Friday, October 08, 2010
The Canon is as dated as the slide rule
I did not say the contents of the closed Canon are becoming irrelevant, just the "closing" of it.
"The Trouble with Resurrection," brand new, by Bernard Brandon Scott.
"Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus," by John S. Kloppenborg, a textbook for my Intro to New Testament class underr Bernard Brandon Scott.
Not really a fact, unless one takes headlines for facts, and not good history.
If one reads the history of the canon formation, one can come to the above conclusion only by practicing Dan Brown scholarship.
Gibbon's explanation that Christianity eroded Roman Imperial administration and social power, thereby bringing it down.
The claim that the Roman church was corrupt and spiritually bankrupt, thus the Reformation was divinely ordained. As many studies have shown, private and communal devotion was at a very high water mark and the success of the Reformation was largely built on a power grab by European princes warring with the HRE and the influence of the papacy.
The claim that the American Revolution was about tyranny and taxation without representation.
The claim that the Civil War came because of a moral desire to liberate the slaves and a political desire to weaken the South.
While all the above have a certain relationship to the truth, they are far from the core aspects of influence and are very influenced by misguided nuance.
"The historical fact of Constantine's forced creation of the biblical Canon..." is in the same category.
This may or may not be true, and the source may have been oral as much as anything. Claiming, however, that said non-existent source represents a far more "authentic" Christianity than either the four canonical Gospels or the writings of Paul or the Pauline Epistles is more yet another movement in that great symphony known as primitivism. "If we could only go back to the original way . . ." is how this usually goes, with "Q", being allegedly older than any canonical writing now extant (although this depends upon which dating method we accept for the various writings), becoming more authoritative.
On The Gospel of Thomas - the earliest manuscripts now extant date from sometime in the second century, over a hundred to a hundred-fifty years after the canonical writings. While there are similarities in some cases, the explicit Gnosticism, the transformation of Jesus' message from a this-worldly engagement in the name of his Father to an other-worldly aesceticism, and the rejection of creation all make it radioactive, theologically speaking, to treat it as anything other than a historical curiosity. Like the Acts of Peter or the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas is an interesting document that offers historians a view of the broad diversity of faith-claims in the first few centuries of the life of the Church. As a source for faith, there are many reasons to treat it as less than reliable.
The openness of the canon is not a matter of allowing the possibility for new documents to enter, and perhaps even banishing older, accepted ones (Luther managed to do this with what has become The Apocrypha, but was less successful getting rid of the Epistle of James and the Revelation of John of Patmos). The canon is open precisely because we Christians testify to its ongoing power as a source for life and faith, each generation (and, in the highly idiosyncratic, individualistic precincts of radical Protestantism, each individual) finds within it new and fresh meanings, sources for inspiration and frustration, and offer these views for other Christians to consider.
It is an interpretive openness, rather than an editorial openness.
This whole idea is rooted in an almost complete rejection of the Pauline corpus. The usual juxtaposition of the Gospel presentation of Jesus and Paul's writings misses a salient fact that needs to be taken in to account - Paul wrote his letters before the Gospels were set down. Paul certainly had access to the tradition presented in the Gospels, at least in outline if not in exact detail. The differences between the two sets of writings can be accounted for far more easily if one considers that Paul isn't writing a Gospel. He is addressing specific concerns presented to him, concerns regarding what it means to live in this new Way. The affinities between the instructions of Paul, either at his spiritual heights or didactic lows, and the message of the Gospel are far more clear if one takes for granted that Paul, and those who were reading/hearing him for the first time, knew the message of the Gospel, too. Like all interpreters, Paul changes this and that to fit varying circumstances, to be sure, but his is hardly some kind of misappropriation.
Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with two thousand years of interpretations and traditions through which we must sort, occasionally finding things that are terrible or embarrassing, in hopes of finding those kernels and nuggets of gold and platinum to which we should cling.
On Q: I think that as a longtime perfessional writer/editor, it may be easier for me to "see" a piece of writing from its shadows in other pieces of writing; that is, the near-verbatim commonalities in Matthee and Luke (which suggests Q in a written form, not just oral). The Kloppenborg book is really good, and new.
On Paul: Nothing I've read, or studied, suggests setting aside Paul, or doing anythin with him at all other than letting him speak as he always has.
On Thomas: That's a pretty old manuscript, if it goes to the 150s, older than the oldest MS. of the canonical gospels, isn't it? (Not sure; would have to look that up ...) But the age of the oldest MS. is one thing; the dating of the content is another, and unless I'm remembering wrong what they're saying is it predates the gospel of John for sure, mayube contemporary with, or even predating Luke-Acts.
Slide-rule: If the canon is the standard measure, and that's what a canon is, and I compare it to a slide-rule, obviously I am not denigrating the slide-rule; I'm just saying there are measuring tools now that did not exist in the slide-rule's heyday; ergo, I'm just saying that since there are tools of measurement now that did not exist (to wide human knowledge anyway) at they heyday of the biblical canon, well, then, the biblical canon is still great, and works well, as well as a slide-rule does; but there are some things that a slide-rule can't calculate, and there are things that the biblical canon can't measure -- specifically, the Gospel of Thomas, as well as some of the other writings discovered and analyzed since, what, 425?
You want to say, "forced," simply because the way political decisions then were made on principles antithetical to the way political decisions are made in democracies now. That simply ignores context.
There was wide agreement on most of the writings and wide disagreement on some of the writings. Same story with all polyphonic religious texts. That councils decided, replete with political sides, is the way it was. To wish it away either by claiming "divine hand" or "power coercion" is to dismiss how the community went about its business. And both responses hide in the cloak of bad mysticism - fundamentalist or gnostic.
In short, both responses ignore how we, too, in our hubristic evaluation of ourselves as "most in the know", make communal choices out of similar grab gabs of rational and wish-fulfillment motivations. Jesus Seminar included.
"there are measuring tools now that did not exist in the slide-rule's heyday.."
Pray tell, what would these be? No slide rule crashed a satellite into the Mars.
Perhaps we are trapped in a metaphor stuck at the most concrete definition of "canon," and need to move on to more supple terms. After all, we are not measuring anything.
Canon as authority more than measure is the point. Invested with the authority to reveal the reality of the experience of God. Primitivity is but one quality among many others. As GKS says, contemporary "tools" can serve different purposes. Serving the purpose of esteeming the "earliest" is a fool's mission built on "if"s (which I see included in the immediate above), conjecture, and a late modern zealous confidence in the late modern critical apparatus -- which is an entirely Western Enlightenment project, and will be surpassed in its time, despite how extraordinarily valuable it has been.
"Canon as authority more than measure is the point. Invested with the authority to reveal the reality of the experience of God. Primitivity is but one quality among many others. As GKS says, contemporary "tools" can serve different purposes. Serving the purpose of esteeming the "earliest" is a fool's mission built on "if"s (which I see included in the immediate above), conjecture, and a late modern zealous confidence in the late modern critical apparatus -- which is an entirely Western Enlightenment project, and will be surpassed in its time, despite how extraordinarily valuable it has been."
Exactly. Along with all the other things he wrote. The oldest manuscripts now extant for the Gospels date MUCH earlier than Thomas. There is an Aramaic text (partial) of St. Matthew that even antedates any existing Greek MS. No, Thomas, like many other non-canonical texts dates much later.
Feodor is quite correct to note that our contemporary/modern distaste for the method of canonical inclusion, as well as the creation of the Nicaean/Constantinopolitan Creed belies some realities that are important to keep in mind. While there does seem to be something wrong with the way some of the earliest Councils came up with their various formulae, my counter-question would be, given the realities and limitations of the time, as well as the limitations inherent in human beings, what other choices were available?
After all sorts of discussion back and forth, my own sense of Canonical authority, while minimalist and perhaps arguable in itself, is this: There has to be a resting place for authority. The post-Imperial (Roman) Church did NOT rest authority in Scripture, but in the hierarchy and the person of the Pope, represented across a fragmented Christendom by the bishops. For Protestants (even we Wesleyans who come not from Wittenburg but Oxford via Westminster) the authority is vested in the Bible. Even as we discuss various issues surrounding its composition, construction, assemblage, and what not, the point seems to me to be to strengthen that authority rather than undermine it.
Finally, returning to the alleged "Q". You state, ER, that you see no effort to banish Pauline theology. Yet, the entire impetus behind, not just "Q", but the Historical Jesus project (in its latest form), the whole "I follow Jesus not Christ" nonsense one hears far too often, and even the Jesus Seminar is the construction - via all sorts of contemporary historical-critical tools that, while impressive, seem to yield little more than the works of David Strauss and others nearly 200 years ago - of the "real" Jesus that somehow, miraculously, existed untainted by the spiritual gloss of later writers (including not just St. Paul, but the author of the Fourth Gospel as well).
I still maintain that while there may, indeed, have been some manuscript, its existence is neither important nor even surprising. Considering that the "Gospel" of St. Thomas is little more than a quote catalog, it might well be the "Q" scholars have been searching for!
Predictive models are fine in the absence of any real evidence, but as hypotheses they are not as powerful as explanatory models. Once Q turns up, the explanation will be far more convincing ... if it turns up.
As far as the "canon" there was no real canon until making a "Bible" became cheap enough to be done. Maybe that's why books of the Bible are called books. They each stood alone for a very long time.
Short hand version w/o sources .
The earliest Greek fragments of the book of Thomas are almost exactly as old as the earliest know fragments of any known NT book of the Canon that being Greek fragments of John at about 125 to 150 A.D.
We may already have fragments of Q and not know it simply because they are fragments. Most probable scenario is that a third or forth generation text or translation of Q will be found first. Thomas is not it, it does not match the textual proofs needed from the first century.
Every year 3 or 4 caches of early manuscripts or fragments are discovered. In 2008, 47 of these were found (look it up in Christianity Today).
Likewise even the manuscripts from the 4th century upon which a large portion of the current NT is written were not found until 1224 in Egypt.
And of course the Biblical Canon is only Canon in the Roman Church and its descendants.
By the way when comes to Theodosius I, "forced" is the correct concept.
No, they did not. The Christian communities were instructed by taking them altogether as they became valuable to them. Reading, rereading, rereading and making sure that other communities around and far away had copies. They read each in the light of the others and in dialogue with the Torah. The Torah shed light on Christian writings and Christian writings shed light on the Torah and each other.
The Torah was not bound all together, either. Cities were honored by having a full set of scrolls. Towns were special if they did, too.
The Canon does not depend on binding. In fact, no canon began bound.
What in God's name could this possibly mean. Is simple research dead? Dr LBJ, try searching for "Luther's Canon."
So Feodor are you saying that say prior to 400 A.D. or so all of the books of the current Canon were circulating as a group of scrolls/books among most if not all of the Churches,and were at least known to exist by their congregations? Would that be true for 300 A.D.? 200 A.D.?
So you are making an argument that for during the time Saul was stoning Christians, before he became Paul, there was at least some standard story, sayings, message being transmitted orally or in writing among the Christians he was killing? Is that not what Q is presumed to be?
The Catholic canon and the Protestant canon are not the same thing, either, largely pertaining to the apocrapha. And since you allow that the other churches have their canons which are by and large the same books, too, I fail to see a point being made.
"... as they became valuable to them." How is this unclear?
In answer to the second, yes, but in the absence of actual evidence for its existence, the question is still begged. In response to the first, even taking in to account the correspondence between the testimony of Acts and actual events, it is pretty clear that from from the beginning, the message of the Apostles, of Paul, centered on the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus as granting his message validity.
Paul did not invent "Christ", nor did he not know that Jesus taught a vision of human community bound by Divine and human love for the world. This is, rather, the horizon against which his writings to the various Churches need to be understood.
I thought we were discussing the "New Testament Canon", in which case the Catholic and Protestant Conons are exactly the same, not withstanding Luther's attempt to create his own.
This sequence would confirm that the Canon was "open" for some time at the beginning of the process. Apparently the consensus of what should be included must have coalesced at some point in time. for us to have a closed New Testament Canon today.
Does this argument hinge on an assumption that the writers of the other synoptics could not have had access to Mark to use it, rather than Q, as a source?
I can no longer remember the specifics of this stuff.
It is the inclusion of material found in Matthew and Luke in other, non-canonical Gospels (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) that pique people's interests. Yet, Thomas is not a "Gospel", that is a unique literary form. It is an epigrammatic presentation of sayings of Jesus, some of which are, indeed, included in the canon, but with many more that reflect its Gnostic root and intent.
The common and universal canonicity of the four Gospels and the bulk of the Pauline corpus is further testament that the core books of the NT were quickly and obviously held by all.
So..... what's your point?
"This sequence would confirm that the Canon was "open" for some time at the beginning of the process."
Well.... yeah. Since no one set out to make a canon. They already had one. The Septuagint.
But sometimes a canon is pressed on a people. So it seems, the Christian community realized they had a canon on their hands. Then the task was deciding what the extent was of a Christian canon. They did not realize the fate they were drawing for Western civilization for the next 1500 years.
It was process that had to catch up to reality. It was not a process that formed reality -- which is something we do to the canon.
They are all the same except...
Selassie by Imperial decree in 1962made the Coptic Short Canon the new Churches Canon.
"...in all of Ethiopia."
Well I've wander a bunch of Ethiopia and climbed into the monastery at Debra Damo and would not bet against almost anything existing in their dusty libraries.
Besides up somewhere in this thread did you not say "binding" a canon does not make, or some such thing.
What's my point?
I ain't got no point.
You got one?
The role of the canon is to be the primary witness to the faith in a way that continually opens the experience to new witness (an open canon) and also refuses to close the experience to history (the primacy of tradition). Usually this means the canon demonstrates and invites multivalent interpretation.
An understanding of the canon should begin with acknowledging that the early experience of faith precedes it and necessarily forms it. Therefore in its earliest stages the canon is "unbound" while the experience is being reflected upon and translated from oral to written testimony. Great respect should be given to the early "reflector" communities and the ways in which they adjudicated the expression and formation of their central testimony.
Thus, the canon gets bound.
And yet, as the canon demonstrates self-interpretation so the communities and their descendants continue to reflect upon and interpret the experience as felt and the experience as canonized -- which mutually shape each other now over the rest of time.
Canonicals result which the community finds to be authoritative but which should centrally orbit around the canon while simultaneously expanding the "amibt" of the canon.
The bottom line point I'd make is that any canon gains in its spiritual, moral, and reasonable value if the body which holds it as authoritative does so in a way that de-localizes that authority away from the individual experience -- susceptible as it is to emotional extremes and/or cognitive limitations -- toward the community as a whole thereby at the same time ensuring that the canon's authority is liberating and empowering for the individual in his/her private life and potentially as a leader in his/her community's interpretation of that very canon.
Say, "Haile Selassie," when you've had enough.
We have been here before and before and before.....
Protestants (most of them) have some concept of the "priesthood of the believer" of direct individual access to the Holy Spirit(some have an excessive access). Therefore their error is their core belief.
Thus they hold that they can hear the Spirit speak though all sort of ways, not just the Canon, nor the Clergy, nor the "Church".
( I always love to point out the most radical example, Snake handling)
There in lies the irreconcilable difference in modern Western Chrisitanity.
Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have come to accept the broad ranging "job description" that "priesthood of all believers" represents.
But we're not talking about Christian life, are we? I thought we were talking about how authority is invested in the canon.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
They are separable?
My intention at this point is to do my damnedest to let texts speak for themselves, from their time and place. Then, I'll decide what they mean to me, now, today.
I really do wish I had time to say more. 'Cause the fact is, GKS and Feo, the cutting edge of biblical scholarship is a moving edge, and y'all are behind. No offense intended. It's been awhile, for you'ns both, since you've been in seminary. By that, I don't claim or intended any snobbery; what I do mean is more than half of my waking hours now are devoted to systematic study and reading of this stuff, and interaction with perfessers who are, and have long been, major players in what the Jesus Seminar is about. "Finding the historical Jesus" is a real dated notion of it. If I were to recast its mission, I'd call it "Saving texts from bad interpretations," or "bad translations" -- but then all translation is interpretation, so I repeat myself.
When I'm ready to talk about the Canon as an object of devotion, as a guide for life, now, as revelation, or not -- we can talk. Most of the stuff above here seems to mix all that up.
Right now, the only that's on the table -- mine, anyway -- is the texts, what they seem to say, how they seem to fit, or not. Not even thinking too much about the councils, or what the early communities did with them other than hear them read aloud, for the most part.
Forrest oriented questions get at the philosophical foundations of what biblical interpretation is - in order to understand and defend what one does when one does biblical interpretation. Questions on the order of: what is a "text" to us? Is what we think of as a text appropriate to the thing we are reading? Does it know itself as a text in the way we mean?
What makes for a text? How do the words of a text "say" the same thing across two thousand years? What am I hearing in the words because I am I? How do I distinguish what a text "says" from what I find it "says"? How does the whole history of hearing a text affect original intent when we cannot be certain to whom it was iriginally said, be whom it was originally said, where it was said or when it was said?
What exactly are our intentions when we ask for "fit"? Why are we asking for "fit"? Is the text concerned with "fit" and, if so, what kind of fit is it concerned with?
Are all these kinds of questions, resting on Enlightenment structured interests - as is your current pet, Biblical Interpretation - so alien to the very nature of the "text" that the feeling you get of getting to what it says an unprovable and un-disprovable vision grown from where you are, who you are, and what you want to say?
If the sword of biblical interpretation is moving, then how long before the Jesus Seminar is passé? Why would uou want to put your eggs in a basket already being lined up for cutting?
According to this text, I believe that what is said is, "We will talk to you when you grow up."
Additionally, the text is obviously tainted by geographic determinism of the New York blinders variety.
It is also obvious that "discussing" these subjects with one so far behind the curve and a rank amateur, both infected with the virus of of evangelical individualism, is tiresome and tedious.
This observation comes in the wake of the use of dismissals such as, "OK, apparently things are grinding to a halt. It's just as well: I have to clear the radiators - an inseparable part of my Christian life." and the mutilation of mutilation metaphors such as this:"If the sword of biblical interpretation is moving, then how long before the Jesus Seminar is passé? Why would uou want to put your eggs in a basket already being lined up for cutting?"
Deja Vu again.
And the diagnosis of regionalism should be applied to the Southern way of thinking that polite tone covers impolite ideas. And then the embarrassing Southern response of umbrage when someone says something where tone matches message. Can you say passive-aggressive Southern schizophrenia?
On the whole, "I'm in seminary, you're not," - true enough. I do feel deficient in that way, and have been thinking about auditing a class at GETS in order to make up for the deficiency. All the same, the distinction you provide between our characterization of the Jesus Seminar and your own understanding of it seem to me to be one without a difference. What else was the historical Jesus school, in its many guises, than an attempt to find, beneath the accumulated detritus of tradition, the kernel of reality that could blossom in to a new faith?
The tension we all face is the call of communal life that carries with it strange claims of authority and our inherited Enlightenment distrust of any authority outside ourselves. The canon becomes not just external "rule" but internal "limit", it seems, only when we accept it as such for ourselves.
"If one reads the history of the canon formation, one can come to the above conclusion only by practicing Dan Brown scholarship."
As it is, I'm rather surprised by your pride in autodidact mediocrity.
Your's is the last word.