Do not Add to His Words: Another Look at the Canon

26 February 2015

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)

Each portion of Scripture had a specific origin in time at the hand of a particular person. Before its authorship the book did not exist. Only gradually, through the development of the Tradition, did Scripture take its rightful place of authority amongst the people of God. Sometimes centuries elapsed before this happened.

This appeal to Tradition may offend some of us who have been taught that Tradition equals error. But consider the history of Israel. Before Moses lived, was there no Word of God? Before Genesis was penned, upon what did the people of God rely for counsel and wisdom in a world of false religion? Did Abraham’s tribe have Scriptures of their own? If so, would these writings be considered part of the canon if recovered today? Such a speculative question is, of course, outside what we know from Scripture. But we have to account for the fidelity of the people of God before Moses. How did they know what was true and what was false? I would suggest that the children of Abraham were faithful to the Tradition (with or without a text, it doesn’t matter) taught by Jehovah, and this fidelity guarded them from error.

As we have looked at the writings of the Fathers, we have seen that an objective study of patristics does not make the canon “obvious.” It is also impossible, through an internal textual study, to determine what should or should not be included within the New Testament. If we ask Scripture to tell us what should be included in the canon we find ourselves in difficulty. After all, the Apostles freely drew from pseudo-canonical writings we do not accept or read. We have already looked at St. Jude’s use of the Book of Enoch. There are other examples.

  • St. Paul refers to the non-canonical book Jannes and Jambres (II Tim 3:8) when naming the magicians of Pharoah’s court in Moses’ time.
  • Hebrews, in referring to those who were “sawn in two,” alludes to and depends upon a book called the Martyrdom of Isaiah (Heb 11:7).
  • In addition to his use of the Book of Enoch, St. Jude cites the Assumption of Moses when he theologizes on the archangel Michael’s dispute with the devil over the body of Moses (Jude 9).

It is true that the Apostles do not declare these works to be inspired. But before we brush these three citations away as unimportant exceptions, we should consider how this relates to our attitude of the canon being self-evident. If we are going to practice the faith of the Apostles then shouldn’t we, at the very least, circulate and read the writings the Apostles quote? Ss. Paul and Jude seem to have been comfortable with them. Why aren’t we?