Layer upon layer of commentary! In discussion of my “Thinking about Canon” series, Angela Erskop Erisman offered a comment on a post by Chris Heard on a comment by Duane Smith on a comment of mine on comment on the first post in the series. She post-scripted that with a comment on Doug Chaplin’s comment on the post by Chris Heard on a comment by Duane Smith on a comment of mine on comment on the first post in the series. I count six consecutive strata in the first instance, seven in the second. Don’t you love it?
I will now add a supercomment to Angela’s supercomments.
Why is it that we contrast human authority with textual authority? This seems quite silly to me. PEOPLE write texts. In other words, we never actually move away from the human element. We just pretend we do by forgetting that texts are written by people in contexts. And even for us reading scripture today, we’re still in a sense communicating with these ancient authors.
I’d like to see how this aspect might be dealt with in our discussion of canon.
An excellent point, and one often missed by people with a high view of Scripture falsely so-called. It’s not just what is said that matters. Who said it and who passed on what was said also matter very, very much.
It matters that rabbi x said something on the authority of rabbi y, not so much because of the importance of rabbis x and y per se, but because the heritage they transmitted is not theirs alone, but that of a permanent magisterium (of those who sit in the seat of Moses, to use Matthew’s expression (23:2), which I can’t imagine he invented).
Scripture is God-inspired, says Paul in his second letter to Timothy, but Timothy knew that already because he was introduced to scripture, not by an academic and not even by Paul, but by Eunice and Lois from the time Timmy was knee-high to a grasshopper (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-17).
Eunice and Lois were Tim’s mother and mother’s mother. Scripture was inflected in their voices. Scripture is always inflected by voices. Those of the ancient authors, first of all: Like Angela, I consider it an act of a diligent reader to harness all available linguistic, historical, and cultural resources in the effort to hear the voices of the authors of a text. Properly understood, this is what a historical critical reading of a text seeks to do.
Secondly, as already noted, there are mediating voices which inflect Scripture for us. Grandmas and Sunday school teachers qualify. When I attend synagogue, it is the cantor, David Barash, who inflects Scripture for me. And that changes everything. Yes, that changes everything.
On the human side, the “hermeneutical circle” is not made up of just two or three participants (Paul, the Holy Ghost, and me, according to a parody of the Protestant approach to Scripture). There are many more participants, and they all have authority.
That’s why concepts like “apostolic succession” and the “rule of faith” (not the same thing as Scripture) were and are important for many. As well they should.
Even those who claim to read Scripture apart from tradition can be shown to do that very thing. What tradition: that is the only question.
In a second comment, Angela added:
P.S. I really like Doug Chaplin’s comment. First, it brings to mind Michael Fishbane’s work (I’m referring here to “Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel”), which has always struck me as showing that the “canonical process” starts in the formation stages of the Bible itself. Second, it emphasizes what, to me, is the key point: our use of text within communities (both Jewish and Christian) is what accords it status. And I think that’s true whether we artificially ossify it into a source of doctrine or use it creatively in various types of commentary.
A student of Michael Fishbane, Bernard Levinson, engages the very issues Angela raises. I asked him not long ago to describe his ongoing work, and to point out for us five important resources for “thinking about canon.” I reproduce his reply in the next post.