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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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a word used to denote the authorized catalogue of the sacred writings. The word is originally Greek, κανων , and signifies a rule or standard, by which other things are to be examined and judged. Accordingly, the same word has been applied to the tongue of a balance, or that small part which, by its perpendicular position, determines the even poise or weight, or, by its inclination, either, way, the uneven poise of the things which are weighed. Hence it appears, that as the writings of the Prophets, Apostles, and Evangelists contain an authentic account of the revealed will of God, they are the rule of the belief and practice of those who receive them. Canon is also equivalent to a list or catalogue, in which are inserted those books which contain the rule of faith.

For an account of the settling of the canon of Scripture, see Bible. The following observations of Dr. Alexander, in his work on the canon, proving that no canonical book of the Old or New Testament has been lost, may here be properly introduced.—No canonical book of the Old Testament has been lost. On this subject, there has existed some diversity of opinion. Chrysostom is cited by Bellarmine as saying, "that many of the writings of the prophets had perished, which may readily be proved from the history in Chronicles. For the Jews were negligent, and not only negligent, but impious; so that some books were lost through carelessness, and others were burned, or otherwise destroyed." In confirmation of this opinion, an appeal is made to 1 Kings 4:32-33 , where it is said of Solomon, "that he spake three thousand proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes." All these productions, it is acknowledged, have perished. Again, it is said in 1 Chronicles 29:29-30 : "Now, the acts of David the king, first and last, behold they are written in the book of Samuel the seer, and in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the book of Gad the seer; with all his reign, and his might, and the times that went over him, and over Israel, and over all the kingdoms of the countries." The book of Jasher, also, is twice mentioned in Scripture. In Joshua 10:13 : "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher?" And in 2 Samuel 1:18 : "And he bade them teach the children of Israel the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher."

The book of the wars of the Lord is referred to in Numbers 21:14 . But we have in the canon no books under the name of Nathan and Gad, nor any book of Jasher, nor of the wars of the Lord. Moreover, we frequently are referred, in the sacred history, to other chronicles or annals, for a fuller account of the matters spoken of, which chronicles are not now extant.

And in 2 Chronicles 9:29 , it is said, "Now, the rest of the acts of Solomon, first and last, are they not written in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and in the visions of Iddo the seer, against Jeroboam, the son of Nebat?" Now, it is well known that none of these writings of the prophets are in the canon; at least, none of them under their names. It is said, also, in 2 Chronicles 12:15 , "Now, the acts of Rehoboam, first and last, are they not written in the book of Shemaiah the prophet, and of Iddo the seer, concerning genealogies?" Of which works nothing remains under the names of these prophets.

1. The first observation which may be made on this subject is, that every book referred to or quoted in the sacred writings is not necessarily an inspired or canonical book. Because St. Paul cites passages from the Greek poets, it does not follow that we must receive their poems as inspired.

2. A book may be written by an inspired man, and yet be neither inspired nor canonical. Inspiration was not constantly afforded to the prophets; but was occasional, and for particular important purposes. In common matters and especially in things no way connected with religion, it is reasonable to suppose that the Prophets and Apostles were left to the same guidance of reason and common sense as other men. A man, therefore, inspired to deliver some prophecy, or even to write a canonical book, might write other books with no greater assistance than other good men receive. Because Solomon was inspired to write some canonical books, it does not follow that what he wrote on natural history was also inspired, any more than Solomon's private letters to his friends, if ever he wrote any. Let it be remembered that the Prophets and Apostles were only inspired on special occasions, and on particular subjects, and all difficulties respecting such works as these will vanish. How many of the books referred to in the Bible, and mentioned above, may have been of this description, it is now impossible to tell; but probably several of them belong to this class. No doubt there were many books of annals much more minute and particular in the narration of facts than those which we have. It was often enough merely to refer to these state papers, or public documents, as being sufficiently correct, in regard to the facts on account of which the reference was made. The book of the wars of the Lord might, for aught that appears, have been merely a muster roll of the army. The word translated book has so extensive a meaning in Hebrew, that it is not even necessary to suppose that it was a writing at all. The book of Jasher (or of Rectitude. if we translate the word) might have been some useful compend taken from Scripture, or composed by the wise, for the regulation of justice and equity between man and man. Augustine, in his "City of God," has distinguished accurately on this subject. "I think," says he, "that those books which should have authority in religion were revealed by the Holy Spirit, and that men composed others by historical diligence, as the prophets did these by inspiration. And these two classes of books are so distinct, that it is only by those written by inspiration that we are to suppose that God, through them, is speaking unto us. The one class is useful for fulness of knowledge; the other, for authority in religion; in which authority the canon is preserved."

3. But again: it may be maintained, without any prejudice to the completeness of the canon, that there may have been inspired writings which were not intended for the instruction of the church in all ages, but composed by the prophets for some special occasion. These writings though inspired, were not canonical. They were temporary in their design; and when that was accomplished, they were no longer needed. We know that the prophets delivered, by inspiration, many discourses to the people, of which we have not a trace on record. Many true prophets are mentioned, who wrote nothing that we know of; and several are mentioned, whose names are not even given. The same is true of the Apostles. Very few of them had any concern in writing the canonical Scriptures, and yet they all possessed plenary inspiration. And if they wrote letters on special occasions, to the churches planted by them; yet these were not designed for the perpetual instruction of the universal church. Therefore, Shemaiah, and Iddo, and Nathan, and Gad, might have written some things by inspiration which were never intended to form a part of the sacred volume. It is not asserted that there certainly existed such temporary inspired writings: all that is necessary to be maintained is, that, supposing such to have existed, which is not improbable, it does not follow that the canon is incomplete by reason of their loss.

4. The last remark in relation to the books of the Old Testament supposed to be lost is, that it is highly probable that we have several of them now in the canon, under another name. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, were, probably, not written by one, but by a succession of prophets. There is reason to believe that, until the canon of sacred Scripture was closed, the succession of prophets was never interrupted. Whatever was necessary to be added, by way of explanation, to any book already received into the canon, they were competent to annex; or, whatever annals or histories it was the purpose of God to have transmitted to posterity, they would be directed and inspired to prepare. Thus, different parts of these books might have been penned by Gad, Nathan, Iddo, Shemaiah, &c. That some parts of these histories were prepared by prophets, we have clear proof in one instance; for Isaiah has inserted in his prophecy several chapters which are contained in 2 Kings, and which, I think, there can be no doubt were originally written by himself. The Jewish doctors are of opinion that the book of Jasher is one of the books of the Pentateuch, or the whole law. The book of the wars of the Lord has by many been supposed to be no other than the book of Numbers.

Thus, it sufficiently appears from an examination of particulars, that there exists no evidence that any canonical book of the Old Testament has been lost. To which we may add, that there are many general considerations of great weight which go to prove that no part of the Scriptures of the Old Testament has been lost. The translation of these books into Greek is sufficient to show that the same books existed nearly two hundred years before the advent of Christ. And, above all, the unqualified testimony to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, by Christ and his Apostles, ought to satisfy us that we have lost none of the inspired books of the canon. The Scriptures are constantly referred to, and quoted as infallible authority by them, as we have before shown. These oracles were committed to the Jews as a sacred deposit, and they are never charged with unfaithfulness in this trust. The Scriptures are declared to have been written "for our learning;" and no intimation is given that they had ever been mutilated, or in any degree corrupted.

As to the New Testament, the same author proceeds: With respect to the New Testament, I am ready to concede, as was before done, that there may have been books written by inspired men that have been lost: for inspiration was occasional, not constant; and confined to matters of faith, and not afforded on the affairs of this life, or in matters of mere science. And if such writings have been lost, the canon of Scripture has suffered no more by this means, than by the loss of any other uninspired books. But again: I am willing to go farther, and say that it is possible (although I know no evidence of the fact) that some things, written under the influence of inspiration, for a particular, occasion, and to rectify some disorder in a particular church, may have been lost, without injury to the canon. For, since much that the Apostles preached by inspiration is undoubtedly lost, so there is no reason why every word which they wrote must necessarily be preserved, and form a part of the canonical volume. For example: suppose that when St. Paul said, "I wrote to you in an epistle not to company with fornicators," 1 Corinthians 5:9 , he referred to an epistle which he had written to the Corinthians, before the one now called the First; it might never have been intended that this letter should form a constituent part of the canon; for although it treated of subjects connected with Christian faith or practice, yet, an occasion having arisen, in a short time, of treating these subjects more at large, every thing in that epistle (supposing it ever to have been written) may have been included in the two Epistles to the Corinthians which are now in the canon.

1. The first argument to prove that no canonical book has been lost, is derived from the watchful care of providence over the sacred Scriptures. Now, to suppose that a book written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and intended to form a part of the canon, which is the rule of faith to the church, should be utterly and irrecoverably lost, is surely not very honourable to the wisdom of God, and in no way consonant with the ordinary method of his dispensations, in regard to his precious truth. There is good reason to think that, if God saw it needful, and for the edification of the church, that such books should be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by his providence he would have taken care to preserve them from destruction. We do know that this treasure of divine truth has been, in all ages, and in the worst times, the special care of God, or not one of the sacred books would now be in existence. And if one canonical book might be lost through the negligence or unfaithfulness of men, why not all? And thus the end of God, in making a revelation of his will, might have been defeated. But whatever other corruptions have crept into the Jewish or Christian churches, it does not appear that either of them, as a body, ever incurred the censure of having been careless in preserving the oracles of God. Our Saviour never charges the Jews, who perverted the sacred Scriptures to their own ruin, with having lost any portion of the sacred deposit intrusted to them. History informs us of the fierce and malignant design of Antiochus Epiphanes, to abolish every vestige of the sacred volume; but the same history assures us that the Jewish people manifested a heroic fortitude and invincible patience in resisting and defeating his impious purpose. They chose rather to sacrifice their lives, and suffer a cruel death, than to deliver up the copies of the sacred volume in their possession. And the same spirit was manifested, and with the same result, in the Dioclesian persecution of the Christians. Every effort was made to obliterate the sacred writings of Christians; and multitudes suffered death for refusing to deliver up the New Testament. Some, indeed, overcome by the terrors of a cruel persecution, did, in the hour of temptation, consent to surrender the holy book; but they were ever afterward called traitors; and it was with the utmost difficulty that any of them could be received again into the communion of the church, after a long repentance, and the most humbling confessions of their fault. Now, if any canonical book was ever lost, it must have been in these early times, when the word of God was valued far above life, and when every Christian stood ready to seal the truth with his blood.

2. Another argument which appears to me to be convincing is, that in a little time, all the sacred books were dispersed over the whole world. If a book had, by some accident or violence, been destroyed in one region, the loss could soon have been repaired, by sending for copies to other countries. The considerations just mentioned would, I presume, be satisfactory to all candid minds, were it not that it is supposed that there is evidence that some things were written by the Apostles which are not now in the canon. We have already referred to an epistle to the Corinthians, which St. Paul is supposed to have written to them, previously to the writing of those which we now possess. But it is by no means certain, or even probable, that St. Paul ever did write such an epistle; for not one ancient writer makes the least mention of any such letter, nor is there any where to be found any citation from it, or any reference to it. It is a matter of testimony, in which all the fathers concur, as with one voice, that St. Paul wrote no more than fourteen epistles, all of which we now have. But still, St. Paul's own declaration stands in the way of our opinion "I wrote to you in an epistle," 1 Corinthians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:11 . The words in the original are, ‘Εγραψα υμιν εν τη επιστολη : the literal, version of which is, "I have written to you in the epistle," or "in this epistle;" that is, in the former part of it; where, in fact, we find the very thing which he says that he had written. See 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 5:5-6 . But it is thought by learned and judicious commentators, that the words following, Νυνι δε εγραψα

υμιν , But now I have written unto you," require that we should understand the former clause, as relating to some former time; but a careful attention to the context will convince us that this reference is by no means necessary. The Apostle had told them in the beginning of the chapter, to avoid the company of fornicators, &c; but it is manifest, from the tenth verse, that he apprehended that his meaning might be misunderstood, by extending the prohibition too far, so as to decline all intercourse with the world; therefore, he repeats what he had said, and informs them that it had relation only to the professors of Christianity, who should be guilty of such vices. The whole may be thus paraphrased: "I wrote to you above in my letter, that you should separate from those who were fornicators, and that you should purge them out as did leaven; but, fearing lest you should misapprehend my meaning, by inferring that I have directed you to avoid all intercourse with the Heathen around you, who are addicted to these shameful vices, which would make it necessary that you should go out of the world, I now inform you that my meaning is, that you do not associate familiarly with any who make a profession of Christianity, and yet continue in these evil practices." In confirmation of this interpretation, we can adduce the old Syriac version, which, having been made soon after the days of the Apostles, is good testimony in relation to this matter of fact. In this venerable version, the meaning of the eleventh verse is thus given: "This is what I have written unto you," or, "the meaning of what I have written unto you."

The only other passage in the New Testament which has been thought to refer to an epistle of St. Paul not now extant, is that in Colossians 4:16 : "And when this epistle is read among you, cause also that it be read in the church of the Laodiceans, and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea." But what evidence is there that St. Paul ever wrote an epistle to the Laodiceans? The text on which this opinion has been founded, in ancient and modern times, correctly interpreted, has no such import. The words in the original are, και την εκ Λαοδικειας ινα και υμεις


αναγνωτε , "and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea,"

Colossians 4:16 . These words have been differently taken; for, by them some understand that an epistle had been written by St. Paul to the Laodiceans, which he desired might be read in the church at Colosse. Chrysostom seems to have understood them thus; and the Romish writers almost universally have adopted this opinion. "Therefore," says Bellarmine, "it is certain that St. Paul's epistle to the Laodiceans is now lost." And their opinion is favoured by the Latin Vulgate, where we read, eamque Laodicensium, "that which is of the Laodiceans;" but even these words admit of another construction. Many learned Protestants, also, have embraced the same interpretation; while others suppose that St. Paul here refers to the epistle to the Ephesians, which they think he sent to the Laodiceans, and that the present inscription is spurious. But that neither of these opinions is correct, may be rendered very probable. That St. Paul could not intend, by the language used in the passage under consideration, an epistle written by himself, will appear by the following arguments:

(1.) St. Paul could not, with any propriety of speech, have called an epistle written by himself, and sent to the Laodiceans, an epistle from Laodicea. He certainly would have said, προς Λαοδικειαν , [to Laodicea,] or some such thing. Who ever heard of an epistle addressed to any individual, or to any society, denominated an epistle from them?

(2.) If the epistle referred to in this passage had been one written by St. Paul, it would have been most natural for him to call it his epistle; and this would have rendered his meaning incapable of misconstruction.

(3.) All those best qualified to judge of the fact, and who were well acquainted with St. Paul's history and writings, never mention any such epistle: neither Clement, Hermas, nor the Syriac interpreter, knew any thing of such an epistle of St. Paul.

But it may be asked, To what epistle, then, does St. Paul refer? It seems safest in such a case, where testimony is deficient, to follow the literal sense of the words, and to believe that it was an epistle written by the Laodiceans, probably to himself, which he had sent to the Colossians, together with his own epistle, for their perusal.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Canon'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​c/canon.html. 1831-2.