Canon(s) or Canonical?

Terminology related to the canon of the Bible’s books is rife with confusion. The usage of “canon” itself to refer to a collection of books is only of eighteenth century vintage. The general usage anciently and to the present of canon or κανων was in reference to a rule, either literal or metaphorical, that is, either a measuring stick of some kind or a set of beliefs held as an authoritative code for one’s behavior. Yet these days, in discussing various books of the Bible, people will often speak of whether a book is canonical or non-canonical, by which they simply mean whether it is or is not considered a book of the Bible, or the “Biblical canon” by which they mean that list of books in the Bible. This usage is likely to only generate more confusion, because it is then assumed that there is some single official list of books that belong to the Bible, which there is not. Different faith traditions have different Bibles. Among Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholics and Orthodox each have an increasing number of different books included in their Bibles, with the latter having several different lists of such books (from the Eastern Orthodox, the Russian and Greek traditions differ by including one book each which the other doesn’t; among the Oriental Orthodox, the Coptic Church and Ethiopic Churches include even more books than the Eastern Orthodox, while some of the Syrian Orthodox have five fewer books in their New Testament through excluding the books of 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse). As is also well known, the Jewish Bible includes the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, though traditionally arranging the books in a different order than they do. So, there is no “the” canon at all, but several canons, depending upon various traditions, which situation becomes even more complex if one looks at historical documentation concerning which books various ancient writers thought should be considered part of the Bible. Let us leave this confusion to the side for now.

There is a better way to discuss these books, by simply using “canonical” with the older connotation in mind. That is, these books are canonical to particular groups because they were considered to reflect their regula fidei or κανων πιστεως. By using this approach, we not only come to an immediate understanding of precisely why certain traditions include the various books in their Bibles, but also enter into a greater continuity with past reflection on and usage of the the word and concept of “canon,” thus returning to an understanding that these books didn’t just happen to be in a certain collection divorced from all interaction with people as though by an inevitable physical process which has yet to be discovered, but rather through a process in which they were recognized as reflective of the values and mores, the “canons,” of those groups which mindfully and prayerfully included them in their Bibles. Likewise, other books were prayerfully and mindfully excluded, as they were not considered to reflect the rule of faith or tradition.

Thus, rather than saying, “This is the Eastern Orthdox Biblical Canon,” it is better to say, “These are the canonical books of the Bible in the Eastern Orthodox Church.” The difference in usage is subtle, but important. “Canonical” connotes a relationship to a tradition’s rule of faith as canon, while “canon” would attempt to substitute a set of mute books for that living tradition. It is a kind of bibliolatry to place the books of the Bible in the position of the Rule of Faith. They are certainly a part of it, along with other elements, but they are not the Rule of Faith itself. Our language should reflect that reality.

It is important to remember that, as some wag put it, “The Church wrote the Bible; the Bible didn’t create the Church.”

Our Prayers Say Who We Are

There’s a beautiful prayer of St Ambrose which I’ve found is recommended in Roman Catholic Missals for the use of the faithful. Below I present the original Latin, and then two translations, one dating from 1962 from a Missal of that year, the other from the current English translations propogated by the Roman Catholic International Commision on English in the Liturgy, dated to 1980. I’ll follow with commentary

Oratio S. Ambrosii
Ad mensam dulcissimi convivii tui, pie Domine Iesu Christe,
ego peccator de propriis meis meritis nihil praesumens,
sed de tua confidens misericordia et bonitate,
accedere vereor et contremisco.
Nam cor et corpus habeo multis criminibus maculatum,
mentem et linguam non caute custodiam.
Ergo, o pia Deitas, o tremenda maiestas,
ego miser, inter augustias deprehensus,
ad te fontem misericordiae recurro,
ad te festino sanandus,
sub tuam protectionem fugio;
et, quem Iudicem sustinere nequeo,
Salvatorem habere suspiro.
Tibi, Domine, plagas meas ostendo,
tibi verecundiam meam detego.
Scio peccata mea multa et magna, pro quibus timeo:
spero in mesericordias tuas, quarum non est numerus.
Respice ergo in me oculis misericordiae tuae,
Domine Iesu Christe, Rex aeterne, Deus et homo,
crucifixus propter hominem.
Exaudi me sperantem in te:
miserere mei pleni miseriis et peccatis,
tu qui fontem miserationis numquam manare cessabis.
Salve, salutaris victima,
pro me et omni humano genere in patibulo Crucis oblata.
Salve, nobilis et pretiose Sanguis,
de vulneribus crucifixi Domini mei Iesu Christi profluens,
et peccata totius mundi abluens.
Recordare, Domine, creaturae tuae,
quam tuo Sanguine redemisti.
Paenitet me peccasse,
cupio emendare quod feci.
Aufer ergo a me, clementissime Pater,
omnes iniquitates et peccata mea,
ut, purificatus mente et corpore,
digne degustare merear Sancta sanctorum.
Et concede, ut haec sancta praelibatio Corporis et Sanguinis tui,
quam ego indignus sumere intendo,
sit peccatorum meorum remissio,
sit delictorum perfecta purgatio,
sit turpium cogitationum effugatio
ac bonorum sensuum regeneratio,
operumque tibi placentium salubris efficacia,
animae quoque et corporis
contra inimicorum meorum insidias firmissima tuitio.

1962 Translation
O gracious Lord Jesus Christ, I, a sinner, presuming not on my own merits, but trusting to Thy mercy and goodness, fear and tremble in drawing near to the Table on which is spread Thy Banquet of all delights. For I have defiled both my heart and body with many sins, and have not kept a strict guard over my mind and my tongue. Wherefore, O gracious God, O awful Majesty, I, a wretched creature, reduced to extremity, have recourse to Thee, the fount of mercy; I fly to Thee that I may be healed, and take refuge under Thy protection, and I ardently desire to have Him as my Savior Whom I am unable to withstand as my Judge. To Thee, O Lord, I show my wounds, to Thee I lay bare my shame. I know that my sins are many and great, on account of which I am filled with fear. But I trust in Thy mercy, for it is unbounded. Look down upon me, therefore, with eyes of mercy, O Lord Jesus Christ, eternal King, God and Man, crucified for man. Hearken unto me, for my hope is in Thee; have mercy on me, who am full of misery and sin, Thou Who wilt never cease to let flow the fountain of mercy. Hail, Thou saving Victim, offered for me and for all mankind on the tree of the cross. Hail, Thou noble and precious Blood, flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world. Remember, O Lord, Thy creature, who Thou hast redeemed with Thy Blood. I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. Take away from me therefore, O most merciful Father, all my iniquities and offenses, that, being purified both in soul and body, I may worthily partake of the Holy of Holies; and grant that this holy oblation of Thy Body and Blood, of which all unworthy I purpose to partake, may be to me the full remission of my sins, the perfect cleansing of my offenses, the means of driving away all evil thoughts and of renewing all holy desires, the advancement of works pleasing to Thee, as well as the strongest defense and protection for soul and body against the craft and the snares of my enemies. Amen.

1980 Translation
I draw near to the table of your most delectable banquet, dear Lord Jesus Christ. A sinner, I trust not in my own merit; but, in fear and trembling, I rely on your mercy and goodness. I have a heart and body marked by many grave offenses, and a mind and tongue that I have not guarded well. For this reason, God of loving kindness and awesome majesty, I, a sinner caught by many snares, seek safe refuge in you. For you are the fountain of mercy. I would fear to draw near to you as my judge, but I seek you out as my Savior. Lord, I show you my wounds, and I let you see my shame. Knowing my sins are many and great, I have reason to fear. But I trust in your mercies, for they are beyond all numbering. Look upon me with mercy, for I trust in you, my Lord Jesus Christ, eternal king, God and man, you who were crucified for mankind. Have mercy on me, you who never cease to make the fountain of your mercy flow, for I am full of sorrows and sins. I praise you, the saving Victim offered on the wood of the cross for me and for all mankind. I praise the noble Blood that flows from the wounds of my Lord Jesus Christ, the precious Blood that washes away the sins of all the world. Remember, Lord, your creature, whom you have redeemed with your own Blood. I am sorry that I have sinned, and I long to put right what I have done. Most kind Father, take away all my offenses and sins, so that, purified in body and soul, I may be made worthy to taste the Holy of holies. And grant that this holy meal of your Body and Blood, which I intend to take, although I am unworthy, may bring forgiveness of my sins and wash away my guilt. May it mean the end of my evil thoughts and the rebirth of my better longings. May it lead me securely to live in ways that please you, and may it be a strong protection for body and soul against the plots of my enemies. Amen.

First, look at that Latin! Nice! St Ambrose was a past master of the Latin language, and this prayer displays his fine control of it. I suspect that the rhythmic quality of so many of the verses, the kind of sing-song balance of meter, may reflect that this particular prayer was originally one of his hymns, which we are aware of St Ambrose having composed in Milan to great acclaim. Not only is the rhythm balanced, but there is rhyme, and also a few intersecting chiasms. It’s a fascinating prayer, composed in a way to make it interesting for people to say, and easy to remember through the repetitions, the rhythm, and the rhymes. It shows St Ambrose’s pastoral concern for catechesis, which he was justly famous for.

The approach of the two translator or translation teams is different, owing as much to the particular piety of the translator(s) as to knowledge of Latin. So we see two very different kinds of personal piety displayed through these works. The 1962 translation displays a distinctly penitential bent, which is certainly present in the original, but is more strongly emphasize in the translation. This, of course, was a period dating to before the Vatican II Council, and the alterations to the fabric of Catholic piety that ensued afterward, a period in which this kind of penitential piety was still quite common, and was an ideal. The pentitential spirit shown in this translation is one that is thus somewhat fierce, but not insane. That is, it was based in the reality of the lived Catholicism of its day, and is precisely as one should expect it to be. Aside from this aspect, the translation is somewhat clunkier than necessary. A little more effort would have made it flow better.

The 1980 translation gives an entirely different impression, from an entirely different age, though they’re separated by only 18 years. Notice the opening: “I draw near to the table of your most delectable banquet….” It appears that the person praying is a gourmand of some sort, relating an autobigraphical detail of a trip to a restaurant owned by Jesus! This subconsciously sets the reader in the context of reading the prayer not as a personal prayer shared with others, but as something separate, someone else’s prayer that a kind of voyeurism is allowing the reader to see. Also, just as there was a strengthening of penitential language in the prayer by the 1962 translation, in the 1980 translation is a toning down of the same. Relatedly, it’s entirely gauche to begin a prayer to our Sovereign God with “I.” And Jesus has now become “dear,” as well, connoting that the Senior Ladies’ Knitting Circle has composed the prayer, and not the fiery Archbishop of Mediolanum who told off an Emperors to his face.

To summarize and exemplify the differences, compare these:
Paenitet me peccasse, cupio emendare quod feci.
I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. (1962)
I am sorry that I have sinned, and I long to put right what I have done. (1980)

In the end, these translations are showing something that I’ve noticed subconsciously for some time now. In the translations of prayers for liturgical churches, there has been a consistent trend toward the softening of the translations of these kinds of prayers for decades now. Not only can the worshipper no longer be expected to share the worldview of the ancient writer and interact with the recommended prayer on the level of its original language with at least a modicum of understanding the depth of riches of the language, but they cannot be even expected to share a remotely similar worldview, a worldview in which we are unworthy sinners, wretched and poor, stupid and weak, putrid by inches, and the only salvation is God, through His Son. Rescue from this dismal state is not through meeting the old ladies and eunuchs of the local religiously themed social club (some call them churches, which might offend some people!), but through transformation as a member of the Body of Christ, conforming onself, though God’s grace alone, to the Divine image inch by inch, a process we Eastern Orthodox call theosis, often translated “divinization,” the primary vehicle of which is prayer. The translations of prayers anyone uses are an important part of Christian transformation, because they must accurately reflect the theological worldview that lies behind them in toto, without alteration. After all, for each prayer like the above that makes it into prayer books, the original language version is chosen for its powerful and effective words, and for its orthodoxy and usefulness to the faithful. Translations of such prayers need to reflect that power as much as possible.

I think St Ambrose would certainly have preferred the 1962 translation of his prayer, if he had to choose between that and the 1980 version above. It clearly reflects a worldview similar to his own, while the 1980 translation does not.

Happy First Year of the Indiction!

September 1 begins the Eastern Orthodox calendar year, and this one happens to be the first in another Indiction cycle. Following is the information on the Indiction from The Great Horologion (translated and published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery) entries for September 1. Mind you, this is from one of our service books:

Beginning of the Indiction: For the maintenance of their armed forces, the Roman emperors decreed that their subjects in every district should be taxed every year. This same decree was reissued every fifteen years, since the Roman soldiers were obliged to serve for fifteen years. At the end of each fifteen-year period, an assessment was made of what economic changes had taken place, and a new tax was decreed, which was to be paid over the span of the fifteen years. This imperial tax decree, which was issued before the season of winter, was named Indictio, that is, Definition, or Order. This name was adopted by the emperors in Constantinople also. At other times, the latter also used the term Epinemisis, that is, Distribution (Dianome). It is commonly held that Saint Constantine the Great introduced the Indiction decrees in A.D. 312, after he beheld the sign of the Cross in heaven and vanquished Maxentius and was proclaimed Emperor in the West. Some, however (and this seems more likely), ascribe the institution of the Indiction to Augustus Caesar, three years before the birth of Christ. Those who hold this view offer as proof the papal bull issued in A.D. 781 which is dated thus: Anno IV, Indictionis LIII — that is, the fourth year of the fifty-third Indiction. From this, we can deduce the aforementioned year (3 B.C.) by multiplying the fifty-two complete Indictions by the number of years in each (15), and adding the three years of the fifty-third Indiction. There are three types of Indictions: 1) That which was introduced in the West, and which is called Imperial; 2.) The so-called Papal Indiction, which begins on the 1st of January; and 3) The Constantinopolitan, which was adopted by the Patriarchs of that city after the fall of the Eastern Empire in 1453. This Indiction is indicated in their own hand on the decrees they issue, without the numeration of the fifteen years. This Indiction begins on the 1st of September and is observed with special ceremony in the Church. Since the completion of each year takes place, as it were, with the harvest and gathering of the crops into storehouses, and we begin anew from henceforth the sowing of seed in the earth for the production of future crops, September is considered the beginning of the New Year. The Church also keeps festival this day, beseeching God for fair weather, seasonable rains, and the abundance of the fruits of the earth. The Holy Scriptures (Lev. 23:24-5 AND Num. 29:1-2) also testify that the people of Israel celbrated the feast of the Blowing of the Trumpets on this day, offering hymns of thanksgiving. In addition to all the aforesaid, on this feast we also commemorate our Saviour’s entry into the synagogue in Nazareth, where He was given the book of the Prophet Esaias to read, and He opened it and found the place where it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, for which cause He hath anointed Me . . . ” (Luke 4:16-30).

It should be noted that to the present day, the Church has always celebrated the beginning of the New Year on September 1. This was the custom in Constantinople until its fall in 1453 and in Russia until the reign of Peter I. September 1 is still festively celebrated as the New Year at the Patriarchate in Constantinople; among the Jews also the New Year, although reckoned according to a moveable calendar, usually falls in September. The service of the Menaion for January 1 is for our Lord’s Circumcision and for the memorial of Saint Basil the Great, without any mention of its being the beginning of a new year.

Dismissal Hymn of the Indiction, Second Tone
O Maker of all creation, Who hast established the times and the seasons in Thine own power: Bless the crown of this year with Thy goodness, O Lord, and keep our rulers and Thy flock in peace, by the intercessions of the Theotokos, and save us.

Kontakion of the Indiction. Fourth Tone.
Thou Who wast raised up

O God of all, Thou Who hast made all the ages
O Sovereign Lord, truly transcendent in essence,
bestow Thy grace and blessing on the year to come;
and, O Most Compassionate,
in Thine infinite mercy
save all them that worship Thee,
Who alone art our Master,
and that with fear, O Saviour, cry to Thee:
Grant unto all men a fruitful and godly year.

Biblical Studies Carnival XXI

Duane Smith at the abnormally interesting blog Abnormal Interests has posted the twenty-first Biblical Studies Carnival, covering posts during the month of August 2007, and some outliers. If you find his posts on Ugaritic hippiatria more fascinating than reports of the discovery of new tombs of Jesus’ third cousin twice removed, etc etc etc, as I do, make sure to let him know! I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. Go over there and take a look at the various linked posts. I’m sure you’re bound to learn something.

Biblical Studies Carnival XXII will be hosted by Tim Bulkeley at Sansblogue. For a list of all the past Biblical Studies Carnivals, go here. Different posts by Yours Truly show up in them quite regularly. I’ll also be hosting it again with installment XXVI in February 2008.