Reflections on Canon: The Card Game

How did the Bible become “The Bible”?  Why these books and not those books?  Why Genesis and not 1 Enoch?  Why John, but not Thomas?  And what about Tobit (an ancient Jewish work accepted by Catholics and Christian forms of Orthodoxy, but not by Jews or Protestant Christians)?

There have been a few discussions around the pedagogy of canon – that is, a list of authoritative works – recently, one of my favorites being Krista Dalton‘s use of fandom’s debate of what belongs in the Harry Potter canon as mirroring the ancient processes of canonization.  A couple years ago, Ancient Jew Review also had a roundtable of canon that one can read here.

For those who have cracked open a Bible, they realize that it is not just one book, but many books.  This is reflected in its name in Greek – ta biblia or “the little books.”  Yet no matter how heavy your Bible is, it is just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Jewish and Christian writings.  Many books were put forward as sacred, divinely inspired, or authoritative that are not in anyone’s Bible today, whereas many books in the Bible today were not in everyone’s list in antiquity – they were disputed.  As implicated already, not everyone’s Bible today is exactly the same.

The canonization of the Bible (or better yet, Bibles) was a long process of centuries, whereby Jews and Christians debated what books should be included in the Bible and what books should be excluded.  The products of these debates are lists of what is included, what may be useful for edification, and what is to be rejected.  I use “products” in the plural because, frankly, to this day not everyone agrees.  While most Jews agree about the Tanakh and most Christians today agree about the New Testament (and note that I am still hedging with “most” – see the book The New New Testament, edited by Hal Taussig), there is much disagreement about the Christian version of the “Old Testament,” with Protestants, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and, indeed, Ethiopian Orthodox all holding to different lists.

Yesterday, I had my students play Canon: The Card Game, developed by James McGrath.  I had been wanting to do this since I learned of the existence of the game, and thought I would share my thoughts about how it went.

Overall Description of Game and Rules:

There are 108 cards in a deck.  There are both Old Testament / Hebrew Bible and New Testament editions.  There are ancient Jewish and Christian writings with names and descriptions in each deck.  And several copies of the same card.

Each person takes 5 cards initially.  The rest of the deck then constitutes a face-down draw pile.

In between everyone, there are seven spaces for the “common canon.”  In front of each player, there are seven more spaces for their “personal canon.”

Each player may make one of the following moves per round: draw from the draw pile, draw from the common canon, remove a card from the common canon, place a card in the common canon, place a card on one’s personal canon, remove a card from one’s personal canon, discard a card in the discard pile, or draw a card from the face-up discard pile.

The goal of the game is for each player to get one’s personal canon to match the common canon as much as possible.  The person who is the closest wins.  I’ll omit the finer points of scoring.

My Modifications:

I modified things a bit to speed the game up.  Firstly I cut my decks in half, so each had 54 cards.  And instead of making canons of seven cards, I had students make canons of five cards.  I divided my class up into groups of five, and they played.

At this rate, one group played two rounds.  One group finished in about 20 minutes.  And I had to call time for the other groups so we could come back for a larger discussion.

I had each group list what ended up being their common canon and I put them in the board and distributed them according to what actually became the canons of different forms of Judaism and Christianity.

Strategies Students Used (Cooperation or Cutthroat?):

I asked the students what strategies they used to win, especially whether they used cooperative (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) strategies or competitive / cutthroat ones (every person for herself).  One group indicated that they at first tried to play cards in the central canon that would match as many people’s personal canon as possible (cooperative), but it soon took a more cutthroat turn.  One student said that he tried to make such overture for cooperation, but no one took him up on it.

More competitive strategies included:

  1. Holding Out Until End: meaning, not playing your personal canon at all until the end of the game, so no one knew exactly how to undermine you.  The person who did this won.  This was perhaps an unintended potentiality created by making the number of the cards in the canon the same as the number of cards in hand (5).  In the original version, you would at least have to put down two cards if you wanted to hold five until the end.
  2. Holding two or more of same card until last couple rounds.  In this case, if you have multiples of the same card in your hand, hold them until the last two or three rounds of the game, and then play them in the central and personal canons to guarantee a partial match.
  3. Keep pulling cards out of the central canon that would cripple someone else (without necessarily helping match one’s own personal canon).  This was the most commonly used strategy – instead of building up one’s own canon to match, making sure others’ canons do not match.  This made the game go on a bit longer!

Some Teachable Moments:

The process of playing the game is supposed to mirror the canonization process of ancient Jews and Christians in some ways.

  1. Personal Canon and the Proliferation of Jewish and Christian Groups:  each group had their “personal” canon – that is, what they argued should be the canon of all Christians, thereby affecting the “common canon.”  Certain texts become fairly fixed in the common canon, while others are open to negotiation.
    1. In real life, in the Tanakh, works like Esther, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs gave some people pause.  Hebrews and Revelation, some of the other Catholic Epistles, and sometimes even the Gospel of John were disputed.
    2. On the other hand, 1 Enoch and Jubilees for the Tanakh and the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter, among other texts, for the New Testament, were often included in people’s canons in antiquity.
  2. Excluding from Common Canon Due to Being in Someone’s Personal Canon:
    1. Many texts were excluded from people’s personal canons and they tried to take them from the “common canon” BECAUSE they belonged to someone else’s personal canon.  The Gospel of John was beloved by many opposing groups.  This led to some dispute as some groups began to want to keep it out because people they disliked really liked John.  On the other hand, Irenaeus of Lyons, while recognizing this, argued strongly for its inclusion, nonetheless.
  3. Common Canon and Agreements:
    1. In real life, many texts were stable across canons, especially the synoptic gospels and most of the letters of Paul.  Or, in the case of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Torah and Prophets were largely stable.
  4. Matching Canon and Triumph of One Group:
    1. One group’s canon eventually wins the day.  For Judaism, this is the Rabbinic canon; for Christianity, this is the canon first put forward by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Easter Letter (367 CE), even though it would take a while for his canon to become the norm.

Final Thoughts

This worked well, I think, for my relatively moderately sized class of 20 students.  I wonder what the logistics would be like for a larger class at a bigger institution.  We had some false starts and difficulties at first with some need to clarify certain rules, but by the end it seemed most of the students were having fun with it.  Some students actually read the cards – that is, each card has not only a name, but a few lines of description of the book that might influence whether one thinks it should belong in the canon – while others were more focused on winning the game and read the cards as much as they would a regular deck of cards.

The game clearly communicated that the canon was a negotiation and that it was a constantly shifting thing, with books being added or subtracted over time.  It is a product of social negotiations rather than something that dropped out of the sky.


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