Excerpts from Part 2 of John Hobbins’ Thoughts on the Canon

Posted By on March 31, 2009

In John’s second post, he talks about a “dual dynamic” when it comes to the canon.  Here’s a portion of what he says:

On the one hand, the existence of an agreed upon nucleus of authoritative literature in various times and places is undeniable; on the other, the supplementation of existing authoritative writings via interpolations and independent compositions with authoritative pretensions is equally well-attested. The dual dynamic describes a fundamental dimension of the history of Jewish, Jewish-Christian, and Christian literature throughout antiquity. It gave us the Tanakh + the Talmud according to two rival configurations in rabbinic Judaism, and the Old Testament in a variety of configurations + the New Testament in Christianity. Penultimately, subsets and additions to what eventually became the Tanakh and the New Testament carried the day.

John also discusses the issue of the “Pluriform Tradition” of holy books (I have retained his links):

The facts are clear. Among manuscripts of traditional literature found at Qumran and in the manuscript tradition of transmitted translations of the same literature, variety abounds. Across the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic witnesses, the following phenomena are apparent: a plurality of transmitted text forms of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings; the accordion-like shape of the corpus attributed to Jeremiah (a shorter and a longer version of the primary text; supplementation in the form of Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah; attribution of Lamentations to Jeremiah); a shorter and a longer version of Ezekiel; a plurality of text forms and supplements (Susannah, Bel and the Dragon, Song of the Three Youth) to Daniel and Esther; a plurality of transmitted arrangements and contents of the Psalter; a plurality of text forms of Job and Proverbs; a plurality of shapes and editions of the Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah materials, with rival editions appearing side by side in Greek tradition; a plurality of text forms of Tobit (one Hebrew and multiple Aramaic copies are attested at Qumran; Tobit in Greek is attested in three text forms), alongside a decision in rabbinic tradition not to transmit it; a plurality of text forms of Ben Sira, and a plurality of points of view regarding its role; a plurality of text forms of Enoch and the attestation of an apocalypse known as Jubilees, alongside a decision in rabbinic and many Christian traditions to suppress or sideline Enoch literature and Jubilees.1

. . . Evidence for different sets of New Testament texts among the various churches is also extensive. The diversity that existed leading up to the achievement of uniformity over a considerable area is attested in the writings of Eusebius (c.260-c.340) (Eccles. Hist. 3.25.1-7 and 3.3.5-7). According to him, some churches deemed the following writings canonical in the sense explained above, and some did not: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Epistle to the Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse of John. Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache he lists as spurious, but the appearance of all but the last in the list found in Codex Claromontanus suggests that Eusebius so labels them in order to counter the practice of churches in which they were treated as genuine. The unsettled nature of the situation up into the third century is also reflected in the views of Origen (c.184-c.254). He questioned James, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John. On the other hand, he regarded Shepherd of Hermas, a very popular piece of early Christian literature, to be “very useful, and, as I believe, divinely inspired” (Comm. in Rom. 10.31).

So what is John’s point?  Here’s what he wants readers to realize:

If the situation sounds irreducibly plural, that’s because it was. One might summarize as follows. Jews of ancient times, even when they agreed that a particular book was binding in matters of faith and practice, read the book in textual forms at considerable odds with one another . . . Uniformity across the spectrum of historic Christian churches was never achieved vis-ŕ-vis the contents of either the Old or New Testaments. In the same quarter-century in which an African synod met in Hippo (393) and defined the Old Testament to include Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ben Sira, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, and 1-2 Maccabees, and the New Testament to include 2 Peter and Apocalypse of John, Gregory of Nazianzus in Asia Minor (d. 389) composed a poem on the books of the Bible in which none of the deuterocanonicals are listed, nor Esther, nor Revelation (Carm. 1,12,5), and Didymus the Blind (313-398) in Alexandria noted that 2 Peter is a forgery, and criticized its eschatology. While acknowledging that it might be read in church, he explicitly excluded it from the canon.2

It appears John is suggesting that the “real” canon may be wider than we think (especially Protestants, but also Catholics).

Here are my questions for our consideration (and they are questions, not answers):

(1) Should we assume that the Reformation decision to give us (Protestants) the canon we now assume to be the canon was the correct decision?

(2) On what basis is that assumption validated – and does our answer require that we say “by Providence, God ensured that only the post-Reformation Protestant church got the canon correct” – ?

This opens several cans of worms, but that’s why we’re here! THESE are some of the questions that need to be addressed if we’re going to be honest about our theology.

  1. Introductions to the pluriformity of the textual tradition are provided by Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich in The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1999). The essays of Natalio Fernández Marcos, Adrian Schenker, Dieter Böhler, Pierre-Maurice Bogaert, Johan Lust, Olivier Munnich, and Emanuel Tov in The Earliest Text of the Hebrew Bible (ed. Adrian Schenker; SBLSCS 52; Atlanta: SBL, 2003) are also instructive.
  2. Didymus the Blind, In Epistolam S. Petri Secundum Enarratio, PG 39, cc 1771-1774; 1774. Cited by H. J. de Jonge, “Introduction: The New Testament Canon,” in The Biblical Canons (ed. J. W. Auwers and H. J. de Jonge; BETL 163; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003) 309-320; 317, n. 30.

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9 Responses to “Excerpts from Part 2 of John Hobbins’ Thoughts on the Canon”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I have a question of my own (and if anyone has some feedback I’d appreciate it). Did the people who made the decision on our Protestant canon have as much information (i.e. number of texts, manuscripts) as we do now, less or more? (I’m sure someone out there can point out a link to a site or something that has the answer to this.) It just seems that if they had records and points of view that are gone today it may support why the Protestant canon seems to work so well, on the other hand, if they actually had less than us then we may be in a better position (through examining history, etc) on what would best represent a whole canon…if I’m making any sense. Though it seems from my brief time reading on the subject that the variety in canon forms was due in large part to Regional belief and tradition (example: The Book of Enoch was confirmed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It predates the early church by 400 years. It was canonized in the Ethiopian Bible…did Western culture just deem the idea of specific angels, etc. inappropriate and voila no Enoch?)

  2. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: I don’t believe (and someone chime in if this is wrong) that there’s any apocryphal or pseudepigraphical book we know of now (maybe Secret Mark – but that may be a forgery) that the early church did not. That said, we certainly have more manuscript evidence. I’m excluding the Gnostic material here since I don’t know any canon list that includes any of those works.

    Origen actually comments on 1 Enoch — he defended it as canonical — in a funny way. Toward the end of his life (d. 254 AD) he wrote in a letter that he was giving up on it – that it seemed he was the only one in favor of it at the time, so he was essentially content to let the Spirit speak through the majority. An interesting anecdote for sure.

  3. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Thanks Dr. Heiser. So it looks like we all have, for the most part, been on the same sheet of music on the agreed upon texts, which is comforting (I know there have to be a few exceptions). Yeah, I thought it was funny that Enoch was used for so many centuries and then, bam, no more Enoch. But I guess I’d have to agree with Origen and cherish-yet-give-up, lol. Better one book gone than upset the apple cart (though it saddens me just a tad–some pretty relevant stuff there, especially in light of the Watchers, etc…another fave of mine is the, alleged, Manasseh’s prayer, which is beautiful and has always intrigued me when I read the account of it in OT as to what did he say that moved God so much).

  4. blop2008 says:

    This all surely gets complicated and these are the kinds of details we must retrace to analyze the course of canonicity (writing; collecting; editing; compiling etc) throughout the history of the biblical scriptures. This may bother some (if not most) christians since the majority doesn’t know about this and with all the misinformation out there, it’s too bad.

    My faith is in Christ which I know personally and he knows me personally since 2003. Since my faith is in him (the Living Logos) and not in canonicity and texutal copies of the scriptures, my faith isn’t shaken.

    The scriptures have been tried-and-true for centuries despite these details amongst others in relation to archeology or textual transmission.

    But this applies to anything else in this world that may appear untrue on the surface until demonstrated otherwise. I know of some Christians in my surrounding (Genuine Christians?) that would throw away their Bibles after learning this. In that case, where is their faith and where is their relation with God.

    Why did God allow this to happen? Why would God allow some texts to be part of what we have that shouldn’t be there or some texts that aren’t there but that should be there….for centuries….in different shapes and forms in different traditions (Jewish, Protestant, Essene, and whatever other)???? I personally don’t know.

    Did the apostles keep their own scriptures along with themselves as we carry along any Biblical canon in book format or computer format or audio format? Did Paul carry his own letters with him? Did Peter kept the letters of Paul for reading and reference? Or….were they all walking in the Spirit and the Spirit guided them toward all truth?

    I believe the latter is also tried and true and overlooked.

  5. MSH says:

    @blop2008: One thing for sure is that God doesn’t mind giving us the kind of clarity we’d want on matters like canonicity. That’s true of a lot of other things (note the difficulties and ambiguities on things like eschatology, where the soul comes from, etc.). Protestants are not as comfortable with the logical answer a Catholic would give here: “this is why a teaching magisterium and papal/council authority makes sense” – those bodies/communities make such decisions for the masses, and that is divinely approved. The CHURCH becomes the vehicle for the Spirit to make such decisions. Protestants have this in a smaller way, when the work of the Spirit in providence is appealed to as the means by which the canon was decided upon. The mistake is thinking that means people (CHURCH or not) didn’t make those decisions. It really isn’t honest to say the Protestant version successfully avoids having people as deciders just so it can be claimed that the authority of the CHURCH isn’t legitimized (in the Catholic sense).

  6. Jonnathan Molina says:

    blop2008 said: My faith is in Christ which I know personally and he knows me personally since 2003. Since my faith is in him (the Living Logos) and not in canonicity and texutal copies of the scriptures, my faith isn’t shaken.

    I came to this conclusion also, when I started to become aware of this whole dialogue and came out of my “fundamentalist” shell. I clearly remember the Lord reminding me during a particularly difficult moment that Abraham is called the father of the faith and he had no Bible (pre Moses, pre everything textual that we know of) and I’d have to say that this is the crux of the matter: Faith is in the Personhood of God and His Son, and our faith is nourished and amplified by His Word/words. But faith can exist independent of the text; one can argue that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” in Abraham’s case was fulfilled in the literal coming to him of The Word of God (theophany wise)…either case (pre Bible or post) faith can be activated by the Providence of God and is all that is needed to be called “righteous” in His sight.

  7. [...] Heiser’s interactions with John Hobbins ‘thoughts about canon’ posts here, here and here. I have found this discussion very interesting and helpful. The topic of the canon, [...]

  8. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: agreed; our inability (i.e., our lack of omniscience) to know to full exactitude if we have achieved the Urtext and have all the issues of canonicity nailed down doesn’t impede the message of the gospel.

  9. Barlow says:

    gracias por la informaci?n en este sitio, lo que realmente me ayud?. al menos conseguir una mejor comprensi?n sobre este tema. de entrada sensible y de aumentar la informaci?n. mantener el peligroso comentario de este blog para mantener el est?ndar de arriba. gracias.

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