Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIV

Doug Chaplin has alphabetically posted the latest installment of the Biblical Studies Carnival, the thirty-fourth such, covering the month of September 2008. Many thanks for a fun and informative carnival, Doug!

These Biblical Studies Carnival installments are an excellent way of introducing topics currently of interest to and under discussion among Biblical Studies bloggers. Likewise, if one has been too busy to keep up with online reading during the month covered, you can rely upon the Biblical Studies Carnival to have provided a “best of” for the month, at the very least. They’re well worth a reader’s time.

Saint Isaac the Syrian: Works

I am now the very happy owner of a copy of The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in 1984. It’s long been out of print and the price for a copy is now generally outrageously high. But several years of patience paid off, and I obtained a copy for a relative bargain. Even though I’ve read most of it before, now that I have my own copy I feel like sequestering myself for however long it takes to get through all of it.

Since my mind has been on St Isaac’s writings, I thought I’d take a post up with a quick bibliography of available editions of translations of the known, surviving works of Saint Isaac the Syrian, as much to straighten things out in my own head as to provide help for others seeking translations of his writings or the Syriac texts.

There are three known collections of discourses written by Saint Isaac. Only the First Series was translated from the original Syriac in ancient times into Western languages (first into Greek, and then other tertiary translations were made from the Greek), which led to a love of Saint Isaac’s writings throughout the Christian world from the late first millennium onward, most especially in monastic circles.

The First Series
This set of 77 discourses is currently available in a two-volume spiral-bound photocopied version from Holy Transfiguration Monastery. It is a photocopy of the homilies from their out-of-print The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian which I mentioned above. Most of the introductory material and the appendices and other material outside of the series of homilies themselves are not included. They include the table of contents, an Encomium for St Isaac written by Photios Kontoglou, and the subject and Scripture indices. I have heard of a future second edition to be produced by the monastery, but this remains unconfirmed. Although this translation is primarily from the Greek version of St Isaac’s writings, the translator referred continually throughout to the Syriac, providing notes where the Greek differs from the Syriac text, and translating the materials in the appendices all directly from Syriac. He indicates in the introduction that he also was able to consult with Professor Sebastian Brock during the translation process, in more than a token manner. It is truly not only the best, but indeed the only usable full translation of the First Series in English. Avoid the Wensinck translation–it is so poorly done as to be illiterate. The Syriac text was published by Paul Bedjan as Mar Isaacus Ninivita: de Perfectione Religiosa (Paris/Leipzig, 1909). The Greek text which was the basis for the HTM translation by D. Miller was established by himself through the use of microform copies of various manuscripts, and with reference to Bedjan’s Syriac text and others; there is currently no critical text of the Greek version of St Isaac’s writings.

The Second Series
The Second Series was never anciently translated, so was not known to Western Christians until just a few years ago. This series consists of 41 discourses, the third of which is actually comprised of four “centuries” (a work with 100 sections; in this case the Four Centuries include 100, 105, 100, 100 chapters respectively, ranging in length from a sentence to several pages). It was thought that the only manuscript was disastrously lost during the First World War, but Professor Sebastian Brock discovered an almost entirely complete manuscript in 1983 in Oxford. Thus this collection is lacking the very beginning of the First Discourse (though likely not too much), and there are lacunae elsewhere that a manuscript from another line of descent would be useful to have (all other partial surviving manuscripts appear to be copies of the lengthiest surviving one on which the text is based). Overall, however, it’s quite a good manuscript. Sebastian Brock has translated all but the Third Discourse (the Four Centuries). An English translation (and perhaps the Syriac; I haven’t seen this article yet) of Discourses One and Two were published in “St Isaac the Syrian: two unpublished texts” (Sobornost 19[1997].1: 7-33). This article may be purchased in electronic format from Sobornost. Brock’s translation of Discourses Four through Forty-One was published in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series, volume 555 (Scriptores Syri Tomus 225), which is available here and elsewhere. He published the corresponding Syriac text in volume 554, with a more detailed introduction on textual matters.

There are two translations currently available of the Four Centuries, though not in English. There is Dom André Louf’s Isaac le Syrien: Oevres Spirituelles – II: 41 Discourses récemments découverts published by the Abbaye de Bellefontaine, and available here and elsewhere. This is a French translation of the entire Second Series, with a very helpful introduction. A second translation of only the Four Centuries and several other selections from the Second Series is that into Italian by Paolo Bettiolo, Isacco di Ninive: Discorsi spirituali e altri opuscoli, available here. Bettiolo will also be publishing the Syriac text for the first three discourses of the Second Series in the CSCO series, hopefully soon, so that others may take a crack at translating them without having to resort to a photocopy of a manuscript as Dom Louf did.

Third Series
The Third Series, also unknown in the West until recently, is the shortest of the three collections, comprising 17 discourses, of which three are also found in the earlier collections, so it is essentially the source of 14 new discourses. The text and translation for this will apparently be published by Br Sabino Chialà, as our friend Sr Macrina relates from a talk he gave recently. On the Monastero di Bose site, however, I did find this listing for Br Chialà’s Isacco di Ninive: Discorsi ascetici: Terza collezione. The description states that this is his translation of the fourteen “new” discourses in the Third Series. As Sr Macrina notes, Sebastian Brock will be translating this Third Series into English, as well.

Varia
Br Sabino Chialà also mentions several other (unpublished?) discourses attributed to St Isaac which require further study. It has been the case in the past that various works of St Isaac were misattributed to others, and vice versa. Perhaps a few more stray discourses will appear, and other works, but not likely any larger collections, though it would certainly be a pleasant surprise to have more of those!

Excerpts
There are various books which contain numerous excerpts of St Isaac’s writings in English translation, of which I am familiar with three good ones which are all currently available and affordable. St Isaac of Nineveh: On Ascetical Life is part of the Popular Patristics Series of St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. This translation is by Mary Hansbury of the first six discourses in the First Series. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev included numerous quotations from both the First and Second Series in his The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. And lastly, the indefatigable Sebastian Brock published a neat little bilingual Syriac-English volume of selections from the First and Second Series, entitled The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. I’m sure there are any number of other such books which include selections of St Isaac’s writings, as well. These are good for a start.

From the depth of wisdom and godliness,
thou didst draw forth wisdom
springing up to eternal life.
Nurtured by this fountain
found in thy sacred writings,
O lofty-minded Isaac,
we taste of Christ God’s grace.

Megalynarion for St Isaac

The Eastern Orthodox and the RSV

As I mentioned in my last post regarding the reception of the New Revised Standard Version by Anglophone Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Revised Standard Version has long been the only modern translation other than the NRSV to include all the books of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Old Testaments (the two differ in the former including 4 Maccabees, and the latter including 2 Esdras, also known as 4 Ezra; both also include 3 Maccabees and Psalm 151 in addition to all the Roman Catholic deuterocanonical books). Of course, the text underlying the proto-canon of the RSV and NRSV is the Hebrew Masoretic text, while the Orthodox Christian Bibles are the Septuagint in the Greek Orthodox Church, or derivative translations of it in other jurisdictions, and these texts do differ extensively on occasion. Thus it is really the availability of the extended set of apocrypha/deuterocanonical books which was of such value to Orthodox readers. The last translation of a Bible to include them all was that of Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint in the late nineteenth century. The story of the extension of the Revised Standard Version, which initially only included the books of the Protestant canon, is very interesting, and we are fortunate to have various accounts of its development written by one of those people most involved in the work of both the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version, the late Bruce Manning Metzger (Lord, have mercy on all those who come before You!).

Someone fortunately conviced Professor Metzger to write an autobiography, entitled Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Hendrickson, 1997). He has told the story of the work behind the RSV and NRSV in numerous articles and even in a short book on The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, along with the other chief editors Robert Dentan and Walter Harrelson, which consists of several reworked articles. The information that follows is mostly drawn from Chapter 7 of Metzger’s Reminiscences…, “Translating the Bible: The Revised Standard Version” (pp 76-88).

The initial publication of the Revised Standard Version included only the New Testament, on 11 February 1946. The Old Testament (Protestant canon only) was then published 30 September 1952, fittingly on the festal day of St Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate. Shortly thereafter, the Protestant Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the United States) requested that a new translation of the Apocrypha be done. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Biblical canons are nearly identical. Whereas the former includes 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh, these books are in an appendix to the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic tradition (as 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra and Prayer of Manasses), as they were not named explicitly in the fourth session of the Council of Trent, held 8 April 1546, which decided the Roman Catholic canon, although they were typically included in Latin Bibles. All of these books were translated by a small committee, and the Revised Standard Version Apocrypha were published in 1957. The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, in which the deuterocanonical books are interspersed among the protocanonical books in the Old Testament as in the Latin Vulgate Bible, was first published in 1966, though excluding 3-4 Ezra and the Prayer of Manasseh. Advances in the field of New Testament textual criticism led to the publication of a Second Edition of the Revised Standard Version New Testament in 1971. The Common Bible Revised Standard Version, which included all the Roman Catholic canon and then an appendix with a note regarding the status of 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, was published in 1973 as the first explicitly ecumenically-intended Bible. On May 9th of that year, Bruce Metzger and others, including the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira and Great Britain, were granted a private audience in Rome with Pope Paul VI, during which he was presented with a specially bound copy of the Common Bible. It was after this meeting that Archbishop Athenagoras made a point of noting to Professor Metzger that the Common Bible was not truly ecumenical in that it lacked 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151, and his hope that this would be rectified in future. In fact, those books had already begun to be translated the previous year by another subcommittee, in answer to general growing interest in the apocrypha. The texts of these translations were released in 1976 to the various authorized publishers of the RSV. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition was the first to include them, published 19 May 1977. Professor Metzger presented a copy of this new edition to His All-Holiness Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople 18 December 1977, after nearly losing the volume by leaving it on the counter in the Istanbul airport after changing some money! It was this Bible that was the first to include all the books contained in Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Bibles (though with the proviso that the textual base of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament were often quite different, as noted above). It was thus partly a result of general growing interest in the apocrypha, and the gracious accomodation of the requests of an Orthodox hierarch which led to the production of this first modern scholarly edition of the full Orthodox apocrypha.

Of importance is not just the quality of the translation of the books themselves, which is certainly very high, but there was also the feeling among Eastern Orthodox Christians in Anglophone countries that they had finally been recognized as equal partners in their “new” homes at last–they had finally “made it.” In those days, there were very few converts into the Orthodox Church. There was often a perception (from within as from without) that there was an ethnic barrier to their acceptance in various efforts, as though they weren’t even Christian. However, from the time of this gesture by the Standard Bible Committee in producing the Expanded Edition of the RSV Apocrypha the Orthodox Church has continued to be recognized in all various ecumenical endeavours as a witness not just to the ancient Church, but as a living and dynamic presence in the world with its own witness to share with others, whatever the merits or demerits of those ecumenical endeavours may actually be.

So it seems apparent that Eastern Orthodox appreciation of the RSV is twofold: 1.) it is the first modern English translation to include all Orthodox deuterocanonical books; and 2.) by being the first to do so, it gained a certain amount of caché in Orthodox circles. With the publication of the NRSV, however, it’s apocrypha are now also available for the use of Orthodox Christians, though the texts of the Old Testament and New Testament are, to Orthodox, disfigured by a senseless accomodation to a requirement for gender neutrality of language. Orthodox exegesis rooted in the Church Fathers reads many of the generic singular masculine references throughout the Old Testament in particuar as prophecies of Christ. The NRSV has cut itself off from this ancient tradition, has cut itself off from Christianity itself some would say, in preference for the allaying of individual neuroses over Tradition. The RSV, however, does not suffer from any such accomodation, and so is still perceived as a non-ideologically motivated and useful reference, and is indeed used in Orthodox Bible studies in parishes throughout the English-speaking world. With the appearance now of the New English Translation of the Septuagint (or NETS), we now have a very exceedingly well-done scholarly translation of the ancient Old Testament of Greek Orthodox Christians. Although it is not without its problems in certain spots, it is still a translation based on the best texts available for the Septuagint, and will certainly make a useful addition to Orthodox Christian personal and group Bible studies.

I hope this has been a useful exposition.

Eastern Orthodox Blessing of the NRSV

A while ago now, Iyov brought up some interesting points in a discussion on the merits or demerits of another blogger’s description of the ecumenically popular New Revised Standard Version (henceforth NRSV).

Now, one of the great claims to fame of the NRSV, as seen on the About the NRSV web page, is that “[The NRSV] received the blessing of a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.” Now, this claim was certainly surprising to me, as I was (like other Orthodox Bible readers) familiar with Bishop Tikhon’s report regarding the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America (or as a certain beloved friend calls it, the Metropolia) deciding “not to permit the use of the NRSV in liturgical services and in bible study.” This decision was made in October 1990, roughly a year after the publication of the NRSV. Because of this oddity, I decided to track down the source of this apparent contradition, that an Orthodox synod of bishops could advise against the use of a Bible, while another bishop would actual bless it.

I can’t recall the precise chain of events that led me to the solution, but it involved email, telephone and library drudgery in some tedious combination. Yet at last, I reaped the fruits of such dreary labor, preserved in two slightly tatty photocopied pages now. In the Introduction to the 1989 edition of the NRSV Common Bible, one of the first NRSV editions to be printed, we read the following from Archbishop IAKOVOS (of blessed memory) of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (p. iii):

I wish to express my gratitude for the NRSV and my appreciation of the forthcoming Common Bible. The inclusion of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars assures an ecumenical integrity in this work. Further, the common arrangement of the text provides another important bridge for our learning from one another among our various Christian communities. The Orthodox faithful have my encouragement and blessing in making full use of the NRSV Common Bible. The translation and study of Scripture together is an precious gift in the service of Christian unity.

Now, two things leap out from this statement. This “blessing” is obviously the source of the claim noted in About the NRSV above; it is, however, a figurative blessing, not a liturgical one, in case anyone thought that was the case. The other is that Archbishop Iakovos apparently had not yet read the NRSV Common Bible, as he notes it to be “forthcoming,” so it is not a stretch to understand that he hadn’t read it yet when writing this statement, but was perhaps reacting to a press release of some kind which solicited his statement (a not uncommon occurrence for Archbishop Iakovos).

There are some more subtle nuances of the Archbishop’s note that would fail to be appreciated by non-Orthodox, which I think are worth explaining. First, note that he places Orthodox first in the list of biblical scholars, though only one of the scholars involved in the project was Orthodox (Fr Demetrios Constantelos, who worked on both the New Testament and Apocrypha), obviously emphasizing the Orthodox role in the production of the NRSV, not too surprisingly. Second, there is the strange formulation “ecumenical integrity.” In Orthodox circles, ecumenicism (as generally understood) is derided, in some circles more strongly than in others. This is because our ecclesiology declares the Eastern Orthodox Church to be The Church; there is no other, therefore Orthodox Christians can only be a witness to others in such “ecumenical” settings in order to draw them to The Church. It is to be understood, therefore, that without an Orthodox scholar, this ecumenical project will have had no integrity from an Orthodox standpoint, of course. This subtext is present even here in Archbishop Iakovos’ endorsement of the NRSV Common Bible, where we read that “translation and study of Scripture together is a precious gift in the service of Christian unity.” His Eminence uses the phrase “in the service of Christian unity,” that is, leading toward a Christian unity, not “in the expression of Christian unity,” for that surely does not exist; but the witness of the Orthodox in a shared environment of Bible study may further that unity, so that others might be drawn to The Church. Such subtleties must be appreciated.

In the end, however, we are still left with Archbishop Iakovos’ “encouragement and blessing” for Orthodox faithful to use the NRSV Common Bible, which seems to contradict the OCA Synod’s later decision noted above. The NRSV Common Bible is essentially just a full NRSV, including all the NRSV apocryphal/deuterocanonical books in a section between the Old Testament and New Testament (this same “common arrangement” of books is found in all editions of the NRSV which include the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books), and with a few Study Articles prepended to the volume, namely: “The Transmission and Translation of the Bible” by Bruce M. Metzger; “The Bible in the Church” by J. Stephen Freeman; “Major Themes in the Bible” by Gina Hens-Piazza; “Archaeology and Bible Study” by Marsha A. Ellis Smith; and “How to Study a Bible Passage” by John O. Gooch). I think Archbishop Iakovos was particularly impressed by the inclusion of the full number of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books (as in the 1977 full edition of the RSV) which appear in the Greek Orthodox Old Testament (the Septuagint), and their potential to be a witness to Orthodoxy, as well as sustaining Orthodox faithful. Until the NRSV, of all the modern translations only the RSV included all those books (there is now also the NETS), so any new translation of these neglected books would naturally be celebrated by a pastor whose flock had been deprived of grass from the best meadow. In view of this, it seems appropriate to question whether Archbishop Iakovos had read the entire translation; it is very likely not the case that he did. The gender-related language issues with the NRSV, as noted by the OCA Synod, are a serious drawback. If the Archbishop had spent time with the NRSV to familiarize himself better with its text (during all his free time in caring for the needs of Orthodox faithful on two continents), he may have come to give a less ringing endorsement, or none at all. As he terms the NRSV Common Bible “forthcoming,” it is safe to conclude that he had not seen the full text, and knew only of the plan to include the apocrypha/deuterocanonicals. In any case, the above quotation from the NRSV Common Bible is the source of the NRSV’s claim to “the blessing of a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.”

In addition, however, to Archbishop Iakovos’ encouragement and blessing, another Eastern Orthodox hierarch provided an endorsement, Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (p. iv):

I am delighted to add my name to the endorsers of the NRSV Common Bible. We pray that this edition of the Holy Bible which will include the Deutero-canonical books will be a blessing to all those who read and study the Holy Scriptures.

Again, note that it is the deuterocanonical books which gain a Hierarch’s attention. His Eminence is quite apparently impressed, as was Archbishop Iakovos, by the inclusion in the NRSV Common Bible of all the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament books. He explicitly equates their presence with a blessing on the reader. It also sounds, however, as though Metropolitan Philip had not actually seen or read the Bible, but is reacting to a statement on its forthcoming release. Perhaps that was the case. In any case, he does not display a deep familiarity with the text outside of a knowledge that it is to include (some? all?) deuterocanonical books.

So, it seems clear that the “blessing” granted to the New Revised Standard Version by these Eastern Orthodox hierarchs was based less on a familiarity with the entire text and was more related to the inclusion of all the deuterocanonical books in the Greek Old Testament, which would be edifying for both Eastern Orthodox readers and for others who may come to understand something more of Eastern Orthodoxy through them. Celebrating this new translation of such books, after such a long time using the stilted translations of Brenton or even the RSV, would have been easy to do, as they are excellently done, and eminently readable. Especially nice in the NRSV is the full translation of the Greek Esther, rather than simply the disjointed Additions, as is the translation of the longer text of Tobit, and the very, very nicely done Sirach, the textual issues with which book are extremely daunting. I myself, on the whole, find the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals in the NRSV to be its best-done section, of better quality overall than either the NRSV Old Testament or New Testament, or even the both together.

Thus endeth the lesson, so to speak.

Davila’s Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha

James R. Davila (Professor and Dean of the Divinity School at University of St Andrews in Scotland, and host of the PaleoJudaica blog) published his The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? back in 2005 through Brill. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet appeared in a more affordable paperback edition. The hardcover edition is your standard beautifully made Brill product. One slight peculiarity is the initially off-putting page layout wherein footnotes are gathered at the bottom of the left facing page and sometimes spilling onto the right, rather than having the notes on the page, left or right, on which the noted text occurs. Also, the indented quotation blocks are strangely set off from the margin with < or > brackets, which keeps the quotation block from appearing to be indented at all, really, making it a bit of work to tell just where the quotation leaves off. Altogether, this is not the most successful, although it is certainly innovative, formatting in this book design. Appearance is one thing; substance, however, is another.

It has long been a commonplace in studies of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha to posit one work or another as “Jewish with Christian interpolations,” with the implication being that one need merely remove these interpolations to be presented with the original Jewish work. Davila turns this notion rightly on its head, providing us with something of a handbook describing a new methodology for working on provenance in this field. His recommendations should be implemented by all. They are well-considered, rooted in the reality of the literature as we have it, drawing on deep familiarity with other literature of the rabbinic and patristic heritage, and eminently logical in their presentation.

Following the usual front matter, an Introduction lays out the purpose of the book, describing its genesis in reflection on the work of Robert Kraft, among others. Davila describes the book thus:

Chapter One reviews the question of the relationship between Judaism and gentile society and religion, Christian or otherwise. It formulates a methodology and criteria (‘signature features’) for distinguishing Jewish literary works, especially pseudepigrapha, from works by others such as gentile Christians, other gentiles (e.g., polytheists, and ‘God-fearers’), Jewish-Christians, Samaritans, etc., in cases where this is possible.

Chapter Two applies an ’empirical models’ approach to the question of whether Christians wrote Old Testament pseudepigrapha whose Chrisitian origin is undetectable; that is, either works in which such undeniably Christian features in them are so few and peripheral as to tempt modern scholars to excise them as secondary redactions, or works that contain no explicitly Christian features at all. The chapter draws on ancient Christian sermons, scriptural commentaries, and poetic epics to ascertain how Christians actually handled such matters in their writings.

Chapter Three applies the methodological advances fromt he first two chapters to isolate a corpus of Old Testament pseudepigrapha that are of Jewish origin beyond reasonable doubt. Chapter Four looks at six pseudepigrapha that are widely accepted to be Jewish compositions but for which, to a greater or lesser degree, the case for Jewish origins falls short of being convincing. The works of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus as well as the Old Testament Apocrypha are also considered briefly in Excurses to Chapters Three and Four. Chapter Five summarizes the book’s conclusions. (pp 8-9)

There follows a List of Works Cited, arranged by subject, Indexes of Modern Authors, of Foreign Words and Phrases, and of Primary Texts. Lastly there is a Contents: Detailed Table. Unfortunately, there is no subject index, the lack of which is becoming distressingly common in scholarly books these days.

In the first eight sections of Chapter One, dealing with the wide variety of possible authorial communities, Davila ably explodes the myth of a mere duality of options, Jewish or Christian. There were several kinds of Jews, several kinds of Christians, and several kinds of other groups sympathetic to either or both, much as there are today, any of which might have possessed people of sufficient education to have taken it in hand to produce a pseudepigraphon. In section nine of Chapter One, pages 64 to 71, Davila lists the signature features of boundary-maintaining Jewish groups (I wasn’t able, due to the lack of a subject index, to locate the corresponding list of signature features of boundary-maintaining Christian groups; suffice it to say it is not in this chapter), and proceeds to describe how the groups and these criteria might then combine to present us with different possibilities for authorship, undoubtedly several of which describe the origins of the pseudepigrapha we have. Chapter Two then presents some Christian works which show that Christians authors could and indeed did write on occasion extended pieces which contain no Christian signature features. Chapters One and Two are the meat of the book, where Davila elaborates his theory very convincingly. The following chapters, as described above, proceed to apply his developed methodology to various works, with the determination of some as Jewish Pseudepigrapha in CHapter Three (Aristeas to Philocrates, Second Baruch, The Similitudes of Enoch, Fourth Ezra, and others. Chapter Four presents “Some Pseudepigrapha of Debatable Origin”, which are Sibylline Oracles Books 3 and 5, Joseph and Aseneth, The Testament of Job, and several others.

This is a very helpful and important book that deserves wider readership. One can only hope that a more affordable paperback edition will soon appear so that Davila’s methodology will become more widespread. His development of each of the components of the methodology is entirely thorough and convincing, so that in coming to its application in regards to specific works, it feels almost like a letdown, it’s so simple. This is the sign of a truly well-developed theorem: a highly developed theoretical foundation is masked by an elegant method easily applied. Many thanks to Professor Davila!

Canonical scribblings

The following are some notes that I recently sent to a friend on reading an early draft of the introduction and first chapter of a manuscript he’s working on. I’ll preserve his anonymity, aside from mentioning that the book’s written on the subject of the “apocrypha” and the Biblical canon. I did think that the points I present, however, can stand alone as topics for discussion. Additionally, they inspire some other thoughts that I want to post on soon. And lastly, I don’t want to misplace them! Though reading these notes may seem the equivalent of hearing only one side of a phone conversation, these days we’re all used to that anyway, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to cope with this, too! I think it’s all pretty clear.

1.) I think the intended audience needs to be clarified a bit here. This audience is obviously a Protestant one, to whom these apocryphal/pseudepigraphic books are of little familiarity and generally disparaged. To make that audience explicit would make the arguments for earliest Christian acceptance of these books that much more incisive; it may also, however, give direction to the argumentation, as well.

2.) In the first paragraph, there is a reference to “arguments” being the winning factor in the success of “orthodoxy.” I find this misguided. It is rather the apostolic foundation of the communities and their continuous descendants, and the living faith shared among those communities individually and as a whole (as “the Great Church” or “the Apostolic Church”) that is both the unifier and the cause for that Church’s eventual majority status. While argumentation appears in the second century (especially n the apologetic literature) and even to a degree in the first century (in certain polemical statements in various now-canonical NT books), it was always explicitly secondary to the concern with the apostolic deposit–the authenticity of the individual churches and their beliefs.

3.) Further on #2 above, the first-century writings were not intended as standalone authoritative documents, as they are often considered today. They were expressions of the living faith of the apostolically established communities, and considered therefore to be the only accurate reflection of their beliefes, concerns, and earliest history. In that sense, Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture fails on two points: a.) he, too, bases his work in the assumption that the texts were foundational rather than expressionistic, standalone sources of authority that could somehow fall into other hands and thereby have an effect. This ignores scribal practice and the likelihood of copies being commissioned. b.) Ehrman’s examples are taken almost exclusively from one-off mss, which don’t represent any particular tradition, with him atomistically selecting variants and assigning motivations without controls. Had every of his variants entered every known orthodox textual tradition, he might have an argument, but this is not the case.

4.) We do not precisely know the extent of any individual church’s collection of writings, in either scroll or codex format. Many suppositions are made based on the scanty survival of extremely fragile papyrus docs. Most of the early Church’s territories (including Judea!) were too damp to permit the preservation of papyrus or parchment. It is only in freakishly dry places (non-riverine Egypt and the Dead Sea caves) that any substantial deposits have been recovered from antiquity. We likewise have no explicit listing of groups of volumes (whether scrolls or codices) much less listings of individual documents on which one might solidly base a theory of the holdings of any local church library. With so few data, there’s hardly a basis to say that some churches owned only one gospel, all four, or sixteen, for that matter. It may’ve been the case that the community that commissioned and owned, for instance, Codex Sinaiticus, possessed another volume (or more!) incorporating numerous other books, yet the only one to survive is the one we have, and we don’t even know its origins.

5.) The terminology of canon/apocrypha/etc were not “invented” in the modern period (or even the medieval), but were used anciently in divergent ways from those commonly used now in the academy (which usage is still inconsistent–note the varying references these days to Psalm 151, 3Mac, 4Mac, and others, which, though included in modern churches’ Old Testaments, are still typically referred to as pseudepigrapha, contra the general connotation of “apocrypha” that they are a collection of books included in the OT of a church, but not in the Hebrew Bible). However, it is apparent that it was the Reformation agenda which is here in play, and its tacit acceptance (through either ignorance or arrogance) of the Roman Catholic canon as the only other canon. In particular, this means Luther and his definition of the apocrypha as the Catholic OT books and parts of books supernumerary to the Hebrew. It is the priveleging of this particular perspective which is responsible for our terminological conundrum. Just as the Roman Catholics (post-Luther) applied “deuterocanon” as the label for these items, so the Greek Orthodox utilized anaginōskomena, “readables,” to them, directly basing their term in the recommendations given by St Athanasius the Great in his 39th Festal Letter, the relevant portion of which had been preserved in Greek.

As always, however, internalized education trumps prejudice. It is necessary for those with unexamined prejudices against these books to be familiarized first with the books themselves, and secondly with information about those books, and their importance in traditions older and other than their own. This is particularly a Protestant problem, obviously.

One thing I’ve always found interesting is the Protestant unanimity on their OT and NT canons. Without any synod or central authority, it was even so unanimous and still is (except in the anomalous Anglican canon). The root is obviously Luther, “the first Protestant Pope.” Yet Luther’s peculiar recommendations in sequestering some of the NT books wasn’t accepted. What is this mechanism? It also needs to be explored. That is, rather than looking at the majority of the Christian canons (the Roman Catholic and Orthodox comprise roughly 3/4 of the world’s Christians) as containing more, we should be looking at the Protestant minority to determine the historical processes that led to their including less.

6.) Constantine made Christianity legal. By his favor, he also made it popular. But it was not made the official religion of the empire/state until Theodosius the Great made it so. And although the “pagan” religion was deprived of state support, it managed to survive in various temples up to the advent of Islam. It was not banned by Constantine. And though it was certainly to be regretted that many insincere opportunists became Christians in the days of Constantine, such a contingent has never been absent from the Church from the beginning to this day.

7.) There needs to be a tighter distinction in these pages between sub-apostolic writings which have always been considered orthodox (the “Apostolic Fathers” collection, etc.) and those which were unorthodox (“New Testament Apocrypha” proper). Though various of the former have always been considered edifying and were included in the great pandects (Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, etc), they were seldom (if ever) included in later authoritative lists designating books permitted in liturgical reading. There are, of course, exceptions. In both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, excerpts from some of these works appear in manuscripts (and breviaries today) as edifying reading for matins. In the Orthodox Church’s tradition of the reading of hagiographies on the various days of commemoration for different saints, we find that various elements of apocryphal writings have been preserved. There is even the case that some particular NT Apoc have been preserved withinn the setting of a menologion. I think this was the case with the Acts of John (or some other John-related apocryphon). In any case, my point is that there was (and is) a difference in the readings that are liturgically permitted. There is a freedom in the menologion texts that some may find disturbing. They are devotional and intended to instruct regarding morals and so on, but they are not Scripture; that is, their texts have never been frozen, and the details of the stories told about the saints are only required in the wider sense. That is, there are elements of the hagiographies which are recognized as Tradition, yet there is no exact formulation required in their expression. In a way this is the difference between quotation and allusion; that is, Scripture is recognized in a kind of verbatim allegiance, while hagiography suffices with (and perhaps thrives on) the art of allusive expression. It’s only rarely that a particular text becomes “canonical” for a saint’s reading. One case is that of St Athanasius the Great’s Life of Anthony. Another is St Sophronios’ (?) account of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. Even so, in each case, summaries of such stories/writings are entirely common. It’s not so much the wording, but the tale, that’s important. In those cases where there is a widespread well-known text there will be recognizable allusions in summaries. How can we exclude, in the face of this, that other lost “standard” texts may have existed for the commemorations of various saints? Like present, like past? It’s hard to say. But it’s certainly the case that apocryphal writings have been preserved in menologia, wholesale. That tropes or elements thereof have also been preserved is also beyond doubt. Note that the framework and even details of the Protevangelium Jacobi are all considered truth in the Orthodox Church. Relatedly, though many elements are found in common in unorthodox apocrypha and orthodox hagiographa, we cannot automatically assume that simply because a given apocryphon contains the earliest preserved attestation (taking into account the exigencies of manuscript preservation, etc) of any hagiographical trope, that the source of it is the apocryphon. Such elements of the hagiographa were popular, and necessarily included, as they were expected by the faithful familiar with the lives of the saints. Any apocryphon would be expected to include all the details commonly related in the relevant hagiography, which were then expanded in the apocryphon, whether orthodox or unorthodox.