwriting in which he says that the cross of
Christ, as proclaimed in the gospel, has made a new creation, and the
Israel of God consists of those who walk by this
kanôn (Gal. 6:16). We might
say, then, that Paul’s opponents, who proclaimed what amounted to
another gospel, walked by a different
kanôn, a different model of
justification, based on works and not on the gospel alone.
history unfolded over the next few centuries, the need to distinguish
between the normative and the aberrant continued, even increased. The
word kanôn came more and more
into use to identify this norm, in the expressions “canon of truth,”
“canon of faith” (the regula
fidei), and “ecclesiastical canon” (that is, normative church law).
Certain kinds of norms can be put into a list or table, and such a
thing can also be called a canon (employing
kanôn and related words).
Examples include the astronomical tables in Ptolemy’s
Almagest, the astrological
tables of Vettius Valens, charts constructed by historians and mentioned
with some disdain by Plutarch (Solon
27.1) because he wanted to record a good story about Solon and Croesus
which was, alas, impossible according to some historians’ piffling
chronological tables (χρονικοῖς τισι λεγομένοις κανόσιν), and tables of
parallels in the Gospels constructed by Eusebius of Caesarea.
In this context, it was natural that the books of the Bible, insofar
as they were acknowledged to be normative for the church, eventually
came to be called “canonical” (κανονικά
κανονιζόμενα). Language of this
kind came to be used by the mid fourth century, when people were making
lists of the books which might be read in church and which served as
primary sources of doctrine and teaching. These books were distinct from
those with similar-sounding names but which were nonetheless secondary
and often heretical.
One widely known list of normative books is that given by Athanasius,
bishop of Alexandria,
in his annual Easter letter for the year 367. The purpose of these
letters was to inform Egyptian churches of the date of Easter year by
year. But Athanasius wrote of other matters, too, and one year he
thought it beneficial to revisit yet again a matter which people had
already discussed to the point of exhaustion: which books were canonical
and which were not. “Bear with me,” he wrote, “for writing things you
already know about. I do so on account of the present stress and for the
good of the church.” He then proceeded to set forth by name the books of
the Old and New Testaments. These books, he said, and not the others,
are canonical (κανονιζόμενα)
and have been handed down (i.e., from the early church) and are believed
to be divine.
This then is the historical process by which the church came to call
its literature the canon of
Indeed, it was only in the mid fourth century that
people first began to speak of the “canon.” But this does not mean that
the canon was something new. The church, and the synagogue as well, had
always had the thing; they had just called it something else.
Table of Contents