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Canon and Biblical Interpretation
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 University of Gloucestershire and the British and Foreign Bible Society
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Chapter OneThe Canon in Recent Biblical Studies: Reflections on an Era Brevard S. Childs
In spite of the wide range of modern biblical studies, it has been possible in the past at times to characterize a given period by focusing on the dominant methodologies, themes, and goals of the research. For example, in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much effort focused on source-critical problems both in the Old and New Testaments. Then beginning in the 1920s attention to oral tradition and form criticism moved to center stage with von Rad and Bultmann emerging as leaders.
It is my thesis in this paper that one can make a case for the period from the late 1960s to the end of the twentieth century to be described as one in which large sections of the biblical discipline focused on issues related either directly or indirectly to the subject of canon. Obviously there are many exceptions to be noted, but I think that it can be illuminating to draw some larger synthetic lines as a way toward providing a larger picture.
I shall also argue that renewed interest in canon achieved its greatest activity in the period from the mid-60s through the 1990s. Then there began to form areas of wide consensus, at least in the English-speaking world. The intensity of thedebate began to decline as many of the critical problems appeared resolved, and increasingly summaries were published that reviewed the advances and conclusions reached from the debate, I am thinking of recent articles on canon in various modern dictionaries of the Bible, and of various compendia on the history of biblical interpretation. I shall also seek to show that the history of the engagement with the subject of canon moved along different tracks in the German and English-speaking worlds. A good means of showing this difference is to focus on certain crucial volumes.
In 1970, E. Ksemann published a book on canon by reprinting a dozen important articles written largely in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many of the articles continued the older debate of the late nineteenth century between Zahn and Harnack while offering further refinements. The majority of the essays, which represented a wide spectrum from both the left and right, wrestled with theological problems such as the dogmatic function of a fixed canon, the tension between the narrow canonical corpus of the Reformers and the larger canon of Catholicism, and questions regarding the legitimacy of a 'canon-within-the-canon,' especially within the Lutheran tradition (e.g. H. Küng versus Käsemann).
In one sense, Käsemann's book pointed backward and marked the end of an earlier German debate. Only in one particular case, namely, Käsemann's own essay delivered in 1950 to the World Council, was a highly existential question raised which continued to have a lasting impact. His challenge brought to an end a position represented in the immediate World War II period by the ecumenical movement that Christian unity could be achieved on the basis of the common Scriptures shared by all Christian denominations. Käsemann sought to undermine this conviction in stating: the Bible is not the source of Christian unity, but rather of its disunity!
Equally significant in Käsemann's 1970 volume is what was missing. Indeed, it was those very areas that came to dominate the rebirth of interest in canon within the English-speaking world, namely, the impact of the Dead Sea scrolls, the diversity of Hellenistic Judaism, attention to non-canonical, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works such as found at Nag Hammadi, and a wider comparative approach from the perspective of history-of-religions. In order to trace this development, I turn first to the English-speaking effort before returning to the German academic scene.
A New Interpretation of Canon Within the English-speaking World
The variety of stimuli
The stimuli for new attention to canon arose from different sources. First, the study of the Qumran material broke open the biblical field in many different directions. It provided new evidence for tracing the historical contexts of the Hebrew and Greek textual traditions and demonstrated the enormous diversity, fluidity, and scope of biblical texts. Second, the sheer complexity of Hellenistic Judaism emerged with great force and that demanded a rethinking of the portrait of 'normative Judaism' portrayed by G.F. Moore in his standard textbook. Third, it became also clear that a new appreciation arose for the importance of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, an interest greatly enhanced by the discovery of the Gnostic papyri. Likewise, much attention turned to text criticism and the role of the Septuagint, targums, and midrashim. Of course, Israeli scholars fell within the larger circle of the English-speaking world along with a contingent from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, who wrote largely in English.
In addition, new historical interests broadened the methodological perspectives by refining the older history-of-religions' concerns by a rigorous phenomenological approach which in part was a reaction against the earlier focus on theology. Moreover, a history of interpretation was mounted which included not only attention to the classic sources of Josephus, Marcion, and the Church Fathers, but also sought to extend the interpretive context into a history of the reception of traditions. Finally, in contrast to the older theological concerns, a fresh hermeneutical model emerged which brought a new light on the subject.
These new impulses also arose within a new post-Second World War cultural climate for the study of the Bible. Particularly in North America, but also to some degree in Britain, university departments of religion were established often in conscious opposition to the curricula of the traditional divinity schools and theological seminaries. The faculties were now constituted apart from religious confession or affiliation. Thus, the academic net was thrown much wider and took on a secular, non-confessional stance, which was further strengthened by the agenda of the professional journals.
Characteristics of the New Approach to Canon
The problem of terminology
The late nineteenth century had seen the learned debate between Zahn and Harnack end in a frustrating stalemate largely because of the lack of agreement on the terminology respecting canon. Zahn assigned citations used by the New Testament and the early Church Fathers as a sign of canonicity and opted for an early date for a core of the New Testament canon. Conversely, Harnack attributed canonicity to a New Testament citation only when it had attained an authoritative status equal to the Old Testament, namely, from the late second century onward.
It was therefore a highly significant contribution of A.C. Sundberg (first in his Harvard dissertation of 1957, and later published in 1964 as The Old Testament of the Early Church) to have made a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon. The former designated religious writings perceived as authoritative; the latter referred to a list of official authoritative books resulting from the exclusion of those now deemed non-canonical. Sundberg's distinction became widely accepted (cf. the further refinements of Ulrich and McDonald). The initial effect of this terminological distinction was that Sundberg's book marked the beginning of a new phase in the study of canon within the English-speaking world, and shifted the discussion primarily to the historical problems related to the process that ended in the canonization of the Jewish and Christian Bibles (cf. Barton, The Spirit and the Letter).
The historical development of the Jewish and Christian canons
The central problem in studying this development historically is that nowhere in the Jewish and Christian sources is there direct information provided which discusses the process of the canonization of either the Jewish or Christian Bible. The task is rather left to a critical reconstruction of the process from indirect evidence (Ben Sira, Josephus, Church Fathers, Talmud, etc.).
Sundberg had also succeeded in undermining the earlier, widely accepted hypothesis of an Alexandrian canon to explain the striking differences between the narrow Hebrew canon of Jerusalem and the fluid state of the authoritative writings of Jewish Greek Hellenism, including the New Testament. Rather, Sundberg argued that the Jewish canon was not yet significantly fixed at the rise of Christianity, and that its restricted collection of twenty-two (twenty-four) books was a late first-century retrenchment. Not only was the 'Old Testament' still open at the time of Jesus, but the canonical formation of the New Testament was a fluid process extending into the fourth century. The Qumran evidence seemed to confirm the enormous diversity within first-century Judaism. This reconstruction of the canonical process was further supported by Sundberg's redating of the Muratorian canon to the fourth century rather than its previous assignment to the second century.
Of course, in contrast to this growing historical consensus respecting the historical growth of the Jewish and Christian canons, there remained a minority opinion represented among several Jewish scholars (Leiman, Lightstone) and supported by a few Christians (Lewis, Beckwith) that the Hebrew canon had been virtually closed in the century before the rise of Christianity. These scholars were successful in casting serious doubt on the widespread appeal to the 'Council of Jamnia' (ca. 90 AD) as the historical moment for the closure of the Jewish canon. However, the late dating for the closure was largely continued by the majority supporting Sundberg (cf. Sanders' revised theory).
In respect to the canonical development of the New Testament, the older view of Zahn and Westcott was that the major force at work emerged from internal theological pressures. However, beginning with Harnack, the hypothesis increasingly prevailed that external forces, especially from Marcion, the Gnostics, and other dissidents, were responsible for its gradual development. Although Metzger, Gamble, and Ferguson still allowed for some intrinsic forces, the major emphasis shifted to historical reconstructions of extrinsic forces as decisive. There also emerged a widespread consensus that the traditional theological criteria for determining canonicity (apostolicity, catholicity, orthodoxy) were, at best, late constructs without any solid historical evidence. Thus, Gamble concludes his review of the process as follows: 'The scope of the canon is ... indebted to a wide range of contingent historical factors and from a historical standpoint is largely fortuitous.'
Another characteristic feature of the modern approach to canon within the English-speaking world has been the shift from its primarily theological perspective to the dominance of the history-of-religions categories. From this point of view there are no privileged canonical texts, but all texts are treated equally as potential sources regardless of later canonical or non-canonical status.
The focus of the newer studies was also expanded by aggressive attention to historical, sociological, and cultural patterns representing a wide range of comparative religions. Since it was thought by some that the Jewish sources including Qumran had been mishandled and that many of the earlier debates revealed Christian theological biases, much attention was given in describing the historical development of the canonical process in a neutral, scientific terminology of religious phenomenology. Characteristic of this emphasis were the voices of Albertz and Philip Davies in the Old Testament, and those of Räisänen, Funk, and Pagels in the New Testament.
In 1986, J.J. Collins seemed to speak for a larger group in declaring: 'the decline (of Biblical Theology) is evident in the fact that an increasing number of scholars no longer regard theology as the ultimate focus of biblical studies or even as a necessary dimension of those studies at all.' Similarly, Philip Davies spoke of canon formation as a 'cultural phenomenon' ... 'a natural process' in any literate society. The formation of a canon is an exercise of power by a privileged class, defining class values by controlling the politics of reading. Finally, J. Blenkinsopp described canon as the resolution of ideological conflicts, the imposition of an ideology or orthodoxy by force or compromise.
One can only wonder whether such history-of-religions categories will prove more objective and unbiased than the theological ones being replaced. Can such an approach generate enough empathy for interpreting religious texts where the perspective is often radically alien to the entire Western mentality?
Canon and community
A very common emphasis in the newer approach to canon has been the link between canon and community (e.g. Sanders and Carr). This linkage is, of course, highly reasonable since authoritative Scripture is acknowledged as canon by a group, not just by individuals. It is the response of a community that constitutes a canon. Certainly the idea of a multiplicity of religious communities within Israel, acting as tradents of tradition, was central to the traditio-critical enterprise which emerged in the decades preceding and following World War II.
What then is new in the recent approach to community developed by Sanders and others? Canon functions now as a means of a community by which to create, maintain, and adapt its authoritative Scriptures in such a way as to meet its own evolving needs. Because the community's historical context continues to change, the canon retains its relevance for its ongoing life by adapting its Scriptures to conform to the shifting cultural challenges. Canon thus served to identify the community's self-understanding and to reinforce group consciousness.
However, I would argue that this anthropocentric, sociological interpretation of canon for a community is a modem, oblique history-of-religions reading of its role. In contrast, according to the Old Testament pattern (cf. Deut. 31:9-13) the formation of a written authoritative corpus was theocentric in orientation. It identified the will of God for successive generations so that they might live in accordance with the enduring commands of God expressed in Torah. It is not simply a flexible paradigm without an established content.
Canon and literary development
In what sense can the canonical process which led ultimately to closure in the several centuries following the rise of Christianity be traced by means of critical literary analysis of the Bible? During the end of the nineteenth century, following the hegemony of Wellhausen's source critical analysis, it was widely thought that one could correlate the literary growth of the Old Testament with the canonical process. Four distinct periods were identified for the closure of the Pentateuch (ca. 400 BC), the Prophets (ca. 200 BC), the Writings (ca. 100 BC), and the final completion by 90 AD. For a variety of historical and literary reasons, this scheme has been slowly undermined and replaced by the emphasis on diversity, flexibility, and uncertainty in setting exact historical dates for canonical closure.
Interest in the canonical process turned to focus on those historical forces which led to late closure and which were described in the non-theological terminology of the history-of-religions. Although there were a few notable exceptions, by and large, the canonical process became separated from the exegetical task of biblical interpretation. The shaping of both the Old and New Testaments derived chiefly from non-theological forces and did not contribute to the interpretive task of actual exegesis. The term 'canon consciousness' was occasionally used by a few biblical interpreters, but largely the assumption that it was an active theological force at work in shaping the structure and content of the biblical corpus was denied. The concept that theological redactions of both testaments were involved in some fashion was thought particularly unlikely and rejected (e.g. James Barr). As a result, the standard New Testament introductions such as Luke Johnson's or Raymond Brown's, attributed little or no exegetical significance to canon. The subject was often relegated to the period after the formation of both testaments, and usually assigned to the final chapter of the introduction. Within the field of New Testament, occasionally articles (e.g. O. Cullmann and N.A. Dahl) were concerned with the theological implications of the fourfold-Gospel structure or the tension caused by the extreme particularity of the Pauline letters, but the idea of a canonical intent reflected in the biblical structure was largely disregarded.
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