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Subject Literature

Key-Topics canon

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631207535.1997.x


A collection or list of texts that are thought to be inspired or authoritative. Following from its primary definition of “canon” as “a rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council,” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the term in a second sense, which in English has been used since 1382, as “the collection of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired” and by analogy (since 1870) as “any set of sacred books.” Although it is tempting to link the primary and secondary definitions of “canon” by assuming that the New Testament, for example, came into being by a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council's determination of a restrictive list of texts, the historical process was quite otherwise. Nevertheless, much recent debate about canonical and noncanonical secular literature rests on such a false analogy, which Henry Louis Gates, Jr, set out to correct in his Foreword to the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (1988, p. xviii): “Literary works configure into a tradition … because writers read other writers and ground their representations of experience in models of language provided largely by other writers to whom they feel akin.” The history of the New Testament canon does not serve the argument that canons are formed to exclude diversity. The crucial event that precipitated ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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