A Short Note on Ancient Canon Theory

Origen3I plan for one or two more posts on Epiphanius’s biblical theory, but today I’m reading and reviewing new and older works on the formation of the canon of the Christian Old Testament for an upcoming presentation in November. While reading Armin Lange’s recent, helpful article “Canonical History of the Hebrew Bible” in the newly published Textual History of the Bible Volume 1A (pp. 35–81), p. 59–8, I came across this comment on Origen’s canon list:

Origen’s canon list clearly regards Maccabees as a book outside of the canon. Nevertheless, Origen included at least Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon, and Judith into his Hexapla. Thus Origen himself adhered to a wider canon than that represented by his own canon list. This is confirmed by Origen’s use of various deuterocanonical texts in his oeuvre…The last observation makes it likely that Origen’s canon list does not reflect his own canonical thought but goes back to a source text; however, it is unlikely that this quoted source represents a Jewish canon list…His Hexapla demonstrates that neither his Christian source nor his Jewish canon tradition represent Origen’s own canonical thought. Instead, Origen himself had a more open canon concept and referred (sic preferred) for a closed canon only to the Jewish one (emphasis added).

There are difficulties on which I do not want to focus presently: (1) Were those three books and perhaps others included in Origen’s Hexapla? Lange cites the evidence of the Göttingen Septuaginta for the hexaplaric evidence for those three books. Perhaps they were included. There is evidence of Ben Sira in Hebrew; no Hebrew evidence of Judith, though it is usually supposed; and Wisdom was composed in Greek. We have no evidence that the books were ever revised by Theodotion, Aquila, or Symmachus. So there could be an Origenic revision of those books but in the case of Wisdom, at least, there would be no Hebrew columns or evidence of the Three, hardly a hexaplaric version. (2) There are difficulties with interpreting Origen’s Old Testament list: (1) is it his, i.e., a Christian list or (2) is it a variant Jewish canon list (it doesn’t resemble any known Jewish orderings of books but we have scarcely any of those) or (3) some combination of the two (the letter of Jeremiah, which doesn’t fit a Jewish context, could be Origen’s or a later scribal addition to an existing Jewish list). Lange opts for the first; that is, Origen used a Christian list to which he added the Hebrew titles for the books in Greek transliteration, a conclusion that agrees with mine.

My question, however, does not pertain to these matters, as important as they are. My question is how do we determine an ancient’s canon or exclusive list of books? In this case, Origen actually provides a list of books, clearly detailing the books of the Jews which probably he intended for the church to adopt (Eusebius understood Origen’s intent in this way). This list itself seems like a good place to begin, since it is the ancient’s own clearest expression on the matter. Now, when this same author cites books as scripture that do not appear in his canon list or possibly includes them in his magnum opus, the Hexapla, what should we conclude? I suggest that rather than redefining the ancient’s canon, which he has already given us clearly in his list, perhaps we should reconsider the ancient’s attitude toward Scripture in general. That is, we may need to consider the probability that an ancient’s canon list does not include all the books which he considered to be Scripture and the ancient’s scope of scriptural books is actually wider than his canon list. In his Hexapla, therefore, he could theoretically include books not in his list alongside books that are. He can cite as Scripture from books that are included in his list alongside books which are not. But his exclusive canon is clear from the list that he has left us.

Lange does not appear to consider this latter possibility throughout the course of his article, but I’m going to read it again more carefully and will update this post if I find exceptions. Consequently, he places the canon of Origen’s list in real tension with the putative canon of Origen’s Hexapla, and he must conclude that Origen “had a more open canon concept” than his list would suggest.

I don’t want this point to detract from Lange’s overall article, which is very helpful especially in terms of history of research on the canon. However, a book presenting all of the early Canon Lists with English translations and notes for how to read and interpret them may be useful to help fill in some of the missing pieces of the picture of patristic canon theory.


3 thoughts on “A Short Note on Ancient Canon Theory

  1. Origen knows. Do you think he might have had a “list” of Scripture in mind or was the boundary too soft? A canon can be at least partially determined through a historical process (ecclesial decisions). Can Scripture?

    1. Good question, John. The process to discern such a “list” in any author would have to be to see which books he cites as such and any other notices he might have. Are there differences between the ways they cite apocryphal books and the deuterocanonical books? Are there differences between the ways they cite these books and say the Philosophers? I think we would discern differences and distinctions between these types of writings but I haven’t looked specifically. Do you have any insight into the matter?

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