The canonical fun continues. Bob MacDonald, Jim West, and Doug Chaplin weigh in again, and Iyov steps up to the plate. I am happy to see that Iyov’s comment caught Chris Heard’s eye. Iyov deserves a wide readership.
Bob MacDonald interacts with an earlier comment by Duane Smith. Bob’s approach to Scripture illustrates an underappreciated fact by theologian-types. Ultimately, the authority of Scripture has to do with its life-transforming power, not its usefulness in constructing systematic theology. A story I like to repeat is one that makes the rounds in a Catholic formation I frequent (the Focolare movement). A retreat is going on, everyone has eaten, and it’s time to wash the dishes. A group of laymen are loading and stacking the dishwasher, and as they do so, Father Antonio stands by and questions them about Purgatory. How should we conceive of it today, he asks. He goes on like this, and after a while, one of the dishwashers gives him a straight answer. “I don’t know, Father, but one thing I do know. If you don’t start washing dishes with us, purgatory is where you are going.”
Jim West wonders what we should call the Tanakh on the one hand and the various Old Testaments of the historic Christian churches on the other. Just what they’ve always been called, as far as I’m concerned, with one addition: the Hebrew Bible. This term, in my view, is best used in reference to the historical sense of its components, that is, the senses e.g. that contents of the book of Isaiah had before rabbinic Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other got a hold of it. Tanakh and Old Testament are terms best used whenever the later contextualizations of the literature are in view.
Labels like Second Testament for the New Testament, it is not difficult to predict, will go nowhere. On the other hand, the issues they evoke will not go away either.
I argue against unilateral supersessionism in my essay (without footnotes, unfortunately, to the signal work of others on this question; I will fix that eventually). Unilateral supersessionism ignores the crisscrossing particularisms and universalisms to be found in Jewish thought and Christian thought of all ages.
But it is also true that the Mishnah and the Talmudim on the one hand and the New Testament on the other retain and transcend the Tanakh/Old Testament (in whatever iteration). The later literature resignifies the precedent literature according to a storyline at some remove from that the precedent literature implies.
The New Testament really is new. Why not call it that? The Mishnah and the Talmudim are no less new with respect to the Tanakh. On this point, I recommend the essay by Jon Levenson available online.
Jim also wonders whether I’m done already. Not quite. The appendices are coming. I will also add a sixth line of evidence to consider in the assessment of the canonical status of particular writings.
I am also hoping that someone will take courage in two hands and defend an approach to canon like that of Beckwith, MacDonald, and Waltke. The same applies to an approach to canon like that of Sanders, which I would affectionately call the “wax-nose” view of Scripture. My response to an emphasis on the adaptability of the canon continues to be that the whole purpose of a canon is that we adapt to it, not it to us.
Bring it on, please. I’m waiting.
Doug Chaplin touches on a number of topics. Fine Anglican that he is, he does not hesitate to accord the protocanonical writings of the Old Testament one status, and the deuterocanonicals another. Charismatic evangelical Augustinian Chiara Lubich-loving Waldensian that I am, I would accord greater authority to the deuterocanonicals than he does. How so?
If I understand him correctly, Doug limits the authority of the deuterocanonicals to that of “a guide to living for the ordinary Christian community.” That’s fine insofar as it goes. The importance of 2 Maccabees as a repository of moral exempla is already implied by Hebrews 11:35-38. The Song of the Three Youth is a great text to cite in the context of a sermon on Daniel, and works well as a responsive prayer. Tobit and Susannah might be reclaimed as moral exempla. Jewish authors have begun to do so. Protestants, if they choose to go, will be latecomers to the party. Better late than never.
But I also think that passages from Ben Sira, Baruch, and Wisdom of Solomon are useful for construction in the matter of Christology. They are bridge texts between Proverbs 8 on the one hand and John 1, for example, on the other. To be sure, the authority of the bridge texts is subordinate to that of the texts they bridge. But that is not the same thing as saying that they are without authority. A rediscovery of the riches of the first five or six centuries of the Christian tradition is in full swing, and involves Catholic, the Orthodox, and evangelicals (think Thomas Oden) alike. Reappropriation of the patristic tradition involves reappropriation of the sources on which patristic thought is based.
Furthermore, as Gerald Sheppard pointed out, wisdom is a hermeneutical construct in the Hebrew Bible. It is significant that Proverbs and Qohelet are attributed to Solomon. As Sheppard notes, “Solomon epitomizes the wisest person who ever lived (1 Kgs 4:29-31), but he must also obey the Torah of Moses as did his father (1 Kgs 3:14).” Wisdom and Torah are understood as two sides of the same coin. But it is also true that Wisdom makes her appeal to all. Within and beyond Israel, the book of Proverbs attests, her voice has been heard and her words collected. Proverbs 22:17-24:22 depends heavily on the Instruction of Amenemope. 30:1-31:9 are attributed to non-Israelites. The voice of wisdom is also heard in Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon.
That doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything in these books. Another fine Anglican, Peter Kirk, is right to point out issues with elements of Ben Sira. As an extension of, and in subordination to, the voice of wisdom heard in Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet, the voice of wisdom is nonetheless audible in works attributed to Solomon by tradition and included in the Old Testaments of the historic Christian churches, especially Ecclesiasticus Salomonis, as it was known, and Wisdom of Solomon.
Let me repeat. The authority of the deuterocanonicals is derivative, but no less real for that reason. In developing a Christology, there is much to be said for drawing from the deuterocanonicals’ riches, just as there is much to be said for drawing from the riches of the Fathers beyond the New Testament.
Doug also discusses my hope for a super-sized study Bible. Jim West notes an exciting project which will address my hope in part. It doesn’t matter to me that parts of Hebrew ben Sira, for whatever reason, were not included in Greek recensions (there are more than one) of ben Sira. The debate reminds me of the one which swirls around the inclusion of a passage between 1 Samuel 10 and 11 which dropped out of later textual tradition altogether. It does, however, appear to have been part of the original, and stood, it transpires, in the text Josephus knew. NRSV is right to include the passage in its translation of 1 Samuel. On a related note, the study Bible of my dreams would include in footnotes the non-original passages of the New Testament as received in various times and places, with some notion of how they relate to the history of interpretation of the whole.
Given everything I said, Doug notes the weirdness of the fact that ESV and NIV are, it turns out, the translations most in use in my neck of the religious woods. Well, you don’t have to rub it in. One can always hope that a TNIV translation of the deuterocanonicals will someday see the light of day.
Doug concludes with a zinger: “Yes, the text may be other than its traditional interpretation, and its otherness may be an expression of the otherness of God whether in judgment or affirmation, threat or promise. Equally, the varied interpretations of previous generations of commentators may be precisely what enables it to stand over against us and be other to us and for us. Contemporary reading alone may unwittingly domesticate the text by absorbing it comfortably within our own horizons.”
Now that is well put.
Last but not least, I will review Iyov’s comments. He is right to note the incommensurability of Rambam’s two most famous works, Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevukhim.
The latter work provoked a great deal of controversy, but that does not change the fact that for a stretch of Jewish history, the philosophy it contains cannot be disassociated from the practice of biblical commentary and preaching in the synagogue. For a time, philosophy in general and that of Aristotle in particular was so much the rage that excerpts from Aristotle were sometimes read during synagogue homilies on a passage of Torah. Ram Ben-Shalom remarks:
Maimonides’ work, Guide of the Perplexed . . . constituted the foundation for Jewish philosophy in Spain and Provence (Berger 1997b). . . . Philosophy’s popularity among the Jews provoked a series of intense social debates in Spain and southern France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, climaxing in 1305 when the Rashba (ibn Adret), the most prominent leader of Spanish Jewry at the time, issued a prohibition on philosophical studies for anyone younger than 25, and banned completely a group of radical philosophers. These steps, however, did not achieve their desired effect. In fact, philosophical activity flourished in the following years, and it is quite possible that the attempts to repress it had the opposite results. Yet by the early fourteenth century the Guide of the Perplexed was no longer the focus of opposition, as it had achieved legitimate standing even in the eyes of its foes. Now, rather, controversy was focused on radical allegoric philosophy which, in contrast to the past, was no longer just studied by small numbers of learned groups but circulated widely by means of traveling preachers moving between communities of Provence and Spain (Ben-Shalom 1996; 2000a; Berger 1999b: 85-108).”
Maimonides’ philosophical masterpiece in the original was also transmitted in Arabic script, and as such was intended for circulation among Muslims. That suggests that the Arabic he wrote in, while not purely classical in diction, was comprehensible to non-Jews, something I’m not sure is true in the case of Yiddish among others who know German, a comparison Iyov makes.
But Iyov is certainly right that much more needs to be done by way of describing and illustrating “the effect of layers of commentaries and metacommentaries interacting with each other and the original text that forms the core of so much of Jewish literature.” In line with the famous passage from Pirkei Avot he cites, commentary in Jewish tradition builds a protective fence around the Torah. It is fascinating to see how that works in practice.
Iyov goes on to point out, via a quotation of John Mason Neale, whose translations of Latin hymns grace my Protestant hymnal, severe weaknesses in the Protestant approach to Scripture. Iyov confesses his imagination to be beggared by the Protestant approach to Scripture. I could be wrong, but like Neale before him, I think he feigns not to understand. We need not feign in turn.
The issue is not whether the baptism of adults only, or Mary understood as the mother of God, or elevators going up and down on their own on the Sabbath, are derivable from Scripture without interpretation. Of course they are not. The issue is whether said derivations constitute “new insights in harmony with the old,” reflect “continuity of principles,” and/or may be understood as “preservative additions.” The fact that a particular tradition claims as much for its contents doesn’t make it so. (The phrases in quotes are taken from the subheadings of Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Development of Doctrine: Patterns and Criteria,” Chapter Four of Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (John W. Kluge Center (Library of Congress); New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2004) 115-149. Pelikan is always worth reading.)
And what if all the traditions just cited, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, are faithful in unique and irreducible ways to the scriptures they treasure, and unfaithful to them in other ways? Now there is a conundrum. A conundrum, as the reader will notice, that gives me great joy.
Despite what John Mason Neale has to say, the Protestant approach to Scripture has great strengths, and depend precisely on Jewish precedent, a fact anti-Protestant Catholic apologetic, traditionally anti-Jewish also, has always enjoyed pointing out. “Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset.” And Nicholas of Lyra, as everyone should know, is the one who mediated the rediscovery of the peshat or plain sense of Scripture, even against tradition, that characterizes the exegesis of Avraham ibn Ezra and others of the high Middle Ages. Recent scholarship on the complex relations that obtained between Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Bible in that period has made great strides in understanding. A splendid introduction to the topic is the essay entitled “Bible Interpretation” by Michael Fishbane in Martin Goodman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 680-704. Check it out, as they say. You will not be disappointed.
The hard-won distinction between the text’s peshat or sensus literalis, and its other conceivable senses (derash, remez, and sod, to use traditional Jewish terms) or sensus plenior, should not be surrendered. The crowns Akiva added to the letters of the Torah are beautiful, but they are not part of the original. The historical sense of the Hebrew Bible is one animal, its resignification by rabbinic Judaism another, that of the various Christian traditions, another still. I refer once again to the online article by Jon Levenson.
 Ram Ben-Shalom, “Medieval Jewry in Christendom,” in Martin Goodman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 153-92; 174.