How Do Bibles Take Shape?

Hi Fi Vol. 127 (2009) Number 1

Fragment of a manuscript found in the caves of Qmran.A Bible is not just one book. Rather, it is a selection of books, much like a library, which (to complicate matters!) varies from one faith group to another, so that wemust speak of "Bibles" in the plural. Hence, today we have Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Bibles, to name the main ones, which took shape over centuries.

The stories behind the shaping of these Bibles are more interesting than most people imagine. Bibles are often called "canons", and associated with lists of books decided upon by ancient religious authorities and councils, at places like Jamnia2 and Rome3. These lists are understood as "measuring sticks" for holy books (a "canon" literally means a measuring stick, in ancient Greek and Hebrew), or as closed catalogues of holy books.

The books that enter into a canon are often thought of as divinely inspired. The canons themselves, in a sense, represent the needs and good judgement of the ancient faith communities involved in their selection. In fact, it is noticed that deciding upon canons offered group cohesion, and further solidified the authority of those in control. For good or ill, biblical canons expressed and offered real cohesion for developing communities.

Canons still define communities in this way. Like civil constitutions do for countries, our biblical canons speak to us and for us, and we identify ourselves by the ways in which we interpret and define them. In faith communities throughout history, this process was experienced by insiders as a communal journey of faith.

Outsiders and politics also played an essential part in funding and partaking in canon formation - sometimes even helping to impose them by force. A case of external political influence found in the Old Testament (in the Book of Ezra) is that of the government of Xerxes4. In encouraging the return of Jews to their homeland and the rebuilding of the Temple, Xerxes contributed to the reinstatement of Jewish religious customs - and possibly to the enrichment of what would eventually become their canon.

Moreover, debates about canons of literature are shaped by competitions between cultures and communities - as is the case in modern debates about what to teach in schools. The Bibles we know are no exception to this rule. Their shaping was influenced by the books that were deemed authoritative, and by the reaction to the ideas supported by "pagan outsiders" 5 and "heretical insiders". Marcion is an example of the latter. Born around 110 A.D., he maintained that the Old Testament contradicted the teachings of Christ and of the apostle Paul, among other ideas. He and his follow-ers were condemned as heretics. Throughout such debates as these, the Church realized the need for defining "orthodox" canons - the list of correct books.

In our culture, the books and writings excluded from biblical canons have much value. They are primarily interesting to historians and classicists. However, many are often reduced to ancient curiosities or sources for modern sensation-alism. This is unfortunate. To consider the story of these developing canons, and to think about the ways in which canons relate to authority and the formation of an identity for faith communities throughout history, actually allows us to expand our considerations and knowledge of what has contributed to shaping the Bibles we have today.

Sara Parks Ricker 1

The author is pursuing a Ph.D. in Greco-Roman Judaism at McGill University.
2 A council is thought to have taken place at Jamnia, Palestine, in the late first century, where the list of books
composing the Hebrew Bible may have been decided upon by Jewish leaders.
3 The accepted books of the Old and New Testaments, for the Catholic Church, were first listed at the Council
of Rome, held in 382, and confirmed by the Council of Trent in 1546.
4 Xerxes was a Persian king of the 5th century B.C. mentioned in the Book of Ezra, at the time of the Jews' return from exile in Babylon.With respect to the reigns of the kings of Persia, there is some confusion as to whether the Bible is referring to Xerxes II or to his father Artaxerxes I.
5 See for example Celsus, Porphyry, Macarius Magnes, Julian the Apostate. By opposing Christian thought and New Testament writings, these non-Christians actually forced Christians to defend their ideas and their canon - such as the "contradictions" between the Gospels, in the case of Celsus and Porphyry. 

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