The Canon Debate
Opposing errors are rampant in discussions of canon. On the one hand there are the maximalists, who insist that a set of books identical to the “twenty-four” of mature rabbinic Judaism existed within the precincts of the Temple from the mid-second century bce forward. The MT goes back to them in a straight and uneventful line. Aside from the lack of evidence in favor of this reconstruction, it misidentifies the defining fact of scriptural authority. Uniformity of the word to which one turns is not what counts. It is the turning itself that matters. First of all, it is God who is understood to turn to the listener in the text that is read. The reader/listener turns in response. Scriptural authority is realized in that event, or it is not realized at all.
On the other hand, there are those that emphasize the degree to which interpreters and readers control what the canon has to say. On this view, the text has no meaning of its own, or if it does, it is assigned a new one in a process of resignification. Cartloads of evidence might be cited in favor of this reconstruction. It is still wrongheaded. The purpose of canonizing a text is to allow it to stand over against the one who hears it. The maximalists, therefore, are right to insist that the concept of canon correlates with an unparalleled degree of consent on the part of those for whom the canon is meaningful. Canon-making, furthermore, is about according authority to this text and not another. A particular text is accorded authority, even if maximalists define that particularity with unconscionable inflexibility.
Whether the consent that is given is genuine is another matter. To claim that it never is, based on an appeal to reader-response theory or a postmodern hermeneutic, is fashionable but preempts the possibility of a genuine discussion. Given that the definition of fashion is something that goes out of fashion, the wisest response may be to pay no heed. To those who pleasure themselves with the deconstruction of non-postmodern interpretation, I say: enjoy your miniskirt while you can. You will turn a few heads; in the long term, you are likely to be ignored.
Of course the hearer shapes the text in the act of interpretation. The point of canon is another. Genre-specific explanations may illustrate. Setting apart a narrative text in a canon is meant to facilitate the appropriation of the particular past the text embodies, and the particular future to which it points. Setting apart a text of ethical construction in a canon is not meant to stop ethical construction in its tracks, but to provide an inevitable point of departure for subsequent ethical construction. Setting apart a collection of texts which fuse oracle and diatribe establishes a model of predictive discourse in which soothsaying and parenesis reinforce one another. Setting apart a collection of texts which envision the past, present, and future in terms of an apocalyptic hope – the book of Daniel – establishes the terms of redemption of universal history. Setting apart a collection of cries of despair and hymns in a canon is meant to furnish models of prayer and praise. Setting apart a comedy– the book of Esther – sanctifies a specific instance of a genre which might otherwise be thought to fall beyond the reach of redemption. Setting apart a collection of aphorisms in which wisdom herself demands obedience sanctifies everyday ethical behavior. Setting apart a book like Job sanctifies the protest of the innocent in a world of injustice. Setting apart the ruminations of a grumpy, wise, and self-absorbed old man – the book of Qohelet – was, in brief, a stroke of genius. Even when a text is treated as a tabula rasa, as in traditional interpretation of Song of Songs, the resignification of the text is far from arbitrary. The resignification reflects a metanarrative whose fixed points cannot be ignored by the interpreter. At the intersection of scripture and metanarrative, God is presumed to speak.
The works listed below are merely representative of a discussion that generates hundreds of contributions each year. It should come as no surprise that contributions to the debate tend to be driven by anxieties characteristic of the intellectual and confessional commitments of their authors. Liberals seek concepts of canon, inspiration, and authority that are as innocuous and inoffensive as possible, except to conservatives. Conservatives hone concepts of canon and authority that burn as many bridges as possible, so as to better indulge their magnificent obsessions. My own anxieties and my own stance, that of a bridge-building conservative, are evident, I presume, in the foregoing essay.
Auwers, Jean-Marie, and H. J. de Jonge, eds.. The Biblical Canons. BETL 163. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003.
Bowley, James E., and John C. Reeves. “Rethinking the Concept of ‘Bible’: Some Theses and Proposals.” XXV 2003. Online here.
Davies, Philip R. “Loose Canons: Reflections on the Formation of the Hebrew Bible.” 1997. JHS online here.
Flint, Peter W., ed. The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation. Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Helmer, Christine, and Christof Landmesser, eds. One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kelsey, David H. The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Kooij, Arie van der, and K. van der Toorn, eds. Canonization and Decanonization. With an Annotated Bibliography compiled by J. A. M. Snoek. Studies in the History of Religions 82. Leiden: Brill, 1998.
MacDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002.
Mulder, Martin Jan, and Harry Sysling, eds. Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Compendia rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum. Section 2, The Literature of the Jewish People in the Period of the Second Temple and the Talmud 1. Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Polk, Timothy Houston. The Biblical Kierkegaard. Reading by the Rule of Faith. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Sæbø, Magne, ed., in co-operation with Chris Brekelmans and Menahem Haran. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation. Vol. 1, Parts 1-2. From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (until 1300). Antiquity. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996, 2000.
Troyer, Kristin de, and Armin Lange; with the assistance of Katie M. Goetz and Susan Bond, eds. Reading the Present in the Qumran Library: The Perception of the Contemporary by means of Scriptural Interpretations. SBLSS 20. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Ulrich, Eugene. The Dead Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible.
Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related
Literature. Grand Rapids:
 For this characterization of Esther, see Adele Berlin, Esther: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation [and] Commentary (JPSBC; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society) xv-xxii.