Friday, July 30, 2010

The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets, Book Review

TitleThe Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation
Author: Christopher R. Seitz
Publisher: Baker, 2009
Price: $19.99 (amz) (wts)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 136

For interpreters wishing to engage in canonical interpretation, the specific issue of the ordering of the biblical books often poses a problem. Is there any logic at work in the writings themselves apart from the handling of post-biblical redactors or the decisions of church councils?

In this volume, Seitz takes up this type of question by examining the unique character of the prophetic division in the Hebrew Scriptures. The content of the book represents an edited form of public lectures given at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia in 2007. In these lectures, Seitz argues that “the implications of canon formation are deeply imbedded in the processes of the Bible’s coming to be” (12). For him, the prophetic corpus in the Hebrew Bible shows signs of interrelation at a fundamental level. His chief task in the book is to demonstrate that this association found in the formation of the canon is a unique achievement with considerable significance.

Seitz makes his case in four main parts. The first two chapters set the stage for his discussion and outline the contours of current canon research. Here Seitz stresses the need to recognize the integral role of the Old Testament in the formation of the Christian canon as a whole, the significance of stable groupings (e.g., the Book of the Twelve) within larger Old Testament divisions, and that later lists and orders are rooted in prior canonical realities. Seitz then addresses the specific challenge of order and arrangement in standard Old Testament studies. The discussion regarding these matters is often mired by differing definitions of “canon”.

Some hold that canon only signifies a collection that is “stable, closed” and “in fixed order” (52). Conversely, Seitz argues that there is significant stability and affiliation present within the writings themselves prior to final consolidation within a given community. For him, “early ‘canon formation’ means that it is possible to conceive of canon and scriptural authority in phases prior to closure” (54). These writings were viewed from their inception as the “word of God,” a trait that represents “Scripture’s inner nerve” (55). Because typical treatments of the prophets do not take questions of ordering and association into account, they often fail to recognize the internal relationships present in the biblical material.

In the last two chapters, Seitz contributes his own understanding of the way the major units of the canon formed. In the prophetic corpus, a unique achievement of “association” has taken place. Through intentional textual links, the former prophets are directly connected to the Law, the latter prophets are joined to the former, and the Twelve are associated with the three major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. As a combined whole, these writings form a kind of conceptual grammar of “Law-Prophets” (33). For Seitz, this ordering and association involves more than serendipitous contextual relationships. The fact that certain books migrate toward each other entails something internal and intrinsic to the writings themselves.

As the prophetic books were being produced, they were quickly viewed in light of each other. The prophetic history of Israel (the former prophets) is positioned as the framework in which the prophetic discourse (the latter prophets) is to be read. Seitz’s concern is to trace out the way this “prophetic division of the Hebrew Bible was a canonical achievement of the first order.” He shows that “this achievement did not come at the closing phases but was there from the very beginning” (44). Thus, the shaping of the prophetic corpus begins with the writers associating their works with other prophetic works and continues as those who receive these writings do the same.

Chapter four then demonstrates the accomplishment of the Writings division in the Hebrew Bible. Seitz argues that the Writings are associated with the Law by means of a different logic than the one at work in the Prophets. Whereas the Prophets as a unit are associated with the Law, the individual documents that make up the Writings connect to the Law independent of one another as discrete witnesses. For Seitz, these other writings exist alongside of the “Law-Prophets” canonical core. This loose association explains why individual writings from this division show up in various places in later orderings (e.g., the movement of Ruth or Daniel). Because these books were associated with the Law and Prophets independently, they could migrate to different positions.

The Writings division, then, is a “library of books” directly related to elements of the Law and the Prophets but not necessarily linked to one another. Due to the nature of these writings, they do not need to be fixed in order to recognize the prevailing “canonical” function of a previously established Law-Prophets entity. The Writings along with the subsequent New Testament documents respond to and are shaped by that foundational witness.

One immediate benefit of Seitz’s work is that it furthers the discussion regarding the ordering of the biblical books in the Christian canon. His research enables an interpreter who is interested in doing canonical interpretation to account for various lists and orderings found in the extant manuscripts. For Seitz, if one understands the logic of association between books that occurs during the composition/canonization phase of canon formation, the varying sequences can be better understood.

Many of the divergent orders can be identified as departures or modifications of a stable three-part Hebrew canon of Law, Prophets, and Writings. The presence of rival orders does not trivialize or negate these earlier theological associations. As long as the function of the Law and the Prophets is recognized, then differing orders, be they ancient or contemporary, can be accepted and understood.

Seitz’s discussion of the difference between two main understandings of “canon” is also instructive. For Seitz, limiting the concept of canon to the idea of “closure” or “list” is reductionistic and causes a misinterpretation of early manuscript evidence. If there was in fact a stable witness known as “Law-Prophets” that was formative for the rest of canonized Scripture, then the fact that a third division of Writings was not completely set at the time of the New Testament does not entail an entirely destabilized Old Testament canon.

This possibility is particularly significant, as the status of the Old Testament at the time of the New Testament is a watershed issue in the canon debate. In his analysis, Seitz demonstrates the importance of carefully defining the terms used to describe canon formation and also the implications of those definitional decisions.

One repeated theme of Seitz’s analysis is the foundational role of the Old Testament canon. For Seitz, the Old Testament sets the theological horizons that the New Testament writers conform to in their writings (50). What is more, the precedent of a stable Old Testament canonical witness of the Law and Prophets supplies the canonical concept and impetus for the formation of a New Testament canon (102). In other words, not only did the Old Testament shape the theology of the New Testament authors, but it also influenced the material shaping of the New Testament canon. For example, the Twelve could serve as a precedent for a Pauline Corpus of epistles written in varying contexts brought together to serve a larger audience (12).

A stable Old Testament witness helps explain the motivation and impetus for the formation of a New Testament canon. In this regard, Seitz shows that the Rule of Faith was also dependent on the Old Testament and was deeply exegetical (21-23). This emphasis has the potential of shedding significant light on the nature of the development of the Christian canon as a whole.

One possible area for further reflection relates to Seitz’s treatment of association in the Writings. In order to account for a perceived lack of stability in ordering, Seitz stresses that the members of the Writings were not intentionally associated with one another. However, in making this case, Seitz might minimize the association that is in fact present among these documents. Seitz himself concedes that there is a measure of stability at least among the grouping known as the Megilloth. One might ask if these writings were intentionally associated with one another, albeit with a different principle of association. The interconnections that are present in the Writings seem to be based on verbal links between books and similarity of genre. Thus, recognizing and defining the various types of association in the different corpora more directly would be helpful.

Also, showing in more detail how the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are interconnected with each other in addition to the way they connect with the former Prophets might strengthen Seitz’s arguments for a tightly interrelated prophetic corpus. More generally, a clearer delineation of just what is involved in a book being “associated” with another would help readers evaluate the various claims Seitz makes.

Throughout this volume, Seitz draws on the work he has done on the book of the Twelve in his previously published Prophecy and Hermeneutics. His work here also serves as a precursor to his forthcoming volume in Baker’s Studies in Theological Interpretation series entitled The Character of Christian Scripture: Canon and the Rule of Faith. There, Seitz will continue the discussion broached in the present work and connect it to a broader treatment of Christian Scripture (10-11).

Thus, as an independent monograph, there may be areas of Seitz’s important project in need of additional development. However, as a brief yet substantive blueprint for further constructive work on the canon, this volume represents a valuable and engaging contribution.

Ched Spellman
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