Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eusebius and the New Testament Canon

I'm always interested in matters canonical. I'm a bit of an advocate for a much expanded "ecumenical" Old Testament canon for Christian bibles that recognises the diversity and plurality of Christian Old Testaments past and present. I'm also interested in New Testament canonical diversity as well. Over at Biblicalia, Kevin Edgecombe has an interesting post relating to New Testament texts and ancient (and modern) debates re the canon as we know it today. Eusebius of Caesarea, the bishop, theologian, church historian and contemporary of Constantine (amongst Eusebius' works is a Life of Constantine) is a key figure for contemporary discussions. To quote Kevin:

Most readers of Eusebius’ History of the Church are familiar with his interesting chapter (Book III, Chapter 25) devoted to discussing the canonical status of the books of the New Testament. After a recent re-reading of Eusebius, I thought it would be good to share some interesting things that have come up in light of this reading, informed as I am now by a wealth of further reading on the subject of the Biblical canon since I last read Eusebius. In such a case of re-reading, formerly innocuous words and phrases often take on new meaning. This is precisely the case here in regards to Eusebius’ interesting discussion of the books of the New Testament.

First, it is necessary to emphasize that the word “canon” (κανὼν, κανόνος) and its derivative forms are not used by Eusebius to refer to the books of the Bible, but primarily to the Rule of Faith of the Church.

Kevin then gives a detailed list of the 16 occasions when Eusebius uses the word canon(os), all of which as he says relate to the Rule of Faith of the Church. He then continues:

Reflecting upon this usage, we must notice that elsewhere Eusebius interestingly chooses to refer to what we would call the canonical books of the New Testament by terminology which ultimately describes these books in terms of their Apostolic origins. His discussion of the various books of the New Testament (III 25) is particularly interesting, and has garnered much commentary. His description involves a threefold categorization in which a book is described as ὁμολογουμένος, ἀντιλεγομένος, or νόθος, that is, agreed-upon, disputed, and spurious. This terminology does not refer to agreement or disagreement in terms of belonging to the Bible, but rather in terms of agreement or disagreement of Apostolic origins for the book. The distinction is a crucial one. There is no hypothesis here of a “Bible” to which a book is going to be either included or excluded. Rather, there are various books, and those which the churches agree in recognizing as of Apostolic origin belong to the “agreed-upon” category, those in which books are recognized by some as authentically Apostolic yet not recognized as so by others belong to the “disputed” category. To the “spurious” category belong those books which are generally recognized as not originating with the Apostles. So we see the criterion of organization here is not based upon an idea of what we now think of a Biblical canon, but was rather motivated by concerns for authenticity and authority. The Apostles are the foundation of the Church, and their writings are therefore considerered the protocanon of all ecclesiastical writings. The concern for ascertaining the proper list of those authentic works in order to safeguard against heresy and other failure is one that is shown throughout Eusebius’ work.

Kevin's reading fits with the plurality of New Testament collections in early Christianity and indeed today especially with the Ethiopian Bible which seems to have an inner and outer canon for both its testaments. In other words, the New Testament collections were not based on the criteria of apostolic authorship. However a text of agreed apostolic authorship was guaranteed a place in any such collection and there was also a place for non-apostolic texts as well.

Nevertheless, Eusebius' testimony as to what was accepted, disputed or spurious should not be taken at face value. In a subsequent post, Kevin explores the contradictory position Eusebius takes on the Book of Revelation. It's worth checking out.

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