Monday, June 11, 2012

The Old Testament Canon of the Fathers

This post continues a series introducing some of the key elements in my book and how I think it makes a contribution. (See here for the first post in this series.) The title of my book is Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory, with the subtitle Canon, Language, Text. This post will cover the first word of the subtitle, and therefore could be called 'Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Canonical Theory.'

I have long been interested in canonical studies, but I did not immediately choose it for a topic. I explained last time how I came to write on the topic that originally formed my dissertation and now is published through Brill--I started reading Origen's correspondence with Sextus Julius Africanus and found some interesting things worthy of further exploration. That especially was the case at section 10 of the letter (using the section numbers in the edition of N. de Lange; it is section 6 in the online ANF translation). Now, up to this point, Origen has been explaining that there are many differences between the Greek OT and the Hebrew Bible, but at sec. 10 he signals that he is changing topics.

Ταῦτα μὲν οὖν εἰρήσθω πρὸς τὸ μὴ φέρεσθαι παρ’ ῾Εβραίοις τὰ περὶ Σουσάννας· ἴδωμεν δὲ καὶ ἃ προσφέρεις τῷ λόγῷ ἐγκλήματα. Καὶ πρῶτόν γε ἀρξώμεθα ἀπὸ τοῦ δυνηθέντος ἄν δυσωπῆσαι πρὸς τὸ μὴ παραδέξασθαι τὴν ἱστορίαν· ὅπερ ἐστὶ τὸ περὶ τὴν παρωνυμίαν πρίνου μὲν πρὸς πρίσιν, σχίνου δὲ πρὸς σχίσιν.

Let these things be said with regard to Susanna’s not circulating among the Hebrews. Now, let us see what accusations you bring against the narrative. And let us begin first from the point that would be able to shame us into not accepting the story, which is the play on words between prinos and prisis, schinos and schisis.
Origen is responding to a point brought up by Africanus in his letter against the authenticity of the Story of Susanna, a deuterocanonical addition to Daniel. Africanus had argued in part that since this story contained a pun in Greek, it could not have been written in Hebrew, which he thought was a necessary criterion for canonicity. Now, it seemed to me upon reading Origen's response, that though he disagreed with Africanus that the pun proves the Greek origin of Susanna--that is, Origen thought there might be other ways of explaining this pun in Greek other than rejecting the possibility of a Hebrew original--nevertheless he did agree with Afriancus' major premise: composition in Hebrew was a necessary criterion for canonicity in the Church's OT.

Recognition of this fundamental agreement between these two early Christian scholars regarding how they thought about the OT canon led me to look for (a) the views of other Fathers regarding which criteria were operative for accepting books into the Church's OT, and (b) specifically whether other Fathers besides Origen and Africanus also considered composition in Hebrew to be one such criterion. The results feature in the first two major chapters of my book.

In brief, in ch. 2 I argue that the two major opposing positions in the Church of the first 4-5 centuries were (a) that the Christian OT should be equivalent to the Jewish canon, and (b) that the Church should accept as canonical those books that it finds useful. The first position I called the 'synagogal criterion', and the basic evidence for its wide distribution in the Church are the numerous canon lists we have from this time period, almost all of which transmit basically the Jewish canon (there are, of course, differences among the lists, but that does not change the intention behind the list), and that is what I argue is precisely the point of the list. Sometimes a particular Father will explicitly link his list to the Jewish canon, or he will link the 22 books of the OT to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (more here).

The second position I mentioned in the previous paragraph I called the 'ecclesiastical criterion', and it, I believe, was the basic position of Origen and Augustine, among others. They said essentially that the books used by the Church, especially in the liturgy, should be considered canonical, able to establish doctrine. This was precisely what Jerome in his Preface to the Books of Solomon and Rufinus in his Commentary on the Apostle's Creed said was not the case: just because the Church uses a particular book or reads it does not make it canonical, able to establish doctrine. But the Council of Hippo in 393, and of course Augustine, said, "no, actually, that is exactly what it means." This resulted in the inclusion, alongside the books of the Hebrew Bible, of what are now known as the deuterocanonical books: Tobit, Judith, 1&2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach = Ecclesiasticus (Baruch was at this time considered a part of the Book of Jeremiah).

In the third chapter, I argue that what I called the 'Hebrew criterion'--composition in Hebrew was a necessary criterion for OT canonicity--was accepted widely by Fathers on both sides of the previously mentioned divide. Julius Africanus and Origen explicitly say as much in their correspondence. Other Fathers are not quite so forthcoming on this point, but I argue that the implication of their acceptance of this criterion may be drawn from two common themes in patristic literature when it comes to the OT: (1) the aforementioned link between the number of OT books and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and (2) the extension of the 'inspired' LXX translation to cover all the books of the OT. Just to explain this second point a little further, the Fathers routinely think about every OT book in Greek as deriving from the inspired Seventy translators, which means that every OT book must have been originally written in Hebrew so that it could be included in this translation.

That's the gist of chs. 2-3. Hopefully it will whet your appetite for the full presentation of these arguments in the book. In my next post in this series, I'll talk about the second word of the subtitle: language.

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