Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kindle and Canon

This past week has been a very busy one so I've not had much of an opportunity to write much at all. But I didn't want to let things go for too long without putting up a post. I've got quite a backlog of topics to write on too. But I wont be dealing with any of them tonight.

Instead I want to note some thoughts arising from Pat McCullough's latest piece on his kata ta biblia blog. He gets quite carried away with Amazon's Kindle, especially the latest model, and its potential for biblical scholars. Pat has a dream - "do I have a dream... the ability to convert and transfer my resources on Logos Bible Software to the Amazon Kindle, something like this most recent edition."I don't have the Logos software but instead Bibleworks on my laptop. I'm not certain how comaprable they are, But my version of Bibleworks has a suite of different Bible translations in both English and other languages. It also has the Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible/LXX (Rahlfs) and Greek New Testament and Latin Vulgate plus a range of dictionaries and reference materials as well. It only needs the Targumim in Aramaic plus a range of modern languages, the Peshitta likewise plus the Ethiopian Bible, Qumran texts and pseudepigrapha and New Testament apocrypha to make it almost complete. So I can just imagine having all that on a small portable device like the Kindle.

But that got me thinking about the interaction of technology and canon. Two thousand years ago, biblically, there really was no canon. Back then, texts were written on scrolls and one could say that the very act of writing them down gave these texts a canonical authority. Now, while some scrolls might have more authority than others, e.g. the books of Moses, any written text had an aura of authority, especially those believed to be of great age, the books of Moses, Enoch, David and other prophets. Scrolls were relatively easy to store but highly prized so it's unlikely most ancient synagogues would have had very many scrolls but the more well off synagogues, one could assume, would have more extensive collections. Nevertheless I would assume that a synagogue's library collection would have at its centre, texts required for worship. I don't know how much the synagogues of rabbinic Judaism stand in continuity by way of worship practice with the synagogues in Temple days. However, I would assume that worship/liturgy would have been a key determinant of any synagogue's 'canon' of scrolls. Temple libraries would have been much larger and the libraries of other important religious centres too (I'm thinking here especially of whatever the Samaritans would have put in place as their centre, following the destruction of their Temple on Mt Gerizim by the Hasmoneans in the 2nd century BCE). I would assume too that ritual, worship, liturgy along with instruction and training would be key determinants of what comprised the collection and hence 'canon' of scrolls stored in those libraries. The fact is that we have no real idea of what the Temple liturgies involved. Leviticus and other texts give an outline of basic procedures and type of sacrifices but the liturgies, in which the sarifices were embedded, are lost forever (and that's why the Jerusalem Temple can only ever be rebuilt but never restored). However, I would assume that the liturgies would involve recitation and chanting of specific texts: psalms obviously, and also the stories of creation, the revolt of the angels, Azazel and the Flood would have played their part primarily in the New Year and Day of Atonement and associated High Holy Days. As the Temples were centres of pilgrimage for those feasts and Pesach/Passover, in particular, presumably other texts were used for sacred performances for the crowds of pilgrims thronging Jerusalem, Leontopolis and Ha-Gerizim. As most people could not go on pilgrimage at any one time, presumably, related ceremonies and performances took place in the synagogues and worship centres of local communities.

And, of course, it's important to remember that in that ancient world reading was a group practice; reading was a performance. The population, as a whole, was not literate and the cost of scrolls meant that a personal library was only ever the preserve of the upper classes. Most people heard texts rather than read them. The synagogal annual cycle of reading Torah is one example of how most Jews would likely have 'read' Torah two thousand years ago. Sacred texts can also be mined to create liturgical productions; that is how most Christian liturgies function. The eucharistic liturgies of east and west draw most of their prayers from the scriptures in a mixture of direct recitation and allusive paraphrase. So for most Jews/Samaritans, their scriptures would have been heard either through cycles of public reading or through scripting of liturgical performances or through other public dramatic performances. Those who were literate would also have likely encountered these texts pedagogically as well.

In the Roman Empire, during the first and second centuries, there was a major technological shift in the making of texts, the invention of the codex. The codex was the precursor of the book as we know it in the West and would eventually replace the scroll. One thing is clear, early Christians took to the codex like a duck to water (in contrast to Jews who stayed with scrolls and canonised the use of scrolls in the synagogue liturgy). Just about all the ancient Christian manuscripts are in the form of codices not scrolls. The codex makes possible a fixed canon of a holy book but it takes Christians several centuries to have a go at defining such a canon.

Prior to the codex, each scroll was itself a book. The notion of a collection of books comprising a book was not possible, with the exception of say the Twelve Minor Prophets, which is either a scroll of twelve small books or a book of twelve prophets (and Jeremiah likewise drew into its scroll Lamentations and 1 Baruch, both short works which possibly economically filled an unwanted space on the Jeremiah scroll). But with the codex, at last, a bible could be possible (and that's why Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, James, Mark, Matthew, Luke etc knew of no such entity as a bible but only scriptures).

Early Christian codices were small, either comprising a single biblical book, or a handful of books. The codex had a number of advantages over the scroll in terms of capacity and portability but their production was very much the same, being written by hand, and the codex had also to be stitched together. So it would take time before a bible as we understand the term could develop. The production of bibles required Christian communities endowed with numbers, wealth and status.

Perhaps that's why the myth has developed that the Bible or biblical canon as we know it was determined by Constantine, with or without the Council of Nicea. There is no record anywhere of Nicea making any determinations regarding what was canonical or not. Neither did Constantine decree a uniform bible. Mike Heiser offers this possibility however:

I had an interesting discussion a few days ago at work. I’ve been trying to get one of my co-workers (Vince Setterholm) to guest blog for me on the canon matter since he’s done a lot of thinking about that. I think he’ll end up contributing. In the meantime, one thing he said really made good sense to me. We were talking about the myth that Constantine created the canon (a la, The DaVinci Code). What Constantine did was demand that copies of the Scriptures be made and distributed. That act, Vince noted, was what (in his mind) brought the canon as subsequent generations knew it, to fruition. In other words, once people were confronted (by the Emperor no less) with the task of having the canon copied out and distributed, they had to produce. There were lots of books out there that were considered canonical, but there was some disagreement. The choices made to fulfill Constantine’s order resulted in a collection disseminated throughotu the empire AS the “canon” — and so it stuck, so that, for generations thereafter, THAT collection became (pardon the pun) canonized. Constantine’s demand forced a decision.
It's an intersting conjecture but rather than THE canon I would suggest that Constantine's legacy might be the notion of A canon. The oldest Christian bibles, the codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus, are post-Constantine. Now while they have a large core of texts in common, they also show diversity as well, both in Old and New Testament. So clearly, after Constantine, there was no final canon even though there was a notion of a canon. Nevertheless the notion of a canon, a sacred book, a bible can only arise when the means to construct it is available i.e. the codex.

Indeed there never has been a single Christian biblical canon and the boundaries of the canon have remained fuzzy throughout Christendom, that is until the invention of the printing press in the west. Printing gave rise to two concepts: standardisation/uniformity and widespread distribution. When texts are created individually by copyists by hand then there is ample opportunity for scribal error. With printing, while there can be errors, there is also a guaranteed uniformity of text across multiple copies to a degree not possible with scribal copyists.

The Protestant stress on the centrality of the text is not really possible without the invention of printing. Notions of biblical inerrancy are also a likely result of the wonders of printing. Hand copied texts will generally have variations and discrepancies that give the lie to such a notion. The development of printing generates further pressures propelling the importance of the written word on society. With industrialisation comes the need for a literate and numerate workforce. Such developments provide marvellous opportunities for the spread of Protestant book religion, The Bible is central in a new way; it's uniform, standardised as befits the eternal Word of God. But to be uniform and standardised the canon needs to be clearly demarcated. The religion of the Book needs a Book. So while the Church of England and the Lutheran churches opted to keep the Apocrypha/Deutero-canon and use them in their liturgies, Protestant bookism would have none of that. From the 1820s the Bible societies distributed a Bible without any reference to these other books that give hint of canonical fluidity. They faced a big battle in Europe where Lutherans especially were determined to hang on to the broader canon bequeathed them. But it was economics and technology that gave the Pure Book it's final victory. Following WW2 the shortage of paper necessitated a rigid economics of bible production such that Protestant bibles would no longer include the so-called Apocrypha.

The internet and Kindle provide a marvellous opportunity to undo such biblical canonical monomania and change completely notions of canon. Like Mike Heiser, I too, have a dream. It stems from my vision of one day full communion being restored between the Roman church and the other Catholic churches of the West and with the three communions of the Eastern Church. If such a restoration of communion would take place, does that mean that the Roman biblical canon based as it is on the old Latin Bible would replace the Bibles of, say, the Anglican or Swedish or Greek or Russian or Coptic or Ethiopian Churches. I should certainly say not. Instead, I envisage what I would term a new ecumenical bible emerging. One that would fulfil Augustine's answer to Jerome calling for the Greek and Hebrew Bibles to sit together side by side rather than one (Hebrew) superseding the other (Greek) as it has in Western Christianity. I would also want to see the Samaritan Torah and Joshua sit beside the Greek and Hebrew. And certainly Qumran Isaiah with all its variation should sit beside Greek and Hebrew Isaiah too. And the great Psalm Scroll from Qumran round out the Greek & Hebrew Psalms and the Syriac Psalms 151-155 as well. And every text that is or has been part of any Christian biblical canon should be incorporated too. And that's just my Old Testament which I would argue might also be rounded off with the Targumim since I read somewhere recently that one New Testament text cites Targum Isaiah (and I'm sorry but I don't have the details of that right now).

At another time I might explore further details of my vision of an Ecumenical Christian Bible but for now I might turn to a major practical objection to such a project. Such an Old Testament alone would be a massive publication exercise. And I acknowledge that for paper publishing the standard Protestant Bible is economically compact. But I had already been thinking that the internet makes such a project possible as an online publication. Clearly Kindle makes it a personal and portable possibility too. I'm sure Origen would have loved something like Kindle for his Hexapla and I must confess the Hexapla stands behind my biblical vision, too.

But to put the Kindle posibilities in a more interfaith perspective, I should add that I draw further inspiration from the Rabbinic Bible or Mikraot Gedolot. This remarkable 16th century Jewish production puts Hebrew text, Aramaic Targumim and the commentaries of several of the great Rabbis together in one volume. For Rabbinic Judaism, Torah and commentary go hand in hand and there is a rich range of publications which embed biblical text in a sea of commentary drawn from over the centuries. I'm a proud owner of several of the Artscroll Bible commentaries which provide a digest of 2000 years of Jewish biblical commentary. Rashi's Torah commentaries alone run into several volumes (and there are commentaries on Rashi's commentaries). Then there are the Midrashim, many volumes of ancient biblical commentary there. And of course for Rabbinic Judaism, the Tanakh/Bible is not the whole of scripture. There is also the Oral Law/Torah which is written down in the Mishnah and then supplemented by the Tosefta which are then expanded in not one but two Talmuds/Talmudim, the Babylonian Talmud Bavli and the Palestinian Talmud Yerushalmi. And then don't forget the Zohar. I don't know the full capacity of Kindle and I suspect it's being constantly upgraded but I can imagine a Kindle with Tanakh, Targumim, Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmudim, Zohar and maybe Midrashim (depending on capacity).

In Islam, Qur'an and Hadith are likewise embedded in rich commentary traditions which could be made available through Kindle. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are known for their extensive scriptures, which could make something like Kindle a real boon for those traditions too. Boon and maybe even curse, because a new technology of reading and publishing will change the way sacred texts function in communities and probably in ways that none of us can even grasp. Just look what happened with the codex.

But I hope an Ecumenical Bible would prove to be more boon than curse.


  1. Great post, Michael. I loved it - a lot to think about :-)

  2. Thank you! Yeah, there's a lot there just on changing technology and what makes canon, alone. And then there's my Ecumenical Bible. I will be writing more on that. It is a bit of a dream of mine. The internet is defintely having an impact on questions of canon. I'm noticing moe and more references to the biblical 'pseudepigrapha' on various conservative and fundamentalist Christian sites. 1 Enoch especially. These texts have been made more readily avalable online and some people have cottoned on to the fact that they had a sort of canonical status 2000 yrs ago too. So aleady the boundaries of the standard Protestant canon are starting to get fuzzy.

    THe other issue is how concepts of canon might change with changing technology. If, for example, the entire Pali canon, was collected in one place in a kindle like medium. How much might that change the way those texts are read and understood, their authority? I think that's what I was grasping towards in my final points.

    But, yes, plenty to think about.