A Multiform Witness to the Word and Work of God
Sooner or later the pluriformity of the tradition that eventually came to be included in a variety of canons must be evaluated on the theological plane. The attested variety is problematic if and only if one is troubled by the fact that the God whom believers invoke in worship “at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1). To this day, one might observe, God speaks by the prophets in diverse fashion. God speaks to Jews through the scriptures vouchsafed to them, to the Ethiopian Orthodox through those inherited by them, to Roman Catholics through those held in honor by them, and so on.
To suggest otherwise involves a failure to come to grips with the persistence of divine election “to the thousandth generation of those of who love him and keep his commandments” (Deut 7:9). Paul’s language is unequivocable: “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). He affirmed this with respect to himself and all other Jews whether or not they believed on the name of Jesus the Messiah. Either way according to Paul, God’s calling remains in force.
A fortiori, the same applies to Christians of all persuasions. No matter how far they stray from the gospel, Paul keeps at them (exhibit A: Galatians). Paul assumes that God continues to speak to Jews and Christians of whatever persuasion through the scriptures he appeals to in teaching and diatribe.
On the basis of scripture, Paul is convinced that God will not abandon the heirs of the promises. This leads him to an open-ended view of God’s work among his fellow Jews. The tensions in Paul’s discussion (Rom 9-11) are patent, but not of his own making. The one who wanted to be “all things to all people” embraced a set of crisscrossing particularisms and univeralisms with roots in the scriptures and his encounter with the resurrected Christ.
It might be appropriate for Jews and Christians today to have a similarly open-ended view of God’s work among Jews and among Christians of persuasions other than their own.
Paul’s open-ended view is determined by apocalyptic hope no less than was the outlook of Jesus before him, and Bar Kokhba and Akiva’s after him. Openness and enormous truth claims go hand in hand in Paul. In this too, Paul might be an enduring model. What Paul kept together is torn asunder today. Those with openness sidestep the issue of truth. Those who make truth claims lack openness. To be sure, the refusal to make truth claims, for Jew and Christian, must be seen as a form of betrayal. A scholar who gets this is Jon Levenson. In the absence of an open-ended view of the other and the future, claiming the truth nevertheless becomes a self-serving exercise.
A Jewish thinker who like Paul and more than Paul embraced multiple particularisms and univeralisms was Franz Rosenzweig. According to R, a star of redemption casts its light across history. Judaism is the fire in the heart of the star; Christianity, the rays that emanate from the star. Judaism is the light; Christianity, that which is lighted. On the other hand, R takes it for granted that tensions and antipathies will always characterize the ordained relationship that binds Judaism and Christianity together. Arnold Betz provides a first introduction to Rosenzweig’s life and thought.
The history of the canon reflects this relationship. For Christians, the scriptures of the Old Testament, irrespective of how the outer boundaries of the collection are defined, are inherited gifts. The text forms in which they read it, in Hebrew or in translation, are products of a traditioning process that arcs across two millennia. The Masoretic Text is a gift from the very end of that process, the Septuagint , a gift from its beginning; “the Hebrew truth” of the Vulgate , a gift in mid-trajectory. The bearers of the gifts in every case were Jews, or depended on Jews. The Jewishness of the New Testament is also undeniable, its components written, perhaps without exception, by Jewish Christians. Yet resignifications of the old by the new in rabbinic Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other are clearly and purposely at loggerheads with one another.
The literature of the Old and New Testaments – irrespective of how the outer boundaries are defined – reflects in its every part Jewish roots and Jewish origins. The history of interpretation of biblical literature has been shaped repeatedly on the anvil of Jewish-Christian interaction, in antiquity; in the high Middle Ages; all the way to modern times. Today no less than yesterday, the interpretation of scripture is best conceived of as a joint venture and a terrain of battle at the same time.
Scripture and Metascripture
Irreducibly diverse metanarratives divide Jews and Christians, Jews and Jews, and Christians and Christians. The differences pull them in opposite directions even as they pore over the scriptures they hold in common. It is hard for those who define themselves in terms of differences with others to affirm God’s calling of said others, even if they read part or all of the same scriptures they do. In my view, the counter-example of the earliest Christians is of enduring significance.
“Those who belong to the Way” (Acts 9:2) had no doubt that the gifts and calling of God remained with the Jews. So much is implied by the fact that they worshipped with them in the Temple and synagogue (Acts 2:46; 13:5, 13-43; etc.).
The status of those Peter addresses as “brothers” (Acts 2:29) - irrespective of their position vis-à-vis the gospel he proclaimed - was not a controversial matter. The status of “Gentiles turning to God” through the preaching of the gospel was the issue (Acts 15:19).
The reported position of James is of great interest (15:13-21). He recognized what was happening as a fulfillment of scripture (Amos 9:11-12 + Isa 45:21, a significant conflation). But he insisted that Gentiles follow the halacha in Moses traditionally understood to apply to Gentiles and Jews alike. After all, he pointed out, “For generations now Moses has had those who proclaim him in every town, and he is read aloud in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (15:21).
According to James, the reading of Moses in the synagogue is of ongoing importance in the divine economy. The torah proclaimed binds Jews and Gentiles alike, albeit to different degrees. James affirms twin universalisms: the universality of the mission of Moses, and the universality of the mission of Simon, Barnabas, and Paul (15:14, 26). The proclamation of Moses in one context and of Jesus in another are understood to bear consequences for all.
The position of James no less than Paul proves that a non-supercessionist stance vis-à-vis Judaism is an option for Christians. A return to a position like that of James would have revolutionary consequences today.
It might be admitted that God speaks to Jews and Christians of whatever persuasion through Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah. The divergent frameworks within which scripture is read are, to be sure, limiting factors. That is an argument for reading scripture within more than one discrete and irrreducible framework. It follows, for example, that a Jewish reading of the New Testament will be of interest to Christians. We can, perhaps we must, learn from each other. If we were honest, we might admit we always have.
Retention and Supplementation of Authoritative Tradition
The history of the canon goes like this. All of the texts in the first two divisions of what is now the Tanakh, and the majority of the texts in its third division, were accepted by Jews in general for the threefold purpose of hearing God speak, knowing how to walk with God, and knowing how to speak back to God, from the mid-second century bce forward. As the evidence of Old Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls makes clear, the situation was nevertheless fluid in terms of content and arrangement of said texts, and the degree to which other texts such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll were held to be binding and revelatory alongside of texts now in the Tanakh. Specific strands of Judaism treasured specific sets of traditional literature.
A “twenty-four” book canon identical to the one attested in rabbinic tradition is not attested outside of it before the fourth cent. ce, most clearly in Jerome, Prologue to the Book of Kings (Vulg.). The so-called kaige recension of the Old Greek translations, tentatively dated to the mid-first cent. bce, embraced Baruch and the additions to Daniel, plusses over against the finalized rabbinic canon. The “twenty-two” books of Josephus (38-99 ce) lacked either Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes, a minus over against the finalized canon. The text forms of the books Josephus relied on, furthermore, were generally not, any more than those reflected in the New Testament, proto-masoretic in type. Since Josephus was a Pharisee, the strand of Judaism from which later rabbinic Judaism derives, non-attestation of proto-MT in his writings precludes the notion that proto-MT enjoyed a privileged status in rabbinic Judaism of the mid-first century of this era.
Melito of Sardis (fl. 170 ce), the first author of Christian tradition known to Eusebius (c.260-c.340) to list the books of the Old Testament (Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14), lacked Esther. Tannaitic controversies reported in rabbinic tradition dovetail with this information. Esther and Ecclesiastes, it transpires, were not universally accepted in early rabbinic Judaism. Despite or perhaps because of its popularity in some rabbinic circles, Song of Songs was also “spoken against,” to use Eusebian terminology. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the reception/non-reception of Ecclesiastes and Esther among Christians echoes differences among Jews.
The received authoritative tradition which, in the course of the 2nd – 4th cent. ce, came to coincide with the Tanakh as known from later Masoretic codices down to the minutest details, was, over the same centuries, supplemented by later tradition. It might be shown that the legal portions of the Pentateuch were compatible with the developing oral law, but oral tradition came to be understood as canonical in its own right, with or without a demonstrated basis in the materials of the Tanakh thought to have legal implications. Megillat Taanit, the canonical Midrashim, and the Mishnah and Talmudim fall into the category of supplementation to a pre-existing canonical base. The writings in the Tanakh remained the means by which Jews heard God speak, but, as already noted, they did so more directly through Targumim which resignified the whole. The Psalms continued to be used in personal devotion and public worship, but statutory prayers in non-biblical style gave Jews a new way to pray.
Early Christians retained the authoritative traditions Jews of their number brought with them. As already noted, a few books found in all Christian Bibles today, most obviously Esther, were not accepted by all Christians for teaching and preaching. Then again, Esther was not universally accepted as canonical among Jews either. “Rav Judah [fl. 250-290 ce] said in the name of Samuel [d. 254 ce]: ‘The Scroll of Esther does not defile the hands’” (אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל אסתר אינה מטמאה את הידים) (b. Meg. 7a). There is no reason to think that Rav Judah and Rav Samuel’s view was theirs alone.
On the other hand, texts which did not come to be included in the Tanakh, such as Enoch, Jubilees, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, the additions to the books of Daniel, Esther, and 2 Baruch, were deemed fit for teaching and exhortation, first by one or more streams of pre-Christian Judaism, then by one or more branches of Christianity. Enoch and Jubilees rule faith and practice in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day.
Christians went on to supplement inherited literature with a body of literature of their own making, narrative, didactic, and visionary in character. It resignifies the old through the prism of the life, death, and resurrection of the one they knew as Messiah and Lord.
 On the non-biblical origin of much early halacha, see Jacob Neusner, Judaism. The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Scripture and the Generative Premises of the Halakhah. A Systematic Inquiry. I-IV (Academic Studies in Ancient Judaism series; Binghamton: Global Publications, 2000). On the non-biblical style of much early prayer, see Stefan C. Reif, “The Bible in the Liturgy,” in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 1937-48.