Monday, February 20, 2017

How the Bible Came to Be (pt 2)

3. Evidence of Canon Formation
One way to tell the story of the biblical canon is to begin with a basic point about the available physical evidence.

A manuscript refers generally to any text written by hand. The existing manuscript evidence demonstrates the attempt and success of the canon formation process. In other words, we know this process was successful because we have the product of this process in the manuscripts themselves.


First, there is evidence of a Hebrew Bible. There is a substantial group of Hebrew manuscripts that consists of the entire Hebrew Bible from the ninth and tenth centuries called the Masoretic Text. There are several Greek manuscripts of all or portions of Old Testament from the fourth and fifth centuries (referred to as the Septuagint); and there is a group of manuscripts of most of the Old Testament books from around the first and second centuries BC (referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls). These important early texts help demonstrate that the later more complete Masoretic text is remarkably reliable.


Second, there is evidence of a New Testament. There are several important Greek manuscripts in book form from the fourth and fifth centuries that contain all or most of the New Testament writings (these include Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Ephraem Rescripti). A “codex” is another name for “a paged book,” the ancient precursor to the modern book form. Because of this format, these manuscripts were able to contain large amounts of text. There are also many intact and partial papyrus manuscripts and manuscript fragments that range from the third and fourth centuries and a few that are from the second century.

This is a broad summary of the physical evidence for the ancient existence of the biblical canon. These manuscript traditions lie behind contemporary translations of the Bible. So, we can make this very basic assertion with some measure of confidence: In the existing manuscripts that represent full editions of the OT and NT collections, there is enough similarity to argue for an early attempt to pull together a Christian canon. 

Our account at this point poses a logical question: How did this collection come about? Was this “canon of Scripture” an accident or was it intended? At this point, we can borrow a basic insight from the argument from design.


Think about Stonehenge, a group of large stones in a remote countryside field in England. When you come across these stones, you immediately notice that they seem to have been gathered here and ordered in a particular way. You might not be able to discern the exact reason behind each stone’s placement, but you get an undeniable sense when you look at these stones that this display is an ancient arrangement rather than an ancient accident. Seeing the rock-hard evidence before us, we intuitively seek to discern meaning from its sequence and immediately ponder its origin.

In a similar way, if you came across a fourth century Greek manuscript in book form that contained a sequence of individual texts, you might logically ask the question, Is this a literary accident, or was this collection intelligently designed?

Recognizing the time, effort, and resources required to produce a large codex in the ancient world, we might rightly conclude that these texts were somehow set apart by a particular community and that these texts were somehow related to one another.

Here, we’re shifting form the “what” question to the “why” question.

Next Week: How the Bible Came to Be (pt 3)
Or: Go to pt 1  

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

How the Bible Came to Be (pt 1)


To Take Our Bible Into Our Hands
Toward the end of the fourth century, a preacher named John Chrysostom was one of the first to begin calling the Christian collection of biblical books the “Bible.” In one of his sermons he says, “For we ought not as soon as we retire from the Communion, to plunge into business unsuited to the Communion, but as soon as ever we get home, to take our Bible into our hands, and call our wife and children to join us in putting together what we have heard, and then, not before, engage in the business of life.” 

In a sermon on Acts 8:26-27, Chrysostom notes that the Ethiopian eunuch read the Scripture in public on his chariot, and he chides his congregation, “Not so [with] you: none takes the Bible in hand: nay, everything rather than the Bible.” He also colorfully declares that they might as well “tie up [their] Bible” if they will not listen to its content! From around this point onward, the churches could refer to the collection of sacred writings as simply, “the Bible.” 

But, what about before this time? How did this collection that Chrysostom calls “the Bible” come about?

1. Outlining the Plot of an “Untold Story” 
The task of describing the formation of the Christian canon is the task of telling an “untold story.” Although the development of the Bible as a whole is hugely significant, there is no ancient account of the process. In this way, we’re trying to tell an untold story. As you might expect, there are different versions of this “untold” story.

Depending on who is telling the story, the origins of the Bible can either sound inevitable or absurd! One way to highlight the divergent plotlines that are possible is to ask this question: “Did the Church create the Canon?” Or, “Did the canon create the churches?”

Was canon formation a process of selection, or could it have been a process of recognition? Was the canon a late invention of the fourth century? Or, was the canon an early reality in the life of the churches of the first and second centuries?

Though there are a host of questions we might pursue, we’ll focus on the resources you can use to answer this type of question: “Did the Church create the Canon?” Or, “Did the canon create the churches?”


A popular version of the story that is often told about the origins of the Bible comes from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel and later movie, The Da Vinci Code. In one particular scene, two of the main characters discuss the origin of the Gospels:
“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked. “Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we known it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” [hundreds of years after the time of Jesus and the apostles]. 
More recently in 2015, a major article ran in Newsweek called, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin.” In this article, the author asserts,
“To understand how what we call the Bible was made, you must see how the beliefs that became part of Christian orthodoxy were pushed into it by the Holy Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings.”
In these versions of the story, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not an early collection of writings that gradually gained widespread support among the churches in the ancient world. Rather, these particular books were deliberately chosen by government officials and politically motivated theologians hundreds of years after the fact. In this rendering, the actual events and beliefs of early Christians have no organic connection with what eventually became the centerpiece of the New Testament.

So, how might we go about challenging Teabing and Newsweek’s claim?

It’s not enough to deconstruct the false narrative. We need to be able to tell a story about how the Bible came to be that better fits the evidence and does justice to God’s hand in the process.

2. The Terms of the Debate 
A helpful starting point in this discussion is with the terms of the debate. As is often the case in popular apologetics, whoever sets the terms and parameters of the debate has a more solid footing in a back and forth dialogue.

Canon: The Greek term “canon” has two broad senses or nuances. First, canon can refer to a rule, norm, or guide. The word came to be used for a “measuring stick” or a “ruler.” This usage implied the authoritative ideas of “rule” or “standard.” A canon was something you measured something else with (e.g., “rule of law,” or “rule of faith”). Second, the term canon can refer to a list of items or some kind of catalogue. By the fourth century, the term canon came to mean a “list” of authoritative items (like people, tables of measurements, or documents). When referring to a catalogue or list of writings, we can think of “canon” as a collection of literature.

Scripture: The term “Scripture” comes from the Greek word that simply means “writings.” In certain contexts, the term means “sacred writings.” In this sense, the scriptures are writings that have been deemed authoritative or are considered normative by a particular group of people or community. 

Canon of Scripture: The “canon of Scripture,” then, is an authoritative collection of authoritative writings. In other words, the individual documents within the collection are considered to be authoritative and divinely inspired. The collection as a whole is also considered to be authoritative and divinely inspired. In this sense, we can distinguish between canon and scripture, but we shouldn’t totally divorce the concepts. Because the idea of “authority” was connected to the idea of “canon,” we can call writings that eventually make up part of the biblical collection “canonical.” Around the fourth century, the collection of Old and New Testament writings was called a canon. In so doing, the early church was recognizing both the authority and interconnectedness of these writings.

Bible: Around this time, the church also began calling the canon the “Bible.” The word “Bible” meant “books,” so calling the canonical collection the “Bible” meant calling it something like, the “Book of books.”

Calling our collection a “canon” is a way of ascribing authority and reverence to it. The confession of the churches was that the writings themselves were authoritative and that the collection carried the cumulative weight of their combined witness to God’s special revelation.

Theologically, this collection as a whole is God’s special revelation to his people.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Book Review

Title:  The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
Author: Keith Houston
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016
Price: $29.95 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 448
In this volume, Keith Houston aims to provide a “cover-to-cover” exploration of what he calls “the most powerful object of our time.” He refers not to the supercomputer or the nuclear bomb, but the book. As he explains, “this book is about the history and the making and the bookness” of the “physical book” (xvii). Houston has already made his mark in scholarly discussions of what many would consider minutiae in Shady Characters, which tells the story behind various punctuation symbols. Broadening his scope to the paged book allows Houston to continue in this vein.

The structure of The Book examines the four major aspects of the physical book form. Houston examines in turn, the pages books are made of (part 1), the text that fills these works (part 2), the illustrations that often illuminate those pages (part 3), and the tangible form of the “physical book” (part 4). Each of these sections tells a story that spans from ancient through to contemporary times. Moving to a new section is like hitting the carriage return on a typewriter as Houston takes us back to the ancient world to explore the origins of a paratextual feature of the book form. For example, in part one, Houston takes readers from the papyrus plant in ancient Egypt, to the subsequent “grisly invention” of animal-skinned parchment, and finally to the “ambiguous origins” of paper in China and its journey across the world and through the centuries (3-76). Part two, then, begins with the invention of writing by the Sumerians back in “one of the oldest settled civilizations in the world” (79).

For each of these sections, too, Houston lingers over a sociological spectrum that he fills out with supplementary information and intriguing anecdotes. For example, Houston’s account of the Chinese eunuch named Cai Lun and his quest to navigate the imperial court of the Han dynasty and master the art of papermaking is genuinely interesting and helps bind together a technical account of the origin of paper (see 39-49). Interesting vignettes also punctuate Houston’s account: conspiracy theories to explain enigmatic watermarks on medieval paper (59-60); ancient prayers by Arab writers to the “King of the Cockroaches” to protect their books from insect infestation (51-52); silk maps smuggled in Monopoly board games to prisoners in World War II (38); the role of linen undergarments in the early production of paper in Europe (61-62); a papermaking company in Greeneville, Connecticut that in the 1850s used linen from ancient mummies for materials; the happenstance discovery of a trove of manuscripts in an Egyptian trash heap (261-63); the murder mystery associated with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection (277-79). Houston manages to weave together a web of these technical details into a coherent narrative that reads at times like a user manual and at times like an adventure tale.

Image from: shadycharacters.co.uk/
Houston concludes the book with a colophon that describes, in the style of his own history of the paged book, every process that was required to produce The Book (329-31). This final section illustrates once more that the modern printed book “is the solution to an equation that takes in more than two thousand years of human history” (331). Because Houston often refers to the physical copy of The Book to illustrate a feature of bookmaking, the volume itself becomes a tangible piece of evidence for this account. Houston’s account is also well documented with an impressive range of scholarly works from the relevant fields of bookmaking. Accordingly, this book can also function as an accessible starting point for further research in these fields.

One storyline that is missing from Houston’s account but worth mentioning is the early and unanimous preference for the codex among early Christians in the Mediterranean world. The early adoption of this book form by early Christians outpaces the broader Greco-Roman culture by at least a century. Partly as an aid for public reading, the production and transmission of the New Testament and the biblical canon as a whole in the codex form is a historically significant aspect of the “birth of the codex.” Indeed, as “people of the book,” the history of the Jewish and Christian communities intersect at many places with the history of the paged book. There is much to mine from this interdisciplinary intersection. Even a brief discussion of the great Greek codex manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments from the fourth and fifth century would have enhanced this section of the narrative.

For example, the origin of Codex Sinaiticus and Constantin von Tischendorf’s Indian Jones like adventures in the nineteenth century to discover portions of this manuscript by chance in a heap material to be burned in a monastery on Mount Sinai is the type of tale that would fit nicely within Houston’s history. This observation is not really a critique of Houston’s work but perhaps simply a note for those interested both in book production and biblical studies. In this regard, Houston does mention the Dead Sea scrolls (25-28) and carefully details a codex of the Gospels from the seventh century (the St Cuthbert Gospel, 284-87).

Throughout his narrative, Houston also includes accounts of anxiety over each technological advance in book production. New advances were often met with scorn, suspicion, or alarm. For example, some worried in ancient Egypt that the invention of writing would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it” because they will “not practice their memory” (8). As the use of writing materials transitioned, Peter the Venerable in 1141 preferred parchment over papyrus and decried the latter’s origin from “the rags of old cast-off undergarments, or rushes out of Eastern swamps, and some other vile material” (56). These paradigm-shifting changes were sometimes recognizable but often the true reach of a new technology was only gradually realized.

When writing was combined with sheets of papyrus, for instance, a quiet revolution unfolded. This combination created “a self-contained mechanism for the storage and transmission of information—a pairing that endured as the premier information technology of the ancient world even as that world changed and expanded” (9). Houston also notes the spread of papyrus as a material for writing from Egypt out across the Mediterranean world over the course of thousands of years. Remarkably, though, “in all this time no one thought to write down precisely what this irreplaceable material was or how it was made” (10).

In a similar vein, Houston’s chronological survey also highlights that the rise and fall of various versions of bookmaking elements overlapped more than is often recognized (e.g., Houston notes the “overlapping reins” of papyrus and parchment, 36, and also the fact that paper becomes dominant while papyrus and parchment were still in use, 55). The quest for an account of the true “invention moment” leads to the recognition that these discoveries were often arrived at independently, at different times, and in different locations. Through his history, Houston highlights the less sensational notion that the “inventors” of these technologies usually did not first discover but rather perfected the production of a particular new method (e.g., 61-62). This historical memory can help temper the angst contemporary readers sometimes feel while in the throes of technological advance.

Significant too is the impact that technological advance has on the user’s experience. As Houston notes, “Paper, in its turn, subtly changed the people whose hands it passed through” (55). With the transition from papyrus or parchment to paper, for example, new genres of literature were possible, such as cookbooks or religious commentary (55). Another example comes with the advent of the cheaper paperback, which made possible the “dime novel” genre (308-09). Though Houston does not expand on this type of reflective commentary, it does surface occasionally and his volume provides a broad framework for those interested in this kind of analysis.

Houston begins his volume with a mini-lament about the technological advances that have relativized the “physical book” form. In this regard, there are varying contemporary impulses that either aim to deconstruct the physical constraints of the paged book or seek to preserve the paratextual features of the codex. Houston could have perhaps included a separate chapter or a concluding reflection on the digitization and destabilization of the codex with the rise of new media. However, this omission perhaps illustrates the difference between text and hypertext: a “book” must end!

And so must a book review.

Also in Christianity & Literature, forthcoming.

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Monday, February 06, 2017

An Ark on the Nile: The Beginning of the Book of Exodus, Book Review

Title:  An Ark on the Nile: The Beginning of the Book of Exodus
Author: Keith Bodner
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016
Price: $95.00 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 232
The story of the exodus from Egypt has always captivated readers. This account is also one of the central planks of biblical theology. When the “God of the Hebrews” demands, “Let my people go” (Exodus 9:1), his words resonate throughout the biblical canon. The prophets and apostles continue to remember the strategic impact of this account (“Out of Egypt, I called my Son,” Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15).

Noting that this “plot of rescue remains among the foundational paradigms of redemption in the Hebrew Bible” (p. 1), Keith Bodner seeks to demonstrate that the central action of the book of Exodus is preceded by several gripping and hermeneutically significant scenes. He argues that “the opening sequence of the book of Exodus unfolds an exceptional narrative that foreshadows a significant amount of the forthcoming storyline in the rest of the Pentateuch and establishes a lasting paradigm of redemption for Israel” (p. 174).

For Bodner, “there are grounds for suggesting that Exodus 1-2 foreshadows various plot-movements in the rest of the book” (p. 3). “It is striking,” Bodner insists, “how many aspects of the forthcoming storyline are presaged early in the book of Exodus, and even in the opening chapters a sense of anticipation is generated” (p. 3). After briefly surveying recent scholarship on these opening chapters of Exodus, Bodner outlines his approach. He employs a “close reading” of these chapters that focuses on “literary devices and aesthetic elements” like intertextuality, irony, characterization, and a variety of narrative techniques (p. 10). With an eye toward these textual features, Bodner adopts a narrative-critical approach that, while mindful of diachronic insights, remains focused on “the aesthetics of the final form of the canonical text” (p. 13n25).

Before his analysis of Exodus 1-2, Bodner explores several “images of Egypt in Genesis” (chapter one). The exodus narrative is inexplicable apart from its setting within the Pentateuch. As Bodner writes, “not only is the book of Genesis foundational for the story of Israel as a nation, but also its major themes and characters are presupposed in Exodus” (p. 17). These “refractions” of Egypt in the Genesis narratives include Abram and Sarai’s brief excursion to Egypt during a famine, Lot’s choice of land, and the plight of the Egyptian servant Hagar. Most significant, though, is the Joseph narrative that contains verbal and thematic links to earlier Abraham narratives and anticipates features of the exodus narrative. As Bodner reflects, “Joseph’s slavery and adversity epitomize what the nation will soon experience, and the brothers may have acted as evil as any tyrannical Pharaoh, but God’s promise is unwavering” (p. 39).

In chapters 2-6, Bodner provides a close, sequential reading of the first two chapters of Exodus. In a concluding section, Bodner discusses the relationship between Exodus 1-2 and the larger story of the Pentateuch. He also suggests a few broader canonical connections with the Esther narrative (pp. 179-85) and also the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (p. 179n8).

Because he follows Exodus 1-2 so closely, the coherence of his book as a whole demonstrates his thesis about the coherence and carefully constructed nature of the biblical narrative. Throughout his study, Bodner consistently emphasizes facets of the Exodus narrative that are uncovered by a textual approach. For example, while many commentators expend much effort in identifying the Pharaoh in Exodus 1 in the historical record, Bodner moves in the opposite direction and investigates the literary effect of this “nameless” Egyptian king who is in a mad pursuit of establishing his own name. In direct contrast to the powerful ruler of Egypt, two midwives who lack any social status are both named (Shifrah and Puah) and are given “houses” by the Lord. This notable contrast highlights the new pharaoh’s “midwife crisis” (p. 64) and uncovers the powerful irony that pervades the opening narrative scenes.

Another example is the way that Bodner is able to demonstrate the interpretive significance of minor characters in these brief chapters. When the sons of Jacob come to Egypt seeking grain, the “steward” who assists Joseph is “depicted as a character in his own right whose actions and words are integrated into the thematic web of the narrative” (p. 35). The steward speaks a word of peace that comforts the brothers. These simple words and actions “set the tone for the subsequent characters, as his surprising discourse about God’s involvement with the brothers and their silver is surely an intriguing element of the storyline” (p. 37).

Relevant for a study of Exodus is that “similarly configured minor characters are encountered early in the book of Exodus” (p. 36). In fact, this “pattern of anonymous minor characters who act on behalf of the sons of Israel” is central to the compositional strategy of the immediately following opening Exodus narratives. This type of textual insight is a common feature of Bodner’s study. These observations enhance a reading of individual pericopes and uncover intratextual connections between broader swaths of narrative.

In his analysis, Bodner does not interact at length with typical historical-critical questions regarding these texts. However, this omission is an intentional feature of his narrative-critical approach (see pp. 10-11). As Bodner acknowledges, he does not necessarily devalue the legitimacy of historically oriented reading strategies. Occasionally, Bodner complements his synchronic analysis with diachronic insights (e.g., the socio-economic impact of the Nile river in Egypt; the possible identities of the Egyptian rulers; the referent of the Egyptian storage cities, etc). His primary purpose, though, is to demonstrate the hermeneutical fecundity of a literary approach focused on the text’s final form. Within these parameters, Bodner clearly succeeds.

This brief but packed volume demonstrates the richness of biblical narrative in general, the strategic importance of Exodus 1-2 in particular, and the enduring value of close readings of scriptural texts.

Also in JETS, forthcoming.

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