Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bible, Canon and Liturgy

At the funeral I attended recently, the priest commented in her sermon on the differences between Anglicanism and some other forms of Christianity. What she had to say related to the liturgical nature of Anglicanism. I can only paraphrase from memory but the gist of it was that Anglicanism was not a very doctrinal Church; it had no founding statement of doctrines, instead it had a prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer. I remember being struck by her saying "We Anglicans believe that the most important things we can say about God should first of all be said to God." What struck me most about her words was that they pretty much encapsulated what Catholic Christianity is all about when it comes to scripture - and by Catholic I mean, of course, not just the Roman communion but the broad framework of liturgical, sacramental Christianity, of which the Roman communion is the largest example. It is that liturgical dimension of scripture and the formations of canon that I want to address today.

Last month I wrote two posts here about the biblical canons of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. My usual practice is to crosspost these pieces on Facebook. Often times there's more discussion about what I write on Facebook than here. The Facebook discussion on the Christianity post generated this response from Albertus which I want to use as the springboard for my discussion:

You write that the Jews began to determine the canon of the Hebrew scriptures during the christian era. I remember from my studies in Rome at the Pontificia Universita Lateranense, that, indeed, the Jews first began to perceive the need to determine which books were ''scriptural'' in reaction to the use by christians of the Septuagint Old Testament to ''prove'' that Jesus Christ is the promissed Messias, and other christian beliefs.
In Catholic and Orthodox christianity - in spite of some modern ecumenical tendencies in some quarters to approach Protestantism in this and other matters - it is not the Holy Scriptures at all which stand at the centre of our religion - but rather, the God-man Jesus Christ, whose mysteries are celebrated and relived in the Mass and the Sacraments. The Scriptures were written to serve the Liturgy. The traditional Liturgies therefore use texts of Scripture as needed to make a liturgical point, even going so far as to paraphrase texts, such as the ''Epistle'' of a Bishop Confessor: Eccli 44:16-27; 45, 3-20....
...Interesting too, and contrary to the strict ''canonical thinking'' of some, esp. in protestant quarters, is the fact that the New Testament quotes not only the ''deuterocanonical'' OT books found in the Septuagint, but also books presently held to be Apocryphal by Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. And the NT does not quote or refer to several books which are found in all present-day official OT canons

It's his point about the links between Scripture and liturgy that interest me now. He's absolutely correct to say that for Catholic Christianities, Scripture does not hold the central place. Instead, as he says, it is "the God-man Jesus Christ" who is encountered and celebrated in the Liturgy, most centrally in the Eucharist. He's also correct, I would say, that the "Scriptures were written to serve the Liturgy." I remember being told many years ago by someone (can't remember who now) that what had made a text canonical was the fact of its use in the liturgy. I would suggest then that the various canon lists issued in the first centuries of Christianity are lists of texts that were being used in the liturgy of the local communities. Hence when, much later, the Councils of Trullo and 2 Nicea made decisions endorsing previous and apparently contradictory canon lists, they are in fact affirming the Orthodoxy and Catholicity of those various communities. Catholicism, especially in its Eastern forms is very much a religion that thinks globally but acts locally. Consequently Trullo and 2 Nicea were also not closing the canon either but giving ecumenical approval to flexible and open canonical practice grounded in the liturgy and life of the community. That ecumenical approval makes such canonical flexibility and openness the hallmark of what it means to be Catholic, Orthodox. I would argue that the ongoing canonical variety in the medieval West and Byzantine East derived from that understanding, perhaps even that ecumenical authority. I would further argue that the subsequent Western Councils of Florence and Trent did not have the authority to over-ride that older ecumenical warrant, not least because of its ecumenicity.

But back to liturgy. In my post on the Canon in Judaism, I pointed out that process of forming a Jewish Canon, took place at pretty much the same time as the process in Christianity. I'm sure too that, as my commenter observes, in part the Jewish canonical process was in reaction to Christian claims, most likely after the integration of Christianity by the Roman state in the 4th and 5th centuries.. I've thought that the canon forming processes in both religions would likely have a lot in common, including the importance of liturgical practice. Recently I found this discussion on the formation of the Jewish canon by Gerald Larue from his Old Testament Life and Literature (1968) in which he identifies four principles guiding the Jewish canonical process.

    1. The writing had to be composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, which were written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2-7, writings attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-Exilic Judaism, and Jer. 10:11. Hebrew was the language of Sacred Scripture, Aramaic the language of common speech.
    2. The writing had to be sanctioned by usage in the Jewish community. The use of Esther at Purim made it possible for it to be included in the canon. Judith, without such support, was not acceptable.
    3. The writings had to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as election, or the covenant. By reclassifying the Song of Songs as an allegory, it was possible to see in this book an expression of covenantal love.
    4. The writing had to be composed before the time of Ezra, for it was popularly believed that inspiration had ceased then. Jonah was accepted because it used the name of an early prophet and dealt with events before the destruction of Nineveh, which occurred in 612. Daniel, a pseudonymous writing, had its setting in the Exile and therefore was accepted as an Exilic document.

Unfortunately, Larue gives no source for these principles.

In my opinion, none of the literature was composed before the time of Ezra (early Persian period) but certainly that principle could be a handy way to eliminate texts that clearly date themselves later such as the various books of Maccabees. The Hebrew language requirement likewise would rule out many texts, too, both those written in Greek, and those, like Greek Jeremiah, that were markedly different to the Hebrew edition. The third principle is sufficiently nebulous and elastic but clearly, as Larue notes, could be deployed to save a text like the Song which on first reading might be considered insufficiently 'religious' in its content (there were plenty of Christian debates about the Song as well). Ultimately we are left with principle 2, community usage. Central to community usage is the synagogue liturgy. So in other words, the rabbis in creating their canon based it on the texts in common liturgical usage in the Jewish communities that accepted rabbinic authority (not all did, of course). As with Christians, I would argue that liturgical usage, then, was a key factor for canonicity in the making of the Jewish Bible.

The rabbis had another trick up their sleeve too. In my post on Canon in Judaism, I observed that the "Mishnah stands beside Tanakh as equally Scripture for Jews. And furthermore, the subsequent texts of Judaism, Talmudim, Midrashim, Targumim, even the much later Zohar come to be counted as part of that Oral Torah Tradition that ends up in writing and so all share to some degree in the authority of Scripture." Many of the narratives in the discarded scriptures, especially Jubilees, Maccabees and Judith, were subsequently retold as commentary by the rabbis and thus inscribed in the Oral Torah Tradition. Scripture becomes commentary to become scripture.

One question I keep pondering which I might take up at a later stage. Given how important liturgy was for the shaping of biblical canons, how important was it for the shaping, even the composition of texts?


  1. Thanks, Michael. I recall that some of the arguments around the development of the doctrine of the Trinity were based on the wording of liturgical formulas.

  2. Hi Inari, I've been reading a Russian Orthodox book on Mary and it's quoting the liturgy all the time. So, yes, that liturgical formulas were deployed in trinitarian arguments wouldn't surprise me at all

  3. Thanks, Michael, for this article with its fascinating insights. It makes sense what you write: the various officially approved canons, though seemingly contradictory, in fact only wished to confirm, that the lists of ''books'' used by certain local churches in the liturgy were orthodox and canonical, though one list might be shorter, another longer. The one did not exclude the other. I await the appearance of the follow-up on how the Liturgy shaped the texts of Sacred Scripture!