Chosen reading

17 July 2007

Peter Anthony on how the canon of the NT was established

Constantine’s Bible
David L. Dungan

SCM Press £9.99 (978-0-334-04105-4)
Church Times Bookshop £9

THIS INTERESTING book sheds some new light on the emergence of our New Testament canon. How and when did the Bible come into existence? Who decided which books were to be included, and according to which criteria?

Dungan claims that we mis-understand the word “canon”.  We tend to use it in the fourth-century Latin sense of a rule or law that de-fines a closed list of books. He points, by contrast, to the earlier Greek understanding of kanon: a much more open-ended and inclus-ive term, a broader metaphor for how we discern accuracy or truth.

Rather than seeing the Christian canon emerge out of the clash with various Gnostic groups, Dungan points to the influence of the pro-cess whereby Greek schools of philosophy defined lists of their founder’s writings. He discerns a correlation between this and the Christian process of canonisation.

Authenticity, for the Greek schools, was proved by texts’ being handed on by a valid succession of teachers, and on their reflecting the truth as the school’s teaching tradi-tion perceived it. This Greek process was open to discussion, and repre-sented simply a stating of present scholarly consensus rather than a once-for-all ruling. This is very different, claims Dungan, from the later political imposition by Constantine of a final Roman uniformity on the sacred writings of the Empire’s new official cult.

The first part of the book is very convincing. Dungan’s argument concerning Constantine, however, is much less successful. He casts this Constantinian push for a defined canon in a very negative light, por-traying it as wickedly blotting out a much more creative, Hellenistic tradition, for the sake of political expediency.

This last chapter is a bit thin on evidence, and tends towards over-simplification. There’s not much mention of regional variation in the reception of certain books, and Constantine’s imposed uniformity is overstated. Evidence exists, for example, of uncertainty about the status of Revelation in the East right up to the 360s.

Dungan none the less offers an insightful slant on the political background to the forming of our scriptural canon, which many will find very useful indeed.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Assistant Curate of St Mary and Christ Church, Hendon, in London.

To place an order for this book or <i>Bible Manuscripts</i>, email details to CT Bookshop

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