Thinking about canon means coming to grips with the fact that a large body of Jewish literature of the Second Temple period and of the first centuries of this era, though excluded from the Tanakh of mature rabbinic Judaism, functioned canonically in one or more historic Christian churches in antiquity. Subsets of this literature, alongside the writings included in the Tanakh and those included in the New Testament, rule faith and practice today in the Catholic and the various Orthodox traditions.
In what sense is it possible for Jews and Christians for whom said literature does not rule faith and practice, to accord it a place of honor? At the very least, one might propose that it be valued no less, but also no more, than other segments of tradition which have contributed to making Judaism and Christianity what they are today. As I understand it, this is Peter Kirk's position. The standard Protestant position is more dismissive. So is the standard Jewish position.
It is not difficult to detect that the tectonic plates of Protestantism and Judaism are shifting in relation to Jewish literature of the Second Temple period and the first century of this era. Chunks of that body of literature, for example, the sectarian texts of Qumran, the apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, the writings of Josephus and Philo, receive sustained attention today by Jews and Christians as has not been the case, quite literally, for two millennia. The entire corpus of that literature is being studied as never before, for its own sake and to the degree that it can be shown that it develops earlier and anticipates later literature.
Renewed interest in the deuterocanonical literature of the historic Christian churches is especially strong, with Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and the "unattached," not just Jewish and Protestant scholars, leading the charge. Exhibit A: the Hermeneia Commentary series. Exhibit B: the HKAT series. Exhibit C: the new Bible project of the École Biblique, description here. As far as I’m concerned, the École Biblique project is an answer to prayer.
Other signs of renewed interest include the volume entitled The Parallel Apocrypha (ed. John R. Kohlenberger III; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). An invitation to read the contents of the volume is made by scholars representing a cross-section of points of view: Judith L. Kovacs (for the academy); Sarah J. Tanzer (the place of the apocrypha in the Jewish community); Demetrios J. Constantelos (an Orthodox view); John J. Collins (a Catholic view); Mary Chilton Callaway (an Anglican/Episcopalian View; Wallter J. Harrelson (a Protestant view), and D. A. Carson (an evangelical view). Curiously, the work is available from OUP in the UK, but not in the US.
A particularly interesting volume is entitled Christianity in Jewish Terms (ed. Tikva Frymer-Kensky [we mourn her passing], David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer; Boulder: Westview Press, 2000). Reflections on the Philonic corpus, for example, in conjunction with the realization that Christianity is the heir of this extra-rabbinic form of Judaism, become a basis for deeper Jewish-Christian understanding.
As I pointed out in a prolegomenon to this series, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are both heirs to the book of ben Sira. The book deserves to be transmitted to modern readers not only in a highly eclectic textual dress, as is now the norm, but in the forms in which it was transmitted in antiquity.
The deuterocanonicals of the historic Christian churches are a spiritual and theological bridge between older components of the Tanakh and rabbinic Judaism on the one hand and the New Testament and Christianity on the other. To the extent that tradition is understood as a developmental and cumulative process – which it is, though it is also more than this – the deuterocanonicals will be seen to develop earlier and anticipate later tradition. The deuterocanonicals deserve attention in their own right, but also as bridge documents between earlier and later components of both Jewish and Christian canons.
The standard Jewish and Protestant positions toward the deuterocanonicals are traditionalist in their own way. That is, commitment to a slice of later tradition (rabbinic tradition, the New Testament) is so single-minded as to disallow active appropriation of tradition that immediately preceded and anticipated it.
The valorization of one slice of tradition sometimes involves the suppression of another slice of tradition. For example, Peter Kirk appeals to the Anabaptist tradition (yes, it too is a tradition) against the tradition of creeds and councils and patristic tradition in general. That may be putting it too strongly, but that is what it feels like: as if one cannot do without Michael Sattler and Menno Simons but can take leave of Irenaeus, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine. If it be part of the deontological code of an intellectual to give credit where credit is due, then it must be admitted: if you want to know what Christianity would look like without an organic relationship to patristic tradition, you need look no further than the Jehovah's Witnesses.
(Ed.: you keep on using that word "tradition"! Did you watch Fiddler on the Roof one too many times? Tradition is not to be understood in a static sense, but as a dynamic phenomenon, with mechanisms almost always built in by which innovation is possible despite a groundedness in precedent.)
How does the Anabaptist tradition relate to the deuterocanonicals? An all-time Anabaptist classic, an opus I cherish not least because it features figures of my own, the Waldensian tradition, concentrates on martyrs of the faith: The Martyr’s Mirror, online here. The first chapter of this work is entitled:
MARTYRS MIRROR: FIRST PART
THE BLOODY THEATER
MARTYRS MIRROR OF THE
ANABAPTIST OR DEFENSELESS CHRISTIANS
WHO SUFFERED AND WERE SLAIN
FOR THE TESTIMONY OF JESUS CHRIST, THEIR SAVIOUR,
FROM THE TIME OF CHRIST
UNTIL THE YEAR A. D. 1660
AN ACCOUNT OF THE HOLY BAPTISM
OF THE MARTYRS IN THE FIRST CENTURY
Gruesome accounts follow of the martyrdom of, e.g., Vitalus Buried Alive at Ravenna (p. 99); Ignatius Devoured by Wild Beasts (p. 106); and Phocas Put to Death in a Lime Kiln (p. 108). Generations of Anabaptists have fed themselves spiritually on these accounts. Who are their precursors? Jews and Christians in antiquity who fed themselves spiritually on the accounts of martyrdom in the various books of Maccabees. The roots of the genre Martyr’s Mirror represents go precisely back to deuterocanonical Maccabean literature (see also Wisdom of Solomon and Psalms of Solomon).
A Martyr’s Mirror beginning with an account of the martyrdom of Abel and continuing on and on through the Maccabean martyrs (on the latter, see also the liturgy of Hellenistic Judaism as preserved in prayers redacted for us by Christians in the Apostolic Constitutions) before picking up with John the Baptist and continuing all the way to our own century, makes historical and spiritual sense. Mark my words: someday, someone will do it, and if done well, it will be a best-seller.
Jan Luykens’ original etchings for the second edition of Martyr’s Mirror are fabulous, by the way, and deserve to be better known.
Anabaptists are welcome to ignore the deuterocanonicals should they so choose. By so doing, however, they ignore the roots of a very important part of their own tradition.
In concluding this series on Thinking about Canon, I wish to extract three quotes from a post by Kevin Edgecomb. They reflect my thoughts, as well as his, in short compass:
There are two approaches:
1.) The canon is that of my church tradition only.
2.) The canon is that of all the churches: it includes every work that every tradition holds in its canon.
The second is purely my own ideal, but one that I think is valid philosophically, ecumenically, and kindly. To reject a book held sacred by another church is to reject that church. Whether one accepts that all of these are the Body of Christ or not, one cannot ignore them or their practices, traditions, arts and their canon. The result of learning the canons of the churches has been, for me, often surprising, and always enlightening.
* * *
I can see several approaches, all of which require a certain amount of dilgence:
1.) Extreme familiarity with ALL the books is required.
2.) Doctrinal arguments, in seeking scriptural referents, should seek them only in that group of books which is common to all (basically the Protestant canon of 39 OT/27 NT books).
3.) Books which we still possess (sadly, so many have been lost) and which at one time were held to be canonical, should be included in some way. Also, some books were approved for reading (church or private), though not canonized, and these too should be included in some fashion. Then, too, various manuscripts of the Bible include various books not usually canonical, and yet there they are! These, too, must play a role.
4.) I think that three levels are called for:
1.} Canonical—which refers to that canon with which one is most familiar in the church to which one belongs.
2.} Deutero-canonical, which is—all the various writings that are currently held canonical in other churches than one’s own.
3.} Trito-canonical—all the various writings which we still possess that were once canonical, or that were “recommended reading,” or that appear in biblical manuscripts.
* * *
[T]his leads to a very large number of books! 39 + 12 + 27 = 78, and this is simply the number of Old Testament + Apocrypha + New Testament books in the Ecumenical NRSV (not counting additions: Esther, Psalm 151, Letter of Jeremiah [included as chapter 6 of Baruch], Daniel [Prayer/Song, Susanna, Bel & Dragon]). All those are just to begin with! Some others to add are Jubilees and First Enoch (Ethiopian Church, and for Enoch, Jude), Psalms 152 through 155 (some Syrian manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls), First and Second Clement and the Apostolic Constitutions (Coptic Church), Odes of Solomon (some Syrian manuscripts, some Greek manuscripts), either the whole of Second Baruch or the Letter of Baruch (2Bar 78.1–86.1 or 87.1) [not sure about this one—definitely the Letter of Baruch, though], Apocalypse of Peter (formerly popular in the West), The Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and probably others.
Along with all these, there is the acknowledged necessity to familiarize oneself with the “literary context” of the Old Testament and New Testament, and thus, one takes up the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Charlesworth) and the New Testament Apocrypha (Schneemelcher) and the Apostolic Fathers (Lightfoot, in a handy edition edited by Harmer, then Holmes). All of the above-mentioned works will be found in one or more of those (except the Apostolic Constitutions, which can be found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, translated by William Whiston, edited by Donaldson; I may, or rather, I intend to produce a new, modern English translation of the Apostolic Constitutions, the lack of which is perplexing). Though such a wealth of reading is a daunting task, think of the rewards one finds upon gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation not only for this body of various writings, but also, and perhaps especially more importantly, for one’s fellow Christian in addition to oneself, for one will find beliefs held dear in these writings. Though one may also shy away from reading “apocryphal” books, and may not accept, say, a Syrian Orthodox or Ethiopian Tawahedo Christian as a brother, that does not mean that such an attitude is correct. This whole “I am, they’re not” attitude is not a pearl before swine, but rather something falling immediately behind the swine (let the reader understand!).
End quote. I could not have said it better myself.