5. The Process of Canon Formation
Now that we have explored the catalysts for canon formation, we can outline the actual process. The Hebrew Bible and the NT canon (and together as the Christian Bible) underwent a three-fold process of composition, canonization, and consolidation to arrive at the final canonical form, or the Bible as we now have it.
These three broad phases help explain the logistical steps that each individual writing took on its way to finding a home in the biblical canon.
First, the individual writings were initially composed by biblical authors for particular purposes. As each author put pen to paper, or stylus to tablet, or quill to parchment, they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and with their God-given abilities and personalities as writers. There are a variety of genres that the biblical authors choose to utilize: narratives; poetry; epistles; prophecies; apocalypses; meditations, etc.
Each author had a “compositional strategy.” They could uses sources, combine literary forms, or employ a palette of literary techniques. Composition marks the initial efforts of reporting on first hand experiences, remembering memories, recording visions, gathering source documents or eye-witness accounts, or writing personal correspondence.
As John writes at the end of his Gospel, “These things have been written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30). In other words, he has a distinct purpose in writing.
The next phase is canonization. As time goes on, certain books are recognized as authoritative within the believing community. The process of canonization indicates that certain writings are being set apart from all other writings. A community then develops around these texts. In this way, the church does not “determine” the canon. The canon “produces” the church and builds the church. That believing community, in turn, reads, heeds, preserves, and passes along that canon. In other words, the means by which God grows the believing community is through the saving message proclaimed on the basis of this particular collection of texts.
One way to describe this process is to say that there is a discernible growth of a canon-consciousness among biblical authors and readers. In other words, members of the believing community write and read with a growing awareness of the biblical canon. Regarding the origin of the concept of canon, the believing community has a long history of setting certain texts apart as authoritative and normative from the community.
For instance, God’s revelation of the “ten words” or ten commandments at Mt Sinai mark an important stage in God’s dealing with his people. These “words” were set apart from all other words. Later, Moses writes and completes the “book of Moses” that is then then placed in the ark of the covenant to represent God’s presence among the people (Deut 31:24-26). The production and setting apart of the book of Moses marks the beginning of the biblical canon. At various points, new writings are added to the growing collection of authoritative Scripture. Following Moses’ example, Joshua continues to narrate and interpret God’s dealings with the people. Joshua then adds this new writing to the Law of Moses (Josh 24:26). Samuel receives the logistics of the kingship and writes them “in a book” (1 Sam 10:25). The prophets, too, consistently receive the divine command to “write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jer 36:1-4).
These examples show that even as the Hebrew Bible is being composed, there is a sense that God is revealing himself and his expectations through a growing but stable collection of sacred writings. This concept is at work in the New Testament period as well. John seems to expect that his Gospel, letters, and “revelation” will be read and circulated to a broad and far-flung audience (Jn 20:30:31; 21:24-25; Rev 1:11, 19; 22:16). Paul also expects his letters to be circulated widely beyond the churches he initially addresses (Col 4:15-16; 1 Thess 5:27; 2 Pet 3:15-16).
In this phase, compositional activity continues and distinct groupings begin to form. These groupings can be seen as a type of broad or implicit commentary on the biblical books themselves. Certain books begin to be read in light of one another. Early readers intuitively recognize that these particular books go together. This grouping begins even as new books are being written. This reality helps explain how the shape of the collection could be directed at least to some degree by the biblical authors themselves. The work of circulating and gathering the biblical writings together sometimes happens during the lifetime of the biblical author.
There is also a general effort to recognize the association and mutual dependence of the books being collected together at this stage. There is a recognition here that certain books carry readily recognized authority and that certain books go together. They are associated with one another and these associations are generated and flow out from the texts themselves. To give a broad example, in Joshua 1:7–8, Psalm 1:1–3, and Malachi 4:4, readers are overtly encouraged to meditate day and night on the “Law of the Lord.” This emphasis on the book of Moses influences later readers to associate the Law with both the Prophets and the Psalms. A similar phenomenon takes place as the New Testament writers implicitly and explicitly link their books with the book of Moses and the rest of the Old Testament writings.
As these groupings form, there is also a grouping of the groupings. In early full manuscripts, the listings of the groupings are strikingly similar. The manuscript evidence, in other words, confirms that books are being seen in light of each other. The five books of Moses are always grouped together as a single book; the twelve minor prophets are typically grouped together as a single work, the “book of the Twelve.”
The New Testament manuscripts circulate in a similar type of pattern. They begin to be grouped in the same order and share the same literary company. When a copy of a Gospel circulates, for example, it most often circulates with a copy of another Gospel. The earliest manuscripts of any of Paul’s letters are also always part of a collection of Paul’s letters. Even among the fragmentary and partial manuscript evidence, there are only a handful of exceptions to this rule. You don’t normally find mismatched editions (like a Pauline epistle coupled with a single Gospel). The pattern is that these collections are being produced together.
In other words, when the early churches produce their bibles, they produce them in these groups. Consequently, a broad reading order is established by these groupings (the “grouping of the groupings”). In this way, we arrive at a Christian canon that includes this general sequence: Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation.
After composition and canonization, there is consolidation. With the passage of time, textual options for canonical books narrow. This gradual process sets the stage for the final forms that will be used for later generations. During the consolidation phase, book orderings tend to gain relative stability. Among the believing community, these options are finalized. The consolidation phases marks the movement toward a “closed canon" (this question of closure will be the focus of pt 5 and pt 6).
This basic outline of the process of canon formation is yet another area where definitions are important. Most accounts of canon formation include at least three stages, even if they are not mentioned directly. First, there is the initial composition of the biblical material. Second, there is a period of gradual canonization where these initial compositions are gathered into groupings and associated with other documents. Third, sometime after these two stages, there is a move to consolidate and formalize the order and content of the biblical material. This last stage is sometimes understood as the ‘closing of the canon’.
While many accounts of canon formation only focus on this last phase, as we have seen, there are significant reasons for including the first two phases in our understanding of "How the Bible Came to Be." The observations made regarding these initial phases have implications for the nature of the consolidation phase.
To the point: if it can be plausibly demonstrated that a form of canon-consciousness was at play during the composition and canonization phases, then less is at stake in identifying the exact moment in time when the canon closed for good. For, the conceptual and theological authority of the biblical writings making up that canon would have already been established long before.
With this broad framework for understanding the process of canon formation as a whole, we are in a better position to understand how the canon "closed."
- For these three broad phases of canon formation, see John Sailhamer, "Biblical Theology and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible," in Biblical Theology: Retrospect & Prosepect, 25-33; and Spellman, Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading, 38-40. I am also indebted to Jason K. Lee for introducing me to this basic understanding of the canonical process.