The Bible as Canon

by James A. Sanders

James A. Sanders is Elizabeth Hay Bechtel Professor of Intertestamental and Biblical Studies at the School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate School. He is also the author of Torah and Canon.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 2, 1981, pp. 1250-1255. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Biblical criticism can no longer ignore the charges that it has atomized the Bible in its own special way, then stuffed the pieces back into antiquity, while often acting irresponsibly about the nature of the Bible itself. The claim to objectivity and thoroughness rings hollow when the Bible as canon is ignored.

The need for canonical criticism has been addressed elsewhere (for example, in Horizons in Biblical Theology 2 [1980], pp. 173-197). It has emerged in part as a way for the guild of biblical scholarship to respond to a number of stimuli: (1) the increasing charges by many theologians, lay and professional, that biblical criticism has tended to lock the Bible into the past as well as to make it a kind of archaeological tell which only experts can dig what author James Smart has called the strange silence of the Bible in the churches; (2) the vastly increased knowledge about the great variety of theologies and denominations in early Judaism and the early church and their differing canons of Scripture; (3) the modern ecumenical movement, which makes it impossible any longer to ignore the great variety of today’s theologies and denominations as well as their differing canons of Scripture; (4) increasing awareness of the hermeneutics which the ancient biblical authors themselves used when they called on traditions they had inherited, in both the Old Testament and the New; (5) new respect for the theological depths in the hermeneutics of the ancient biblical speakers and writers (called tradents); (6) growing consciousness among serious students of the Bible that biblical pluralism simply will not go away but begs to be formally recognized as a blessing equal to any other the Bible has to offer; (7) more awareness that only in its ongoing dialogue with the believing communities which produced it and which continue to find their identity in it does the Bible have its proper Sitz im Leben and hence its life-giving potential; and, finally; (8) the problem of biblical authority for the student who refuses to set aside intellectual honesty in biblical study.

Its nature as canon had to be bracketed, or set apart for later consideration, early in the history of modem biblical criticism in order for scholars to focus on the history of its formation. In the 18th century, canon meant primarily authority, and that authority was the province of the churches. By the end of the 18th century, German church historian and biblical scholar Johann Salomo Semler and others had reduced the concept of canon to the final stage in the history of the literary formation of the Bible. By the end of the 19th century, what started out as the sources labeled by biblical critics as J, E, D and P ended up being placed at Jamnia, the c. 100 CE. rabbinical synod. Western minds needed some authoritative council to wrap up canonization, and they found it, or so they thought, in Jamma. Hence canonization meant the means whereby the large literary units, the several books, got included and others were left out. Authority was superimposed upon the resulting compilation by an assembly of rabbinic scholars not unlike themselves. Thus reduced to what was manageable by the tools of literary and historical criticism, the concept of canon was tamed and remained docile until recently. Views of the canon of the New Testament and how it took shape have been similar.

This process has had to be critically reviewed. Recent work has shown that Jamnia was not an authoritative council at all in the sense that Western minds recognize. And the concept of canon is so integral to the very nature of the Bible that it would not stay tamed.

Lately, scholars have been more conscious that biblical criticism has all along subscribed to a view of the authority of Scripture, even while it tried to set the problem of inspiration and authority aside as improper for criticism to handle. One of the major characteristics of biblical criticism has been its pursuit of the ipsissima verba (or vox) -- the very words themselves, or the voice itself -- of the original speakers, writers and contributors to Scripture. As an exercise in historical research, such a pursuit has been quite legitimate. That is, it is right for the historian to attempt insofar as possible to recover what really was said and done by persons the Bible depicts. The historian must try to determine what in a given passage derives from that person and what seems to be added by a later hand. Then the searcher has the data at hand to reconstruct the moment in history under study, in order to present a cohesive and reasonably accurate account of what went on back there.

Unfortunately, the exercise has spilled over its normal bounds and become confused with the question of authority. When the textbook or the professor claims that such and such a passage is "secondary" or "spurious," the designation is supposed to be limited to the exercise in historical research; but almost invariably the student is left to believe that the passage is also spurious with regard to its authority for the liturgical and instructional life of the believing community. One wonders how many mainline-seminary-trained preachers, when preparing lessons and sermons, avoid those passages they were taught were "secondary." The tacit assumption is that if the words of the passage should be denied the original speaker or writer, then those words do not have the authority necessary to be sermon material.

That assumption presupposes a view of authority shared with fundamentalists and literalists, namely that inspiration of Scripture was from God or Holy Spirit to the ancient person vertically -- whose words were then horizontally preserved by disciples, preachers and scribes more or less accurately. The difference between biblical critics who fall into this confusion, on the one hand, and fundamentalists and the inerrancy folks on the other, is only quantitative. Biblical critics contend that only a certain percentage of the passage or the biblical book can be traced to the ancient person m whose name it is recorded, while inerrancy proponents claim that all of it can. As in so many other areas, liberals and fundamentalists really subscribe to the same basic presuppositions, the difference between them often being superficial, though seemingly irreconcilable.

The Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield -- sometimes called the thoughtful fundamentalists -- put their position clearly in an article titled "Inspiration" published in the Presbyterian Review in 1881 (Vol. 2):

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scriptures any more than their authors are omniscient. . . They are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error. . . . Nevertheless the historical faith of the Church has always been, that 811 the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error, when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense.

While the value of such a statement clearly does not lie in its view of church history, it is an invaluable statement of the view of biblical authority held by the rationalist fundamentalists in the midst of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy.

Canonical criticism brings a corrective to the confusion by facing up to the question of authority within the guild of biblical criticism and by giving a value to historical criticism: the Bible comes to us out of the liturgical and instructional lives of the ancient believing communities which produced and shaped it. What is in the text is there not only because someone in antiquity was inspired to speak a needed word to his or her community, but also because that community valued the communication highly enough to repeat it and recommend it to the next generation and to a community nearby. So-called secondary passages represent the appreciation of the community in adapting the message to its needs, and they show us, using the necessary critical tools, how they did so. The Bible as canon is a community product in this sense. We simply would not have the words of the early writers if their listeners and neighbors had not preserved them. In the case of the judgmental prophecies, as well as of some other literature, there was apparently a span of time during which only a few valued what had been said. But invariably there came a time when the larger community or communities valued the words enough to set them on a kind of tenure track toward canon. Archaeology is m the habit of finding the literary product of ancient geniuses whose words were not so valued. What is in the canon is what "made it," so to speak, in contrast to what has only recently been found in holes in the ground in the eastern Mediterranean area.

Canon and community must be thought of as belonging together both in antiquity and today. Heirs of the ancient tradents, the biblical speakers and writers, continue their dialogue with those traditions as recorded in the Bible. The believing community always was and always will be the proper Sitz im Leben of canon, and that community has always included both the geniuses and the learners, the leaders and the followers. Each has always needed the other. It matters little how much of a genius an ancient author was, or how inspired, if there was not a community to appreciate at some point what was done, said or written. The question of the authority of canon resides in the ongoing dialogue between the believing community and its canon. And that canon includes both the original words and the early community responses to them. The community’s appreciation of and adaptation of what the original speaker had said is comparable to that speaker’s appreciation and adaptation of the traditions he or she had cited in the "original" speech or writing. The Bible, Old Testament and New, is full of older authoritative community traditions called upon and adapted to the newer historical contexts of community need.

It is often said that the Old Testament is the largest component part of the New in the latter’s citations of and allusions to Scripture and tradition. But the Old Testament is also replete with repetition and citation of older community traditions as well as of tried and true international wisdom. The prophet or the psalmist rarely goes for long without ringing in the changes on the Torah story. And even the wisdom writers, such as Job and Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), while never citing the Torah story, over and over again reflect indirectly on the theological traditions of ancient Israel and Judah. The so-called later hands and editors are true heirs of the masters themselves in this regard, for they have done likewise. As biblical scholar Brevard Childs says of German critic Walther Zimmerli’s work on Ezekiel: it is the Ezekiel book which is canonical, not the prophet Ezekiel. Indeed, the faithful in the believing communities today simply go and do likewise when they take the canonical heritage and adapt it and apply it to present need. One might say, in traditional terms, that the Holy Spirit has been at work all along in the formation of Scripture and all along its pilgrimage in the believing communities ever since.

The seven characteristics of the new discipline are repetition, resignification, multivalency of single texts, pluralism within the Bible as a whole, the adaptability-stability quotient of canon, the textual restraints which guard against abuse of Scripture, and hermeneutics. I want to explain each and then focus on canonical pluralism.

(1) The first characteristic of canonical Scripture is repetition. What is in the canon got there because somebody repeated something, starting a process of recitation that has never ceased. Nothing anybody said or sang could have made it into canon unless somebody else repeated or copied it, and then another and another did the same.

(2) The fact that each time a text got repeated it got resignified, or altered slightly to fit the new context of repetition or recitation, goes without saying. Someone says wonderingly, "Every time I read that passage I get something new out of it." Right. Why? Because each new situation in which we read it gives us slightly different ears to hear and slightly different eyes to see what the passage can say. The original author may have had one thing in mind, but once what he or she said is "out there," it has a life of its own. Or (to use traditional terms) it is out there for the Holy Spirit to use as she sees fit, or (to use critical terms) it is subject to the hermeneutics applied to it in the new context in which it is cited.

(3) Canonical literature is multivalent; that is, it may have plural meanings or values. The very fact that it made it into the canon would so indicate. Nearly any intelligible group of words held together by syntax is multivalent, but this is especially true of canon. Just think of all the sermons preached on the same Sunday on a given passage selected by lectionary. Any two that are alike probably became so by collusion. The meaning derived from a passage depends on the hermeneutics applied to it. Look at how differently Habakkuk 2:4 is understood at the various places it shows up in Scripture. Examples are endless.

(4) Pluralism is the fourth characteristic, but because I want to focus on it later, we’ll skip over it for the moment.

(5) The fifth characteristic is canon’s dual nature of being both adaptable and stable, its adaptability-stability quotient. Until the emergence of canonical criticism, biblical scholarship focused almost exclusively on the stability factor when thinking of Scripture as canon; that is, the question of what books are in a particular canon and what books are left out. For example, why is the Hebrew Book of Esther, which never mentions God explicitly, in the canon, whereas Judith, which is quite orthodox, was left out? It depends on which ancient or modern denomination one is viewing. The ancient Essenes apparently had an open-ended canon with many more books in it than the canon of the Pharisees, and certainly with many more than that of the Sadducees. But a modern canon also depends on which denomination one considers. Protestants have a short canon, Roman Catholics have the deuterocanonical or apocryphal writings in addition, the Greek Orthodox include yet more books, and the ancient Ethiopian church has 81 books in its canon. Canon is adaptable.

(6) Even so, the texts have built-in constraints that must be observed. While it is true that certain hermeneutic techniques such as numerology, allegory and tropology can make a passage say just about anything, canonical criticism draws attention to the limits imposed by the texts. Current media apocalypticists usually can twist biblical passages to say whatever will draw the attention they want, but even very well-meaning, critically trained preachers sometimes take a passage beyond its clear limits. As heirs of the early tradents and scribes, it behooves us to honor their labors, and to respect the texts they have passed on to us.

(7) The Bible is full of unrecorded hermeneutics, the seventh and perhaps most important characteristic of the Bible as canon. Nearly every biblical speaker or writer repeats or cites older traditions, or, in the case of the New Testament, Scripture. And they all, of course, used hermeneutics in doing so. We can now, for the most part, ferret out those principles (see "Hermeneutics of True and False Prophecy," in Canon and Authority, Fortress, 1977, pp. 21-41). By hermeneutics we do not mean principally hermeneutic techniques or rules, though we want to know those as well. Rather we mean the hermeneutic axioms the writers used; that is, their theology. German theologian Gerhard Ebeling has said that hermeneutics is theology, and theology is hermeneutics. In the case of canonical hermeneutics it is the author’s or the tradent’s view of God which makes a tremendous difference in how a passage is read and made relevant.

There are two major hermeneutic axioms discernible in the Bible: the one stresses the grace of God as the faithful promiser; the other stresses the freedom of God, as creator, to judge and even transform his own people. Luke makes clear his view that the principal reason Jesus offended so many of the religious establishment of his day was that he read old familiar passages stressing God as God of all peoples. Luke establishes this pattern already in his report of the sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) and continues to make it clear through the central section of the gospel. Luke even puts God’s grace in the light of God’s freedom to express this grace outside the circle of the faithful. Practitioners of a corruption of Christian consciousness, in their apologetic need to feel unique, have tried to limit God’s freedom in this regard to what he did in Christ in the first century. The task of ferreting out the hermeneutics used by the ancient biblical thinkers and authors themselves may be the most important task canonical criticism has.

The fact that the Bible has multiple ways of saying things, different accounts of the same thing and a healthy dose of contradiction does not need rehearsal. To fail to recognize pluralism in the Bible is to be dishonest. One of the reasons fundamentalism is abhorrent to many Christians is its dogmatic dishonesty. Nothing called Christian should require dishonesty at the very heart of what it professes.

Many intellectual Christians retain an unexamined conviction that certain biblical themes ought to be discoverable everywhere in the Bible. I often tell my students that if they feel they’ve discovered a "biblical" idea or theme, they should look also for its contrapositive; it’ll probably be there. The same Gospel that quotes Jesus as saying he came to bring peace (John 14:27 ff.) also quotes him as saying, "For judgment came I into the world . . ." (John 9:39). Each statement must be read in its own context, but our attempts at harmonization only serve to blunt the Word.

The Bible comes to us from the cultures of five ancient periods: the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Persian period, the Hellenistic period and the Roman era. It is written in three languages, with all the various idioms and cultural givens derived from those eras and languages. Isaiah 2 says there will come a time when Judah will beat its swords into plowshares and its spears into pruning hooks, but Joel 2 says the Lord commands Judah to beat its plowshares into swords and its pruning hooks into spears. Each statement should be read in context. These riches must not be harmonized out of existence. As Qoheleth 3 says, there is a time for picking up stones and a time to put them down. We know these things, and if we are honest enough to admit of biblical pluralism, then we ought to find a way to celebrate it and formalize it.

The perspective of canonical criticism on biblical pluralism is that it provides a built-in corrective apparatus so that we do not absolutize any one agenda, or think we have God boxed into a set of propositions. When a student "gets into" Jeremiah enough to get excited about his hermeneutics and his mind-blowing theology, I then advise that student to read Qoheleth. For Qoheleth might be said to do a Jeremiah on Jeremiah. Prophetic rhetoric is such that it tends at times to be hyperbolic, and one should simply not expect the Jeremiah book to touch all the bases necessary to contain full canonical truth. The sharper the prophetic challenge, the less theological burden it can bear. So Qoheleth is in the Bible as a corrective to any tendency we might have to lay too much stress on Jeremiah.

Instead of thinking through the tendency to charge books we like, such as Isaiah or Jeremiah or Romans, with the full weight of canonical truth, we tend also to squint at a book like Nahum or ignore it altogether -- or simply regret it. But look at the riches of having both Nahum and Jonah in the same prophetic corpus: one speaks of God’s judgments against the Ninevites and the other of God’s grace toward them. Canonically speaking, that is not essentially different from having Amos speak harsh words of God’s judgment against his own people as well as their neighbors, followed by an Obadiah who speaks harsh words of God’s judgment against Edom. God is creator and judge of all peoples, including his own, and God is redeemer of all peoples, even Assyria and Egypt (Isa. 19:24-25 and the book of Jonah). Deutero-Isaiah is amazingly pluralistic, as may be witnessed by scholarly efforts to claim he was a universalist, followed by efforts to assert he was a nationalist. Thank God we have not only Romans from Paul’s hand but also Galatians.

The multiple-Gospel tradition is a canonical treasure, and it is time we celebrated the significant differences among the Gospels. The Lord and the early churches have given us four Gospels; why not stress the differences where there are genuine differences, so as to reap the blessings in store? We usually either harmonize the differences away, prefer one Gospel to the others, or engage in a kind of reductionism to find consistent themes. Matthew sees poverty as a spiritual quality, and Luke sees it as an economic condition Christians should tackle in society. People need both emphases -- maybe not on the same day or in the same historical context, but the two Gospels have always been there when the churches through the ages have needed the challenge to hear the one or the other. Did the Roman centurion say Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew) or simply innocent (Luke)? Canonically speaking, we have the richness of both statements; we need to affirm the wisdom of the early believing communities in handing both down to us. The second century Syrian apologist Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmonizing of the four Gospels into one account, did not win out. Nor did the reductionist efforts of Origen of Alexandria.

There is no one right view of Scripture. On the contrary, canonical pluralism assures that there is no construct that can be built on Scripture which is not judged, and, we hope, redeemed, by something else in it.

God is God, not the Bible or the canon within the canon of any one position built on it -- no matter how fervent or how sophisticated it may be. God is one and we are many. And canonically the Bible may be seen as an ongoing prophetic voice that can keep us from absolutizing any one biblical viewpoint or running out of the theological ballpark with a pet biblical theme. The greatest challenge the Bible has for us all is the challenge to monotheize -- to affirm the integrity of God both ontologically and ethically. And that may very well be the toughest challenge the human mind has ever met. Part of what is meant by human depravity (a term liberals need to hear more clearly) is our natural bent toward polytheizing. We’d much rather have a bad god do all the things we don’t like and the good God (ours, of course) to do all the good things we like, with the assurance that ours will win out in the long run. Christian anti-Semitism stems largely from a failure to monotheize.

But the promise of these canonical traditions is that if we make the effort to monotheize, nothing in all creation can claim us: there are no idols; on the contrary, polytheism is reduced to pluralism, which, submitted to the judgments of God, can be a blessing. But monotheism is not easy: the dark side of Yahweh becomes repugnant to liberals and conservatives alike, and we lose even our tremulous hold on reality. (Conservatives have the devil to thank for absolutely everything they don’t like, but he never seems to challenge their own most precious premises.)

I have dwelt on honesty in terms of the pluralism in the Bible. But honesty also means making the effort, on reading any passage in the Bible, to theologize about it first rather than moralizing about it first. One should first ask not what the passage says we should do but what it indicates God can do with such a situation. Then it strikes us that God can also manage to redeem our situations -- and that is the first note of salvation. If the pharaoh’s heart had been soft and he had issued an emancipation proclamation for the Hebrew slaves, there might be a stele or monument, of gratitude to him for archaeologists to discover near Goshen, but there would have been no Torah. One should theologize first, then moralize upon the result of that reflection. This liberates the reader from absolutizing Bronze-Age, Iron-Age, Persian-Period or Hellenistic-Roman mores, and helps him or her focus on what God can do with, and what we can do in, our own current reign of terror.

Besides honesty, humility is required: the ability to identify in the biblical accounts with Ramses, Nebuchadnezzar and Herod, or with the well-meaning false prophets, soft-headed polytheizers and God-fearing Pharisees, in order to hear Scripture’s challenge.

Last, humor is needed -- and this means taking God a little more seriously each time we read Scripture and ourselves a little less so. The Bible as canon is a monotheizing literature, Old Testament and New, as the Christian trinitarian belief confirms and reaffirms. It is also a theocentric literature. Its perspective is to celebrate what God can do with almost any fouled-up situation we can devise, for none could be worse than those the canon describes in its utter realism about ancient struggles. The Bible gives us a paradigm of that realism covering some 15 centuries in antiquity. Isn’t that enough for us to get the point?

On the strength of the belief that God continues to respond with creative redemption today to what we offer up, let us continue as heirs of the biblical tradents and attempt in our day to pursue the integrity of reality, the oneness of God, in our own situations. The promise is that some of that integrity might rub off on us.