Monday, December 27, 2010

The Biblical Illiteracy of Biblical Scholars

Today is the feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist who has been identified in very ancient tradition as the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel that bears his name (basically on the strength of him being the Beloved Disciple) and I was tempted to write something on same-sex love and the relationship of Jesus and John/the Beloved Disciple. However I've been distracted by my reading.

I'm currently reading/reviewing a couple of books and today I've just finished reading one of them, Subverting Scriptures: Critical Reflections on the Use of the Bible. I'm still gathering my thoughts about it; suffice to say I enjoyed much of it and was put off by it in almost equal terms, not least because it is in many ways an imperialist, US imperialist, exercise. So many of the essays seem to have as their underpinning concern - there are people out there who don't subscribe to our bourgeois liberal order of reality; they are using religion and 'The Bible' or Scripture as the ideological base for their rejection of our nice liberal order; even worse, a substantial number of them live in these here United States. This last point I think is the main concern; Islamic terrorism and even ultra-Zionist settler terrorism in Israel (on the last point with the exception of the Jewish contributors) are of course foreign, outside, not us, and so not so surprising for its rejection rather than the extraordinary violent impact of that rejection. No what is most unnerving is the spectre of US fundamentalism, the apparent refusal of so many of 'us' to subscribe to the tenets of the liberal order. As both a gay man and a Catholic (not to mention a 'foreigner', outside the US) I find that US fundamentalism quite disturbing and both threatening, as someone both non-USan and gay, and thoroughly twisted and blasphemous, as a Catholic person. But perhaps the apparent 'liberality' of the order was really a mask to hide its ruthlessness and violence. After all, the liberal order is one based on a ruthless class and race based oppression at home and abroad. It is a violent and murderous order for all its pretence at reason and liberality.

But that's not what I want to write about tonight. Rather, I come back to the old question of canon and how astonished I am that scholars these days really are ignorant of the history of the anthologies we call Bible/s. In most of the essays 'the Bible' is accepted as a given without even the recognition that Bibles are multiple and various. Unsurprisingly, it's the Jewish authors who will acknowledge that plurality, but, perhaps unsurprisingly too, they can only see the plurality in terms of two (sometimes three, if the Qur'an is included). That was most strikingly exemplified in the final essay of the anthology, Subversion as Return, by Shaul Magid.

Magid is mostly writing for Jewish concerns and as part of his argument he wants to demontrate the constructedness of Biblical canons. So his essay first sets out to sketch a 'brief genealogy of what we today call the Bible' (218). He gives a relatively adequate account of the making of the Jewish canon (although there are parts of it I would dispute) before turning to the Bible in Christianity. Christian Bible-making reinforces his argument by showing analogous processes in Christianity and Judaism which produced their various Bibles. Magid makes his entry point into Christian scripture by highlighting the difference between the Hebrew Bible of Judaism and the Old Testament of Christians. The Hebrew Bible ends with Second Chronicles, which closes with King Cyrus issuing his decree to allow the return of Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple there. As the final text of the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles is placed after Ezra-Nehemiah which recount the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city walls. Magid then contrasts the Hebrew Bible ending with the ending of the Old Testament. He wants to highlight the contrast "the rabbinic and early Christian view of history and, by extension, the rabbinic and early Christian view about divine will" (219). He continues "The Christian canonizers had something quite different in mind when they concluded the Hebrew Bible, their "Old Testament," with the prophetic words of the prophet Malachi..." (220).

The problem here is that the 'early' Christian canonizers didn't end their Old Testament with Malachi. If they ended their Old Testament with one of the prophets it was Daniel (not counted as a prophet in the Jewish Hebrew Bible). That's the final Old Testament book in my Eastern Orthodox Study Bible. That's also how one of the oldest Christian Bibles, Codex Vaticanus, ends it's Old Testament. And presumably that's how the other ancient Christian Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, ends its prophetic component of the Old Testament, including Malachi in the Book of the Twelve as the first prophetic book (Sinaiticus is incomplete - the Twelve, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations survive intact but Ezekiel and Daniel are missing). However Sinaiticus follows the prophetic corpus with the four Books of Maccabees, ending its Old Testament with 4 Maccabees. The other ancient Christian Bible, Codex Alexandrinus, ends its Old Testament with Sirach, placing the prophets plus the four books of Maccabees in the middle of its Old Testament.

It's also important to note that these ancient bibles did not use the Hebrew Bible for their Old Testament but the Greek Bible referred to as the Septuagint. Over in the West, Jerome tried to revise the Latin Bible by basing it on the Hebrew Bible but he was unsuccessful being resisted by none other than Augustine. The result was that the Latin Vulgate Old Testament of the West was a kind of hybrid of both Hebrew and Greek Bibles. Augustine certainly closed his Old Testament with the prophets but for him it seems that Ezekiel went last (De doctrina christiana 2.13). Augustine understood the order of the prophets as The Twelve, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel.

Nevertheless, the Latin Bible came to order its prophetic corpus as we in the West are familiar with today - Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea-Malachi (or the Twelve). However, the prophets were followed by 1 and 2 Maccabees. This was the ordering in the 15th century Gutenberg Bible and remains the order in Roman Catholic bibles to this day.

The Old Testament order that Magid refers to only came into existence with the Reformation; it is the standard Protestant Old Testament but I'm wondering if the intent was to end with Malachi or whether it was the accidental result of the removal of the 2 books of Maccabees and other texts (such as Baruch) and their relegation to the so-called Apocrypha (they aren't apocryphal for Roman Catholics and Orthodox). So Magid has actually confused the Protestant Old Testament and its canonizers with the various Old Testaments of early Christianity and the canonical processes of their day. Protestantism is the dominant religious form in the US and indeed one could even say that the US is a grand Protestant, even Calvinist, experiment. Magid's understanding of Christianity and Christian Bible making processes has been heavily refracted through that Protestant lens, despite the fact that Magid is himself a Jew.
Magid's error is all the more striking because he actually set out to relate a biblical genealogy to highlight the constructedness and diversity of biblical canons. And is that one of the key problems of this book, that it doesn't really address the key assumptions and ideological constructs underpinning US society and that frame the entire culture wars scenario that so many of the contributors are attempting to remedy, or even worse, 'manage'.

1 comment:

  1. I've been quite surprised by the vehemence of my response. I think it's probably because Magid espouses a project of biblical relativity somewhat reminiscent of mine. In other words, the apparent overwhelming authority inhering in a text and a canon is destabilised and broken down by juxtaposition with a different version/canon. It's an easy move for Christianity because there are several different Christian canons in existence today and and historically there have been others in the past too. There are also different text forms too. As I'm not Jewish, I don't see it as my role to tell Jews how to treat their scriptural legacy. So Magid's essay was especially exciting, at least potentially, because of what he flagged at the outset about where he was going. The Jewish biblical canon took several centuries to develop after the destruction of the Temple in 70. Even the Babylonian Talmud lists a different canon to the standard Jewish one, inclduing Sirach and with the Latter Prophets ordered Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve and Isaiah. The Ethiopian Jews had a different Bible again and then thre is the rich textual diversity of the Targumim.

    Magid's essay ends the collection, a collection who's Introduction opens citing Berlinerblau declaring "The Bible is back", which I thought quite naive because I didn't think the Bible, or a version of it, had somehow mysteriously absented itself from US culture. Magid's essay/error simply confirmed my overall impression.