2017-11-29

The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors

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by Neil Godfrey

Sarcophagus of the Muses

The ancient community of scholars attached to the Alexandrian Museum had a “religious character” since it was headed by a royally appointed priest and devoted to the service of the goddesses known as the Muses. This community produced the classical canon consisting of Homer, Hesiod, nine lyric poets, various playwrights and philosophers. Another collection of divinely inspired texts followed.

What is noteworthy about this development of the classics or “canon” of Greek literature is the way in which it anticipates the similar development of the “canon” of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with Homer as the undisputed authoritative “canonical” work for all Greeks in the same way that the Pentateuch became the most important work for the Jews. To Homer and Hesiod, the great epics, the Alexandrians added other categories and works, but none drawn from their own time. They were all the great works of a past era. For the most part, the works were accepted as those of the first rank, without dispute, not only within the Hellenistic world, but especially by the Roman literati as well. . . . . 

One important aspect of the so-called Alexandrian canon is the fact that it comprises lists of persons, epic and lyric poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and so on, along with their genuine written works and excluding the works that were spuriously attributed to them. Canonicity therefore entailed known authorship.

Now a problem with most biblical literature is that it is anonymous. Yet it is precisely this impulse to follow the Hellenistic practice of creating an exclusive “canon,” a list of the classics of biblical literature that also came from the age of inspiration, that leads to the impulse to ascribe all of the works within this inspired corpus to individual authors: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, and so on. Indeed, it is this notion of authorship that accounts, more than anything else, for the inclusion of some works, such as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, into this fixed corpus.

Furthermore, there can be no canon, whether classical or biblical, without known authors, because anonymous works were undatable in antiquity; and if they could not be attributed to “inspired” persons from the age of inspiration, they had to be excluded. It may also be noted that most pseudepigraphic works were specifically attributed to “canonical” authors or the notables who belonged to that ancient period.

(John Van Seters, The Edited Bible, pp. 40-41 — bolding and formatting mine. Italics original.)

4 Comments

  • Tige Gibson
    2017-11-29 17:40:19 UTC - 17:40 | Permalink

    Part of the reason I left the church was because I was able to start seeing through the reasons I and other people clung to the church, and there are several, each directly linked to individual psychological tendencies. Separating “truth” from untruth, especially when it comes to things which are inherently unprovable, such as in the case of building a canon of written works with no traceability, is the nature of obsessive-compulsive personalities. They will in fact assert that something must be true simply because it fits into a framework that they themselves simply made up. A canon is an ultimate expression of that belief which became possible with libraries of (expensive) books. Simply asserting that most of the books in a library or canon are authentic allows one to dismiss accusations that any are not, even if the authority collecting these works is unknown.

    The reason that there are four Gospels in the canon is the same reason there are four suits of playing cards. No one knows why there are four suits in cards, even if the suit symbols themselves are different in different cultures, there are almost always four of them. Occasionally people have tried to add a fifth or sixth suit but it doesn’t catch on, but there are no three-suit sets. Each suit represents a role in society: spades=nobility (Jesus as King), hearts=clergy (Jesus as Priest), clubs=peasants (Jesus as Carpenter), and diamonds=merchants (Jesus as Moneychanger, … wait, what?).

    The obsessive-compulsive personality both rationalizes the need for there to be four to include all the Gospels and justifies the number being four because there are four Gospels. Incidentally, while there are no three-suit card sets, the concept of the Trinity emerged in response to the conflict of Jesus being a God separate from God. Aside from pairs tending to be opposites (either God or Jesus would be evil, probably God by the looks of him), skipping to three mires the mind in trying to conceptualize three persons as one without even getting any details about the third person. For some reason no one ever asks about the third person in these arguments, it’s pre-accepted like the four Gospels.

    For most people who are not obsessive-compulsive, they adopt the conclusions of the obsessive-compulsive type on faith like everything else, but for themselves it is normally only necessary to have a minimal tapestry of interconnected details to repeat to oneself when faith is under attack, often less is better in that case, something chantable would be nice. When engaging in discussion with people like this they will try to manipulate the conversation towards areas of their tapestry which they have built more links, their preferred battleground, and run away from arguments about which they know little. They quickly learn that chanting the same apologetics over and over irritates other people even though they themselves find it reassuring.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-11-29 19:32:05 UTC - 19:32 | Permalink

      On a tangent to your comment, I was interested to read of scholarly enquiries into the origins of rituals (special focus on religious rituals) relates to the psychology of “obsessive compulsive” impulses. I have planned to return to this reading.

      • Tige Gibson
        2017-11-30 17:25:04 UTC - 17:25 | Permalink

        Psychology was what got me out of the faith but I didn’t realize that for a few years afterward, but now I always apply psychology to understand the motive of everything I read.

        Basically I got very frustrated arguing with Christians about evolution and climate change. It seemed like they were the ones who wanted to argue with me about those things because they created their own tapestries of lies which they themselves defined as the battlefield. I never had an interest in evolution (which is biology, but when they argue it expands infinitely to cover everything up to and including cosmology) or climate.

        One day I realized that I was letting them drag me into their theater of battle and decided I wasn’t going with them. I wondered what topic would they be least capable of defending? Damn if it isn’t psychology and since they don’t like to talk about this, they don’t want to talk to me about anything. It’s actually quite a relief.

        It’s interesting that none of the Christians I know cares a lick about the real ancient history of the middle east either. I wasn’t interested in history at all before but I actually find it much more interesting when it’s not confined to strictly limited Christian interpretation and interest. All these ancient peoples who weren’t the Hebrews/Israelites or their enemies.

  • Blood
    2017-12-03 15:55:16 UTC - 15:55 | Permalink

    Good to see you quoting from John Van Seters’ “The Edited Bible.” It’s an important book.

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