Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Einar Thomassen (ed.), Canon and Canonicity. The Formation and Use of Scripture. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010. Pp. 232. ISBN 9788763530279. $48.00.
Reviewed by David J. DeVore, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

As editor Thomassen's preface states (p. 7), the volume under review is the fruit of "Highways and Byways," a project based in Norway's Bergen University; the stated aim of the project is to explore early Christian discourses distinguishing "orthodoxy" from "heresy." The volume contains ten essays by seven scholars based in Scandinavia, two from Greece, and one in the United States. Seven essays focus at least partially on canons in the Roman world; the last three study biblical canons in northern Europe since the Renaissance and will not be considered here.

Interesting associations and questions surround the formation of the Christian (and Jewish) Biblical canons as they became fixed by the middle of the fifth century. During the twentieth century and into the current decade the field concentrated on gathering relevant evidence, and then reading that evidence closely to see which authors/communities accepted which texts as sacred and when, and how firm the boundaries were between sacred, acceptable, and condemned texts.1 While these works eradicated the previous teleological assumption that somehow the eventual New Testament texts were intrinsically more central to Christianity, their agenda also narrowed the scholarship to repeatedly addressing questions of dating and community. But scholars of canonization have begun to address two wider clusters of questions, approaches, and explanations for the canons.

First, discussion of the formation of the Christian canon had until very recently remained "internalist": the diachronic formation and sanction of community's collective norms were described and explained almost solely from evidence generated by that community, so that works on the biblical canons focused almost exclusively on testimonia from elite insiders. An "externalist" account, by contrast, will show how its subject relates to adjacent contemporary events, debates, and power structures, but is not likely to present the internal evidence for canonization exhaustively.2 Some scholars working on Jewish and Christian canonicity, notably Jan Assmann, Jed Wyrick, and collectively the 2004 collection edited by Enrico Norelli, have recently adduced evidence from outside the Jewish and Christian ambits for probing Jewish and Christian canonicity.3

The second domain into which canonization studies have recently ventured is theory: for exploring the establishment of a canon of authoritative texts, social and literary theory offer numerous concepts and questions, as well as comparable contexts from other times and places. For example, literary critics have been debating the significance of canonicity in reading and educational practices for decades, while students of historical memory have illuminated processes by which societies select particular memories and canonize mementos of them.4 The works of Assmann and Wyrick noted above, as well as the deconstructionist monograph of Giuseppe Veltri, have pushed canonization studies into this realm.5

To the credit of all contributors, the volume under review continues to theorize and externalize the methodologies for biblical canon studies. The results, though not of uniform quality, will nonetheless provoke plenty of new directions for research.

While the first two essays use (and Kyrtalis' inverts!) the diachronic structure and evidence of older internalist treatments of the Christian canon, their robust conceptualization of authoritative modes and attention to historical context make them original contributors to the discussion. In "Some Notes on the Development of Christian Ideas about the Canon," Einar Thomassen traces how Christians came to attribute two key marks of canonicity--revelation and tradition--to their eventual New Testament, though I would quibble with some of the datings and readings of the evidence assumed here.6 Thomassen divides Christian canonization into distinct phases: while Jesus' sayings, and then deeds, were being accepted as oracular, Pauline letters functioned as community charters though not divine revelation. Later, bishops from Irenaeus and Serapion to Eusebius enhanced their power by excluding books that did not promote their picture of Christianity, and canonical status then itself conferred revelatory status on e.g. the Pauline epistles by their inclusion.

Dimitris Kyrtalas' "Historical Aspects of the Formation of the New Testament Canon" complements Thomassen nicely by focusing more tightly on the thesis that the canon as a whole conferred authority on its individual members, and not the other way round. He argues (35-43) that, whereas each gospel text was assumed as the sole document of its own Christian community, the later second-century exclusion of "heretical texts" actually broadened, rather than contracting, most communities' circles of sacred books. Such broadening would marshal a coalition of Christian communities to marginalize "heretical" ideas and texts; it would also explain Irenaeus' famously convoluted and tendentious argument that naturalized the number of four canonical gospels (Against Heresies 3.11).

The next two essays foreground theoretical approaches to canonization's effects on communal experience of texts. George Aichele's "Canon, Ideology, and the Emergence of an Imperial Church" considers both the circumstances (exile and empire) and the mechanisms (writing itself and the codex form, and Constantine's imperial power) that created the Christian canon. To Aichele the canon all but dictates the reader's interpretation of texts contained therein, although internal tensions remain, e.g. between the "two distinct canons" of the "colonized" Old Testament and the New (56f.). Unfortunately, a series of overly sharp dichotomies and simplifications limits the argument's cogency.7

Whereas Aichele stresses how canon limits reader, Hugo Lundhaug's "Canon and Interpretation: a Cognitive Perspective" suggests that canonization "stimulates rather than limits interpretive efforts and creativity with regard to those texts that are considered to be part of the canonical corpus" (70). Prompted by Ephraim the Syrian's remarks on how he envisions a paradise constructed from several biblical texts, Lundhaug applies the conceptual blending theory of Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier, and others to outline how canonical texts can supplement one another in fleshing out textual images. At the end Lundhaug gestures briefly at George Lakoff's idealized cognitive metaphors and Stanley Fish's concept of interpretive communities as further channels for interpretation; one hopes in future publications to see further integration of these concepts into a general theory of canonically informed reading practices.

Ingvild Saelid Gilhus studies the effects of an arrangement of books in a single Nag Hammadi codex (Codex II) in "Contextualizing the Present, Manipulating the Past." She argues that by sandwiching the middle five texts (the Gospels of Thomas and Philip, the Nature of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, and the Exegesis of the Soul), which elsewhere appear grouped together, in between the Apocryphon of John and Thomas the Contender, the codex "accentuates Jesus' preexistence as a hypostatic entity" (102) and highlights the ascetic norms more subtly promoted in the other texts. She suggests, plausibly, that Codex II served as a commentary on eventually canonical texts, rather than a replacement.

Following conceptual revisionism of the first five essays come two chapters that suggest externalist directions for students of Christian canonicity. Tomas Hägg's "Canon Formation in Greek Literary Culture" begins by cautioning that Greek literary critics really had no concept of a canon; yet by the Roman period certain texts--or more precisely, certain authors--had attained all but canonical status (esp. Homer in epic, the three tragedians, and the ten Attic orators). Hägg then outlines a series of decisions determining eventually canonical authors (e.g. the portrayal of the three tragedians in Aristophanes' Frogs). Key factors were primacy (though one wonders how primary Homer was), critics' need to limit authoritative authors (the numbers three, seven, and ten apparently had special resonance), and authors' conformity to certain generic standards (e.g. the 24 "canonical" tragedies tend to reject happy endings, in accordance with Aristotle's prescription for the best tragedy--Poetics 1453a); conversely, works by "noncanonical" authors could slip into the canons if attributed to a "canonical author." (A New Testament parallel might be the Epistle to the Hebrews, retained because of alleged connections to Paul.)

Perhaps even more relevant for Christian canonization is "Canonizing Platonism: the Fetters of Iamblichus" by Polymnia Athanassiadi. Iamblichus (ca. AD 245-325) imposed a stringent sequence of readings on his ascetic philosophical school, ascending from Pythagorean ethical maxims to certain ethical, then logical, then physical Platonic dialogues, up to the theological Chaldaean Oracles; Iamblichus' own works prescribed that each text was to be read for one purpose (σκοπός) only (137). Philosophical books that Iamblichus excluded, his admirer Julian then actively banned (Ep.89b.300c-301d). "The Neoplatonists are no less responsible than other contemporary groups for the tyranny of the book," Athanassiadi concludes--though the Neoplatonists wielded less destructive power over the long term.

Canon and Canonicity's individual essays thus promote both further conceptualizations and cotemporal comparisons. When read together, the essays suggest new ground ready for the breaking. Some examples: It would be interesting to apply Lundhaug's theory of cognitive blending to Gilhus' Nag Hammadi Codex: this body of theory (along with Fish's interpretive communities) might clarify how biblical demiurgical Christians mapped out their divine hierarchies from various sources, and juxtaposed different texts to reinforce these hierarchies. Or, how do the criteria that Hägg adduces for "canonical" Greek literary texts compare with Christian authors' standards? For example, did the unusual canonical number of four prompt Irenaeus' famously lengthy and tendentious naturalizing of four canonical gospels (Haer. 3.11)? Or, the contemporary parallel of developing Neoplatonist canonical texts, which, as Athanassiadi shows, also served ritual and instructive aims, could prove fruitful as a parallel trend to Christian canonizations.

The volume's relatively low price puts it within the means of scholars of early Christianity and even of graduate students with a special interest in the topic; for these it will be a worth-while acquisition.


1.   E.g. Hans von Campenhausen, Die Entstehung der christlichen Bibel (Tübingen, 1968); Bruce Metzger The Canon of the New Testament: its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford, 1987); J.-M. Auwers and H.J. de Jonge (eds.), The Biblical Canons (Leuven: Peeters, 2003); Gabriella Aragione, Eric Junod, and Enrico Norelli (eds.), Le canon du Nouveau Testament. Regards nouveau sur l'histoire de sa formation (Geneva: Labour et Fides, 2005); Lee M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, 3rd ed. (Peabody: 2006).
2.   The terms "internalist" and "externalist" are drawn from Ian Morris, "Archaeologies of Greece," in Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Ideologies, ed. Morris (Cambridge: 1994): 9f.
3.   Jan Assmann, Fünf Stufen auf dem Wege zum Kanon (Münster, 1999); Jed Wyrick, The Ascension of Authorship (Harvard, 2004); E. Norelli (ed.), Recueils normatifs et canons dans l'antiquité (Prahins: Zèbre, 2004).
4.   Literary critics: see the essays collected in Lee Morrissey, ed., Debating the Canon: a reader from Addison to Nafisi (Macmillan, 2005). Scholars of historical memory: e.g. Aleida Assmann, "Speichern oder Erinnern?" Die Erfundung des Ursprings--die Systematisierung der Zeit.,vol. 2 ed. M. Csáky and P. Stachel (Vienna: 2001); Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis., 6th ed. (Beck, 2007).
5.   Giuseppe Veltri, Libraries, Translation, and "Canonic" Texts (Leiden: 2006).
6.   For example, in the "memory" phase (13f.), Thomassen distinguishes sharply between the preservation of Jesus' sayings and the writing of Jesus' deeds on the evidence of the alleged Q document and of early Christian writers mention of logia. See, however, Mark Goodacre's The Case Against Q: Studies in Marcan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg: 2002). Though controversial, Goodacre's work shows at the very least that Q's existence cannot be assumed as proven.
7.   E.g. (1) Aichele exaggerates the disparities between "oral" and "literate" societies and between "Judaism" and "Christianity": see e.g. A. Bresson et al. (eds.) L'écriture publique du pouvoir. (Paris: 2005); (2) the disparities between Judaism and Christianity: it is difficult to credit Aichele's assertion that the Hebrew Bible was "colonized," since Christianity inherited the same cluster of variously canonical texts that Judaism did from Second Temple Judean religion, so qua cultures or discourses, it is hard to locate a distinct "parting of the ways"; (3) Aichele asserts that Constantine's agency imposed virtually the final canon on Christianity, citing Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (orig. 1934) uncritically: while Bauer's work was methodologically seminal, scholars have come to reject most of Bauer's conclusions.

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