Name Your “Canon within a Canon”

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Brevard Childs has argued that the process of canonization allowed for a certain ‘leveling,’ a general equality as it concerns the various books of the Bible.  Obadiah is just as authoritative as the gospel of Matthew, and Genesis just as seminal as Philemon.  While I do think there is great merit in such a view–quite a Jewish view, no less, as the Jewish Midrashim affirm just such an equality, using one text to interpret another–none of us is an entirely disinterested interpreter.  We all have our own experiences, ideologies, and idiosyncracies that inform our reading of texts.  And because of this, the canonical ‘leveling’ is in a way distorted.

I’m all for being an honest interpreter of the biblical text, noting that I have a particular set of spectacles through which I and I alone view the text.  I also have my own canon within the canon.  My view is not as limited as Bultmann’s, who emphasized essentially John and Paul alone as authoritative for teaching.  Nor do I agree with Bultmann here (though to be fair, he wasn’t making this point) that one’s canon within a canon bespeaks what one deems authoritative and what not authoritative.  Perhaps it is better to speak of gradations of authority?  To do so is only to be honest.

(A brief disclaimer: I am not intending to imply here that those books not mentioned are not authoritative for me or for anyone else.  Nor do I desire a reevaluation of the concept of canon or the results of canonization.  I am simply here trying to be honest about how I read.  It only helps me.  And those who read me).

So, I present to you my canon within a canon:

Hebrew Bible
1-2 Samuel
1-2 Kings

New Testament

Whew.  That was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be.   Any surprises?  There are a few that alllllllllllllllllllllmost made it on the list (Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-3 John), but as I reflect upon how I truly read the biblical text, this list seems a good fit.  For now.

And so I ask you . . . . what is your canon within the canon.  Why?

23 thoughts on “Name Your “Canon within a Canon”

    ben said:
    July 30, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    John I think you are missing a “not” in the first sentence of your disclaimer. Unless you are “intending to imply here that those books not mentioned are not authoritative for me or for anyone else.”

    John Anderson responded:
    July 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Good catch, Ben. Wouldn’t want to be called a heretic (at least not for the wrong reason!).

    So, what’s your canon within the canon?

    Aaron Rathburn said:
    July 30, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I plead the 5th ;-)

    Jim said:
    July 30, 2009 at 2:36 pm


    John Anderson responded:
    July 30, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Aaron: Your response puzzles me a bit. Why the hesitancy? Surely you don’t deny that you have a canon within a canon.

    Jim: By Zwingli’s standards, perhaps. I have ol’ Luther to fall back on (wink).

    And Jim, I’m just going to put you down for Paul and John, the same thing as Bultmann. Figured that would be a safe assumption. ha!

    Aaron Rathburn said:
    July 30, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    It’s a great question, and a legitimate point! I’ll have to brainstorm it =)

    ben said:
    July 30, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Since no one else is offering their list I’ll give my attempt at a canon within the canon.

    Hebrew Bible:
    Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Psalms, Daniel, Chronicles

    New Testament:
    Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Galatians, Hebrews, 1-3 John

    (As I look at this list, I wonder if this list is reflective of careful thought about what books I think are important, or is reflective of what books I have studied and tend to study more. In light of the absence of a book like Romans, I suspect the latter.)

    John Anderson responded:
    July 30, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Ben, thanks for being brave . . . . and honest.

    As to your final question, that is ultimately what I ended up thinking as well. To be fair, though, there are books on that list that I have not studied in depth (Galatians and Revelation among them), but something about them made them fit for me. The presence of Genesis for me should go without question! If anyone were going to accuse me of a Bultmannian canon within a canon, it would certainly be because of my focus on Genesis!

    Duane said:
    July 30, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    The NT text critic Ernest Cadman Colwell used to say that there were two types of Christians – Gospel Christians and Paul Christians. He noted that both would deny the charge and use scripture to support their denial. Gospel Christians would primarily cite the Gospels to prove how important Paul was and Paul Christians would primarily cite Paul’s letters to prove how important the Gospels were.

    John Anderson responded:
    July 30, 2009 at 7:00 pm


    Ha! What about Christians who want to read Paul as little as possible? Is that another type of gospel Christian?

    anummabrooke said:
    July 30, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    What, I’m just gonna tell the whole internets that I find Hebrews and the pastorals “strawy”? As if!

    John Anderson responded:
    July 30, 2009 at 10:02 pm


    I think you just did!

    Christopher Heard said:
    July 30, 2009 at 10:25 pm


    Roy "Eli" Garton said:
    July 30, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Hmmm, what’s my canon within a canon? That depends on what one means by “authoritative,” now doesn’t? Foundationally in epistemological sense, I guess I would have to say Gen 1:1a (stop at the atnach). :)

    Aaron Rathburn said:
    July 31, 2009 at 12:33 am

    For me in a foundationally epistemological sense, it would have to be Mark.

    John Anderson responded:
    July 31, 2009 at 7:38 am

    And, if I were to answer the question with a SINGLE BOOK, as many are here . . . . I would say Job.

    It captures the extremes of reality . . . . the righteous life, chaos and divine gambling, and the beauty and awesome (though terribly problematic) majesty of God.

    John Anderson responded:
    July 31, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Chris: Fascinating answer. My response of Job may have some affinities. Care to elaborate?

    Roy: Don’t worry so much about what words mean . . . . do what all good historical critics do and make it mean what you want (ha! just kidding, buddy)

    Aaron: Thanks for weighing in. I like Mark. Namely the ending. Lots to chew on there. Oh, and I also like the cameo of the crazy naked guy running in.

    James Pate said:
    July 31, 2009 at 10:46 am

    I have NO canon within a canon! I accept the whole Bible, and I walk around with it in my head. :D

    Actually–I tend to go with the idea that God loves humans amidst their imperfections and helps them to grow. A lot of the narrative parts of the Bible are like that, especially Genesis. I tend to downplay the parts that act like God won’t have anything to do with us if we’re not perfect. The Sermon on the Mount comes to mind there, especially the part about God not forgiving us if we don’t forgive others.

    Richard said:
    July 31, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians and John’s Gospel.

    John Anderson responded:
    July 31, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    James: Now THAT is honest, pick and choose theology. Danke!

    Richard: Good list. Weighted a little bit towards the NT side of things, but I don’t fault you for that (wink).

    I’m a bit surprised no one has asked me why I include Leviticus in my ‘canon within a canon’ list. To put it simply, I always get a kick out of asking ardently biblical literalist Christians how their cheeseburger tasted. It’s a dumb joke, but I enjoy doing it. They always end up looking at me like I have eight heads. Probably surprised I’ve read Leviticus. Not only have I READ Leviticus, I’ve translated large blocks of it from the Hebrew!

    James Pate said:
    July 31, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I actually have a soft spot in my heart for Leviticus. The reason is that so many Christians assume that one can’t get anything out of it. And yet, there HAS to be something valuable to it, since it is THE biblical guidebook on how to worship God. So part of the fun is seeing what meaning people find in various passages, or trying to find the meaning myself.

    Richard said:
    August 1, 2009 at 3:26 am

    John, I should probably have added Dtr and DtrH :-)

    Canon within a Canon | The Church of Jesus Christ said:
    August 3, 2009 at 8:49 am

    […] week, John Anderson wrote about his canon within a canon. He writes, Brevard Childs has argued that the process of canonization allowed for a certain […]

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