The Literary Canon Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The word “canon” derives from a Greek root meaning measuring rod. Canonical literary texts represent the standard against which any individual work is measured. Before the rise of modern secular literature, it was the Bible that provided the definitive canon for Western culture. The Bible (the words “the Bible” mean “the book”) is itself a compilation of disparate sacred writings accumulated over centuries. At certain points in ecclesiastical history, religious leaders gathered to determine the precise composition of the Bible, to decide which texts would be included and which excluded. The premise of the canonical Bible is that if congregants have to make do with only one book, it ought to contain the central texts. The Bible’s editorial history is an excellent example of how a canon is developed. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants disagree over entries; not every Bible includes Matthew or Revelations, and various canons arrange the order of entries differently. Believers are not prohibited from reading additional texts, but books such as Tobit, Judith, and Maccabees, which were not chosen to appear in the Bible and are designated as Apocrypha, are theologically marginal. The Bible is itself a canon—a collection of central works. More than any other books, the biblical canon, it has been assumed, offers the most direct access to human wisdom and divine revelation.

During the Renaissance, when secular studies started to rival religious ones,...

(The entire section is 439 words.)