Posted By MSH 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-à-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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩