Wednesday, January 9, 2008

John Barton on the OT Canon

John Barton’s Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile has recently been reissued after 21 years (Oxford: University Press, 2007). Though called a “New Edition” on the title page, it is new only by including a “Preface to the Second Edition” by Barton, in which he says that this is a reprint (except for errors) of the 1986 edition.
Last year also saw a special article of The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures dedicated to the reissue of the book, with contributions by Ehud Ben Zvi (as the editor), Philip R. Davies, James Kugel, Hindy Najman, and Barton himself, whose response to the other scholars here comprises the aforementioned “Preface to the Second Edition” in the book, with only minor changes.
Barton’s book is clearly important, though as he says in his new preface, it has not impacted scholarship on the reception of the prophets as much as he had hoped. It has had more influence in discussions of the canon, for which it is often cited as an early articulation of the view that the formula “The Law and the Prophets”, which appears often in literature of NT times, references the entirety of Scripture, and not just the first two sections of the Hebrew Bible, which is now divided into Law, Prophets, and Writings. In other words, the “Prophets” in this formulation constituted not just the second section of the Hebrew Bible (as it is now divided), but all non-Pentateuchal literature, including all the literature now found in the Writings (e.g. Psalms, Chronicles, etc.). Though the traditional theory of OT canon formation connects the three sections of the Hebrew Bible to three periods of canonization, with the Law canonized first, then the Prophets, then the Writings, Barton says this is anachronistic. The canon was bipartite, not tripartite, in NT times, as witnessed by the formula, “The Law and the Prophets”.
If this is so, how did it come about that the Hebrew Bible is now tripartite, as it has been at least since Talmudic times (see Baba Bathra 14b–15a)? Barton’s answer is that the creation of the third section, the Writings, is connected to the development of the liturgy (see Oracles, pp. 75–82). In synagogues today, there is regularly a public reading of the Torah, followed by a reading from the Prophets, i.e., the second division of the modern Hebrew Bible. These readings from the Prophets are called haftaroth. Barton’s suggestion for the development of the tripartite Bible is that all those books that were not included as haftaroth were relegated to the newly formed third section of the Bible, the Writings. This leaves only what we now think of as “The Prophets” (in the Hebrew Bible) in this section which formerly encompassed all non-Torah literature. Barton is able to cite (p. 78) as precedent for this view Sid Leiman’s The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture (1976; p. 168 n. 287).
But Leiman and Barton give different answers to the question: “On what basis were certain books chosen for haftaroth readings?” Leiman says that those books that tell of Jewish national history were included in the weekly readings, an explanation Barton dismisses rather easily (p. 79). Barton’s own solution is to suppose that the haftaroth readings were taken from books that were more commonly available in local synagogues, and those books that hadn’t quite established themselves as sufficiently important to possess were left aside. He writes on p. 79:
By New Testament times the scrolls of the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ and of the three great prophets and the Twelve were, we may suppose, widely known, and all synagogues would aspire to possess copies. Later books, such as Chronicles or Daniel, were becoming known but were not yet common property.
He gives a similar explanation as to why early Christians quoted so often from particular books, such as the Psalms and Isaiah. From p. 148:
The horribly simple explanation that their preference had something to do with the distribution of scrolls of these two books—worse still, that these were the only two non-Torah scrolls that happened to be in the book-cupboard of the synagogue at Nazareth or Capernaum—cannot be discounted.
I cannot now evaluate Barton’s position in full, and it may well be that the distribution of particular scrolls had something to do with the development of the haftaroth readings and with Christian preference for Isaiah and the Psalms, but I would be hesitant to say that this was a significant factor for at least two reasons.
First of all, as the second quotation from Barton above makes clear, the Psalms were widely known and used in early Judaism. Why would they not, then, be included in the haftaroth readings, if the decisive factor for inclusion in these readings was the availability of the scroll? The inadequacy of Barton’s explanation with regard to the Psalms is the more apparent since the psalms themselves are so clearly “liturgical”, and they were regarded in some ways as prophetic (see Barton, p. 40), meaning that they could legitimately stand among the Prophets, at least as legitimately as the Book of Judges.
Secondly, the evidence available for book distribution in the first century indicates that none, or very few, of the documents now in the Writings were unavailable to large numbers of Jews. David Goodblatt has recently examined the distribution of biblical scrolls in first century Judah, and has arrived at results that are startling, even to him. (See his Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism [2006], chapter 2: “Constructing Jewish Nationalism: The Role of Scripture,” pp. 28–48.)
Goodblatt’s evidence includes the scrolls found in the Judaean Desert (mostly in the caves around Qumran) analyzed according to the survival ratio of ancient texts. A survival ratio allows us to estimate the number of texts that would have existed in a particular time and place based on the number of texts that we now possess from that time and place. Goodblatt says that a survival ratio for first century Judah of 1:5000 (one extant text representing 5000 that did not survive) would be rather conservative. Given that we have about 900 scrolls from the Qumran library, we can estimate that tens of thousands of biblical scrolls circulated in first century Judah. “Even taking into account the fact that these copies span three centuries of production, these are still astronomical numbers” (Goodblatt, p. 45).
These results make Goodblatt somewhat uncomfortable, but not enough to dismiss them. “These extraordinary results suggest that the survival ratio we are using must be off kilter. But unless we are willing to assume that the Qumran collection constitutes a large percentage of all the scrolls in circulation in first-century Judah, as the Golb thesis might allow, then these findings suggest the existence of thousands of scrolls in the country” (p. 45).
This indicates that Barton’s proposal for the reason that certain documents were chosen for the haftaroth is inaccurate. Since every book of the current Hebrew Bible was found at Qumran (except for Esther and Nehemiah), we can estimate that thousands of copies of these books would have existed in first century Judah. To say that certain books were relegated to the Writings because they were not widely available, as Barton does, fails to take account of these data.
This is the more true if one accepts Goodblatt’s explanation for the large number of texts:
And such a large number in a small, predominantly nonliterate population would make widespread public recitation much more likely. (pp. 45–46)
The archaeological evidence from late first century (Qumran and Masada) and early second century (caves with refugees from the Bar Kokhba revolt) Judah thus suggests that biblical scrolls were fairly plentiful and widely diffused. Why were so many texts needed in an overwhelmingly nonliterate society? The most probable explanation is that many of these manuscripts, like many or most ancient books, were performance texts. (p. 47)
Goodblatt proposes that the large number of scrolls is indicative of their use in the public reading of Judaean synagogues. This is obviously the case not only for those books now included in the Prophets, but also for those now included in the Writings. If these documents really were so widely available as Goodblatt’s evidence suggests, and used in the way Goodblatt suggests, then Barton’s idea that the haftaroth were chosen based on availability is shown to be false.
This does not entail that Barton is wrong in thinking that the tripartite canon arose in connection with the liturgy, which I am inclined to accept.[*]

[*] I appreciate the comments of my colleague Michael Jackson regarding this post.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

C.S. Lewis on Old Books

C.S. Lewis makes his case for reading old books in his introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (London: Mowbray, 1944), 3–10. The full text of the book is available here.

His arguments are:

  1. Old books are easier to understand than modern commentaries on those old books.
  2. The content of old books is assumed in much modern writing, so that if you read only the modern works, you are clueless as to the basis of the work you are reading.
  3. Since we are a product of modern times, recent books share our modern perspective, thus reinforcing our own beliefs, even wrong ones. Old books provide a corrective to this.
  4. Regarding Christian books in particular, reading the classics allows one to see that “mere Christianity” which runs through writers of all Christian divisions.

Lewis then sings the praises of St. Athanasius, and his De Incarnatione in particular. Here follows some of his more interesting and eloquent observations. The first three passages concern the value of old books. The fourth passage continues this topic, but is interesting primarily for Lewis’ views on Christian divisions. The last passage articulates a stuggle common to earnest Christians eager to “devote” their minds to God but unable to extract any insight or emotion from “devotional” literature.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire (p. 3)


It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones (p. 4).


Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us (p. 5).


We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. (p. 7).


For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand (p. 8).