CANON . Because employment of the term canon (usually as a synonym for scripture ) in comparative religious studies is both commonplace and subject to a growing scholarly debate, the classic usage will be considered at the outset. Subsequently, a consideration of contemporary applications of the term within the study of world religions will follow in order to illustrate its usefulness and to show some of the hermeneutical issues implicit in such usage. Since the use of canon to mean both a norm and an attribute of scripture arose first within Christianity, some special attention must necessarily be given to present debates in the study of that religion. However, the focus of this treatment is on the wider implications concerning the value of this term in a comparativist description of world religions.
Etymology and Earliest Historical Usages
The Greek word kanōn, which gave rise to its later European and English equivalents, is a Semitic loanword basically signifying a reed, as seen in biblical passages such as 1 Kings 14:15 and Job 40:21. The semantic usage that occurs in Hebrew (qaneh ), Assyrian (qanu ), Ugaritic (qn ), and similarly in Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and modern Hebrew, derives in turn from the even more ancient non-Semitic Sumerian (gi, gi-na ), with the same import. In the above Semitic languages, the basic conception of a reed generated a semantic field that included in Hebrew, for example, the description of either a standard of length or a straight or upright object. Images of a standard of length that occur in biblical passages are the measuring rod (qeneh ha-middah ) in Ezekiel 40:3 and 40:5 and a full reed of similar length in Ezekiel 41:8. The straight or upright object is exemplified as the shaft of a lampstand in Exodus 25:31, the branches of a lampstand in Exodus 25:32, and a shoulder blade in Job 31:22.
The Greek usage of this common Semitic term extended these derivations to include a great variety of figurative applications. Besides associating this term with various instruments of measure and design, Greeks came to regard lists, catalogs, or tables in the sciences as "canons." Likewise, the humanities and anthropology sought to describe "the norm" (ho kanōn ), for example, in grammar, aesthetics, music, physical beauty, ethics, the perfection of form in sculpture, and so forth. Epicurus wrote a book, now lost, entitled Peri kritēriou hē kanōn, focused on the "canonics" of logic and method. Epictetus, and the Epicurians similarly, sought to find a formal basis (kanōn ) for distinguishing truth from falsehood, the desirable from the undesirable.
In the area of religion, Christianity drew heavily from this Hellenistic milieu and came to assign a new and unique role to the term canon. In the New Testament itself, the Greek term is used only by the apostle Paul as a standard of true Christianity in Philippians 3:16 and in a late text, Galatians 6:16, and as a divinely delimited mandate or authorization in 2 Corinthians 10:13–16. Nonetheless, in the Roman church during the first three centuries, the term occurs frequently and can signify almost any binding norm of true Christianity, expressed with a variety of technical nuances. For instance, Irenaeus, in the second century, could already speak of various familiar canons: "the canon of truth" (in preaching), "the canon (rule) of faith" (Lat., regula fidei, or the essential truth of the gospel), and "the ecclesiastical canon" (Lat., regula veritatis, expressing both true confession and correct ritual participation in the church). Likewise, the term could characterize any authorized list or collection of decisions or persons. Thus one could speak of a "canonical" set of laws, a list or collection of "canonized" saints, papal decretals (ninth century), church leaders, monks, nuns, and so on. Hence, early in the history of Christianity, the Greek kanōn was carried over as canon or regula in the Latin used in churches of the East and the West. By the Middle Ages, the whole collection of binding decisions by the Roman church came to be regarded as the ius canonicum (canonical laws), either touching on secular matters (Lat., lex; or Gr., nomos ) or belonging to the juridical, religious, and ethical canons of the church. Gratian's Decretum (1139–1142 ce) provided the foundation for canon law in Roman Catholicism.
The relationship between "canon" and "scripture" in Christianity is more complicated. The earliest Christian scripture was either the Hebrew Bible of Judaism or the old Greek version of it (the so-called Septuagint). Within Judaism, neither prerabbinic nor rabbinic literature ever chose to refer to this scripture as a "canon." At about the same time as the flowering of rabbinic Judaism in the second century, Irenaeus—probably borrowing the use of the term from Marcion, his gnostic competitor—began to speak of a "New Testament" as a group of "inspired" Christian traditions distinct from the "Old Testament" inherited as scripture from Judaism. The Christian terminology of "inspiration," although grounded in Jewish understanding, occurs first in the later Pauline traditions and undoubtedly reflects influence from related Hellenistic conceptions that had previously been applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, not until shortly after 450 ce did the term canon begin to be used by Christians, apparently first by Athanasius, to designate the biblical books of scripture.
Within rabbinic Judaism, the Hebrew scripture began to be called Miqra' ("that which is read"), and the entire collection came to be referred to as Tanakh, an acronym of the names of the three major divisions of the Hebrew scriptures: Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Instead of speaking about "canonization," as was typical later in Christianity, Jewish sources describe an endeavor to determine which books "defile the hands" and, therefore, constitute sacred scripture, as distinguished from other normative traditions. The extrabiblical traditions in the Mishnah and Talmud were, consequently, authoritative (arguably "canonical" in that sense) but considered to be "oral law," which did not defile the hands, in contrast to the scripture or "written law." Prior to these designations within Judaism and Christianity, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was denoted by a variety of diverse expressions, such as "the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers" (Prologue to Ben Sira ); "the law and the prophets" (e.g., Mt. 5:17); "the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms" (Lk. 24:44); the "oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2); "the scripture" (e.g., Mk. 12:24); "the holy scriptures" (Philo Judaeus, On Flight and Finding 1.4); "the book"; "the sacred book"; and others. In view of this evidence scholars continue to disagree whether the weight of the later Christian references to the term canon for scripture turns primarily on the term's denotation of either a binding "norm" or an ecclesiastically approved "list" of inspired books.
In Islam, another "religion of the Book" associated with the children of Abraham, the Qurʾān replaces the imperfect rendering of revelation in Judaism and Christianity. While Muslim interpreters never traditionally identified the Qurʾān as a "canon," they did employ the term to designate the law, in a manner reminiscent of some early Christian understandings of the biblical law of God.
Certainly, the use of the term canon, despite its association with Christianity, can prove to be an illuminating heuristic device in describing other world religions and their principal texts. The analogies with the formation of Western religious canons provides an attractive, yet to be fully explored, way of thinking about religion in general. For example, such terminology can be helpful in understanding aspects of Eastern religions. Although Confucius (Kongzi), who died in the fifth century bce, claimed of his teaching, "I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own" (Lun-Yü 7.1), the "Five Classics" as we now know them only became a scripturelike guide to Confucianism from the first century ce onward. Obviously innovations entered into this work long after the death of Confucius. Moreover, competing views within Confucianism led to some groups' diminishing the importance of this work or adding to it new canons that were viewed as complementary (e.g., Ssu Shu, or "Four Books," and still later in the Chʿing era, the "Thirteen Classics"), almost in the same manner as Christianity added the New Testament to the "Old."
Just as Christians debated whether the Old Testament "canon" should be the Hebrew version, with Judaism, or the expanded old Greek version, language and culture influenced the formation of "canonical" distinctions in many religions. Centuries after the death of the Buddha, ancient traditions were combined in South Asia to form what is presently called the "Pali canon" (c. 29–17 bce). A century or so later, a different "canonical" literature developed in India, written in Sanskrit and eventually translated into Chinese and Tibetan, which became foundational for Mahāyāna Buddhism. In contrast to adherents of the Pali canon, these Buddhists regarded the sūtras of the Mahāyāna ("great vehicle") as an alternative canon, the only true authority regarding what the Buddha himself taught. Even within later Zen Buddhism, where the idea of a canon seems antithetical, one may consider the lists of kōan s, questions and answers developed in regional monasteries for training and testing students, as attaining "canonical" status as a constant feature of the instructions given by particular Zen masters.
Just as some "Christian" gnostics dismissed the Hebrew Bible in favor of a "New Testament," one may find an analogy with the development of Hinduism as a reaction against certain aspects of Vedic religion. Similar to the Jewish distinction between written and oral law was the distinction made by brahmans between two kinds of "canonical" literature. Śruti ("heard") generally refers to the ritualistic literature found in the Upaniṣads and is believed to be revealed directly from divinity, while smṛti ("remembered") designates the epics, the later Purāṇas and other legal and philosophical writings touching on practical matters of personal, social, and domestic conduct. Even if śruti has a higher status, it can be viewed as a lower kind of ritualistic knowledge in comparison with the immediate moral implications of smṛti. So, too, even if the oral law does not defile the hands, it may provide a more explicit and pragmatically significant register of the demands of a holy life in Judaism than one can find by simply reading the written law.
The above descriptions adumbrate some of the possibilities and problems in the use of canon as a technical term in the study of religion. The term inherently vacillates between two distinct poles, in both secular and religious usage. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a rule, standard, ideal, norm, or authoritative office or literature, whether oral or written. On the other hand, it can signify a temporary or perpetual fixation, standardization, enumeration, listing, chronology, register, or catalog of exemplary or normative persons, places, or things. The former dimension emphasizes internal signs of an elevated status. The latter puts stress on the precise boundary, limits, or measure of what, from some preunderstood standard, belongs within or falls outside of a specific "canon." For the purpose of illustrating these significant differences, I shall call the former "canon 1" and the latter "canon 2." This "ideal" distinction only demarcates poles in a continuum of options, since the essential nature and status of a normative tradition or a "scripture" within a religion inevitably emerges through its own unique, dialectical interplay between these polarities. The interplay itself engenders a systemic ambiguity in any discussion of religious canons and helps account for the variety of ways, sometimes conflicting, in which the term canon has been employed in recent scholarship.
In its first usage as rule, standard, ideal, or norm, the term canon in the secular domain may apply to a wide range of fields in which a standard of excellence or authority governs the proper exercise of a discipline. For example, it can reflect criteria by which one makes decisions within a field of inquiry, whether these choices conform to grammatical and mathematical principles or indices of aesthetic excellence in rhetoric, art, or music. Implicit in such canons is some political and social theory of intellectual consensus about the quality, worth or preservation, and validity of that which is being judged and remembered. Likewise, religious iconography, Buddhist organization of a city, and church architecture reflect implicit canonical assumptions. The success of "pop art" in the 1960s may have resided partly in its ability to make our implicit canons explicit. The Campbell's Soup can we had accepted in some unconsciously canonical sense suddenly appears before us in an explicitly canonical form through the medium of art. The dynamism possible within such canons becomes evident when, for instance, one surveys the changing collections of art museums and contrasts their content with the work being done in artists' studios.
In examining religious scriptures as "canons," one may generalize that the founding leaders of religions almost never compose for their disciples a complete scripture. The one obvious exception is that of the third-century Mani, founder of Manichaeism. There are usually substantial periods after the death of a leader or founder when oral and/or written traditions function authoritatively as canonical, in the sense of representing a scripture without specific dimension. This dynamic process may be influenced greatly by later disciples, and the scriptures may for long periods of time, if not indefinitely, lack the public form of a fixed list of books or a standardized "text." At the same time, canonical criteria, such as "inspiration," incarnation of the Dharma, and so on, are sufficient for them to sustain their scriptural status. The initial recognition of some traditions as being crucially foundational or scriptural sets in motion political and economic pressures within the religion that usually lead to the formation of a scripture in the latter sense of canon (canon 2).
From the standpoint of Christian history, one may argue that the term canon has been and may continue to be useful in the designation of extrabiblical oral or written decisions that are binding in matters of faith and practice, as part of a church's teaching magisteria. Certainly, prior to the fourth century, some Christian traditions were explicitly canonical (canon 1) in the sense that they provided normative religious guidance outside of the Hebrew Bible. Justin Martyr cites from the "Sayings of the Lord" source as authoritative alongside the Hebrew Bible and arguably refuses to do the same with the Gospel narratives or Paul's letters. It is unlikely that these "sayings" belong to a fixed list. Therefore, one can say that Christian scripture had a canonical status (canon 1) long before the church decisions of the fourth century delimited a fixed list of books (canon 2). More precisely, the canonization (canon 2) is by degree, since even in the fourth and fifth centuries the standardization of the actual text had not taken place.
Despite the silence of the rabbinic tradition on the subject, recent studies of Judaism commonly refer to "canon(s)" and "canonization." In a provocative study, Sid Leiman regards a religious book as "canonical" if it is "accepted by Jews as authoritative for religious practice and/or doctrine … binding for all generations … and studied and expounded in private and in public" (Leiman, 1976, p. 14). Because this definition conforms to criteria of canon 1, Leiman can claim that the oral law is "canonical," although it both is "uninspired" and does not defile the hands as scripture. Relying on this principle of normativeness, Leiman can distinguish between different kinds of books: "outside" or banned books; secular or "Homeric" books that deserve reading; inspired canonical books (scripture); and uninspired canonical books (oral law, i.e., Mishnah/Talmud). Consequently, the Jewish discussion at the end of the first century ce at Yavneh over the status of the Book of Ecclesiastes concerned only its "inspiration," not its canonicity, for it could continue to be cited as normative even if not as "scripture."
Conversely, other scholars, (see, for example, Jacob Neusner, 1983, pp. 11–37) argue that the ritual difference, "defiling the hands," did not produce any clear levels of canonical authority between the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah/Talmud, other religious books, and the "inspired" commentary of a rabbi. If canonicity (canon 1) is determined by the norm of revelation itself, then distinctions either among levels of canonicity or between canonical and noncanonical literature begin to blur. If, as Neusner suggests, the rabbis themselves embodied the torah (law), then for students of religion there is only limited value in a descriptive appeal to certain texts as "canonical." If the meaning of these texts resides in a spiritual or "Midrashic" sense held by consensus among "inspired" rabbis rather than in a "plain" literary, or peshaṭ, sense, then the semantic import is not publicly available through a reading of the scripture per se. Similarly, some Catholic scholars currently locate the canonical sense of Christian scripture in the teaching magisterium (canon 1) of the church hierarchy rather than in either a literary or historical-critical assessment of biblical texts themselves. In such an approach, a scripture may be viewed as the deposit of a variety of historical traditions, any of which may or may not be "canonical" (canon 1) according to an "inspired" norm or standard inherent within the leadership of the religion itself. In this case, identifying a scripture may shed only modest light on the beliefs of a religion.
From a historical perspective, the final formation of a scripture (canon 2) usually results from an earlier, often obscured process of redaction, expansion, and selection of texts (canon 1), whether one thinks of the Dao de jing of Daoism, the various Buddhist canons, the extensive collection of Jain "canonical" literature, or the Hindu Mahābhārata and the Bhagavadgītā along with the older Vedas.
Often some underlying traditions of a scripture were considered normative or "canonical" for the earliest disciples, while other traditions gain an elevated status as scripture not anticipated by their celebrated founders, as, for example, through the posthumous deification of Lao-tzu. Repeatedly one finds evidence of how earlier oral or written traditions or writings, whose normativeness depended originally on more modest criteria, gradually gain greater authority, in terms of a later perception of religious genius, inspiration, revelation of the law (e.g., dharma ), or the presence of ultimate reality, perfection, or some other transcendent value. This adjustment in the believers' vision of canonical traditions within a religion often entails a radical shift in the perception, understanding, and significance of older traditions when they are caught up into the new context of a scripture.
Most often, canon and community are related dialectically in a process of semantic transformation. The steps taken by editors in this process may go unrecognized by the believers or may be seen as essential elements in the orchestration of the traditions in order to protect them from heretical misinterpretation. In sum, the recognition of canon 1 materials, defined as traditions offering a normative vehicle or an ideal standard, occurs in most world religions and usually contributes momentum to an impulse within the history of a religion to totalize, to circumscribe, and to standardize these same normative traditions into fixed, literary forms typical of canon 2.
The second usage of the term canon will be in the sense of a list, chronology, catalog, fixed collection, and/or standardized text. Scholars of comparative religion such as Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith have placed emphasis on the full appearance of a religion complete with its "scripture," reflecting whatever norms of excellence, truth, goodness, beauty, or revelation may be affirmed by the respective religious adherents. In religious studies, the foundational religious documents are most easily approached at this more developed stage, when they constitute a publicly available, delimited canon (canon 2) in the maturity of particular religious movements. Of course, only the most presumptuous type of "protestant" interpretation of other religions would presume that the ideas and beliefs of a religion can be grasped solely by a literary study of such religious canons. Smith has amply illustrated the problems that arise in the study of Islam because of this naïveté.
As already noted, the normativeness of religious traditions is usually acknowledged long before these same traditions attain a fixed dimension and textual standardization, the elements of canon 2. So, for example, after the death of the Buddha the disciples sought, although not without controversy, to envision the diverse sermons (canon 1) of the Blessed One as part of a larger collection (canon 2), a larger normative and publicly recognized canon.
Conversely, Mani claimed to write by inspiration "my scriptures," which combined the essence of older books or scriptures into one "great wisdom" (Kephalaia 154). His work remains exceptional in part because he is perhaps the only founder of a major religion who was self-consciously "inspired" to compose a complete "scripture." His work represents the best-known example of a canon that attained both normative authority and distinct literary boundaries at the same time. Even so, other generations of believers expanded and modified the canon. Mani's use of the Judeo-Christian concept of scripture corresponds to his hope of absorbing these two religions into his own, much as Islam aspired in its early development to bring Jews and Christians into its more universal fold.
Unlike most other religious canons, completed centuries after their founders had died, Islam settled most dimensions of the Qurʾān within only twenty-three years after the death of Muḥammad. One of the significant differences in the comparison of Islam with Judaism, Christianity, and Manichaeism is that the Qurʾān is not a "scripture" in the sense of an inspired, historically accommodated writing. The Qurʾān is the actual word of God, representing an eternal archetype of revelation cast in heavenly language. Unlike Christianity's scripture of "books" (ta biblia ), the Qurʾān is more simply "the Book." Nevertheless, during the lifetime of the Prophet, his disciples did not have the book of the Qurʾān as we now know it. The order of the chapters and other significant editorial influence belongs to the hands of the disciples who succeeded the Prophet. Moreover, the later collections of the sunnah (customary practice of the Prophet), now found in the ḥadīth, provided a normative and, therefore, "canonical" (canon 1) guide to Muslim exegesis. As with the Jewish Karaites and the Antiochene Christian exegetes, many "spiritualists" within Islam could lay claim to their own direct insight upon scripture in a manner that diminished the significance of the ḥadīth and could appear to assign normative, and in that sense, "canonical" status to the Qurʾān alone.
Regarding the final delimitation of the Hebrew scriptures, most scholars agree that the promulgation by Ezra of a five-book Torah in the early postexilic period constituted a decisive moment in the formation of Judaism. Unlike the later case of the Christian Gospels, the Pentateuch comprised a single, allegedly Mosaic "book of the Torah" (Jos. 1:7–8). From a traditional-historical standpoint, this Mosaic Torah appears to combine multiple older, normative torot, or laws, in the sense of canon 1 and/or canon 2 (e.g., Proto-Deuteronomy ) into a fixed and integrated collection of books (canon 2). This combination of traditions most likely reflects the legislation preserved and venerated by two different groups from the Babylonian exile—bearers of Jerusalemite priestly tradition (e.g., the laws in Exodus 22ff.) and deuteronomistic interpreters (e.g., the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5 and the subsequent laws). The effect would be to make much private tradition public and to set all of the laws forward to be interpreted together as parts of the same revelation of law delivered by God to Moses prior to the conquest of Palestine.
Similar to the codification by the Egyptians of the Fifth Pharaonic Law early in the same period, the promulgation of the Mosaic Torah probably occurred in response to a benevolent policy under Persian sovereignty. As a reward for this codification and public promulgation of the private or secret religious law, the Persians sanctioned the right of Jewish leaders to make juridical decisions according to it in exchange for obedience to Persian civil and international law. In any case, these events undoubtedly helped to accelerate the forces behind the formation of a part of a religious canon.
The compilation of the exact list of books that make up the completed Hebrew Bible could not be completed until late in the first century, perhaps not until the second. Furthermore, the textual standardization of the Bible continued up to the end of the first millennium, culminating in a relatively uniform consensus regarding the orthography, punctuation, and vocalization of the so-called Masoretic text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures. Here, as in the case of Christianity and many other religions, the process of canonization in the sense of canon 2 entails a resolution of the limits of the collection before a full standardization of the text can take place. Centuries might elapse during this process of full canonization (canon 2), and it may be much easier for believers to debate the authority of the latest stages in the process of the text's stabilization than it is for them to reopen the question of whether a book really belongs in the scripture at all. The length of the process of full canonization may often affect the believer's assessment of what represents the final text.
The semantic import of the formation of a canon 2 should not be underestimated. Christianity and Judaism amply illustrate this feature. Unlike the above-mentioned instance of the Pentateuch, the individual Christian Gospels retained their independence from one another despite the assumption that they collectively convey the same "one" gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the late ending of Mark attests to an effort at bringing that work into greater harmony within the canonical collections of gospels. Paul's letters illustrate a different feature, for they include in a single collection some original letters in edited and unedited form, for example, Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, together with deutero-Pauline traditions reflective of a later generation, for example, 2 Thessalonians. The original Pauline letters, which were written before the composition of the Gospels, were, through canonization, subordinated to the Gospels as commentary upon them. Similarly, the Gospel of John is read contextually within scripture in connection with the so-called Johannine letters (1, 2, and 3 Jn.), even though the historic evidence of common authorship is extremely weak. Again, this type of canonization alters the religious vision of the preceding authoritative traditions (canon 1) as being part of a larger "inspired" New Testament. The terms New Testament and Old Testament likewise signal a change in the perceived significance of the Hebrew Bible when read as part of a Christian text in the context of a purportedly new revelation. The difference in religious visions of the "shared" scripture implies profound distinctions between the import of the Tanakh within Judaism and that of an "Old Testament" within Christian interpretation.
Scripture and Canon
These ideal distinctions between canon as a norm and canon as a list or standardization of text usually overlap in the actual assessment of a particular religion. For example, in the Tanakh and the New Testament one can detect evidence of "canon-conscious redactions," whereby assumptions about the normativeness (canon 1) of the traditions and of their being read together in a specific collection (canon 2) coincide.
Historicized titles added to the psalms assigned to David link these prayers contextually to the narrative about David in 1 and 2 Samuel. The epilogue to Ecclesiastes summarizes the essence of the book in a manner that puts the "wisdom," or Solomonic, books in full continuity with the Torah. The addition of titles to some of the Christian Gospels makes their character and common witness together as Gospels more explicit than their original authors could have envisioned. The Gospel of Luke in the Western tradition has now been separated from its original sequel, Acts of the Apostles, by the Gospel of John. In this way, the Gospels were read collectively and Acts came to mark a transition from the teachings of Jesus to that of the apostle Paul. This type of organization of highly diverse traditions into partially harmonized canons of literature is also common to the canons of other world religions.
As has already been shown, considerable differences of opinion exist among scholars over the appropriate relationship between the terms scripture and canon. At a minimum, these terms both gain and lose some of their historical significance when they are taken away from the specific religious vocabulary of Judaism and Christianity for the purpose of an etic assessment of world religions. Frequently scholars have used scripture and canon synonymously, although ambiguity in both terms, particularly in the latter, suggests the need for more careful definitions and historical finesse. In the application of both terms to a religion, the interpreter stands within a hermeneutical circle. Only by some prior judgment regarding the identity of the believers of a given religion can any description be proffered regarding their "canons" and their modes of interpreting the same. Moreover, this judgment is hindered by the ethnocentrism of the outside observer, as well as by the difficulty in taking a term indigenous to one religion and assigning to it a technical usage appropriate for describing features of other religions.
Nevertheless, contemporary efforts to understand how canons achieve formation and exercise significance within a religion has already proved unusually illuminating as a way to describe and to compare religions generally. The interpretation of religion must inevitably assume some operational certitude regarding the identity, the economic character, and the literary sources of revelation or truth to which religions lay claim in the world. It must be carried out with an acute awareness that the heretics and noncanonical sayings of some will likely be viewed as the saints and scripture of others.
Beyer, Hermann W. "Kanon." In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1965. An excellent word study of the Greek term in secular and Christian sources.
Bleeker, C. Jouco, ed. Historia Religionum: Handbook for the History of Religion, vol. 2, Religions of the Present. Leiden, 1971. An excellent overview of religions with careful attention to the historical appearance of normative traditions in each.
Brown, Raymond E. The Critical Meaning of the Bible. New York, 1981. A significant Catholic example of the modern attempt to distinguish between the "literal" and the "canonical sense" of the biblical text.
Campenhausen, Hans von. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Philadelphia, 1972. A classic study of the canonization of the New Testament.
Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia, 1979. An examination of how the canonization of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) influenced the "shape" and semantic import of biblical books.
Childs, Brevard S. The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. Philadelphia, 1985. A study of the New Testament from the perspective of the role played by canonization in its formation as scripture.
Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 2, From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. Chicago, 1982. A monumental overview in which "canon" and "scripture" are employed as categories to interpret major world religions.
Leiman, Sid Z. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture. Hamden, Conn., 1976. A controversial reexamination of the primary evidence for the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. Leiman helpfully collects and translates relevant texts from the Mishnah, the Talmud(s), and other sources.
Neusner, Jacob. Midrash in Context. Philadelphia, 1983. A provocative study of how the oral law came to accompany Jewish scripture in the history of that religion, as well as the implications of "canon" for the same.
Peters, F. E. Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Princeton, 1982. A comparative investigation into the three "religions of the book," including concern with issues of scripture and tradition.
Sanders, James A. Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism. Philadelphia, 1984. An attempt to understand the dynamic of religious interpetation in Judaism and Christianity through a hermeneutical theory of canonization.
Sheppard, Gerald T. Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct: A Study in the Sapientializing of the Old Testament. Berlin and New York, 1980. A monograph that examines the canonical understanding of "wisdom" and "wisdom books" in prerabbinic Judaism and explores similar examples of late "canon conscious redactions" within the Hebrew Bible itself.
Sheppard, Gerald T. "Canonization: Hearing the Voice of the Same God through Historically Dissimilar Traditions." Interpretation 36 (January 1982): 21–33. An examination of the semantic import of the selection and editing of traditions in the formation of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. "The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (June 1971): 131–140. A general theory regarding the proper understanding of "Bible" in the study of comparative religions.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. "The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian's Nonreductionist Interpretation of the Qurʾān." International Journal of Middle East Studies 11 (July 1980): 487–505. A consideration of the problem of understanding what constitutes viable religious interpretation from a history of religions perspective.
Sundberg, Albert C., Jr. The Old Testament of the Early Church. Cambridge, 1964. An argument, based on an examination of early Christian appeals to "scripture," that the conception of a "scripture" without specific dimensions preceded the later ecclesiastical decisions regarding a "canonical" Bible conforming to a specific list of books.
Assmann, Aleida, and Jan Assmann, eds. Kanon und Zensur. Munich, 1987. Proceedings of two conferences on canonization and censorship, including contributions in both sociological and historical perspectives.
Farneti, Roberto. Il canone moderno. Filosofia politica e genealogia. Turin, Italy, 2002.
Kooij, Arie van der, and Karel van der Toorn. Canonization and Decanonization. Papers presented to the International Conference of the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions. Leiden, 1998. This important volume includes a first section on "(De)canonization and the History of Religions" and a second section on "(De)canonization and Modern society." An annotated bibliography compiled by J. A. M. Snoek (pp. 436–506) makes this book an indispensable tool for any future study on the topic.
Gerald T. Sheppard (1987)
There is no such thing as the Buddhist canon. In fact, the concepts of canon and canonicity are especially problematic in Buddhism, given the wide geographical spread and great historical variety of the religion, together with the absence of any central authority. If the term canon is defined loosely as a more or less bounded set of texts accorded preeminent authority and sanctity, then each Buddhist school or tradition to evolve developed its own canon in the process. While agreeing on the centrality of the notion of buddhavacana (word of the Buddha) as capable of leading others to awakening, Buddhists may and do differ over what actually constitutes this buddhavacana.
In view of the perennial possibility of disagreement and misunderstanding, Buddhists formulated explicit guidelines for authenticating religious teachings as true buddhavacana and interpreting them correctly. These guidelines include the four great authorities (mahāpadeśa), which directed that teachings were to be accepted as authentic if they were heard from (1) the Buddha himself; (2) a saṄgha of elders; (3) a group of elder monks specializing in the transmission of dharma (i.e., sūtra), vinaya or mātṛkās (the matrices or mnemonic lists that became the abhidharma); or (4) a single elder specializing therein. But teachings heard from any of these authorities could only be accepted if they conformed with existing scriptural tradition (i.e., with the sūtra and vinaya), and also, according to a variant formulation, if they did not contradict the nature of things (dharmatā). Another set of principles, not subscribed to by all Buddhist groups, held that in receiving and interpreting teachings one should follow the four refuges or reliances (pratiśarana), relying on the dharma taught in preference to the person teaching it, the meaning (or spirit) of it rather than the letter, sūtras of definitive or explicit meaning (nītārtha) rather than implicit meaning requiring interpretation (neyārtha), and direct understanding (jñāna) rather than discursive knowledge (vijñāna).
Even while emphasizing seniority and tradition, these interpretative principles place a higher premium on content and its realization than they do on form and obedience to it. Truth (dharma) emerges as the primary value, ever the same whether buddhas arise to preach it or not, independent of particular formulations by particular people, so that eventually the statement "All that the Buddha has said is well said" is turned around: Whatever is well said (i.e., true) is the word of the Buddha. Canonicity is therefore defined in functional terms: If a teaching is meaningful, if it is in line with the dharma, and if it tends to eliminate the defilements and lead to liberation, then any product of inspiration (pratibhāna) may be accepted as the word of the Buddha. Under such conditions, innovations inevitably crept in, some of them rejected as not being the true word of the Buddha, but some of them finding acceptance, especially if they accorded in spirit with existing belief. It was in this way that the Mahāyāna sūtras eventually came to be accepted by some Buddhists as buddhavacana, as did the Buddhist tantras after them. Thus Buddhism functioned from early on with what is almost a contradiction in terms, an "open canon," in which commonly accepted principles of authenticity take the place of a rigidly defined and bounded set of texts in a given linguistic form. The latter would have been well-nigh impossible in any case because Buddhism functioned in a situation of regional and linguistic diversity, with Buddhists living in autonomous self-governing communities.
Form, content, and transmission
Agreement in such circumstances was by consensus, despite occasional attempts by kings and emperors to enforce orthodoxy. Several so-called councils (saṃgīti, group recitations) are supposed to have been held as the fledgling saṅgha tried to maintain unity on what was to be accepted as the true word of the Buddha or the correct interpretation of the rules of discipline. The first council at Rājagrha took place after the death of the Buddha. At this council, the disciple Ānanda recited the sūtras (discourses delivered by the Buddha, or others accorded equivalent authority), and UpĀli recited the vinaya (rules of discipline for renunciants). The community accepted their recounting of these two bodies of texts, with only some monks dissenting.
Yet even this account of a san ˙ gha relatively united as to what the Buddha had taught may oversimplify history. Later councils (at Vaiśalī, Pāṭaliputra, etc.) were occasions for more serious disagreements, which led to the formation of the different nikāyas by sects or schools each recognizing the validity of its own ordination lineage only. In India it appears that each nikāya came to transmit its own set of sacred texts, initially dividing them into sūtra and vinaya. In some schools, the sūtra and vinaya were supplemented from about the second century b.c.e. onwards by the abhidharma, an even more variable set of texts (seven for the Sarvāstivādins, a different seven for the Theravādins, and so on), which systematized the teachings in terms of the particular categories they fell under. Some schools rejected this third category, but for most the notion of the canon as consisting of the three baskets (tripiṭaka) of sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma became standard. The tripiṭaka of one school, as far as scholars know, was never the same as that of the next, although the loss of the literature of most schools makes it difficult to be certain about the extent of difference. Nevertheless, there are certain commonalities. For example, the sūtra-piṭakas were divided into sections (nikāyas, āgamas) according to such criteria as length, subject, or numerical category (there was also a miscellaneous category, for texts that did not fit any of these). The vinayas were divided into rules for men and rules for women, these being ordered according to the seriousness of the offense, with other sections devoted to particular aspects of community life (ordination, official acts, property, etc.). The resulting collections of texts, which are referred to as canons, were therefore quite varied, extensive, and structurally complex.
One of the primary functions of the Buddhist order was to preserve and transmit all this literature, at first orally, then in writing, from generation to generation, even though Buddhists have always had a keen sense of the fragility of this enterprise. They believe that this effort is bound to fail in the end, due to human weakness, so that the work of a buddha will need to be done over and over again. Different groups of renunciants took responsibility for the transmission of different sections of their school's canon, committing them to memory, although occasionally people with prodigious mental powers mastered the whole canon. One consequence of this "division of labor" is that the same text can occur in two or more different places in a given canon. Oral transmission also led to extreme redundancy and repetition, the same formulas and blocks of text recurring in many different contexts.
From about the first century b.c.e. onward the texts began to be committed to writing, on palm leaf, birch bark, and other materials. This was only partially successful in preserving the texts for posterity, and most have been lost. The only canon to survive in its entirely tirety is that of the Theravadins, written in the Pāli language. It shows that some schools kept their scriptures in ancient tongues, but in the extant fragments of other schools' canons it is apparent that a continuous process of Sanskritization was under way. The use of various Indian languages is another sign of the absence of any central authority. In one sense all Buddhist scriptures, even those in Pāli, are translations; it is not known what language (s) the Buddha himself spoke, but he is supposed to have sanctioned his followers' use of their own dialects for transmitting his teachings. The Buddhist canon is thus thoroughly multilingual. Parts of the canons of many Indian schools are extant in Chinese or Tibetan translation, as well as in Sanskrit fragments displaying different degrees of regularization from earlier Prakritic or Middle Indic dialect forms to classical Sanskrit. Thus the vinayas of six schools have survived, as well as parts of the sūtra-piṭakas of the Sarvāstivādins, the Dharmaguptakas, and the MahĀsĀmghikas. Abhidharma texts from various schools, in particular the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins, also survive. But while manuscripts continue to be found, the greater part of the Indian Buddhist canons has no doubt vanished forever. Buddhist teachings, which emphasize the inevitability of transformation and loss, have themselves succumbed to it.
Even when it was fully extant, it is unlikely that many Buddhists ever knew their canon in its entirety, as a Muslim might know the Qur'an or a Christian the Bible. The Buddhist scriptures are simply too extensive, so that most members of the order would have been familiar with and used only a small number of them, a functional partial canon as opposed to an ideal complete one. Scholars also believe that Buddhists belonging to different mainstream or Śrāvakayāna schools would have accepted much of what the other groups transmitted as canonical, agreeing on the broad principles, and differing only on particular points of doctrine, and, more importantly, on points of monastic discipline. Some of the most heated disputes in the history of the order were over the vinaya. With the advent of the MahĀyĀna, with its prodigious outpouring of new scriptures, the scope for disagreement increased, and the bounds of the Buddhist canon became less distinct. The Mahāyāna canon was even more open than the mainstream one, and followers of that path are in most cases unlikely to have known more than a tiny fraction of the literature it generated. The same is true of tantric Buddhism, with its many
classes of tantras, ritual and soteriological texts, which outnumbered even the Mahāyāna sūtras.
Buddhist canons outside India
The complexity of this picture increased still further when Buddhism spread beyond the greater Indian cultural area. Although the Pāli canon of the Theravādins eventually established itself as the standard in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, in Central Asia and China different schools coexisted, and the Mahāyāna orientation was dominant. The Chinese translated scriptures belonging to these different schools and to this new movement with great zeal, the result being that the Chinese Buddhist canon took on a rather different shape. At first the work of bibliographers and cataloguers, later the product of imperial decree, authorized and funded by the court, the Chinese Buddhist canon (Dazangjing, literally "Great Storehouse Scripture") was a far more comprehensive collection. It eventually included Chinese translations of texts from the tripitakas of different Indian schools and of huge quantities of the Mahāyāna sūtras and Buddhist tantras produced in India from approximately the first century c.e. onward, as well as commentaries and treatises, texts written in China, biographies of monks and nuns, lexicographical works, and even the catalogues of Buddhist scriptures themselves. The sheer number and diversity of texts made the use of the tripartite structure of the tripiṭaka unfeasible. What is more, the Chinese retained different translations of the same text, often produced many centuries apart, affording modern scholars an excellent view of how texts and translation techniques developed over time.
Thus the Chinese Buddhist canon, which became the standard in Korea and Japan as well, is vast. It has appeared in numerous editions, many of them made with imperial patronage, although the one most often consulted by scholars today is the Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (New Edition of the Buddhist Canon Made during the Taishō Reign), published in Japan from 1924 to 1934 in one hundred volumes, each of which runs to about a thousand pages (eighty-five volumes of texts containing 2,920 works, twelve volumes of iconography, and three of catalogues). Yet, immense as it is, the Taishō is not the only edition; many others have survived as well, and thus "the Chinese Buddhist canon" is itself an abstraction of many highly variable collections. This proliferation of editions was in part due to state involvement, as each successive set of rulers sought to legitimate themselves politically as patrons of religion, or aspired for reasons of piety to the merit that the propagation of the buddhadharma generates.
These ideological considerations were instrumental in stimulating the invention and spread of printing technologies in East Asia, long before they were known in the West. Thus the world's oldest printed works are Buddhist texts, and from the tenth century onward the earlier manuscript copies of the Chinese Buddhist canon were replaced by printed editions, first using carved wooden blocks, then movable metal type. The production of these editions required resources that in those days only states could muster, although in recent times wealthy religious and commercial organizations have also become involved.
The same is true of Tibet, where in the fourteenth century the efforts of cataloguers trying to make sense of the sheer diversity of Buddhist texts combined with the interests of political authorities, intent on their own kind of order, to produce the first of many editions of the Tibetan canon, the Old Snar thang. Unlike the Chinese, the Tibetans were generally disinclined to preserve multiple translations of the same text, but their canon (upon which the Mongolian canon is also based) is equally vast. It has two major divisions, the Bka' 'gyur (the Word Translated; i.e., buddhavacana) and the Bstan 'gyur (the Teachings Translated; i.e., commentaries and other treatises). The Bka' 'gyur includes the three subdivisions of vinaya (that of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school), sūtra (predominantly Mahāyāna sūtras, in their various categories), and tantra (also arranged in various classes). The Bstan 'gyur also reflects these categories. The arrangement of all these texts differs according to edition, and sometimes one edition carries works not found in another.
As is the case with the Chinese canon, the Tibetan translations preserve much that is lost in Sanskrit. Some of the most prestigious editions (Peking, Sde dge, Snar thang, etc.) have been mass-produced woodblock prints; others have been manuscript productions, written by hand on expensive papers with ink made of precious metals and enclosed between ornate covers studded with jewels. The resources expended on this activity have been enormous, and the results are objects of great beauty. For Tibetans, as for other Buddhists, the sanctity of the canon derives from the sanctity of the liberating truth it contains and of the person who uttered it, and therefore the scriptures too are the focus of worship and veneration. They are not like any other books, but embody a special power, and must therefore be treated with reverence and respect, in a way similar, but not identical, to the way in which Jews approach the Torah, Christians the Bible, and Muslims the Qur'an.
Canon and canonicity are therefore never the same from one religion to the next, even if common themes can be found. Furthermore, the Buddhist canon turns out to be a large family of collections of texts in different languages and from different places, all sharing descent from a common set of forebears—the divergent oral reports of what the Buddha had taught, which were circulating among his disciples at his death some time in the fifth century b.c.e. Not unitary in content or linguistic expression even at the beginning, it is unimaginably diverse in both respects two and a half millennia later, as it continues to grow with editions and translations into English and other modern languages. At the same time, the Buddhist canon is unified by a common concern with setting out the path to salvation. Just as the waters of the ocean, however vast, have the same taste of salt at any point, so too all
the many teachings of the Buddha have a single taste everywhere, that of liberation. And as to the path by which liberation is attained, Buddhists are fond of quoting the verse (Udānavarga 28.1):
Not doing any evil, accomplishing what is good,
Purifying one's own mind: this is the teaching of the Buddha.
Davidson, Ronald M. "An Introduction to the Standards of Scriptural Authenticity in Indian Buddhism." In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
Grönbold, Günter. Der buddhistische Kanon: Eine Bibliographie. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1984.
Harrison, Paul. "A Brief History of the Tibetan Bka' 'gyur." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. Roger Jackson and José Cabezón. New York: Snow Lion, 1996.
Lamotte, Étienne. "La critique d'authenticité dans le bouddhisme." In India Antiqua (1947): 213–222. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1947. English translation by Sara Boin-Webb, "The Assessment of Textual Authenticity in Buddhism." Buddhist Studies Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 4–15.
Lamotte, Étienne. "La critique d'interprétation dans le bouddhisme." Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientales et Slaves 9 (1949): 341–361. English translation by Sara Boin-Webb, "The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism." In Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.
Norman, K. R. Pāli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of All the Hlnayana Schools of Buddhism. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1983.
Pagel, Ulrich. "Buddhism." In Sacred Writings, ed. Jean Holm. London and New York: Pinter, 1994.
Ray, Reginald. "Buddhism: Sacred Text Written and Realized." In The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective, ed. Frederick M. Denny and Rodney L. Taylor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.
von Hinüber, Oskar. A Handbook of Pali Literature. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996.
1. Title of a member of the chapter of a cathedral or collegiate church.
2. (Gk., Kanon, ‘rule’). The determination of books which have authority in a religion, either because they are believed to be inspired or revealed, or because they have been so designated. In both Judaism (see BIBLE) and Christianity, the decision about which books were to be included or excluded was a long process—not leading to unanimity in Christianity, where Roman Catholics, relying on the Latin translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew, included additional books not recognized by Jews or other Christians (Apocrypha). The earliest witness to the present canon of the New Testament is the Festal Letter of Athanasius for 367 CE; and the canon of both Testaments was probably finally fixed in Rome in 382.
The term ‘canon’ is then frequently applied to collections of sacred or holy texts in other religions. For Hinduism, see ŚRUTI; SMṚTI; VEDA; VEDĀNTA; and further refs. ad loc. For Buddhism (Pāli canon, etc.), see BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES; TRIPIṬAKA. The term ‘canon’ has been applied to revered and authoritative Jain texts (e.g. ‘the 45 text canon’), but the term is particularly awkward in this case: see DIGAMBARA; AṄGA. For Sikhs, see ĀDI GRANTH. For the Taoist canon, see TAO-TSANG. In Japan, the Nihongi and Kojiki were given a status which made them effectively ‘canonical’.
3. The central prayer of consecration in the Roman mass, and in all eucharistic liturgies in different forms. It assumed its present form under Gregory the Great (590–604). Unlike the practice in Eastern churches (see ANAPHORA), the RC Church maintained a single invariable prayer until recent times. Applied to other liturgies, ‘canon’ is practically synonymous with the more usual term ‘eucharistic prayer’.
4. A type of hymn sung at the E. (Byzantine) Orthodox morning office.
can·on1 / ˈkanən/ • n. 1. a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged: the canons of fair play and equal opportunity. ∎ a church decree or law: a set of ecclesiastical canons. 2. a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine: the formation of the biblical canon. ∎ the works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine: the Shakespeare canon. ∎ a list of literary or artistic works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality: Hopkins was established in the canon of English poetry. 3. (also canon of the Mass) (in the Roman Catholic Church) the part of the Mass containing the words of consecration. 4. Mus. a piece in which the same melody is begun in different parts successively, so that the imitations overlap. PHRASES: in canon Mus. with different parts successively beginning the same melody. can·on2 • n. a member of the clergy who is on the staff of a cathedral, esp. one who is a member of the chapter. ∎ (also canon regular or regular canon) (in the Roman Catholic Church) a member of certain orders of clergy that live communally according to an ecclesiastical rule in the same way as monks.
1. Strictest form of contrapuntal imitation. The word means ‘rule’ and, musically, it is applied to counterpoint in which one melodic strand gives the rule to another, or to all the others, which must, at an interval of time, imitate it, note for note. Simple forms of choral canon are the catch and the round. There are varieties of canon, as follows:
canon at the octave in which the vv. (human or instr.) are at that pitch-interval from one another. canon at the fifth, or at any other interval, is similarly explained.
A canon for 2 vv. is called a canon 2 in 1 (and similarly with canon 3 in 1, etc.). A canon 4 in 2 is a double canon, i.e. one in which 2 vv. are carrying on one canon whilst 2 others are engaged on another.
canon by augmentation has the imitating vv. in longer notes than the one that they are imitating. canon by diminution is the reverse. canon cancrizans is a type in which the imitating v. gives out the melody backwards (‘cancrizans’ from Lat. cancer = crab; but crabs move sideways). Other names for it are canon per recte et retro (or rectus et inversus) and retrograde canon.
A perpetual canon or infinite canon is a canon so arranged that each v., having arrived at the end, can begin again, and so indefinitely as in Three blind mice. The converse is finite canon.
strict canon in which the intervals of the imitating v. are exactly the same as those of the v. imitated (i.e. as regards their quality of major, minor, etc.).
In free canon the intervals remain the same numerically, but not necessarily as to quality (e.g. a major 3rd may become a minor 3rd).
That v. in a canon which first enters with the melody to be imitated is called dux (leader) or antecedent, and any imitating v. is called comes (companion) or consequent.
In canon by inversion (also styled al rovescio), an upward interval in the dux becomes a downward one in the comes, and vice versa. canon per arsin et thesin has the same meaning, but also another one, i.e. canon in which notes that fall on strong beats in the dux fall on weak beats in the comes, and vice versa.
Choral canon in which there are non-canonic instrumental parts is accompanied canon.
Passages of canonic writing often occur in comps. that, as wholes, are not canons. In addition to actual canonic comp. there exists a great deal of comp. with a similar effect but which is too free to come under that designation, being mere canonic imitation.
2. Name for psaltery (or canale).
Recorded from Old English, the word comes via Latin from Greek kanōn ‘rule’; it was reinforced in Middle English by Old French canon. From Middle English, the word also designated (in the Roman Catholic Church) the part of the Mass containing the words of consecration (also known as the canon of the Mass).
From late Middle English, canon has also designated a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine; from the late 19th century the term was extended to cover the works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine, and then a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality.
In music, a canon is a piece in which the same melody is begun in different parts successively, so that the imitations overlap; in canon means with different parts successively beginning the same melody. This sense is recorded from the late 16th century.
canon law ecclesiastical law, especially (in the Roman Catholic Church) that laid down by papal pronouncements.
canonical age in the Christian Church, the age according to canon law at which a person may seek ordination or undertake a particular duty.
canonical hour each of the times of daily prayer appointed in the breviary; each of the seven offices (matins with lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline) appointed for these times. In the Church of England, it is the time (now usually between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.) during which a marriage may lawfully be celebrated.
Later (from the mid 16th century), a member of the clergy who is on the staff of a cathedral, especially one who is a member of the chapter. The position is frequently conferred as an honorary one.
The word is recorded from Middle English and comes via Old French from Latin canonicus ‘according to rule’, ultimately from the base of canon1.