“It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
-Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
I was leading a discussion of the biblical Jacob cycle in my Bible intro course last fall when things got a little heated. We were discussing Jacob’s trickery when one student exclaimed, “He’s a jerk! Why does God keep blessing him?” So I asked her where Jacob would have gotten the notion that he needed to be a good person in order for God to bless him. She glared at me, incredulous and scandalized. “From the Bible!” she said, and sat back resting her case. As I reflected later I came to realize that I was failing my Bible intro students. They were steeped in the historical-critical method that I had been teaching them, so they knew that biblical texts were composed of prior sources. But they were simply incapable of imagining a world where the Bible does not exist. And that is precisely the sort of world in which all of the texts in our Bibles were written.
Recently, Ancient Jew Review enlisted Timothy Lim, Eva Mroczek, Brennan Breed, and Sidnie White Crawford for a lively discussion of canon in early Judaism. Scholarship on this topic has shifted significantly over the past thirty years. We now understand that, prior to the first century CE, there was nothing like a closed canon of scripture in Judaism. Fluidity and proliferation were the norm. Jews vested sacred authority in books now excluded from the canon, like 1 Enoch and Jubilees, and the books that did eventually make the cut existed side-by-side in multiple forms. Nothing like the Bible existed at any point when the books that now constitute the Bible were being written. We can’t read these books as if they were always going to be part of the Bible, and we can’t read them in isolation from other books in Jewish antiquity.
We also can’t teach them that way. Most of us are comfortable teaching the historical-critical method, showing students how to unravel the compositional histories of biblical texts and how to read them in their ancient contexts. But when our students conceptualize the Bible as something that has always existed, or as something that was always going to exist, teaching them compositional history and contextual reading strategies is not enough.
I am arguing, in short, that we have to build the canonical process into our biblical studies curricula. We have to show our students that the Bible didn’t just happen. It was made. And not just one time. Because canons are tied inextricably to communities, different communities have different canons. When we uncritically teach the canon of a particular community (e.g., Protestant Christianity or rabbinic Judaism), we reify that community’s relationship with its Bible. We give our students the impression that the Protestant Bible is the Bible, when in fact it is just one among many canons of scripture. Engaging these texts critically doesn’t solve the problem. We have to treat the very concept of canon critically as well. The canons in our classrooms need to more faithfully reflect the textual diversity and fluidity of ancient Judaism, or we risk undoing all of the critical work we have done.
Because canon is tied inextricably to community, I would like to propose that we think of the classroom as its own sort of community. If canons and communities are co-constitutive, then the classroom must have its own “canon” of the Bible. Because the classroom is a community brought together by pedagogical concerns, its canon of scripture should likewise be driven not by doctrines of faith but rather by learning outcomes.
Following the “Jacob” incident, I decided to rethink the syllabus for my course Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Because the course is compulsory, most of my students have little prior knowledge of the Bible and little interest in taking more courses on it. This course is my one chance to teach my students something enduring about the Bible. I decided that, above all else, my students need to understand the Bible not as product but as process, and they need to understand that that process has always been driven by political interests.
For starters, I adopted Michael Satlow’s How the Bible Became Holy as the core textbook for the course. Satlow structures his book around his central argument that the very concept of normative textual authority does not gain widespread acceptance in Judaism until very late, in the last two centuries BCE. I built the course’s curriculum to juxtapose primary sources with readings from Satlow. The point is not to teach students that Satlow is right. Rather, I invite students to evaluate his argument on the basis of the primary sources. The first half of the course focuses on foundational texts (Genesis, Exodus, law codes, Kings, prophetic books), with an emphasis on how rarely these texts show an awareness of the authority of written documents. The second half of the course, in turn, uses other early Jewish texts (Enoch, Jubilees, the Letter of Aristeas, Pesher Habakkuk, the Pauline letters, early Midrashim) to trace the development of the idea that these foundational texts are sacred and normative for Jewish life. So far, my students are genuinely stunned to learn how much of their conception of the Bible has been shaped mostly by texts that were not included within it.
This is by no means the only way to teach an introductory Bible course. My point is simply that we cannot let religious canons of scripture dictate the texts we assign in class. We have an obligation, as scholars of religion, to make critical choices about which texts we teach and to communicate those choices to our students.
Christopher M. Jones, Ph.D.
Augustana College (Ill.)