Canon: An AJR Forum Response
When I teach courses on the New Testament, it is often all I can do the get my students to avoid the term “Old Testament,” let alone get them to realize that New Testament authors did not necessarily have the Tanakh in front of them as they wrote—and that the New Testament itself is a collection that is first discussed (as we know it) in the fourth century. But students are not alone in this; even scholars have difficulty imagining, in Eva Mroczek’s words, “a world in which the Bible does not yet exist as a concept.” Given that the predominant scholarly opinion on Christianties (intentionally plural) in the first century is that Jesus followers and Christ believers were rather firmly embedded in Judaism, it seems remarkable that many Christian Origins scholars can be found vaguely observing that the New Testament authors cite “the Hebrew Bible” or the “Jewish Scriptures,” as if such collections were self-evident in the ancient world (or even today, for that matter). On the one hand, it is clear that writers such as Paul or the author of the Gospel of Matthew appeal to certain Jewish texts as authoritative traditions, but on the other, few have asked which precise collections of texts these authors had access to. For these reasons, I am excited to write a follow-up on the AJR’s recent canon forum and to extend the discussion’s implications in the direction of Christian Origins.
Timothy Lim’s contribution invites us to remember that although Jewish authors in the Second Temple period did not yet preoccupy themselves with establishing a fixed, written canon, they did have the concept of written authority—that is, they had ways of indicating which texts were considered authoritative and persuasive for argumentative purposes. New Testament authors (many Jews themselves, of course) had numerous ways to signal their use of prior written authorities, which are often precisely the sort that Lim describes in his contribution. Gospel authors and Paul both employ the always-handy “it is written” to bolster their statements (e.g., Mark 1:2; Matthew 4:6; Luke 19:46; 1 Corinthians 1:19; Galatians 4:22). Jesus is often depicted as referencing the collections of the written law or “the law and the prophets” when presenting his teaching (e.g., Matthew 7:12, 22:40; Luke 16:16; Luke 10:26). And even when he appears to challenge some interpretations of those traditions, he still presumes the listener’s familiarity with such authorities, as in Matthew’s famous antithesis which begin with the pronouncement “you have heard it said…” (e.g., Matthew 5:27). In this way, the New Testament authors participate in the very same strategies for authorization using written and oral collections of material that other Second Temple Jewish authors do.
Nevertheless, Lim’s observation that “by the first century there was a Jewish canon” ought to be nuanced mildly to “there were Jewish canons.” This is more in line with contributor Brennan Breed’s conclusion that “by the time we find the first canon there are already multiple canons for Christians and for Jews,”—though one could rightly debate the extent to which many so-called Christian authors had a self-consciously “Christian” identity. Therefore, by considering New Testament authors as embedded within Judaism, we broaden the evidence for what counts as Judaism in the first century. Writers such as Paul, the author of Mark, and the author of the Sayings Source Q were all active in the period before the Jewish War, were engaged in intra-Jewish debates (involving Jesus, of course), and so also represent Second Temple Judaism and its strategies for cultivating written authority.
Eva Mroczek’s and Brennan Breed’s careful attention of the assumed teleological nature of the canon is a particularly important contribution in this forum. By this, they both generally mean the notion that some ancient texts would have been so obviously important that they would have “naturally” ended up in a canonical collection. Mroczek uses the example of so-called “Proto-Esther” that scholars were keen to identify at Qumran because it would imply that the inhabitants of the settlement had “the Bible” as we now know it. Breed uses this concept to disrupt the assumption that canonical texts were “always meant to be included in the biblical canon.” This assumption is especially hard to undo in Christian Origins scholarship, in part, because many early Christian texts themselves reinscribe such “teleological illusions,” to borrow Breed’s apt phrasing. For instance, Matthew cites numerous passages from Jewish texts to show that past prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus’ life. From Matthew’s perspective, then, some Jewish texts were always uniquely important and were always pointing forward to the appearance of Jesus. In the history of New Testament scholarship, it has been too easy to simply take over such treatments of Jewish traditions and to treat these citations as self-evidently important scriptural passages. Thus, re-evaluating the Jewish canon in the Second Temple period is simultaneously a crucial part of undoing the well-entrenched Christian myth about the presumed remarkable and important nature of Jesus.
In the midst of these significant and critical insights among the forum contributions, something curious kept appearing, though, namely, the undertheorized notion of “community” and the assumption that canon “naturally” emerge from communities. For instance, in opting for the nomenclature “authoritative scriptures” over “canon” (a preference I strongly agree with), Lim defines them as “the open collections of writings that were accepted and used by a particular Jewish or Christian community.” He also argues that “[c]anon formation is the construct of a community….It is the community that decides which books are to be included in the canon.” Breed similarly opens his piece by noting that canonical texts are usually those which are authoritative for “a particular community’s religious faith.”
Yet the canon-community relationship is somewhat more complicated. Canons are products of power. This power can be constructed with or without a coherent community. Power needs only a social field in which to operate. Take Paul’s letters to his urban audiences. Given the fundamental misunderstandings that his addressees in 1 Corinthians appear to have been about what makes their identity as a group, we can hardly say that there was a uniform “Corinthian Christian” community that shared a common set of beliefs and practices. Moreover, when Paul appeals to certain written traditions in his correspondences with them, he is not tapping into a “canon” that they all acknowledge as authoritative. Since some of his Corinthian audience is non-Jewish, his use of authoritative Jewish scriptures for argumentative purposes does not depend on his recipients’ acknowledgement of these traditions as canonical. Rather, he is using written traditions that have currency for him in the hopes that they will help him establish power and authority vis-à-vis the recipients of his letters. His project rests in part on getting his audience to acknowledge the same written authorities that he does.
This is not to say that a group can never decide together which texts best represent its beliefs and thus deserve canonical sanction. But the relationship between a text and a group that reads it is hotly debated, and a number of possibilities are evident. As often as texts are descriptive of the group that uses them, they are also prescriptive—in other words, there might be an inverse relationship between the ideas proposed in the text and the beliefs and practices of those who read it. Again, 1 Corinthians is instructive: in this letter it is clear that Paul has a completely different understanding of how the recipients should understand their group identity and practice than they evidently do.
Thus, there may be much more to say on the relationship between texts and social groups. The contributors to this forum raise a host of intriguing issues that invite us to go further in imagining the ancient contexts in which written documents are transformed into objects of authority. In closing, I want to reiterate Breed’s excellent point on the “not fully closed” nature of canons. We often pretend that published books are fixed in time and space, likely because such pretense provides a certain comfort to those searching for neat and tidy theological interpretations. Yet Breed is absolutely correct that texts are always supplemented by readers and interpreters. I would also add that their interpretation is supplemented further by the social location of authors, historical circumstances, cultural habits, and economic realities—all dimensions of the “social field”notion that I raised above. All this is to say that meaning is not contained in canonical texts. On the contrary, canonical texts are made meaningful in variety of contexts.
Sarah E. Rollens (Visiting Assistant Professor, Rhodes College)