The wide conceptual field of the Greek term kanôn (Oppel 1930) seems to have only tangentially to do with that troublesome modern literary term, “the canon” (Guillory 1993). For instance, “the canon” as represented by today’s classroom literature anthologies, which metamorphose each generation according to new critical paradigms (Csicsila 2004), has little to do with the original sense of kanôn as a stable legal standard. As Jules Pfeiffer has noted, the secular emergence of “canon” also seems extremely late—in David Ruhnken (1723-98), whose Latin edition on the orator Publius Rutilius Lupus (Ruhnkenius 1768) contains the first application of the word “canon” to lists of chosen secular authors and works, that is, to what is regularly meant today by “the canon” as a choice of “the best” of literature (Pfeiffer 1968: 207; Harris 1991: 110). However, it is obvious that the classical era did have “canons” in all four key literary senses (criteria, corpuses, selections, lists)—but it is also clear that an inconsistent variety of terms were being used for them (e.g., pinax, ordo; see Pfeiffer 1968: 203-08; Rutherford 1998: 3n4). As a short but revisionary Begriffsgeschichte of literary canonicity, this paper will argue that, long before the terminological watershed of Ruhnken, the concept of “canon” was well in formation, and can only be understood in the classical era as a polysystem, or a rich, dynamic conceptual realm where fluctuating, interlinked factors and forces, working on multiple scales, have played out historically (Even-Zohar 1990). The key finding is that the classical and Judeo-Christian lines of concept-formation are not separate, but are much more closely interlinked than previously credited. Obviously, enormous effort has been spent in both biblical and classical studies on understanding how the particular groups of texts of most interest to these fields have been disseminated, but disciplinary boundaries have masked how similarly such canon-dissemination has occurred. This paper will synthesize recent studies by biblical scholars that isolate key steps in the formation of both the concepts and the realities of scriptural canons (among others, Dungan 2007; Toorn 2007; Van Seters 2006), for which the wider cultural contexts of the ancient and classical worlds are indispensible.
Because the paper will undoubtedly seem ambitious, at this point I would like to reassure the program committee that this is not a “prospectus” but indeed an “abstract,” one based on material composed for my book on The Canon, forthcoming in The New Critical Idiom Series of Routledge Press. There are five points that should be made about the early formation of the canon-concept. First, it is messy, and at times illogical, especially since it is hard to trace the terminology that the canon-concept is employing in different eras and languages. Second, where there is canon-terminology to be traced, the polysystem often is marked by upheaval rather than continuity. A good example of this is the word haeresis, originally associated with “(books of a chosen) philosophical school,” but later in Christian theology transformed to “(books of a dangerous) sect.” Third, the ancient cultural-linguistic polysystem often resulted in canonical re- (not to say mis-) translation, as when the Greek plural biblia “book rolls” could be reread (e.g., in Augustine) as a Latin singular codex (“the Holy Bible”). Fourth, the necessary precondition for the concept of an exclusive canon is the related concept that books can have relative levels of authority. Such were the graded levels of authority accorded to the proto-Tanakh, or Torah (“the law,” most authoritative); the Nevi’im (“the prophets,” less authoritative); and Khetuvim (“the writings,” an obviously miscellaneous set). Fifth, and perhaps most important, there was a classical idea from the Alexandrian library—one that was in fact anti-scriptural, since “scriptures” imply endless religious writing: it was the idea that an authoritative text could be complete and counted on as such. In short, the canon of scripture is inconceivable without the text of Homer, in 24 alphabetic books—from the alpha to the omega.