Einar Thomassen (ed.), Canon and Canonicity. The Formation and Use of Scripture. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010. Pp. 232. ISBN 9788763530279. $48.00. 

Reviewed by David J. DeVore, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

As editor Thomassen’s preface states (p. 7), the volume under review is the fruit of “Highways and Byways,” a project based in Norway’s Bergen University; the stated aim of the project is to explore early Christian discourses distinguishing “orthodoxy” from “heresy.” The volume contains ten essays by seven scholars based in Scandinavia, two from Greece, and one in the United States. Seven essays focus at least partially on canons in the Roman world; the last three study biblical canons in northern Europe since the Renaissance and will not be considered here.

Interesting associations and questions surround the formation of the Christian (and Jewish) Biblical canons as they became fixed by the middle of the fifth century. During the twentieth century and into the current decade the field concentrated on gathering relevant evidence, and then reading that evidence closely to see which authors/communities accepted which texts as sacred and when, and how firm the boundaries were between sacred, acceptable, and condemned texts.1 While these works eradicated the previous teleological assumption that somehow the eventual New Testament texts were intrinsically more central to Christianity, their agenda also narrowed the scholarship to repeatedly addressing questions of dating and community. But scholars of canonization have begun to address two wider clusters of questions, approaches, and explanations for the canons.

First, discussion of the formation of the Christian canon had until very recently remained “internalist”: the diachronic formation and sanction of community’s collective norms were described and explained almost solely from evidence generated by that community, so that works on the biblical canons focused almost exclusively on testimonia from elite insiders. An “externalist” account, by contrast, will show how its subject relates to adjacent contemporary events, debates, and power structures, but is not likely to present the internal evidence for canonization exhaustively.2 Some scholars working on Jewish and Christian canonicity, notably Jan Assmann, Jed Wyrick, and collectively the 2004 collection edited by Enrico Norelli, have recently adduced evidence from outside the Jewish and Christian ambits for probing Jewish and Christian canonicity.3

The second domain into which canonization studies have recently ventured is theory: for exploring the establishment of a canon of authoritative texts, social and literary theory offer numerous concepts and questions, as well as comparable contexts from other times and places. For example, literary critics have been debating the significance of canonicity in reading and educational practices for decades, while students of historical memory have illuminated processes by which societies select particular memories and canonize mementos of them.4 The works of Assmann and Wyrick noted above, as well as the deconstructionist monograph of Giuseppe Veltri, have pushed canonization studies into this realm.5

To the credit of all contributors, the volume under review continues to theorize and externalize the methodologies for biblical canon studies. The results, though not of uniform quality, will nonetheless provoke plenty of new directions for research.


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