Thoughts on Canon

It’s been quite a busy couple of weeks for the Giffones. After our trip to Scotland last week, we finished our packing on Saturday, had a lovely send-off on Sunday, and then traveled back to PA from Lithuania (via Palanga, Copenhagen, and Newark) in the longest Monday of our lives (literally, because it was 31 hours long for us).

I will write more on the Scotland trip in a travelogue post at some point. But today I’d like to share some undigested thoughts in response to the conference at the University of Edinburgh entitled, “Power, Authority and Canon.”

I have been thinking about canon quite a bit lately because my teaching context includes Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who have different canons than that of my community. The EO also recognize a different base text for their canonical biblical texts: the Septuagint, or an eclectic mix of the Septuagint and Masoretic Text.

My general impression on the scholarly presentations at the conference was about the first word in the title: power. “Power” in relation to a canon could mean the intrinsic power that the canonical books possess as the product of divine inspiration. But that is not what was meant, and what it cannot mean in such an academic context. In a room full of scholars who disagree personally about the nature and extent of inspiration of the biblical texts (Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, Evangelical, etc.), the only topic of discussion can be the historical: what authority certain communities in the ancient world ascribed to certain books. Thus, the “power” is that exercised by religious authorities over their communities through the idea of canon. This is a perfectly legitimate enterprise; I did not go to the conference expecting to hear debates about the merits of Judith as inspired scripture. Shaye Cohen (a Jewish scholar himself) pointed out that for every theological objection to Judith that could be raised by Jews and Protestants, he could propose ten ways that the objection could have been overcome if the communities had wanted it included. What were the community interests and goals that resulted in Esther (a similar sort of book) being included and Judith being excluded?

Another impression is that our conceptions of canon as moderns have been irreversibly shaped by a technological invention: the codex. At the times that the books of the Hebrew Bible and the NT were written, revered scriptures were written on scrolls, which do not naturally facilitate two important modern uses of Bibles: the delineation of a canon (binding in a single physical book the writings that are “in” and excluding the works that are “out”), and use of a “Bible” as a reference document (try flipping through a scroll sometime looking for a prooftext!). Once the codex was invented, the inspired writings could be collected and bound together in a single book that communities could say, “These–and not others–are the inspired works that should be used to establish doctrine and practice.”

But the pre-codex ancient Jewish and Christian communities do not appear to have thought about canon this way. There were certainly writings that communities and individuals considered to be inspired prophecy/revelation. But the boundaries of the canon were fuzzier than they are for us, as evidenced by the quotations of numerous works referenced in the New Testament and Rabbinical writings that ended up outside the canons of Christianity and Judaism.

Canon as an idea is inextricably linked to the question of textual tradition. The OT canon of earliest Christianity seems to have included the Apocrypha because of their inclusion in the Greek Bible (LXX). Communities that came to prefer the Hebrew canon (Jews, Protestants) did so because those books (non-Apocrypha) are represented in the Masoretic textual tradition. So, if a tradition tends toward the Greek text, it will prefer the LXX canon; if it prefers the Hebrew text, it will prefer the Masoretic canon.

But did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities have firm or unanimous preferences on these questions? In his conference presentation, Craig Evans suggested that the Gospels, though written in Greek, seem to adopt readings of OT texts that are represented in different text traditions: the LXX (or its Vorlage), the proto-Masoretic tradition, and even the interpretative traditions that became the Targums. He argued that Jesus/the Evangelists/the Evangelists’ sources were aware of and used [what we might think of as] Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Jewish scriptures, depending on which reading suited the point they were making.

The different canons have different textual traditions, which are significantly divergent for some OT books such as Jeremiah and Samuel. John Barton argued that for ancient communities it was the book itself that was considered inspired, not the precise contents of the book (within reasonable limits). Thus, it was “The Book of Jeremiah” that was authoritative scripture, and whether you used the proto-MT Jeremiah (which is later and longer) or the LXX Jeremiah (or its Vorlage) didn’t matter so much. This is deeply unsatisfying for moderns, especially for those who must preach through the text as scripture. But it is probably true to some extent, as evidenced by the fact that we have both Jeremiah traditions attested at Qumran.

For those of us who are taught to pay attention to every word, sentence, verse, paragraph, and section of each book of scripture, these ideas can be unsettling. I think it’s good to have a definite base text for a community’s Bible, and to have vernacular translations in bound books for people to read for themselves. I am proudly Protestant, and I honor Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, and all the others who fought to put the Bible in the hands of regular people, because I believe that God reveals Himself to individuals in scripture. But Protestants need to ask: does the way we conceive of the authority and function of scripture require a level of canonical and textual precision that developments and discoveries in textual criticism (especially post-Qumran) have rendered untenable?

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to Thoughts on Canon

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | think hard, think well

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