Monday, April 6, 2009

More Christian Biblical Imperialism

The case of The Inclusive Bible is really a case of the unintended consequences of good intentions, albeit good intentions framed by a certain biblical illiteracy. The biblical illiteracy arises from the discourses of the 'Bible is God's Word' variety which promote the fiction that there is only one Bible now and for all time. The reality is completely different. Not only is there not one Bible now and always and not only are Jewish and Christian Bibles different but there is not even a uniform Christian bible now or over time. Not ever. But, of course, people believing that there is only one ever Bible, who don't understand that the Jewish Bible is a different creature to the Christian Old Testament (in all its varieties) can make a well-meaning, dare I say, 'inclusive' gesture to use the Tanakh as the template for the Old Testament of a Bible that aims to be inclusive.

However not so in this case, which I discovered at the Open Source Bible. Apparently it's from a site and it's from an online lecture by DR Miles van Pelt who is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

The following Biblical books shows the structural unity of the canon. The layout is derived from the Lectures on Old Testament Theology given by Dr. Miles Van Pelt

Covenant Prologue

The Law
The Prophets
The Writings
Covenant Epilogue

The 12 Minor Prophets
Song of Songs



Acts of the Apostles
Paul's Epistles
1,2 Peter
1,2,3 John

Covenant History
Covenant Life

As you can see, Van Pelt is setting up a common structural pattern of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament using the order of the Tanakh and the New Testament that is standard across most (but not all) Christian denominations today. But he does some strange things. Genesis which has always been the first book of the Torah (which he terms Law) is separated out and given a category of its own: Prologue to the (presumably) unified Bible. Likewise, Revelation is taken out from the New Testament and given its own status of Epilogue. He then marries up the 4 gospels with the remaining 4 books of the Torah under the category of Covenant. His next category is Covenant History under which he marries the Acts of the Apostles with all of the books included in the Prophets section of the Tanakh, Finally he sets up the category of Covenant Life under which he marries up the Tanakh's final section of the Writings with the Epistles of the New Testament. All very neat, all very logical, and no doubt designed to impress his audience with a sense of the underlying unity, rationality and harmony of 'God's Word' as found, of course, in the standard Protestant Bible.

But this structure is an imperialist, supersessionist fraud for several reasons. The most obvious is that, with the exception of The Inclusive Bible, there is no Christian Old Testament that has ever been structured according to the Tanakh. All Christian Old Testaments follow a rough pattern of Law/Pentateuch, Historical books, Wisdom books and, finally, Prophetic books. As far back as we can go with canon lists and ancient codices this has been the consistent shape of the collections called Old Testament. There are some variations from the pattern but none have ever matched the pattern of the Tanakh. Furthermore this Old Testament pattern of Law, History, Wisdom, Prophets was what was assumed by the shapers of the New Testament canons too (yes, there's more than one of those too) to be the structure of the scriptures of Israel that was to be completed by the New Testament.

Indeed, the Old Testament(s) of Christianity were themselves being shaped at the same time as the New Testament(s) in the first few centuries of the Christian Era (CE) and it was also in that same period that the Tanakh of Judaism was likewise achieving its final form. At the time of Jesus there was neither Tanakh nor Old Testament only scriptures in which an authority and priority was accorded to the books of Moses or Torah. The Torah was a Pentateuch, although at Qumran the Temple Scroll represented a 6th book of Moses, meaning for some Jews in Jesus' day the Torah was a Hexateuch. Not only were the Tanakh and the Old and New Testaments shaped contemporaneously but also to a certain extent in reaction to each other. Christians regard Daniel as a prophet and in many ancient collections/lists Daniel is the last book of both the Prophets and the Old Testament as it is in my contemporary Orthodox Study Bible. In the Tanakh, though, Daniel is not a prophet and the book is included in the third division, the Writings. Given how important Daniel was for Christian messianic theologies, it's hard not to think that its placement in the Tanakh amongst the Writings is designed to downplay it and the apocalyptic theologies it represented. The ordering of the Tanakh, furthermore, gives priority to the Torah - all the other books of Prophets and Writings being understood as commentary on Torah. Christian Old Testaments look forward to the New and hence the Prophets are generally the final Old Testament division, heralding the Christ event.

Finally, the New Testament of today is not and has never been the only canonical New Testament structure. It took a long time for the Eastern churches to accept Revelation. It is still not part of the New Testament of the Church of the East (Assyrian Orthodox) and while it might be part of the Greek Orthodox bible there are no readings from it included in the lectionary of the Greek Orthodox church. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Bible includes a number of additional books in its New Testament, which are placed after Revelation. In the first millennium, there were also several different orderings of the New Testament. A quite common pattern was gospels, epistles, Acts and Revelation. The Cheltenham canon, hailing from North Africa, has the ordering: gospels, Pauline epistles, Acts, Revelation, Johannine and Petrine epistles. The Apostolic canons give this ordering for the New Testament:

Our own books, that is, those of the New Testament, are: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter; three of John; one of James, and one of Jude. Two Epistles of Clement, and the Constitutions of me Clement, addressed to you Bishops, in eight books, which are not to be published to all on account of the mystical things in them. And the Acts of us the Apostles.

No sign of Revelation but ending with Acts. According to the Muratorian Fragment, which probably belongs in the fourth century, the New Testament structure is as follows: gospels, Johannine epistles, Acts, Paul's epistles, Jude, 2 epistles of John, Wisdom of Solomon, Revelation and Apocalypse of Peter. Indeed a number of ancient New Testament lists include either Wisdom of Solomon and/or Sirach. A list included in the 6th century Codex Claromontanus renders the New Testament thus - gospels, Pauline epistles, Petrine epistles, James, Johannine epsitles, Jude, Barnabas, Revelation, Acts and then Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul, to conclude with Apocalypse of Peter. Finally the New Testament according to the Codex Sinaiticus is ordered as follows: gospels, Pauline epistles, Acts, James, Petrine epistles, Johannine epsitles, Jude, Revelation, Barnabas to conclude with Shepherd of Hermas.

In other words, there were many variant forms of the New Testament at the time the Tanakh was being shaped. None of these New Testament forms influenced the shaping of the Tanakh and none, including the modern standard variant, were influenced by the Tanakh. To try, as Van Pelt does, to affirm an underlying unity of structure to both collections and that this structuring unity is a sign of the overall harmony of the Christian (Protestant) bible seriously misrepresents, distorts the facts. It is a falsehood. Furthermore it is an act of biblical imperialism and supersessionism. It usurps the Tanakh of Judaism as Christian scripture, something it has never been throughout its history. It then uses this Tanakh authority to thus assert a supersessionist claim for the modern standard Protestant bible, not only over the Tanakh of Judaism but also over the other Christian bibles, past and present. Van Pelt's biblical theology is nothing more than biblical imperialism.


  1. I thought that the Muratorian fragment was dated to 160-170...?

  2. It traditionally has been placed around those dates, primarily due to its disparagement of the Shepherd of Hermas: 'But Hermas wrote the Shepherd (74) very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, (75) while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair (76) of the church of the city of Rome.' Albert Sundberg challenged the dating of the MF on the basis back in the 1960s and again in an article in 1973. In the '90s Geoffrey Hahnemann wrote a detailed monograph arguing that the MF was better placed in the 4th century in the East rather than 2nd century Italy as the text implies. Certainly the Shepherd had a very high standing in the early church, Irenaeus (as early as c. 175 CE), Clement of Alexandria and Origen regarded it as scriptural which would call into doubt such a late date of composition. According to my edition of the Apostolic Fathers, the date of the Shepherd is hard to establish and has been dated by some scholars to the 70s or 80s of the 1st century. It has closest parallels to the similitudes/parables of 1 Enoch which I would regard as not suporting the MF's claimed date of composition either. THe MF could be regarded as attempting to discredit the Shepherd.

    Sundberg and Hahnemann argue that the MF belongs in 4th or 5th centuries as these are precisely the centuries when canonisation was taking place. THe Shepherd was still in high standing then and was included in the New Testament of Codex Sinaiticus. It also appears to have been part of the Ethiopian canon for a long time too.

    Of course, many scholars have not accepted the arguments of Sundberg and Hahnemann with the net result that there is now no consensus when it comes to the dating of the MF. I myself incline to the later date just as I also incline to an earlier date for the Shepherd, or at least substantial sections of it (my edition of the Apostolic Fathers reports arguments that it is a composite of an older 1st century text and later 2nd century text, although not as late as the MF would infer).