Friday, November 11, 2016

The Shape of the Writings, Book Review

Title:  The Shape of the Writings
Editors: Julius Steinberg and Timothy J. Stone
Publisher: Eisenbrauns, 2015
Price: $54.50 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: xiii + 370
A common scholarly assertion about the various orders of the books in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible is that they are late, liturgical, and unstable. Many who note the tight sequence of the Law and the Prophets also hold that the Writings are at best a miscellaneous anthology of compositions with broad similarities and a smattering of shared vocabulary.

Both Julius Steinberg and Timothy J. Stone have challenged these assumptions in recent monographs. In Die Ketuvim: Ihr Aufbau und ihre Botschaft (Hamburg, DE: Philo, 2006), Steinberg examines the Writings corpus as a whole, and in The Compilational History of the Megilloth: Canon, Contoured Intertextuality and Meaning in the Writings (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), Stone focuses on the compilational logic that is at work within the five-book Megilloth grouping.

In The Shape of the Writings, Steinberg and Stone further this project by gathering a series of constructive essays that address this canonical query. In their introductory essay, Steinberg and Stone provide an overview of the critical assumptions and methods that necessarily inform an analysis of the “shape” of a canonical collection. In short, they contend that the books in the Writings were not only collected but also arranged with a particular purpose and with an awareness of a broader canonical context.

Defining canon as “a fixed or delimited collection of texts received and recognized as sacred (authoritative) by a faith community” (8), they first address the closure of the Hebrew canon and its tripartite shape as Law, Prophets, and Writings. In particular, they examine the prologue to Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls, select New Testament texts (Luke 11:49-51, 24:44), Josephus, and 4 Ezra (4-35). They then examine the sequence and ordering logic of the arrangements found in the Talmudic tradition (in Baba Batra 14b) and in the Masoretic tradition (in the Leningrad Codex). For Steinberg and Stone, these are the two most significant ancient ordering traditions. Moreover, “the similarities between these two arrangements far outweigh the differences, and the arrangements of both orders is not random” (49).

This comparative work does not yield a “center” of the Writings, but rather demonstrates that “most books are in dialogue with at least one other book in the collection” (49). In fact, “the canonical shape of the collection foregrounds these relationships” (49). Within this contextual space, the associations are not straightforwardly uniform. Rather, “the nature of this dialogue is varied, with no two relationships the same” (49). The achievement of the Writings corpus, then, is that the collection allows the reader to overhear this diverse dialogue.

 Stone and Steinberg conclude that the Writings “took their character as a collection over a long process in which books were shaped and located, in various degrees, by authors, redactors, and compilers in order to highlight various relationships between books” (49). This process was organic, as the “canonical process is primarily one of growth to maturity rather than a process of trimming or rejecting other texts” (49).

Peter Brandt follows this broad introduction with a detailed analysis of all of the extant literary orders of the Writings found in Jewish and Christian traditions. While acknowledging the wide-ranging variety of these sequences, Brandt maintains in line with Steinberg and Stone that “the multitude of individual orders can be shown to result from only a limited number of multidimensional arrangement traditions” (59).

Several of the following essays address historical concerns, but most of them focus on the shape of the Writings corpus and interconnections within that grouping of books. Stephen Dempster examines the migration of Ruth within the Hebrew Bible and argues that Ruth’s position at the head of the collection before the Psalter is Ruth’s “original home.” Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger highlight the “Davidization” of the Psalter and the impact of this textual emphasis on the book’s overall message. Will Kynes examines the effect of reading Job after the book of Psalms. For Kynes, Job followed by Proverbs creates an important dialectic between two approaches to understanding humanity’s response to God’s ways.

Steinberg then investigates the nature of “wisdom literature” and seeks to show that ordering impacts the way this wisdom tradition is understood in the scope of an Old Testament theology. Stone argues that Ruth’s original location was between Judges and 1-2 Samuel but that it was then shaped to follow Proverbs and begin the five-scroll Megilloth collection. Amber Warhurst discusses the intended “associative effects” (187) of the book of Daniel within the Writings versus prophetic corpus. Hendrik J. Koorevar argues that Chronicles was written as the “intended conclusion” to the Old Testament canon. Georg Steins also envisions Chronicles as a fitting ending to the Hebrew canon, especially in the way that it highlights the continuing function of the Torah. Finally, Stephen Chapman examines the possible citations of “groupings” or “canonical divisions” by early Jewish and Christian writers.

This collection of essays is significant for several reasons. On a micro-level, the individual essays themselves contain substantive treatment and reflective insight into issues of book-level meaning and the effect of ordering and association among the Ketuvim. Many of the essays point to the given author’s more substantial research in the field, representing a window into broad swaths of scholarship. In this regard, the English translation of four previously untranslated German articles is a most welcome feature (e.g., Koorevar and Steins). Though these particular articles are the most dated contributions (Steins: 1996; Koorevar: 1997; Brandt: 2001), they each represent research that has directly impacted the current discussion.

On a macro-level, these essays collectively champion an often-underrepresented emphasis. The contributors believe that the shape of the Writings collection has hermeneutical implications for the interpretation of the individual books and the theological message of the grouping as a whole. They advance arguments on both the historical formation of the Ketuvim as a discrete corpus and also the contours of the collection. Consequently, this volume is a helpful entry point into the canon discussion in general as well as the Writings corpus in particular. Moreover, under the banner of this broad approach to the Hebrew canon, there is also lively dialogue (and sometimes even genuine debate) between the contributors.

For example, Stone and Steinberg set the shared agenda for the volume, but within their introductory essay, they fall on different sides of several important debates (see 3, 40). For example, Steinberg’s starting point is the Talmudic ordering (40-46) and Stone’s is the Masoretic ordering (47-51; see also 177n8). Steinberg follows the consensus and views the Megilloth as a later liturgical development (152), while Stone argues for this grouping’s ancient roots (see 47n197; 50-51). Steinberg argues that the Ben Sira prologue attests a tripartite Hebrew canon around 130 BCE, though Stone’s conclusion is “more modest” (12n49). Stone is comfortable with the notion of “context-sensitive redactions” of the individual books in the Writings, while Steinberg is “rather hesitant” (49n208). Far from a distracting element, these methodological tensions demonstrate the strength of their overall approach as it accounts for minor and even substantial disagreement over the interpretation and significance of textual evidence.

In this vein, the critical responses at the end of the collection by John Barton, Tamara C. Eskenazi, and Christopher Seitz highlight and amplify the diversity represented in the essays. The contrast between Barton’s and Seitz’s response to the broader approach taken in this project is particularly illuminating and instructive. After articulating several points of agreement, Barton maintains that the analysis in this volume presents more puzzles than patterns (315), and the question of “order” is only appropriately understood as a feature of “reception history” or even “reader-response criticism” (316). Barton concludes that “there comes a point beyond which some collections do not constitute a unity of any kind” and is “inclined to think that this is true of the Writings” (316). By contrast, Seitz reviews each essay in the volume and brings this conversation into dialogue with his own research. Significantly, Seitz concedes that in his previous work, he “probably overstated the individuality of the witnesses in the third division as being what characterizes this division, given the thorough evaluation provided in the present volume for the different arrangements and associations” (338). 

Seitz also highlights that this volume is nevertheless supportive of his broader insight that “the associations that mark the main canonical section (Torah + Prophets) are of a thicker nature than what we see in the Writings” (338). Thus, Seitz views the work of these essays as a slight corrective and substantial confirmation of major aspects of his canonical approach to the Writings.

Accordingly, The Shape of the Writings summarizes an important area of Old Testament scholarship and also sets an agenda for further study. Though one might suggest that many of these case studies are only sketches and still require serious exegetical, theological, and historical development, this is part of the function of the book. These essays do not represent the “final form” of this discussion but represent a lively project that will hopefully garner an increasing amount of attention and draw more participants.

Carefully considering the work of this volume will prompt readers of the Writings to explore more fully the contours of this corpus, from Ruth’s threshing floor to Ezra-Nehemiah’s re-built walls. Let them go up!

Also in JESOT (forthcoming)

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon, Book Review

Title:  The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon: A Study in Text, Ritual and Interpretation
Author: Tomas Bokedal
Publisher: T&T Clark, 2014
Price: $39.95 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 440
“What is the Biblical canon?”

This question seems simple and often receives a straightforward historical answer. In this volume, Tomas Bokedal seeks to demonstrate that the question of canon requires the tools of the theologian as well as the craft of the historian. Bokedal begins by arguing that to understand the “complex phenomenon of biblical canonicity” (p. xiii), at least four broad areas must be taken into account: the effective-historical, textual-material, performative, and ideational aspects of canon. According to Bokedal, all four of these dimensions are “equally necessary to grasp the dynamic, multidimensional character of the Christian canon” (p. 20).

Bokedal first delineates the effective-historical (and linguistic) dimension of canon. For Bokedal, the formation of the biblical canon is “at one and the same time” both a “contingent act” and also a “carefully designed literary work of art” (p. 6). The canonical Scriptures can be understood as “a carefully designed, yet spontaneous, literary creation in and for the church, providing textual and theological basis for ecclesial existence” (p. 7). Affirming both the intentional and contingent aspects of the canonical process in his understanding of canon allows Bokedal to draw together historical, hermeneutical, and theological connotations. While historical investigation often dominates the canon discussion, Bokedal maintains that theology is needed in order to capture the wide-ranging function of the canon within the life of the churches. The concept of canon, then, “refers to the Christian Scriptures as a theologically normative intratextual matrix, involving first of all the contents, but, also the textual arrangement, scope and ecclesial function of the scriptural canon” (p. 11).

Bokedal then discusses the textual-material dimension. Several textual features of the canonical collection directly affected the way it was utilized within the believing community. The presence of nomina sacra in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament points to an almost immediate reverence for Jesus and his teachings (chapter 3). The early preference for the codex format shows a specific concern for the way these particular texts were gathered and collected together (chapter 4). The clear connection between oral and written proclamation of the gospel and the teachings of the apostles highlights that early on these two textual streams function as a “two-fold norm” and cannot be neatly separated (chapter 5). Further, Bokedal draws out the implications of the textuality of the biblical texts (chapter 6). Understanding a “text” to be a “woven texture that holds together” (p. 201), Bokedal notes that the nature of texts is that they express a unified whole (something the nomina sacra, the codex format, and the titles of the canonical collections also imply).

Bokedal next examines the “ritual” dimension that provides a framework of meaning for those using and encountering the canon within the Christian community (chapter 7). From their inception, the emerging New Testament writings were read and re-read in liturgical contexts. Alongside of but in distinction from the Jewish Scriptures, the four Gospels and the Pauline letters mutually informed one another as they were read in textual and physical proximity.

Finally, Bokedal outlines the ideational dimension of canon by demonstrating the ongoing importance of the rule of faith alongside the developing collection biblical texts (chapter 8). For Bokedal, the rule provides the story, scope, and scopus (its gravitational center) of the canonical collection. The “logic of the Christian canon” (pp. 309-10), then, involves the authority of this collection of biblical texts to have a “free power” over its readers. Bokedal also engages the related debate about criteria for canonicity and shows that “apostolicity” is the fountainhead from which the other criteria flow (chapter 9). Bokedal concludes his volume with a helpful conclusion that summarizes the main steps of his argument.

Because Bokedal’s study draws together wide-ranging discussions and offers several intriguing proposals, it will inevitably raise questions and prompt readers to re-evaluate a number of issues. A central strength of Bokedal’s study is the way it demonstrates that these lines of inquiry actually and organically intersect in a study of the biblical canon. For Bokedal, the function of Scripture as canon involves in some ways all of these elements. Synthesizing a multiplicity of approaches can easily become unwieldy. The value of Bokedal’s work here is that he architects a blueprint for how some of these scholarly sub-structures fit together to form a durable foundation for constructive analysis of the canonical text.

For example, Bokedal explains that the special abbreviation system related to a select group of “sacred names” (nomina sacra) is consistently found in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. This feature appears to stem from the reverence given to the divine name in manuscripts of the Jewish Scriptures. This shared feature has implications for canon formation, as early manuscripts with this particular characteristic can be related and grouped. Bokedal takes this observation about this textual-physical feature of the manuscripts and directly relates it to the theological commitments of the earliest churches. The nomina sacra are not random, but rather are remarkably consistent and grouped around the theologically freighted words GOD, CHRIST, JESUS, and LORD.

“Editorially,” Bokedal argues, “the presence of nomina sacra indicates a unity of the Scriptures and a particular Christian narrative and theological focus” (p. 121). These particular terms also capture the heart of the rule of faith, a theological formulation that ensured a correct understanding of the Bible’s big picture in the earliest churches. These theological keywords represent “a condensed telling of the total narrative through which canonical Scripture identifies God and the personal name for the God so specified. The name embracing the narrative, the salvation-historical narrative centering on the Name” (p. 308).

In this way, Bokedal directly connects the emerging New Testament collection with the embedded textual feature of nomina sacra, and then shows how this textual practice and the rule of faith mutually inform one another. As Bokedal asserts, the rule of faith serves the “crucial function of establishing a Mitte der Schrift and a textual biblical whole, as well as providing a fundamental framework for the canon formation process” (p. 120). Strategically, then, Bokedal offers actual literary, manuscript, and historical evidence for some of the salient theological conclusions that must be made about the Christian canon.

Bokedal makes similar types of arguments about the unusual Christian preference for the codex format and the relationship between oral and written proclamation in the earliest churches. This tangible textual and paratextual evidence for this theological and hermeneutical perspective on the emerging biblical collection compellingly establishes that the concept of canon was active in the earliest churches long before the fourth and fifth century lists of authoritative books began to appear.

One perennial critique of a high view of Scripture is that the distance between the first and the twenty-first centuries can only be tenuously bridged by historical reconstruction (or is even unbridgeable). In response to this type of historical-critical mindset, Bokedal marshals several streams of scholarship that help him articulate the present function of an ancient canonical collection for contemporary readers. For example, from Hans-Georg Gadamer, Bokedal engages a “hermeneutic of tradition” that exposes the way that an “understanding” of historical writings unavoidably actualizes the meaning of the past for a present reader (e.g., see pp. 21-30, p. 46ff). Related to the process of passing on authoritative traditions within a community, Bokedal draws on Brevard Childs’ insight that there is an organic connection between the process and product of canon formation (see pp. 16-19, 42-54).

Pushing this idea further, Bokedal also draws on semiotic studies to highlight the reality that the final form of the canon and in particular the “concept of canon” (see pp. 19-21, 31-35), serves a social function within a community that views it as an authoritative guide for faith and practice. A semiotic definition recognizes that the “canon” relates not only to physical dimension of the collection itself but also to the “early ecclesiastical use and interpretation in which the biblical text and reading emerged” (p. 19).

Against the prospect of an “ugly ditch” that needs to be bridged by historical reconstruction, Bokedal argues that the concept of canon and the reality of the canonical collection is in fact what bridges this divide. By means of its textuality and canonical function, then, the ancient Christian canon is able to bear meaning and speak a word in the present tense and to contemporary readers. In other words, the unique textual dimensions that constitute the Christian Scriptures as canon are also what continually establish them as such.

In this way, Bokedal is able to articulate a model of canon studies that includes the process, the product, and the continuing function of the Christian canon within the believing community. To be sure, Bokedal’s thought-provoking study deserves careful consideration. Here is a deep interdisciplinary reservoir from which both historians and theologians can profitably draw as they grapple with the reality of the Christian canon.

Also in JETS 59.3 (2016): 601-03.

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Friday, July 29, 2016

One Sentence Summary of Hebrews

One of the first things I do when I pick up a new book or commentary on Hebrews is to flip to the opening comments on the opening words of the letter: "In many times and in many ways . . ." If there is one place in a work on Hebrews where an author is tempted to wax eloquent about the writer's eloquence it's here!

In Peter T. O'Brien's new book on Hebrews, he has a nice one sentence summary of the packed periodic sentence that begins Hebrews' homily:
This opening paragraph suggests that the theological ground and starting point of Hebrews is that God has spoken his final word in his Son, its main theme or overarching topic concerns the person, work and status of God's Son, and the conceptual framework within which the author intends to read or hear his word of exhortation is God's unfolding plan of salvation that moves from eternity to eternity.
He also states that Heb 1:1-4 is a "magnificent introduction" and a "carefully crafted sentence" that "sets the programme for the whole discourse."

 –O'Brien, God Has Spoken in his Son: A Biblical Theology of Hebrews, 18.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

As by no other word . . .

The only thing left is the decision whether we are willing to trust the word of the Bible or not, whether we are willing to let ourselves be held by it, as by no other word in life or in death. And, I believe, we can find true joy and peace only when we have made this decision.
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Letter to Rudiger Schleicher, April 8, 1936" (DBW 14:148).

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