Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Apocrypha and Evangelism

A while after I wrote this about the Apocrypha and the Old Testament canon question, Bill Tighe sent me two articles by Albert C. Sundberg, which retailed in much more accessible form the ideas described in the festschrift paper I referred to there.*

The basic thrust of his argument, as I've said, is that the Christian Old Testament was not inherited directly from the Jews, but was rather shaped in the second and third centuries AD. The Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel-Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets) were already canonical by the time of Jesus and the Apostles, but deciding which of vague body of Writings (Hagiographa) were canonical and which were not took place independently in the Christian and Jewish communities. Thus both Jerome's doubts over the deuterocanonical works (i.e. those accepted by Catholics and Orthodox, but not by Protestants or Jews) and the Protestant decision to adopt the Jewish canon and reject the deutercanonical/apocryphal works were groundless, he argues. The early Christian community included the deuterocanonical books and all Christians should accept that community decision.

These two articles, however, bring out two important points to his argument.

1) A historical point: Jewish influence was already at work in defining the Catholic and Orthodox Bible. As he demonstrates, those Church Fathers who were familiar with the smaller Jewish canon (St. Melito of Sardis, Origen, St. Jerome) generally wished to adopt it (see no. 2, pp. 148-49). Moreover, the apocrypha (i.e. those works like Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, etc., which are rejected by all Jews and Christians today) were eventually rejected by the Christian church precisely because no Hebrew originals of them circulated among the Jews.** With the deuterocanonical works on the other hand, Hebrew copies were still in use among the Jews, even if they were technically no longer canonical. In other words, the Church Fathers rejected Enoch and the Assumption of Moses on exactly the same -- factually mistaken -- grounds that Reformers rejected Sirach and 1 Maccabees. All four had been accepted by Jews (Nazarene and non) of the first century; the first two were rejected by the Church Fathers because the Jews of the third to fifth centuries no longer read them, and the second two were rejected by the Reformers because the Jews of the sixteenth century no longer read them (see esp. no. 2, pp. 151-52). Both were based on a misunderstanding, but Sundberg believes the decisions of the fathers should stand and that of the Reformers should not.

Let us draw out the implication: the Church Fathers are treated as formers of the normative community heritage in a way that the Reformers are not. But for those in the historical community formed by the Reformation it's contradictory to reject that community decision in the name of an earlier community decision. In other words, to use this argument consistently, one has to have already stepped out of the community of the Reformation (whether Evangelical or Reformed) and into the community of the non-Reformation.

2. And this brings up his theological point. The above history, he argues means that "No viable history of canon, whether of Apocrypha or OT or NT, can be written on the doctrine that Scripture is its own attester. The process of canonization is a community process. This is equally true in Judaism and in Christianity" (no. 1, p. 201). Thus he declares whatever he says about the deuterocanonical works "is in no sense to slight the validity of the so-called Jamnia canon for Judaism; it is only to observe that Judaism and Christianity came to a historical parting of the ways prior to the post-70 activity leading to the closing of the canon about the end of the first Christian century" (ibid.). Thus as he points out, his conclusions challenge Tridentine Catholic views of inspiration as much as those of Reformation Protestantism (no. 2, pp. 143-146, 153-54). Both agreed that placing works outside the canon was equivalent to declaring them uninspired; they just differed on where to draw the line. But he disagrees with this whole way of thinking. Indeed, without explicitly saying so, he seems to have no real use for the concept of inspiration at all. Jewish and Christian communities decided which works to live by and both were equally valid decisions. Scripture depends on community, not on the nature of the works in question.

And here we find the problem with the idea of defining the Christian Bible's Old Testament as something canonized by us Christians (a view apparently gaining traction in Augsburg Evangelical quarters; see here). If the Bible -- Old and New -- is the church's Bible, then the Christian Old Testament has the same relation to the Hebrew Bible that the Qur'an does to the Christian and Jewish bibles. It draws on it extensively, yes, but it is both formally and materially different. That the Christian Old Testament points to Christ becomes no longer a demonstration of the truth of Christianity; instead it's just a tautology. By definition, an Old Testament formed and created by an community dedicated to proclaiming the Risen Christ proclaims the Risen Christ. The Jew can accept that with a smile, since the converse is also true: a Hebrew Bible formed and created by a community that rejects the Messianic claims of Jesus of Nazareth necessarily rejects the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. We have our Nazarene Old Testament, they have their anti-Nazarene Hebrew Bible and that's the end of it. Let each follow his or her community guidelines.

Thus next to Sundberg's explicit conclusion -- Christian churches should unite on the patristic consensus -- we find an implicit one: they should stop trying to convert Jews, since Judaism is just as valid a community as the Christian church.

Of course, the reality is, it is the would-be Christianity of Sundberg's which has "broken away from its historical heritage," not the Reformation. Because, of course, if one knows anything about patristic Christianity at all, one knows that it was permeated by the conviction that their Jewish scriptures testify to our Jesus. Since I'm reading Gregory of Tours, let me just cite his dialogue with the Jewish community leader Priscus:

At this [argument from Priscus] the King [Chilperic] was silent, so I took up the debate in my turn. 'The fact that God, the Son of God, was made man,' I said, 'resulted from our own necessity, not His. For had He not been made flesh, He could not have redeemed man from the captivity of sin, or from the servitude to the Devil. Just as we read that of old David slew Goliath, so will I pierce you with your own sword, producing my proof not from the Gospels, nor from an apostle, neither of which you believe, but from your own scriptures . . . (History, VI.5)

And where did the bishop Gregory get this idea that the Old Testament was somehow property of the Jews? From Paul of course in Romans 3 and 9:

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.

. . . Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.

Anyone who knows patristic Christian debates with the Jews, from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho onward (search the text for "your scriptures" and you'll see), knows that no other view of the Old Testament is ever found there. Their scriptures prove our beliefs: rightly or wrongly this is the pre-nineteenth century Christian view of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

And this is why all patristic authors who knew the Hebrew canon were nervous about not following it. Because they wished to avoid doing things like Gregory of Tours, who says he's going to prove Christianity from the Jews' own Bible and then cites Baruch, a book not recognized by the Jews. (Perhaps that is why Priscus did not convert.)

Sundberg is adopting here the community standard of truth, a mainline cousin of the John Henry Newman hermeneutic that it is not scripture that is self-attesting, but the church. This strategy brilliantly neutralizes any possible challenge of higher criticism ("the church has decided this is scripture and even if her premises were wrong her word -- enunciated by constituted authority -- is law for her children"). In its Newmanian form it also works powerfully to turn doubt-striken Protestants into Catholics.

But it is fatal for Jewish evangelism. Richard Neuhaus's bemused condescension toward the kind of proof-texting polemics engaged in by Justin Martyr and Gregory of Tours, among many, many others is its natural result:

Only some Messianic Christians and Jews such as Klinghoffer think that the truth of Christianity stands or falls on whether, without knowing about Jesus in advance, one can begin with Genesis 1 and read through all the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture and then match them up with Jesus to determine whether he is or is not the Messiah. . . . Christian thinkers, including Paul, viewed Christ and the Church as the fulfillment of the promise to Israel not because they were engaged in tit-for-tat exegetical disputes with Jews over what Klinghoffer recognizes are often ambiguous and enigmatic Old Testament prophecies.

And is it fatal for evangelism in general? Because every Christian community that has adopted this "only the church authenticates the Bible" viewpoint seems to end up focusing on proselytizing other Christians much more than evangelizing non-Christians. Somehow the idea that "God has given mankind a book like no other; read it and see!" actually seems to work with atheists and Buddhists and pagans in a way that "God has given mankind a community like no other; join it and see!" doesn't. (Of course as Gregory of Tours attests, "God has given His chosen holy men power like no other; experience it and see!" seems to work best of all.)

*No. 1: "A Symposium on the Canon of Scripture," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966), 189-207
No. 2: "The 'Old Testament': A Christian Canon," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968), 143-155.

** It's also true (see no. 1, p. 198) that the claim (embraced in Tridentine Catholic polemics) that the Greek Septuagint (see the picture) defined a pre-New Testament canon, likewise on the basis of inspiration, likewise fails, because all Septuagints that contain the Catholic-Orthodox canon were demonstrably copied by Christians.

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