Thursday, October 28, 2010

Depression, forgiveness and love

I'm shifting back into a personal mode with this post (but there will be another post on Bible and canon matters soon). The last two weeks have been a rather emotional time. This afternoon I was at a funeral for a friend of mine, John McCulloch. He was part of a regular lunch group at University of Qld that was going since the mid-90s, 1996 I think. It was a bunch of queer postgrads and friends. He started off as a friend (he was tutoring at QUT then) but ended up as a postgrad, our last, because the group has pretty much wound up now. I also realise now that the last time I saw him, in June, he must have known he was sick because I found out at the funeral that his dissertation, which got submitted, was pretty much publishable, even including an index. Back then he was having it all edited and it sounded like it was a major job not simply a proof read, which suggests to me now that he knew then that at least it would be wise to get as much done as soon as possible. After that his health went down. I was out of the loop by then with the full onset of depression then flu on top of that and while I knew he was not well it would be a while before it became clear how serious it was and by the time I found out how bad things really were it was too late. And then he was dead. I hope to write about him in the near future but I want to wait for a little while yet.

Death and mortality are not what I want to write about although they provide me a sharp frame in which to write, a stark backdrop to my thoughts, maybe even a note of urgency. No, I want to write now about recent developments in my own personal life, a surprising twist in my saga of depression and the crisis and rupture in friendship that was part of it almost a year ago. I wrote about it all in my After the Eclipse post back in July and if you haven't read it or have forgotten the details you might like to go back and re-read it. But to briefly reprise the main gist for this post. Last year a friend, I'll call him M for a blogging identity he used, came back into my life. Our friendship became very intense before collapsing under the weight of my depression, anxiety, mania. As I said in After the Eclipse, by November last year I was probably barking mad and M was copping most of the shrapnel. It's now a little over a year since I last saw him, a happy mid-October day 2009, I was still holding it together then. Strangely though I remember as he was leaving, watching him walk off down the street and thinking to myself 'I'm not going to see him again for a very long time'. I dismissed it as a chill of anxiety, well, tried to anyway. Perhaps, looking back on it, it was the 'scout ripple' for the great wave of anxiety that would sweep over me as everything around me seemed to unravel completely, from end of October onwards last year.

Writing that depression post in July was in part about trying to make sense of where I was by then psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. It was also an attempt to express the grief and the guilt and shame over the rupture with M, to express some kind of apology to him. It was a desperate attempt in the hope that one day he might read it. I'll quote a snippet of what I wrote then

Then there is all the grief about the friendship now lost. If there was anything I could do to undo those events, I would. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for him but I know some of what it might have meant for him to have suffered it. That comes from confidences that remain between he and I, which I keep close always. And, believe me, that knowledge heightens the guilt as well. I hope he wasn't too damaged by what happened; I know how, why damage could be done. I don't know how but I hope I can atone in some way, make some kind of expiation some day. I am so sorry. As for any reconciliation, well that's not in my hands and I don't know how it would come about anyway. All I can do is pray in the words of Julian of Norwich that one day, that somehow "all will be well" - for him most of all
Those words remain true. I am still so sorry and I hope to make amends to him somehow one day and I hope so much for a full reconciliation between us, to see and talk with him again, that "all will be well" again between us.

As it turns out, he has read that post. I know because he emailed me last week. That was kind of a strange day. I'd had to go out to the university to do some things. For some reason he was on my mind that day, especially on my way home that afternoon. Maybe I'm kind of tuned to him in some way? Anyway, when I got home and turned on the computer I was thinking something like "what if there's an email from him" and when I opened up the browser I glimpsed there was something and when I got into my mail, there it was. It had happened. I was elated and terrified at the same time; I left his to last and went though my other mail, my heart racing. When I finally opened it and began reading, it was a moment of sheer joy. All the guilt and shame was suddenly lifted, it was a moment of respite for me from all that shame and pain. I won't divulge the details of what he had to say but the gist is he was wanting to express his sorrow and apologise to me for what had happened, for his terminating the friendship back then.

Initially I could only respond to his sorrow and pain. I'm a bit of a big kid, really, and rushed in half cocked. I wanted to reassure him and I also wanted to say my apologies to him. Oh what a flood it was. And I wanted to respond as soon as possible because I could see the pain in what he wrote and I didn't want to leave him hanging. That was all Wednesday/Thursday of last week. I don't think I even really paid attention to his own apology because I was reading the fact that he had contacted me as his forgiving me. But I kept pondering and reflecting upon all he'd written and pretty soon realised I'd stuffed up again. Ah, the curse of good intentions!

To explain what I mean, I'm going to have to back up a bit now and quote some more of what I wrote in July

Everyone thinks of depression as grief or melancholy or sadness and, yes, it is all of those. But, at least as I've experienced it, there are two key words, doubt and paralysis, that best describe what happens. Doubt, well it's central to anxiety isn't it. You doubt everything, most especially yourself. Nagging, nagging doubt, that probably is the famous black dog that worries at you like a dog at bone. It chews up all the inner energies so that sometimes a complete lethargy, exhaustion comes over you. From doubt comes paralysis. You doubt everything including your abilities and all your motivations. Doubt puts everything in the worst possible light. Consequently, it becomes too difficult to make any sort of decision, to initiate any sort of action. You're like a rabbit in the spotlight, frozen, because everything you might opt to do looks so bad, either bad in itself, or coming out of something bad in yourself. That I'm writing all this now indicates that the doubt has eased because at it's worst I could not have even put finger to keyboard. I would be caught up in an inner self-critical monologue busily analysing and tearing apart why I'm going to write and what I'm going to write...

But I wasn't happy with that and in the comments thread I went on to elaborate some more on doubt

I don't think I really conveyed what I meant by doubt, let alone why it might result in mania. When I talk about doubt, I mean what could be termed a process of self-criticism, except that this is the most withering, most savage, most acerbic and most relentless critical reflection upon oneself, you can imagine. And nothing is safe: every act, every thought, every feeling, every word, aspect of oneself is thrown under the most probing and savage scrutiny. This self critical process is like a Greek chorus in your head, always commenting, always criticising. It never stops. The result is that you see yourself in the worst possible light all the time.

Oftentimes the result is a retreat, a withdrawal into oneself. It's exhausting having to endure such a barrage of criticism. Also you think so little of yourself, that you feel that contact with others is some kind of awful imposition upon them. You withdraw rather than make life difficult for them, which is what you think you are doing because obviously you are such a useless or vile or rubbish person. That's what the chorus is telling you anyway.

In his email M said that, like me, he too has been grappling with deep depression at the time. The tone of his email indicated that he still was, just like me. We have both, then, been dealing with that maelstrom of internal withering self-criticism, that relentless, unescapable internal accuser. I said that M came back into my life last year - he had withdrawn from me quietly a year before and I realise now, reflecting on the reasons he offered then as to why, that it's likely even way back then his internal prosecutor had set me up as a standard he couldn't live up to, set me up as a standard by which to point the finger and proclaim "J'accuse!" That internal prosecutor twists and perverts everything to make you look like utter rubbish, a vile piece of shit. That's the cruel dynamic of depression. Furthermore, that malevolence of depression is such that my apologies in the face of his apology could even be taken up by that internal prosecutor as yet another rod for his back.

I know that because that's why I was responding to his apologies with apologies of my own. That he was apologising to me was further proof of how bad I was and so on setting up a feedback loop of guilt that would ensnare us both. My internal accuser was trying to derail his apology. I wanted somehow to break out of that. What I decided to do came as a complete surprise to me at first.

What I did was to write back to tell him I forgive him for everything, all those actions and inactions to me for which he had been tormenting himself.

In such depths of despair that so characterise depression, what you feel, what you know about yourself can be described in one word, unforgiven. Your inner accuser puts you through the most relentless examination of conscience imaginable (I'm sure many Christian saints were battling with depression in their lives). There's no let up. And no chance for absolution. There is only that constant inner chorus attacking you, vilifying you, scrutinising every aspect of you, because it is, after all, part of you, it knows all your secrets. In the Hebrew Bible, Satan, the Satan (ha satan) is the accuser, a functionary in the heavenly court. I think that in some sense that heavenly court corresponds to our own inner world (we are the image and likeness of the divine), so it's unsurprising we have our own satan, an accuser, as an aspect of ourselves. One thing I have learnt about that accuser is that accusation is all it knows (in Jewish tradition angels are only capable of performing only one task at any given time and they must complete that task before they can take on a new one). It reminds me of those hideously obsessive prosecuting attorneys in US crime dramas that are only concerned with one thing, making sure the accused goes down, regardless of any details and facts in the case (one of the reasons I can't stand such US court dramas, it's all so inhuman and yet valorised at the same time).

In the depths of depression our accuser is in full flight and of course it can only do one thing, accuse. It's not interested in healing, it's not interested in resolution, it's certainly not interested in reconciliation, of setting to right all the screw ups and messes and failures that it so eagerly pinpoints and presents before us. No, all it can do is accuse. At its worst it's like a lynch mob, it's not content until it has fully victimised and destroyed you, me, us. In it's eyes, I, we don't deserve anything more.

It strikes me that forgiveness is one way of shortcircuiting that accusing, satan trap. As I said before, M contacting me was to me a sign of forgiveness, I was forgiven, he had forgiven me, and it gave me an amazing sense of respite, of joy, so much that I couldn't really attend to what he was saying, couldn't attend to his own self-accusations. I also realised that no matter how much I said it was fine, how sorry I was, how it was my fault, all of that, it was probably grist for the mill for that accuser of his. I could feel mine stirring too looking for new opportunities to bring the calm to an end. So I decided that the only thing I could say to my friend - because he is my friend, dear to me, despite the rupture - it's one thing I learnt from my accuser, it could attack me so readily over him because he is so important to me - the only thing I could say to M was, I forgive you. If your accuser presents the spectacle of my pain before you and accuses you of failing me, remember I forgive you and your accuser has no right to use me to convict you. No right whatsoever because I forgive you.

Ideally, I guess, it should be about forgiving ourselves, I forgive myself, M forgives himself, you forgive yourself. The accuser can only accuse, it's brief is not forgiveness. Consequently, I think it's only forgiveness can undo the power of the accuser. Yet in the face of that relentless barrage of accusation, it's all you can do to keep things together, you're down on the ground crawling, struggling. When I was bashed in Townsville back in 1988 I was punched in the head, tried to escape but couldn't. All I could do was run out into the street so that I could be seen, and drop to the ground curl up in a foetal position while they kicked and stomped on me. It's not a bad analogy for what I've been describing with depression. The accuser is kicking and stomping you as you curl up on the ground in desperation. All your energy is directed in staying together; there's no reserves left to forgive yourself. Forgiveness, then, has to come from somewhere else, somewhere outside. Humans are not isolated individuals pursuing our own self interest, we are social beings. As John Donne said, "no man is an island entire of itself" we are "each... a piece of the continent, a part of the main." The continent of humanity, the continent of life. So for my friend, for M, I realised it was essential that I put aside my own guilts and shame and respond, reach out in the only way possible, to forgive him. And I hope that I have, therefore, if not fully immobilised his accuser, at least taken away some of its power over him.

I think one of the most important personal tasks facing all of us is to practice forgiveness. I know it's not easy and in many ways it actually goes against the grain of capitalist society particularly in its current neo-liberal phase, with its all power to the market, there is no such thing as society, we are all but consumers striving to be winners ideology. I think it's especially important for us LGBT people. I recently read a report from QAHC on mental health and LGBT communities in Queensland. The figures for self harm, suicide, drug and alcohol problems, depression were horrific but sadly not, to me, surprising. And interestingly, the report highlighted the social dominance of neo-liberal ideology as a major factor in making things worse. There's no place for forgiveness in the neo-liberal isolationist cult of the self. Forgiveness acknowledges the other, the other in pain, and the self in pain too; it is reciprocal, it is healing, it promotes reconciliation, drawing people together, rather than the atomising driving-people-apart self-centred dynamic of capitalism so vigorously promoted by neo-liberal ideology.

Over the last year, I've found myself thinking on odd occasions of a moment in Lord of the Rings. It's towards the end after the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the ring. Sam and Frodo have been snatched from the jaws of death after extraordinary struggles and suffering. The next chapter, the next scene in the film, Frodo wakes up. Gandalf is beside the bed to greet him and then the others come in to welcome him, to celebrate his recovery, lastly Sam. The image of it has repeatedly cropped up in my mind (maybe not all the details, and probably not accurately) and I've thought 'oh how wonderful it would be to wake up from all of this, for this struggle to be over' while imagining myself in that bed with my friends there to welcome me back (and M among them). The hopeless struggles of Frodo and Sam to get to Mt Doom and destroy the ring, for me anyway, serve as a good mythical image of the struggle that is depression. At the moment I have a respite, thanks to M, but I know I have more struggles ahead. I've got to work what to do with the rest of my life, to sort out my life work. Maybe those struggles wont be so bad but I hope for that time when I can wake knowing those struggles are over. I also hope that you, M, my friend, will soon wake from your own prison of pain and despair. I hope I can be there to welcome you back, to celebrate. I'm prepared to wait for that day in the next room, or down the corridor, or in the lobby, even out in the cold windblown street if you prefer.

I hope the day will come when I will see you and I can say, not 'I'm sorry' not even 'I forgive you' but 'oh it is so good, I am so happy to see you again'.

And you, dear reader, please say a prayer for my friend... and one for me too.

I seem to have become rather too personal. Normal service will be restored in due course.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Council and Bible Canon in Judaism

Earlier this month I wrote on the history of Christian biblical canons, of which there are several in use today, and the role of Church Councils in the making of Christian Bibles. Today I want to write about the Jewish Bible and what we know about how it came into existence. Just as there is a myth linking Christian Bibles/canon and council, in particular the Council of Nicea, so too with the Jewish Bible, there's a (scholarly) myth that it came into existence following a council of rabbis.

Many Christians assume that the Jewish Bible, is nothing more than the Old Testament. As most Christians are also unaware that there is a plurality of Old Testaments, they also assume that their Old Testament is the one that makes up the Jewish Bible. That's the way I used to think in my younger years until I entered the world of biblical studies.

The standard Protestant Old Testament is the one that most resembles the Jewish Bible. That's because the Reformers, following Jerome's example, took the Hebrew canon as the model for their old Old Testament canon on the notion that original language means original text. Nevertheless the Protestants kept the traditional Christian ordering derived from the old Greek Bible, a four part arrangement of Torah, historical books, wisdom literature and prophets. In contrast the Hebrew Bible has a tripartite structure of Torah, Prophets and Writings (Torah, Nebi'im, Kethubim, hence Tanakh as another name for the Jewish Bible). The Prophets comprise the four 'historical' books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings (the latter two not divided into 2 books as in Christian Bibles but each counted as one book/scroll) plus the four prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets (counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism). The Writings comprise the rest, (150) Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism), Chronicles (likewise counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism). Christian Old Testaments usually end with Malachi, the last of the Twelve Minor Prophets and thus look forward to the Christ event. Jewish Bibles end with Chronicles and thus end with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The central revelation for Judaism is the giving of Torah to Moses; the Prophets and Writings are understood as commentary on Torah. The endpoint is the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon which also evokes the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the final Roman destruction of Jerusalem as a Jewish city in 136 CE. In traditional Rabbinic Judaism, Jerusalem is destroyed and the people banished from the land for failing to fully observe Torah. So the Jewish Bible is structured with the main revelation at the start and closes with the reminder of what happens when that revelation is ignored.

So what are the origins of this canon? When was it defined? The short answer is we don't know. The most traditional answer is that the canon came into existence with Ezra, in the early Persian period, at "the end of prophecy". Some scholars, such as Phillip Davies, have suggested the Hasmonean period, late 2nd century - early first century BCE as the time of canonisation. The only problem is that all the evidence from the time of Christ and before indicates that only the five books/scrolls of the Torah had achieved a canonical status amongst most Jews and Samaritans.

There are a number of references to scriptures as a whole in ancient Jewish texts: Sirach 39.1 and in the Prologue; 4QMMT (4Q397 14-21 ii 10-12); 2 Maccabees (2:13); Philo of Alexandria (de Vita Contemplativa 25). Most commonly they are referred to as law(s) and prophets/prophecies/oracles. (In his writings, Philo wrote commentaries only on the 5 Books of Moses and, more broadly, cites mainly from the 5 Books of Moses but also from Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon.) This same pattern is found in the Gospels where Jesus regularly refers to Moses and the prophets or the law and the prophets. The Letter of Aristeas, which recounts the myth of the miraculous translation of the scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, clearly intends the Torah and not a wider collection of scriptures.

The other evidence we have from the turn of the era is the collection of scrolls discovered at Qumran. Copies of all the texts comprising the Hebrew canon were found at Qumran, with the exception of Esther. Esther is likewise omitted from some early Christian canon lists too. However at Qumran copies were also found of Sirach (in Hebrew), Tobit (in Hebrew and Aramaic) and the Letter of Jeremiah (in Greek). All three are excluded from the Jewish Bible and counted as Apocrypha by Protestants but are included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments. Furthermore, the various Psalms scrolls not only included Hebrew texts for Psalms 151, 154 & 155 but quite a number of other unknown psalms and two thirds of a poem included in Sirach 51. It's also clear that at Qumran the Psalms and David were regarded as prophetic, an understanding also seen in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles. So when we read ancient references to the Law and the Prophets we can't be certain what texts the designation Prophets includes and refers to. Does it include the Psalms and does it include Daniel (Jesus refers to Daniel as a prophet in Matthew), both of which are included in the Writings in the Jewish Bible?

And does the term Prophets include other texts and figures too? As well as the three Deutero-canonical texts and Psalms 151, 154, 155, multiple copies of two texts included in the Ethiopian canon were also found at Qumran, fifteen scrolls of Jubilees (in Hebrew) and 20 scrolls of 1 Enoch (in Aramaic). Just to put that in context, only four canonical biblical texts were found in equal or greater numbers: Genesis (20), Isaiah (24), Deuteronomy (27), Psalms (34), the last, of course, including non-canonical and hitherto unknown psalms. Jubilees is itself cited in a number non-biblical texts at Qumran and was used extensively; it seems to have been regarded as scripture there. Furthermore many traditions found in later Jewish literature make their first appearance in Jubilees. 1 Enoch was not only important for early Christianity but is likewise probably the oldest text of Jewish esoteric tradition. 1 Enoch gives us a glimpse not only at the mystical (and apocalyptic) gestalt from which Christianity was born but also the matrix from which would come not only Jewish Merkabah mysticism but subsequently mystical traditions including Kabbalah. Neither of these texts made it into the standard Jewish biblical canon but they are pivotal for subsequent Jewish traditions that enframe that canon.

Do ancient references to Law/Torah and Prophets include these two texts? Jubilees is a retelling of Genesis and part of Exodus; it presents itself as a revelation from Sinai given by an angel to Moses. Do ancient references to the Law include Jubilees alongside the five books of Moses? It's quite possible some do. And does 'the Prophets' include Enoch, the great primal prophet of the antediluvian world? If David and the Psalms were counted as prophetic and given the importance of 1 Enoch for ancient Judaism and early Christianity, it's hard to rule out the possibility.

The earliest glimpses of a defined canon in Judaism can be found in Josephus and 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) both from the late 1st century. In Against Apion (1. 38-43) Josephus declares

We have but 22 books, containing the history of all time, books that are believed to be divine. Of these, 5 belong to Moses, containing his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind down to the time of his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in 13 books. The remaining 4 books comprise hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life. From the days of Artaxerxes to our own times every event has indeed been recorded; but these recent records have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them, on account of the failure of the exact succession of prophets. There is practical proof of the spirit in which we treat our Scriptures; although so great an interval of time has now passed, not a soul has ventured to add or to remove or to alter a syllable; and it is the instinct of every Jew, from the day of his birth, to consider these Scriptures as the teaching of God, and to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to lay down his life in their behalf.
But there are several problems here. The standard Jewish canon has 24 books with the Prophets comprising 8 books and the Writings comprising 13 books. Furthermore the biblical texts existed in differing editions some of which, such as Greek and Hebrew Jeremiah, were quite markedly different in size and ordering.

With 2 Esdras we get the first reference to a 24 book canon: "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people" (14:45-46). However in 2 Esdras, we actually find a two-tier, inner-outer, greater-lesser canon with the outer/lesser one being the 24 books and an inner/greater canon of 70 additional books! 2 Esdras also gives no details of what books are included in either of these canons.

The earliest canon listing of the Jewish Bible comes from several centuries later, roughly 550-600CE, in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b-15a):

Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. Let us examine this. Hosea came first, as it is written, God spake first to Hosea. But did God speak first to Hosea? Were there not many prophets between Moses and Hosea? R. Johanan, however, has explained that [what It means is that] he was the first of the four prophets who prophesied at that period, namely, Hosea, Isaiah, Amos and Micah. Should not then Hosea come first? — Since his prophecy is written along with those of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi came at the end of the prophets, he is reckoned with them. But why should he not be written separately and placed first? — Since his book is so small, it might be lost [if copied separately]. Let us see again. Isaiah was prior to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Then why should not Isaiah be placed first? — Because the Book of Kings ends with a record of destruction and Jeremiah speaks throughout of destruction and Ezekiel commences with destruction and ends with consolation and Isaiah is full of consolation; therefore we put destruction next to destruction and consolation next to consolation.

The order of the Hagiographa is Ruth, the Book of Psalms, Job, Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles. Now on the view that Job lived in the days of Moses, should not the book of Job come first? — We do not begin with a record of suffering. But Ruth also is a record of suffering? — It is a suffering with a sequel [of happiness], as R. Johanan said: Why was her name called Ruth? — Because there issued from her David who replenished the Holy One, blessed be He, with hymns and praises.

Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and [the last] eight verses of the Pentateuch. Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah. Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations. Hezekiah and his colleagues wrote the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Men of the Great Assembly wrote the Twelve Minor Prophets, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther. Ezra wrote the book that bears his name and the genealogies of the Book of Chronicles up to his own time. This confirms the opinion of Rab, since Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: Ezra did not leave Babylon to go up to Eretz Yisrael until he had written his own genealogy. Who then finished it [the Book of Chronicles]? — Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah

I have quoted the text in full as it makes a strong contrast to the ancient passages on canon by its very specificity and detail. (Note that Ezra and Nehemiah are written together on one scroll and so the Book of Nehemiah is not specified in the list; also note the different order of the four Latter Prophets: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve) Given how late this passage is, it appears to me that the Jewish biblical canon was evolving at the same time as the Christian one(s).

Nevertheless, just as there is a popular myth about the Council of Nicea and the Christian Bible, there has also been a (scholarly) myth about a Rabbinic Council and the Jewish Bible. This Council was believed to have taken place at Jamnia/Yavne (near modern Jaffa in Israel) around 80 or 90 CE i.e. after the 1st Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple. This Council was believed to have both defined the Jewish biblical canon and also to have issued a prayer against the Minim, a category thought to have included Jewish Christians, designed to exclude them from the synagogue. For many years last century, Jamnia was important for scholars of both Old and New Testaments, the former understanding it as defining once and for all the standard (Protestant) Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, while the latter understood it as both marking the parting of Christianity and Judaism as well as giving a likely date for John's Gospel, believed to have been written for those Jewish Christians being excluded from the synagogues by the prayer against the Minim.

So big a mountain out of such a molehill, on both counts, but I will only address the canonical one here. Josephus wrote after Jamnia but seems not to have known about and neither do early Christians. Whatever might have been happening at Jamnia it was hardly a council like those of the early Church. Furthermore we only know about it from references in later rabbinic texts. Only one of them, Mishnah Yadayim (3:5), refers to scriptural matters but it does not define a canon as in Talmud Bavli quoted above but rather it describes a discussion about whether Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are to be counted as scripture:

All the holy writings make the hands impure. The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure.

R. Judah says: The Song of Songs makes the hands impure, but there is a dispute about Ecclesiastes.

R. Jose says: Ecclesiastes does not make the hands impure, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs.

R. Simeon says: Ecclesiastes is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai [who say it does not make the hands impure] and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel [who say it does make the hands impure]..

R. Simeon b. Azzai said: I received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the court that the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure.

R. Akiba said: God forbid! No one in Israel ever disagreed about the Song of Songs [by saying] that it does not make the hands impure. For the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. So if they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Ecclesiastes.

Johanan b. Joshua the son of the father-in-law of R. Akiba said: in accordance with the words of Ben Azzai so they disputed, and so they reached a decision.

Indeed, early rabbinic texts recount similar discussions about whether various other biblical texts are to be counted as scripture too. So rather than an account of a final ruling what we really have is an account of one of many discussions that would lead to the final canonical ruling recorded in the Talmud Bavli. And yet, ironically, three times in that same Talmud, Sirach is cited as scripture, one of them citing it as part of the Kethubim or Writings (Baba Kamma 92b, also Hagigh 13a and Yebamoth 63b). What's also overlooked by Christians is that the Mishnah, itself is regarded as Torah in Rabbinic Judaism, given to Moses on Sinai along with the Pentateuch and passed down orally by the sages until written down after the Jewish Wars and the destruction of the Temple. So 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. So in reality the Jewish canon is bigger than anything that Christians can imagine in terms of sacred text, the Tanakh or Jewish Bible being part of a much broader (and open/expanding?) canon of sacred, inspired texts.

My discussion has mostly focused on ancient Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritans, famously, regard only the Five Books of Moses as canonical scripture. Curiously, however, the Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel (or Falashas), kept the Book of Jubilees in their Bible just like their Christian neighbours. Whether or not their Bible included other texts outside the Hebrew canon I've yet to ascertain.

Nevertheless the history of scripture in Judaism demonstrates the same principle found in the history of Christian biblical canons. Bible or canonical scripture did not just fall out of heaven one day but was created and shaped by the communities that cherish it. Furthermore there is no normative canon binding on all communities but multiple and overlapping canons shared by many different communities now and in the past. There is not and never has been and never can be a single normative canon binding on all. Such a singular and exclusive canon would in fact mark a serious breach, rupture, distortion of the richness of the biblical tradition itself.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Council and Bible Canon in Christianity

I recently had a discussion with a friend in Facebook about the question of biblical canons and Ecumenical Councils. The key point concerned the role of Nicea, the famous first ecumenical Council of the Christian Church convened by Emperor Constantine. My friend, a (Roman) Catholic, assumed that the standard Bible of the Roman communion had been first defined at Nicea. He'd also assumed that the Bible canon of The Eastern Orthodox Churches was the same as the Roman canon, and was surprised to discover that not only was that not the case, but that there is and always has been canonical variation in the various Churches of the East.

The fact is at the time of the Council of Nicea (313 CE) there was no fixed canon of Christian scripture. Most Christians then used the Septuagint Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures as their Old Testament. The Greek Old Testament was more of a gestalt, resembling both Roman and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments today, with different versions of some Jewish texts such as Jeremiah, or with major additions to them such as in Daniel and Esther, or containing small variations and additions as with Joshua, Judges, Proverbs and some of the Books of Moses (Torah). There were a range of other books, not found in the Jewish canon because they were composed in Greek, or the prior Hebrew texts were 'lost' (the Hebrew version of Sirach was known in Judaism for many centuries, during which time Sirach sat on the edges of the Jewish canon; Origen also knows the Hebrew name for 1 Maccabees, Sarbeth Sarbaniel; Greek Tobit was translated from Hebrew, and a Hebrew plus Aramaic versions of it were found at Qumran). Most Syriac Christians, however, used a Syriac (Peshitta) Old Testament translated directly from the Hebrew and, initially, identical to the Jewish canon but the influence of the Greek would also change and expand it the particularly for West Syriac Christians within the Roman Empire. The overall Christian Old Testament gestalt generally consisted of Torah, plus historical, prophetic/apocalyptic and wisdom texts.

The New Testament was likewise fluid and not set in stone. At its core remained the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and a collection of Pauline letters. Syriac Christians, however, used a harmony of the four gospels, the Diatessaron, that had been put together in the 2nd century by Tatian and they would continue to use it for another century or so until concerns about possible heresy meant that they reverted to the four individual gospels. Especially in the East (Greek and Syriac), there were doubts about texts such as Revelation, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2-3 John and Jude. The Church of the East didn't include them in their New Testament, but again the western Syriac Christian Churches would do so. But there were other texts associated with the New Testament gestalt, as well, such as Epistle of Barnabas, 1 & 2 Clement, Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd, a wisdom/apocalypse text, was very popular in early Christianity, probably much more so than Revelation and for a long time was treated as a New Testament text in many local churches in and out of the Empire. Thus the New Testament gestalt at the time was the four gospels (individually or in a harmony), Pauline letters, other letters, A/acts and possibly apocalypses. Church 'constitutions' are also floating around the gestalt and eventually in Ethiopia (and apparently for a period in Armenia too) became incorporated into the local New Testament canon.

In the centuries before Nicea a number of individuals issued lists of texts they considered to be scripture. There's a list of them here, both those before and after Nicea, when local church councils also get into the act. The very fact of these lists shows that no canonical determination of scripture was ever made at Nicea. As far as Constantine goes, his main involvement in matters biblical was to commission 50 bibles for the new churches at Constantinople. Apparently, they were commissioned from the scripture academy at Caesarea in Palestine, which was where the Church historian and supporter of Constantine, Eusebius, was based. What texts were ruled in or out these Bibles we don't know because none survive. Eusebius had written his own listings of what were scriptural and what weren't and so perhaps we can get an idea of what Constantine's bibles looked like from there. However it has been suggested that maybe one or even all three of the oldest Christian Bibles in existence might have been part of that order of 50 Bibles. The one in question is Codex Sinaiticus and the other two, C. Vaticanus and C. Alexandrinus. All are in Greek and all date from the 4th/5th centuries. However Sinaitiacus included all 4 books of Maccabees in its Old Testament and ends its New Testament by adding Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas. Vaticanus is most like a Greek Orthodox Bible in that it includes 1 Esdras in its Old Testament. Alexandrinus includes all four books of Maccabees, plus Psalm 151 and the Book of Odes which includes the Prayer of Manasseh. The Alexandrinus New Testament ends adding 1 & 2 Clement and it also has an appendix which included a range of other texts but only one, Psalms of Solomon, remains. These three bibles from roughly the same period and from roughly the same region show just how fluid the Christian scriptural canon remained for a long time after Nicea.

And so in the centuries that follow Nicea, the production of lists continues and likewise the production of texts continues and again those which survive show a continuing fluidity. At the same time, Christianity spread widely outside the Roman Empire and so even if the state was interested in asserting a scriptural uniformity it could only apply to those churches within the Roman borders but not without. So the Armenian and Ethiopian Bibles developed with their own dynamic but nonetheless drawing from the Septuagint Greek Old Testament, just the same. The Ethiopian remains the most fluid to this day existing in both a broad and narrow canon. Nevertheless the narrow canon remains the biggest Christian canon in existence, including other ancient Jewish and Christian texts such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees and 1 Clement (thus perhaps making it the most conservative of the canons, nevertheless) as well as texts unique to Ethiopia itself, 1-3 Meqabiyya. As I said above the West Syriac Bible also gets expanded through Septuagint and other influence too and would incorporate at times 2 Baruch and Psalms 152-155 (and the Armenian Bible would include for a time Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and 3 Corinthians) .

You can get an idea of the current state of play concerning what's in and out of scripture across the various forms of Christianity from this Wikipedia table here.

In the century after Nicea we start getting Church councils producing lists. We're in the era of the Ecumenical Councils but the councils producing scripture lists are local not ecumenical. There's one in the East, Laodicea, and the rest in the West and primarily in Africa at Hippo and Carthage. These African lists match the standard Roman biblical canon of today but the African councils were not ecumenical. But their decisions were subsequently confirmed by the Pope in Rome, under whose jurisdiction they were then subject, being Latin rite churches. The Roman Pontiff was their Patriarch. The issue was important for the Latin rite churches because all of this was happening at the time Jerome was working on a new translation of the scriptures into Latin. Originally he worked from the Greek, but Jerome not only knew of the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament texts, he accorded them a priority over the Greek - if they're in the original language then they must be the original or authentic texts, is the thinking here. That assumption turned out to be wrong (there are no original texts for one thing) but it would take the discoveries at Qumran in the 20th century to demonstrate that. Jerome not only wanted to translate from Hebrew not Greek but he also wanted to scrap those Old Testament texts like Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach etc that weren't in the Hebrew canon of Judaism. Jerome's position generated considerable controversy in the West and was opposed by none other than Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Augustine not only wanted to keep those texts not found in the Jewish canon but he also believed that the Greek as well the Hebrew versions of the Old Testament texts should have equal standing. Jerome's position was rejected by those Western Councils and consequently the Latin Vulgate emerged as a hybrid text, as far as its Old Testament was concerned, because it gave priority wherever possible to the Hebrew but remained overwhelmingly shared by the Greek.

The Council of Carthage was in 397 CE. It would be another 300 years before a decision scripture would be made by a Council with a claim for ecumenicity, although that claim was contested by Rome. In 692, the Council in Trullo met at Constantinople. Also known as the Quinisext Council, it met to finish off the work of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils which had also met at Constantinople. On matters scriptural it confirmed both the decisions of the councils of Laodicea and Carthage, even though both produced different lists (e.g. Laodicea omitted Revelation from the New Testament but Carthage included it). It also confirmed the lists produced by various individuals, which likewise disagreed with each other (and the Councils) and further sanctioned the listing from the Apostolic Constitutions , which counted all four books of Maccabees as canonical. What seems to be happening at Trullo is that it is affirming the various scripture canons of the Church, endorsing local usage in the broader orthodox and Catholic context. Trullo is recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church as sharing in the ecumenicity of the previous two Councils of Constantinople but it was rejected by the West.

And that's where matters stood up until the Renaissance and Reformation. In other words there was no Ecumenical Council that produced a single agreed on list of canonical texts that could be called The Bible. On the ground, though, was an even more interesting reality. According to the Council of Carthage the Vulgate Latin Bible of the medieval West should have looked like the standard Bible of the Roman communion today. The thing is, it didn't. It included some Old Testament extras some of which are found in the Greek Bible and one not. The Vulgate's extras included 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and Prayer of Manasseh. All but 2 Esdras are found in the Greek Bible. 2 Esdras is however found in the Slavonic and Georgian Bibles. These extras were included in the Old Testament of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 15th century. However the Gutenberg did not include the Vulgate's addition to the New Testament, Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans as that had only recently been removed. But it seems that in the medieval period there was remarkable cohesion in the Old Testaments of the Byzantine and Roman communions. As far as the Greek Church was concerned the Roman Bible had one text they didn't, 2 Esdras, and lacked one text that they had, 3 Maccabees. Even more odd is that the Western Old Testament stayed this way after the Council of Florence had produced a canon list following the Carthaginian one as part of an attempt at reunion with the Byzantine Church under negotiation in 1439-41. This reunion was unsuccessful but while it resulted in a papal bull declaring the Carthaginian canon as normative for the Bible, it doesn't actually seem to have changed the Roman/Western Old Testament at all, despite the fact that Rome regards Florence as an Ecumenical Council. It was only the Reformation that would actually change the Western Bible .

Luther picked up on Jerome's complaint and in his translation of the Bible into German, he created new category, the Apocrypha, into which he placed not only 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and Prayer of Manasseh, but also the other texts questioned by Jerome but endorsed by Carthage (and Trullo): Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom, 1 & 2 Maccabees, plus the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther. The Bible of the English Reformation followed Luther's lead too and the texts outside the Jewish canon were likewise collected into the Apocrypha. Luther also wanted to re-open the New Testament as well. It seems he would have preferred one like that used by the Church of the East, except that Luther would also have dumped the Letter of James. But Luther's proposed New Testament failed to win the support of the Reformation movement as a whole and thus the New Testament finally remained unchanged.

Luther's attempted revision of the New Testament was based on dogmatic grounds - James in particular could be used by Rome to critique Lutheran theology of justification. Similarly with the revision of the Old Testament. The so-called apocryphal (Protestant) or deutero-canonical (Roman) texts could be used by Rome in its arguments with the Reformers. Jerome, the 'father' of the Latin Bible, gave the Reformers the precedent to reject scriptural authority for those texts placed in the Apocrypha. Rome clearly turned to the Council of Carthage, especially as its decisions had been endorsed by the Pope of the day (and subsequently reaffirmed at Florence), and at the Council of Trent (which met in 25 sessions from 1545 to 1563) the standard Roman biblical canon was formally declared as the norm for the Roman communion. As I've written before, the other four texts, 1 & 2 Esdras, Ps 151, Manasseh, weren't dumped from the Latin Bible but transferred to an Appendix (together with the Epistle to the Laodiceans) where they remain, effectively as Roman Catholic Apocrypha. They were even included in the first Douai-Rheims English translation of the Latin Bible in an appendix to the Old Testament. But they have been dropped from subsequent translations of the Latin Bible so that most Roman Catholics have no idea these texts have been part of the scriptural legacy of the Western Church.

Curiously as I was writing this piece, I stumbled across a Roman Catholic apologetic site against the Eastern Orthodox Church. On that site there was an article on the Orthodox Bible by Mark Bonocore. He argues that the Roman canon was affirmed by an Ecumenical Council, accepted by East and West, and held at Nicea too. It's the second Council of Nicea, the 7th Ecumenical Council, held in 787 CE. His argument is that Nicea 2 affirmed the decisions of the Council at Trullo validating the decisons of the Council of Carthage. Consequently, the Roman Bible canon has been defined by an Ecumenical Council accepted by East and West and so should be adopted by the Eastern Orthodox communion. Unfortunately for Bonocore's argument, Trullo affirmed a range of biblical canon lists, as well as the Carthaginian one, in which case Nicea 2 has itself given ecumenical authority - an authority binding on West and East - to canonical diversity and fluidity.

And perhaps, too, the meme concerning the Bible and Nicea is unknowingly derived from Nicea 2. If that's the case, it's a meme that's not only misidentified the Council but also got the decision wrong too. Rather than setting a single locked down canon in stone it effectively defined plurality and diversity as the only possible norm.

This conciliar history further reminds us that *The Bible* in Christianity is not something that fell out of heaven but rather is something that, as the Russian theologian Georges Florovsky said, is created by the Church instead.