Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Order of the Hebrew Bible

Is canonical order important for interpretation?

In preparation for my SECSOR paper on Chronicles, I'm reading through Julius Steinberg's book Die Ketuvim: Ihr Aufbau und ihre Botschaft, BBB 152 (Hamburg: Philo, 2006) (reviewed by Tim Stone). The basic idea of the book is that there is an intentional order to the Ketuvim ('writings'), i.e., the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and that we should attend to this order in our exegesis. Of course, one problem is choosing the correct order, and Steinberg agrees with Roger Beckwith (The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church [Eerdmans, 1985]) that the correct order is presented in the beraita of Baba Bathra 14b (Babylonian Talmud).

I am inclined to disagree with this entire line of thought. Here I want to gather some thoughts in response to one of Steinberg's brief sections. [The book itself is not brief--491 pages!] The translations of the German are my own.

On pp. 84-89, Steinberg has a sections called, "The Necessary Prerequisite for the [Structural-Canonical] Approach: A Fixed Order of Books." He recognizes that sometimes the selection of an order of books has been rather arbitrary (such as choosing the order in BHS), and he knows that there are many different orders to choose from. So he presents this two-fold question:

1. Which of the transmitted orders [in the ancient canonical lists and manuscripts] should serve as the starting point for a structural-canonical approach?

2. In view of the variety of orders, is it useful at all to evaluate the hermeneutical implications of a particular order? 

He takes the second question first, and responds to three possible objections to the idea of an order of books as hermeneutically significant:

First objection: The history of interpretation shows that the order of books practically never played a roll. Can someone then actually claim that the consideration of order is so important?
This is an objection that I myself think valid. Steinberg responds in two ways.

(1) He relies on Meir Sternberg's work on Hebrew narrative (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Indiana University, 1987) to argue that subtle arrangements of the text can be significant, and can add to interpretation, even if they are missed by the majority of interpreters. Fair enough. [But I would still like to know who's order I'm interpreting, but more on that in another post.]

(2) Steinberg also argues that the order of books has, in fact, played a significant role in the history of interpretation. His evidence for this assertion: (a) the many different sequences of books known from ancient lists and manuscripts--sequences themselves that reveal certain principles of order (Steinberg points to his following chapter for more discussion)--suggest that whoever devised these sequences did feel that order was important; (b) some canon lists (Baba Bathra 14b, the second Rabbinic Bible, Adath Deborim) claim to give the correct order, meaning that the compilers of these lists deemed order important; (c) the position in the canon sometimes has been taken as hermeneutically significant, as for instance for Malachi at the end of the prophets, Genesis at the beginning of the Torah, Chronicles at the end of the Bible, and as evidenced by the influence of the historicizing sequence of the Greek Bible upon the reception of the OT.

This second answer to the first objection is not very compelling. Steinberg tries to make the variety of sequences for the Ketuvim work to his advantage, but I think unsuccessfully. True, the different orders to reveal different thoughts about how the Ketuvim should be arranged, which suggests that the 'arrangers' were concerned with sequence. But it also suggests that these 'arrangers' did not consider a single order to be intrinsic to the canon, or did not recognize one to be so. That is, if Baba Bathra 14b is taken as the original canonical order for the Ketuvim (Steinberg will argue this in ch. 2, pp. 106-95), so that other orders are deviations from it, the question still remains why others felt so free to deviate, sometimes severely, from the canonical order. Why did they not recognize this particular order as 'written into' the canon? They were not changing out the canonical books, but they apparently did not consider the preservation of this original sequence to be all that important; rather, they thought they could improve it.

The canonical lists mentioned by Steinberg are all rather late, and that is an issue I look forward to seeing him address later in his book. That is, even if there is some intentionality behind the order in Baba Bathra 14b, why should that concern me? After all, as Steinberg has said, there is intentionality behind a plethora of orders. Why does Steinberg think this one in Baba Bathra is worth my time? But, as I say, Steinberg will get to that, so I'll have to wait to see what he says. I assume he'll agree with Beckwith that the order of Baba Bathra actually derives from the second century BCE.

As for the third point (letter c), Steinberg is very brief, so it is difficult to know what he means. Who takes Malachi's position at the end of the prophets to be hermeneutically significant, and what do they mean by that? Does Steinberg mean ancient commentators? I would think of ancients as more important than moderns if one is addressing the history of interpretation in this way, but Steinberg does not say what commentaries he has in mind. The way he phrases it, I would assume modern commentaries. But do these commentators see the significance to be that Malachi is placed last of the Twelve, or last of the canonical prophets altogether, or last of the second division of the Hebrew Bible called Prophets, or last chronologically of the prophetic books we now have in the Bible? I can see modern commentators taking all these positions, or none of them, but in any case I don't think it's very significant for the way Malachi's position in the canon has been viewed throughout time. For that, I'd rather know about what Jerome's commentary on Malachi says about the sequence of prophetic books, or Theodore's commentary, or Cyril of Alexandria's, or Calvin's, or the midrashim. The brevity of Steinberg's treatment of this question does not allow him to delve into this at all.

The placement of Genesis in the canon, and Chronicles, and the influence of the Greek order on the Christian understanding of the OT, are all different and still not compelling as evidence for the point Steinberg wants to make. So, this objection--that the idea of a canonical order with bearing on interpretation is a modern construct--still remains valid in my mind.

But this post is somewhat long, so next time I'll see if I can deal with Steinberg's other points in this section.

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