Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Flat Bibles?

Quite a while ago, Bill Tighe pointed me to a very dense article on the question of the Old Testament canon in the period from around 100 BC to AD 100 (it's in a festschrift - always a sign meaning "rough going ahead"). The article, written by a Methodist (if I remember Tighe rightly), concludes, as best as I can tell, that while the old arguments for a Jewish council of Jabneh/Javneh/Jamnia around AD 90 that codified the Hebrew Bible may not be entirely valid, still that the final canonization of the Hebrew Bible took place in AD 75-135.*

The significance of this for inter-confessional debate is , of course, that the Protestant Old Testament is thus shown to be something that the early Christian church as a whole would not have recognized; rather the Christians slightly later than the Jews eventually defined their own Old Testament canon, which included the Apocrypha.

But there are three bigger points implicit in the literature as reviewed by Sundberg:

1) In the Jewish world of 100 BC to AD 75 (and that includes Christianity), the Law (i.e. the Five Books of Moses) and Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel-Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets) were the real Bible, and of what would later be classified as the Writings/Hagiographa/Ketuvim (Ruth, 1 Chronicles-Song of Songs, Daniel, Lamentations) only the Psalms had the same status.

The codification of the Hebrew Bible and its authority happened in three steps:

i) The Law of Moses was rediscovered and made the normative center of Jewish life in the years from Hezekiah to Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 625-430 BC) (i.e. from 2 Kings 22 to Nehemiah 13).

ii) By the fourth century, the scrolls of the prophets had become fixed in two sections, the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel-1 Kings) and the latter prophets (Isaiah to Malachi, minus Lamentations and Daniel).

iii) The Writings only came to be treated as Scripture in the Hellenistic era.

The authority followed the same threefold division as well: the Law of Moses was the real preexistent word. The Prophets were a commentary on and an exhortation to return to the Law of Moses. The Writings were a yet less authoritative set of diverse texts extending and commenting on the Law and the Prophets. The supreme authority of Moses is implicit throughout.

You can see this in the New Testament, where often Moses or "the Law" stands for the whole Hebrew Bible as a text. Also numerous are the references to the "Law and the Prophets" (9 references) or "Moses and the Prophets" (6 references) as covering the alpha to omega of the Hebrew Scriptures. Only once do we see in Luke 24:44 the "Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms." The Psalms alone, of the Writings, were clearly of equal authority and importance to the prophets.

Thus asking whether both Esther and Judith or just Esther alone were equal in authority and importance to Isaiah or Genesis is a misleading question: to Peter or Paul, neither would have had exactly that status. It is because the Writings were relatively peripheral that exactly which of them was scripture was allowed to remain uncertain long after the Law and the Prophets had been defined.

2) No list of canonical books can be derived from the New Testament or ascertained for the apostolic era that matches either the Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant Bibles. If we restrict ourselves to explicit descriptions it is radically smaller than the Protestant Old Testament (the Law/Moses and the Prophets, which phrase(s) occurs by name thirteen times in New Testament, or the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms in Luke 24:44) but if we include everything about which is cited as authoritative, it is larger than the Catholic or Orthodox Bibles including such texts as the Assumption of Moses, the books of Enoch, and so on.

3) The formation of the Christian Old Testament out of the Jewish Bible involved not just questions of deciding which "Writings" were to be added to the Law and Prophets and which not, but a reorganization that followed a new hermeneutical principle.

Gone was the three-fold division. This has already started in the Epistles, where "Law and Prophets" as a phrase for the Old Testament is notably less common than in the Gospels or Acts. The old heremeneutical principle started off with the idea that the Law was primary, the Prophets (former and latter) secondary, and the Writings tertiary. If we continued in this line, the New Testament would be quaternary. But only Jesus is the complete revelation of God. Thus purpose of the Old Testament is no longer to be a commentary to the Law of Moses, but to be a history book and a prophecy of the Christ to come.

This is emphasized by a topical-chronological reorganization of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is organized no longer into the Law and Prophets, plus miscellaneous writings, but in a fourfold fashion: the Law (of Moses, which is read by Christians mostly as a history), Histories (including the former Prophets, plus some narrative writings), Poetry (those writings that are in poetry and not associated with the names of prophets), and the Prophets (the old Prophets plus Lamentations and Daniel).** The histories were organized chronologically according to topic and the poetry books according to the traditional authorship (Moses for Job, David for the Psalms, Solomon for Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes).

But unlike in the Hebrew Bible as canonized by the Pharisees, none of these sections are labelled. This reflects the major hermeneutical change: the Old Testament is, whether the Apocrypha is included or not, a flat Bible. Moses is not the supreme authority: the Prophet who is to come has already replaced him. Now all the previous books serve merely to testify to Him, and none is made more authoritative than any other. Indeed if frequency and importance of citation were the test, Isaiah and the Psalms might seem to be the core of our Christian Old Testament.

At the same time, if the text of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is supposed to be what Christians and Jews can agree on, then we need to consider Paul in Romans 3:2 where he speaks of the oracles of God as having been given to the Jews. Unfortunately, already in the second century, early Christian fathers are citing verses of the "Old Testament" which were actually forged by Christians, as are whole chapters of texts in the Apocrypha like 4 Esdras. If one of the roles of the Old Testament is to testify that Christians have not made up their Messianic teaching, then agreement on the text with those who believe they have is important.

Curiously though, the structure of the Hebrew Bible is repeated in our New Testament: the Gospels are the new Torah, the center of the revelation. Acts is like Joshua-2 Kings, the further history of the community established by the new Prophet. In form, the Epistles seem like the Writings, and Revelation like the Prophets, but in presence they are reversed -- for most practical purposes, you could sum up the New Testament as the Gospels and Epistles, just as the Hebrew Bible was summed up as the Law and the Prophets.

The Old Testament is for a Christian, irredeemably "flat." It doesn't have after Jesus the same compact text with explicatory commentary structure that it once had. It is all a single story prophesying the Messiah.

The question is can we get some way to read the New Testaments that honors the church's sense of the four Gospels being the root text and the Epistles being development of that, without then denigrating the authority of the latter? I think it is done as a matter of practice, but the theories we have of Bible-reading haven't caught up with our practice.

*Sundberg is writing in the higher-critical tradition that likes to dice and slice the Biblical books. At times his criteria are quite curious, such as when he argues that Jerusalem allowing a subordinate temple at Elephantine in Egypt shows that Deuteronomy was not yet canonical. By the same reasoning, we could say that the Sermon on the Mount is not yet canonical in the Christian church because Christian advice columnists tell us how to invest our money for future profits.

**This curiously similar to the traditional East Asian bibliographic division of classics, histories, thinkers (=prophets), and belles lettres (=poetry/wisdom).

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