Tuesday, June 30, 2009

2. The Old Testament Canon (Critical Issues Series)

I've written more than one booklet and paper here. It's just more motivating for me to write, at least thinking I might have people listening. I thought of a small project yesterday in relation to the Bible part of the seminary curriculum.

I personally think a seminary trained pastor should at least have heard of the standard critical issues of the Bible. They don't need to know too much about those issues as they are really tangential to what ministry is overwhelmingly about. Indeed, I would argue these issues are tangential to what the Bible is primarily about for Christians.

And I don't say that because I am in denial, as if anyone with a brain or with faith knows that these issues have no substance but are simply the faithless schemes of godless liberals. I say that because the Bible as God's word is the Bible as Christian canon, and on this level it matters precious little whether there were sources that the Pentateuch edited into its current form. In that sense I am irritated to think of how much time both liberals and evangelicals have spent focusing on such issues in the twentieth century.

But there's no reason for IWU's seminary students to be ignorant either, as if we're afraid to bring such things up. We shouldn't be afraid.

So I'm proposing a piece of the puzzle in a "brief guide." Don't know if it will go anywhere officially. But I can slap it on my web page if not.

Chapter 1 would be introduction and would give my sense of what "critical" issues are and how a person of faith might engage them faithfully.
Chapter 2: The Old Testament Canon
In our modern Bibles, the Old Testament is arranged in a series of roughly four sections: the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), the so called "Historical Books" (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther), what we might call the "Poetic Books" (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon), and the Prophets. The Prophets are then often subdivided into the "Major" Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the "Minor" Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi).

However, this is not the way these books were grouped at the time of Christ. Indeed, if we are to get our minds into the way Jesus talked about these books, we first have to recognize that no book existed at the time of Christ that was big enough to accommodate so many different writings. And they were all different writings. You may have noticed that even the Psalms are divided into five books (1-41, 44-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-50). This material is simply too long to fit on a single ancient scroll.

Nevertheless, the Jews did divide these writings into groups. The contents of two of these groupings seem fairly well established by the time of Christ, namely, the Law and the Prophets. When Matthew 5:17 says that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, it is speaking of the two central collections of writings in the Jewish Bible. The "Law" refers to the Pentateuch or "five scrolls": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This grouping is of course the same as we use today.

However, from that point on, Jesus' grouping of the Jewish Scriptures (which Christians conceptualize as the "Old" Testament) differed from ours. The Jews divide the Prophets section of their Bible into two parts, the "Former" Prophets and the "Latter" Prophets. The Former Prophets contain much of what we call the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Notice that Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not in this section of the Hebrew Bible.

To call these writings "prophets" perhaps reflects the fact that they were not understood as mere history. Indeed, from a historical standpoint, we would want to hear a good deal more than the 7 and 9 verses alloted to Omri and Jereboam II. These two northern kings ruled for decades and had incredibly successful reigns from a political standpoint. But they receive short shrift in Kings.

The Hebrew language is generally not written with vowels. Those Hebrew Bibles that have them follow the medieval practice of writing points underneath to signify them. What this means is that a Hebrew text tends to be significantly shorter than the equivalent text in another language. What were thus originally only one book, Samuel or Kings, thus became 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, when translated into Greek. Actually, in the Greek Old Testament, often called the Septuagint, these books are 1, 2, 3, and 4 Kings.

The Latter Prophets refers to the books we think of as the Prophets today. It did not include Lamentations or Daniel, however. On the other hand, The Twelve was the way in which the so called "Minor" Prophets were referenced. So when Paul says that God's righteousness has now been revealed apart from Law, although that righteousness was witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, he means to say that the Jewish Scriptures had witnessed to the events that had recently taken place with Jesus (Rom. 3:21).

The third section of the Jewish canon is called The Writings, and it is basically a grab bag of smaller and perhaps in most cases, later books. Luke 24:44 may allude to this shape of the Jewish canon at the time of Christ when it says that Jesus had taught his disciples about the things to be fulfilled in him from "the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms." The Psalms here refers to the first and most prominent book of the Writings. As early as around 130BC, the prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach mentions the Law, the Prophets, and the "rest of the books," indicating that the three-fold division of Scripture was already in play then.

It is common to hear people say that the limits of the Jewish canon were set in the year AD90 at a place called Jamnia (Yavneh). The Romans had allowed the Jews to set up their religious headquarters at Jamnia after they had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD70. The leadership of the Jews at this time would arguably have been overwhelmingly Pharisaic in nature. The result is perhaps that the rabbinic Judaism that gained power and flowed out of this period was far more a reflection of Pharisaism than a fair representation of the diversity of Judaism at the time of Jesus. We must be very careful, therefore, about presuming that the Jewish traditions we read about in later literature were actually the beliefs and practices of Jews across the board at the time of Jesus.

However, there really is no hard evidence of some "council" at Jamnia setting the limits of the Jewish canon. Indeed, the evidence would seem rather to suggest that the edges of Jewish Scripture remained somewhat fluid in the late first century AD. Jude 14-17, at this time, seems to quote the Book of Watchers as Scripture (1 Enoch 1:9). A good argument can be made that the Essenes considered 1 Enoch to be Scripture and, on the basis of Jude, that at least some early Christian Jews did too.

We have no reason to think the predominantly Gentile Christians of the earliest centuries would have used books like Wisdom, Sirach, and such as Scripture if they had not inherited this practice from at least some of the earliest Jewish Christians, probably Greek-speaking ones. The New Testament itself seems to draw in at least a few places on these sorts of books that did not make it into the canon of rabbinic Judaism.

And so it is that different Christian groups today have differing beliefs on the exact contents of the "Old Testament." Roman Catholics have seven additional books, the so called Apocrypha (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees), including expansions of Esther and additions to Daniel. The Orthodox also have 1 Esdras and other groups like the Ethiopian church have more still. Martin Luther generally set the majority of Protestantism (with the notable exception of Anglicans) on a course that limits the Old Testament to the rabbinic, Jewish canon.

Perhaps it is easiest to map this Catholic-Protestant polarization best by looking back to a man named Jerome in the early 400s. He was the one who standarized the Latin version of the Bible in the early 400s, translating all the books from the original languages with an eye to existing Latin translations. Jerome considered the books Protestants call the Apocrypha to be a kind of second level canon or, as we now say, to be deuterocanonical rather than "protocanonical." At the time of the Reformation, Luther thus downgraded these books from having any Scriptural status at all. In response, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545) then upgraded them to have protocanonical status. In that sense, the Anglican and Orthodox churches probably come closest to using these books in the way they were used throughout most of Christian history.


Rob Kashow said...

Overall a good and fair summary. Two slight tweaks, however:

1. It's debatable whether or not the writings were fixed at the time of Christ (you don't really deny this, but the opinion seems to be running through the substructure.

2. Considering the fact that there is an Isaiah scroll in the Qumran community it seems undeniable that Isaiah did in fact fit on one scroll, as did Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. It's really for this reason (or one of the contributing reasons) that the Twelve became a cohesive unit.

Ken Schenck said...

On #1, I obviously failed to communicate well, for I meant to imply this.

Thanks on #2. I had not thought of the Isaiah scroll at Qumran. I was thinking strictly of length.

Doug Chaplin said...

I really like most of this as a summary. However, I feel that rather more knowledge of critical approaches is needed. The argument got so long that I blogged it here

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Doug. I enjoyed your post. Given that my denomination does not even require an MDIV, even having this much of a discussion of critical issues is going beyond what most ministers get!

The Brief Guide series put out by our university press only runs about 70 pages for something like this (e.g., my Brief Guide to Biblical Interpretation), so it is definitely in a nutshell!

Doug Chaplin said...

I'm constantly finding out how much we can learn about each others' church contexts on the blogs.

Given your context I think you do a really good job summarising