Monday, September 19, 2016

The Ethiopian Canon

I mentioned previously that the new issue of The Bible Translator is devoted to the canon of scripture. In this post I want to take a look at the article on the Ethiopian canon:

Bruk A. Asale, "The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Canon of the Scriptures: Neither Open nor Closed," The Bible Translator 67.2 (2016): 202–22.

[By the way, he refers to his own published work as 'Bruk 2014', etc., so I take it that the name listed first is his surname. That's why I'll refer to him as Bruk rather than Asale. The journal, however, puts 'Asale' in the running head to the article.]

Bruk's article is part of a growing area of interest in the Ethiopian Bible. At least, it seems to me that I've seen a lot more publications on this subject in the last 4-5 years than I had before that. Which makes sense because study of the biblical canon as a whole is so popular, and usually pursued with a focus strictly on Western attitudes, that of course broadening our view to include other perspectives would help us have a better informed idea of what a biblical canon is. I learned quite a bit about the Ethiopian canon from Mroczek's recent book (pp. 156–61), who provides good recent bibliography.

I found Bruk's article to be quite excellent. I am not expert on the Ethiopian Bible, so I am not competent to critique it anyway. But I found it to be helpful because it is written by an insider [see update below], it surveys the history of the Ethiopian Church, it references opinions held by Ethiopian clergy and laymen, and it was very sane in the implications it drew. The article does not actually get into the different possibilities for the list of books, or which books are definitely in and which books might be either in or out. It rather focuses on the concept of a biblical canon, arguing that the Ethiopian concept is different from the Western concept.

Bruk reveals where he is going at the very beginning of the article, saying that "the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) asserts its own canon of the Scriptures traditionally identified as eighty-one books," but in reality "the concept of a canon as a strict list of books and the requirement to limit oneself to that list is possibly alien to the EOTC's understanding of canon" (203).

Bruk conducted interviews with "high-level scholars, theologians, clergy, and lay members of the EOTC," asking them the following questions:
  • How do you define the canon of Scripture?
  • What constitutes Scripture or the canon of Scripture in the EOTC?
  • Is the canon of the EOTC closed or open?
Before getting to the results of these interviews, Bruk tutors us in the basic history of the EOTC (204–11). He identifies five major periods. 
  1. Before and at the birth of Christianity. The EOTC teaches that Judaism was introduced to Ethiopia from the time of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and that some of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated at this time. Recent discoveries of manuscripts dating to the fourth–sixth centuries suggests the presence of Christianity before the fourth century, along with the possibility of Ge'ez translations. 
  2. Fourth century, Christian had become the state religion, during the reign of King Ezana (first half of fourth century), with St. Frumentius as bishop. Probably at this time a formal translation was made, without distinction between canonical and non-canonical books. Ge'ez itself changed, with the introduction of vowels and the reversal of the direction writing from right-to-left to left-to-right. Frumentius was consecrated by Athanasius, and the EOTC was under the authority of the Coptic Church (until the twentieth century). 
  3. fifth–sixth centuries, the time of the arrival of "the Nine Saints" from Syria, who not only helped to consolidate the church but also produced a translation from the LXX with some reference to Syriac. "[T]he evidence indicates the Saints translated 'canonical' and 'pseudepigraphical' books without making any distinction" (208). 
  4. fourteenth–fifteenth centuries, major reform. This period followed the Ethiopian 'Dark Age' (7th–13th centuries), characterized by a weakened central state, isolation of the EOTC from the Coptic Church, oppression at the time of Queen Judith's invasion (208n16). During the reform period the Ge'ez version was revised according to an Arabic version, itself based on the Hebrew, producing a Ge'ez text with both a LXX-base and an MT-base. It is at this time that the number 81 became important for the EOTC canon. This number is found in the Fetḥa Nagast, the Law of the Kings, a legal code compiled around 1240 in Arabic and translated into Ge'ez, which says, in part, that there are 81 "divine books which must be accepted by the holy church," and then it lists 73 or 74 books. According to Bruk, "The problem is that it is not known which council recognized this list as such and which books make up these eighty-one. There was no debate as to the extent and the concept of the canon in this period either, with the most prominent theological controversy of this period being Mariology, among others" (209). 
  5. twentieth century, formal autonomy and language shift from Ge'ez to Amharic. Bruk mentions several challenges faced by the EOTC at this time (e.g., invasion by Jesuits, invasion by Muslim sultanate of Adal, etc.). But the EOTC came through it, and finally gained autonomy from the Coptic Church. 
Then Bruk presents the findings from his interviews of 15 people "deliberately chosen because of their capacity and expertise in Scripture and canon" (213).

But first he talks for a couple of pages (213–15) about this Amharic book by Dibekulu Zewde called in English The 81 Holy books and the Scripture-Canons in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (1995), which is apparently the best book on the subject. Apparently this is the book, not that that entry helps a lot. Anyway, Bruk provides a substantive summary of the book, and draws the implication that "the canon of the EOTC has never been closed in a strict sense with a binding list of books, on the one hand, and on the other hand, that there is nonetheless a limited set of books that are up for consideration as part of the canon" (215). But whereas Dibekulu recommends that the EOTC officially close the canon--whether it ends up with 81 books, or 84, or 73--Bruk does not share this view. He rather believes that the EOTC canon "is not an open canon so long as the option to include whatever books one may want to include is closed and it is not a closed canon so long as there is still the possibility of including or excluding certain books" (215).

Now to the interviews. There were five basic responses that Bruk discusses (215–18).

  1. The EOTC canon is closed. Here he lists four respondents, who, nevertheless, seem to take slightly different positions, according to whether the important thing is the number 81 and it doesn't matter so much which books are included, or whether the important thing is the books included and the number is not so important. Or maybe I'm just misreading this paragraph. Anyway, included here are (1) a university theologian and (2) "the vice-chairperson of the scholars' committee of the EOTC, second to the patriarch," who seem to hold the view that the books are important even if the way they are counted is variable; and (3) a seminary instructor and (4) an accountant who is active in the church, both of whom mention the 81 books, and seem to recognize that there are different ways to get to 81, which I take to mean that the actual books (within a limited range) don't matter so much. 
  2. The EOTC canon is open. Two respondents: (1) a leading scholar of the EOTC and a Bible translation consultant, and (2) a university theologian. While there is no difference between canonical, non-canonical, deuterocanonical, and pseudepigrapha, for any book to be considered Scripture it must conform to "the overall teaching of the Scriptures." 
  3. Not strictly closed or open. One respondent, a university theologian, who sees the number 81 as a non-binding tradition since the actual number of books in the canon are fewer than 81. 
  4. Not comfortable with the question. Five respondents (with n. 42): (1) the General Secretary of the Bible Society of Ethiopia, (2) a translation consultant for the Bible Society, (3) a PhD student and seminary instructor, (4) head of a mission organization for the EOTC, and (5) a lay member. Since the church has not said whether it has an open or closed canon, it is difficult to say which is right. 
  5. Both closed and open. One respondent, a prominent church leader and scholar. "He argues that so long as there is a clear principle that permits a book to be among Scriptures, it is a closed canon. However, that does not mean that there is a rigid number of books counted as part of a canon; this would make it an open canon." 
[I guess there are two interviewees that he did not mention in his results. Or I messed up somewhere.]

Bruk does not like it when scholars describe the EOTC canon as "fluid," calling this description "meaningless and misleading if it does not consider the EOTC's deeper understanding of the concept of canon" (218–19). On the one hand, the issue simply has not come up within the EOTC until very recently, probably due to external influences. On the other hand, the EOTC concept of the canon of scripture is more in line with the ancient teaching regarding the 'canon' of faith rather than the later definition of the biblical canon as a list of books.

UPDATE (2 Nov 2016): when I wrote this post, I mistakenly assumed that Bruk was an adherent of the EOTC, so I called him an 'insider'. However, another of his articles clarifies his position: he is an Ethiopian, but not an adherent of the EOTC. He calls himself an "insider-outsider" (p. 360).

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