Canon, Codex, and Biblical Theory

Codex SinaiticusCanon and Codex. Surely, the alliteration indicates that these ideas are co-extensive, right? Depends on whom one asks. Armin Lange in the same article referenced here says:

I have also referred repeatedly to the invention of the mega-codices as a catalyst in the development of the Christian canon. It was only the mega-codex [full collection of Old and New Testament books] format that made it possible to combine all biblical Scriptures (Old and New Testament) into one book. Consequently, the question of which books should be included in such a mega-codex as the one Bible will have brought the issue of canon to the attention of Christian thinkers and officials…. It is all the more interesting that none of the three preserved mega-codices [Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus] corresponds precisely in its table of contents with any of the canon lists of the fourth century (pp. 74–5).

In this section, Lange cites an article by Robert Kraft, “The Codex and Canon Consciousness” (pp. 229–33) in the The Canon Debate (among other scholars). I presume he had these thoughts of Kraft in mind:

…I suspect that the new possibility (and concept) effected a major paradigm shift in how Christians henceforth thought about their “Bible” and its canonical cohesiveness. That is, “biblical canon” took on a very concrete meaning in the shadow of the appearance of the Bible as a single book in codex form (p. 230).

And again:

But once it was possible to produce and view (or visualize) “the Bible” under one set of physical covers, the concept of “canon” became concretized in a new way that shapes our thinking to the present day and makes it very difficult to recapture the perspectives of earlier times. “The canon” in this sense is the product of fourth-century technological developments. Before that, it seems to me, things were less “fixed,” and perceptions, accordingly, less concrete (233).

Kraft and Lange, among others we could cite, define the Christian biblical canon in terms of what books were placed between physical covers. No doubt, Christian scribes and bishops made choices on which books to include and exclude from the codex and no doubt the new physical form changed the concept of the Bible. The question, however, pertains to (1) whether codex technology and physical form actually motivated the fixing of the canon in the fourth century and (2) whether the discrete books within the codex were all viewed as having equally authoritative status.

For whatever change in perception of the material form of “the Bible” these developments brought—I assume change in perception did occur—there is very little evidence that would suggest that these codices brought about the fixing or concretizing of the canon. There’s not space to detail the similarity between the few second- and third-century lists and the later fourth-century lists that would actually show a remarkable conservatism (with some change of course) in canon formation in these centuries. Therefore, it remains unclear to me what kind of “change” did occur once Christians put their books between two covers. Certainly, the codex would have come as a wonderful advance from the standpoint of hermeneutics and being able to organize knowledge and concepts more efficiently. But whether it brought development to the canon or not still remains fuzzy and less concrete to me.

Many Eastern lists contain the books of the narrower Hebrew canon (see post on Epiphanius). Some fourth century lists, both Western and Eastern, contain those canonical books and “useful scriptures” in distinct categories. It is probable that the drafters of these canon lists would have no difficulty with codices that contained these books between two covers since the distinctions between books would still be conceptualized. Another possibility could be that the codices agree with later Latin lists which attest the wider canon; that is, they include the six deutercanonical books. But at this point it is insightful to look at the specific books in these codices to see if their compilers considered these deuterocanonical books as stable as the canonical ones.

Codex Vaticanus: 1. PENTATEUCH; 2a. JOSHUA, JDG + RUTH, SAM, KINGS, CHRON, 1 ESDRAS, EZRA–NEH; 3. PSS, PROV, ECCL, SONG, JOB, WISDOM, ECCLESIASTICUS; 2b. ESTHER, JUDITH, TOBIT; 4. THE TWELVE, ISAIAH, JER + BARUCH + LAM + EPISTLE OF JER, EZEK, SUSANNA + DAN + BEL and the DRAGON.

Codex Sinaiticus: 1. PENTATEUCH (defective); 2. JDG (defective), CHRON (defective) EZRA–NEH, ESTHER, TOBIT, JUDITH, 1 & 4 MACCABEES; 4. ISAIAH, JER + LAM, EZEK (defective), SUS + DANIEL + BEL (defective), THE TWELVE; 3. PSS, PROV, ECCL, SONG, WISDOM, ECCLESIASTICUS, JOB.

Codex Alexandrinus: 1. PENTATEUCH; 2a. JOSHUA, JDG + RUTH, SAM, KINGS, CHRON; 4. THE TWELVE, ISAIAH, JER + BARUCH + LAM + EPISTLE OF JEREMIAH, EZEKIEL, SUSANNA + DAN + BEL; 2b. ESTHER, TOBIT, JUDITH, 1 ESDRAS, EZRA – NEH, 1-4 MACCABEES; 3. PSS, JOB, PROV, ECCL, SONG, WISDOM, ECCLESIASTICUS.

The three codices agree on inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ben Sira / Ecclesiasticus though not on their order and placement. They do not all contain the books of Maccabees with only two including 1 and 4 Maccabees and only Alexandrinus containing 2–3 Maccabees. The later Latin canon lists of Augustine and Innocent I, for example, do not include 3–4 Maccabees, only 1–2 Maccabees. Thus the codices and those lists do not agree on these books, and therefore the codices may not be a stable guide to canon regarding them. But what about the other four books? It is possible the compilers considered these books canonical because they chose to include them. But in the absence of explicit statements to this effect, it might be more reasonable to conclude with the majority of the canon lists (most of the early ones) that these books are simply useful scriptures and were not considered to be authoritative in matters of doctrine. That is, codex does not equal canon.

Modern canon scholarship has emphasized the codex and manuscripts in general for determining the Christian canon and describing how that canon was conceptualized. No doubt, the invention of the codex brought development to the concept of the Bible. But moderns continue to envision the canon lists in tension with the codex, perhaps irresolvable contradiction (see Lange’s statement above). However, have we committed anachronism? Have we read the canonical significance and conceptualization of our physical Bibles back into the ancients’ codex? If we have, how would we know? The main line of evidence that may offer a corrective and a way forward is the ancients’ statements themselves. Serious consideration of those statements and lists need to be reintroduced into the conversation so that a more balanced and reasonable, though no less complex, picture may emerge.

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