Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the OT canon

In my third semester of seminary, I wrote a paper on the canonicity (really, the uncanonicity) of the Apocrypha. (Please forgive the lack of proper formatting. If I remember correctly the history of the document, it started in MS-Word, migrated to OpenOffice, back to Word, then to Google docs. I'm not concerned with making it pretty--the content is there, if you care to suffer through it. I also have no idea how long I'll actually leave it up, so it may happen that someone who dredges up this post in the distant future will find the link broken.) It's not my intention here to respond blow-by-blow. I mostly just want to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the paper as it strikes me now. A lot has happened in the intervening decade. I like to think that I've progressed a bit in my writing skills and my sense of what constitutes good research. Needless to say, my outlook on the subject has also changed.

One of the most glaring problems that strike me now is the shoddy research that went into the paper. My published sources were mostly slanted in an Evangelical direction, while the other side was covered by some e-mail exchanges with people I found in various newsgroups. Granted, there's something to be said for having actually exchanged blows with an enthusiastic opponent; but the tendency is still going to be for the published arguments to look more compelling, because they cite impressive sources, or they come from known, reputable sources (reputable in certain circles, that is). As I recall, this reliance on personal exchanges was one of the few substantive criticisms I got back with my grade. It was mostly a result of laziness--we didn't have a very good library, especially when it came to locating sources outside the Evangelical tradition, and I didn't make the effort to find them elsewhere. As a result, the deck was stacked from the beginning.

At the same time, the published sources I did use were second- and third-rate. Books on Old Testament Introduction are intended for a particular purpose and can serve that purpose well, but they should have been little more than a starting point. For the most part, I was not looking at primary literature (actual writings of Church Fathers, first-century Jewish writers, etc.), or even secondary literature (original studies of those writings)--I was looking at collections based on writings that may have been secondary literature, but also may have been tertiary. And although I had a half-way decent listing in the bibliography, the footnotes reveal that most of my points were supported by a small handful of resources. This problem doesn't in itself invalidate the points I made, but it does seriously call them into question.

There are also some pretty clear biases. For instance, I assume, rather than argue, that to be canonical, inspired Scripture, a text must be inerrant in all of its details. I also assume toward the end, when I'm talking about Jewish custody of the OT Scriptures, the Dispensational view that Jewish Israel continues as its own spiritual entity, with its own role in God's plan, beyond the foundation of the Church on the Day of Pentecost. I actually remember something of the fundamental outlook I took away from this study, beyond what's entirely clear from the paper itself. I was convinced that the Rabbinic canon was the one to follow, because God had given the OT to the Jewish people as an inalienable possession, and it was their business to define what constitutes its canon, not ours. And certainly it was beyond the ability of the largely corrupt, institutional Church to improve on their judgment. This outlook now seems so backward to me, that it's hard to fathom how I acquired it in the first place.

One thing I'm reminded of is how I lacked the courage to apply the same kind of study to the NT canon. I allude in the paper to the fact that Protestants generally accept the historic judgment of the Church in that area, and I remember having some misgivings about how hard it would be to get around the role of Tradition in the recognition of NT canon. Clearly, I couldn't accept the Rabbinic judgment that the NT was completely out of bounds. I was somehow satisfied with the idea that the OT belonged to Rabbinic Judaism and the NT belonged to Christianity. (Which is in no way to say that I thought Christianity should ignore the OT--far from it.) But if the Church couldn't be trusted to sort out the OT canon, why should it be trusted on the NT? And the fact was also there, that in any case, it really came down to the judgment of the community over what constituted Scripture--a judgment that, at least in the case of the OT canon, had no discernible relationship to the spiritual condition of the community. I didn't see it then, but it was an almost magical view of the Spirit's intervention to preserve Scripture.

Of course, I dealt with specifics as well. My arguments mostly consisted of showing how one form of evidence or another could go either way. It might be difficult to make a solid case that the Rabbinic canon was the only accepted list, but if I could show that it was just as difficult to affirm a longer canon, I had room to play with. Forget the fact that ascertaining the canon must have always been a gradual process, and that even though there may have been different perspectives on which apocryphal books really belonged, there is still significant testimony that the canon was open. I don't think I ever managed to remove from myself the assumption of a hermetically sealed canon, so it was really quite impossible for me to accept that it could have been so undefined as to allow for variant collections. And I never paid the least attention to what has been used in the liturgical life of the Church over the centuries.

I'm not sure if I ever actually considered how the progression must have worked. Jesus and the Apostles had a relatively fixed canon matching that later affirmed in Rabbinic sources, but then what? How did those wishy-washy Christians of the second and third centuries end up even considering that extra books might belong? What (presumably Gentile) Christian decided 1 Maccabees was important enough to include? And why add new books that had not been included earlier, calling them part of the OT? Why not make them part of the NT, since the canon of the OT had already been fixed by that point? Furthermore, how did any of this process make any sense at all, if Tradition was not a significant piece of the puzzle?

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself. Most of the papers I wrote in seminary were more apologetic in character than truly exploring new territory. You start with an issue and your preconceived conclusion (usually, the standard Evangelical line), and you assemble your arguments to back it up. Sometimes, if there are acknowledged options within the Evangelical mainstream, you can actually draw your own conclusion. But in some areas, you just don't take seriously the alternative viewpoints. Pretty much anything that looked like Catholicism fell into this latter category for me. We'll see it again if I get to my paper on "born of water and spirit" in John 3:5, which clearly had nothing to do with water baptism. That I dealt with things this way was predictable, given my background. That my teachers never objected also speaks to the environment in which I was learning. We all believed in sola scriptura, but we also stuck pretty close to our own traditions.


Roland said...

Cardinal Cajetan listed [the Apocrypha] as non-canonical in the sense of serving as a basis for faith but canonical only in the sense that they do edify.

This is the usual Anglican stance. Selections from the Apocrypha are included in both the Eucharistic Lectionary and the Daily Office Lectionary. The two canticles from the Song of the Three Young Men (canticles 7 and 8 in the Byzantine psalter) are even recited regularly at Morning Prayer. But these books are not used as a basis for establishing doctrine. Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion attributes this approach to Jerome.

I think the English Reformers, like Jerome and Cardinal Cajetan, were implicitly aware that the matter of OT canonicity is entangled with the question of the purpose for establishing a canon, or to what use the canon is to be put. If one is reading the OT as the Fathers did, looking to find Jesus there, one can maintain a relaxed standard of canonicity. But if one is to use the canon as an authoritative basis for rationalistic debates about doctrine, as was increasingly the case in the West, then it is reasonable to set a higher bar for admission to the canon.

So the first question is: How is one to read the OT?

Another problem for Evangelicals involves translation. Last night one of our fellow HC parishioners suggested that much of Western error can be traced to Jerome's inadequate translations of key theological terms in the NT. Treating scripture primarily as a library of authoritative proof texts to be interpreted by reason is probably not consistent with the scriptures as we must now read them, 20 to 30 centuries after they were written in languages and cultural milieux not our own.

Trevor said...

Good point. And I think I actually did recognize that distinction when I wrote the paper. In fact, as I recall, I came away from the project with the idea that Protestants would be better off reading the Apocrypha, at least now and then. Not that it meets the Protestant requirements for Scripture, but it is of value nonetheless.