Friday, July 25, 2008

Drawing the line that separates canonical from not

I have a question for friends and readers who have been to seminary or otherwise have studied such things: How exactly is the line drawn between canon and noncanon?

At the time the Christian Scriptures were being written in the first century, there was a host of other communication, discussion and even writing going on that formed the context in which the church understood the epistles and other books we now regard as canon. Take the book of Enoch for example.

Ostensibly written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, the book of Enoch dates to about 300 B.C.E. It tells the story of the watchers, a group of angels who fathered the Nephilim in Chapter 8 of the book of Genesis. Other parts of the book include a series of eschatological parables that include references to a righteous messianic figure called the "Son of Man," a detailed work of astronomy that lays forth a 364-day solar calendar, and finally a series of visions meant to foretell the history of Israel down to the Maccabees.

Protestants and Catholics alike take their lead from the Council of Nicea, which in 325 C.E., rejected the Book of Enoch from the canon. But at the time the New Testament was being written, Jude didn't know that. He cited the Book of Enoch twice.

The first time Jude cites the Book of Enoch, he refers to a dispute between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses. Jude uses this as a caution against judging one another. Later in the book, he refers to God binding angels in chains of adamant for their rebellion, as an assurance that God will judge those who teach unsound doctrine.

We can get the essentials of Jude's message without knowing the particulars of the Book of Enoch, but surely familiarity with the book helps.

This isn't like reading a commentary by Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley to understand a parable or a difficult passage of the Bible. In this case, one of the authors of the Bible was familiar with a book that we reject and saw so much value in it that he drew on it to make his point. How much wisdom are we meant to draw from the Book of Enoch when we read it to illuminate Jude's writing?

This isn't confined to Jude. There are a lot of ahas we either miss or misunderstand because we lack the background noise that the writers took for granted. Noah flips out because Ham saw him passed out naked. Zipporah stops God from killing Moses by circumcising her firstborn son and throwing the foreskin at his feet, How much do you want to bet these passages would make sense if we had more extrabiblical material from that era?

I'd really like to know how that line was drawn, and what implications it has for understanding the Bible the way we do today.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.