SBL Notes, part two

Continuing with my expanded notes from my time at SBL this year, I cover the rest of the morning session of the Function of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity Consultation, held 9:00-11:30 am on Monday 19 November 2006, and also the lunch of the steering committee to this consultation, to which I was invited.

Lee Martin McDonald presented “What Do We Mean by ‘Canon’? An Ancient and Modern Question.” Here is the abstract for this paper, by co-chair of this consultation (Charlesworth being the other chair), and presider over the morning session:

The terms “canonical,” “non-canonical,” “apocryphal,” and “pseudepigraphal,” are often confusing when cited in contemporary investigations of ancient Jewish and Christian literature. They are all anachronistic terms that later Christian communities used to describe literature that did or did not eventually find acceptance in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Initially most of those writings, if not all of them, functioned as sacred literature in one or more Jewish or Christian religious communities. This paper will focus on the meaning and validity of such distinctions for investigative research of ancient religious literature and will include examples of writings that functioned authoritatively in early Judaism and/or early Christianity, but were not eventually included in the biblical canons of either religious community. This paper is foundational to the proposed consultation on the function of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature in early Judaism and early Christianity.

McDonald’s handout consists of a four page outline of this thirty-six page foundational paper. McDonald spoke more or less extemporaneously, not hewing precisely to the full text of the paper, obviously, due to time restraints. He began by discussing the variety of canons in existence now and in the past, and the variety of organizing those canons, noting in particular that the tripartite organization and order of books in the Hebrew Bible was never used by Christians, for which he cited an interesting article by James Sanders, “‘Spinning’ the Bible: How Judaism and Christianity Shape the Canon Differently” (Bible Review 14.3 [June 1998]: 23-29, 44-45). Likewise dealing with the variety of canons in the past, but with a particular focus on the Jewish canon, was an article he cited, quite compelling in its argument, that Jewish communities in the western Diaspora (i.e., west of Judea) were generally non-conversant with Hebrew and Aramaic and thus maintained and attachment to the Septuagint/Old Greek texts and its extra writings over the Masoretic canon for several centuries into the Rabbinic period: Arye Edrei and Doron Mendels, “A Split Jewish Diaspora: Its Dramatic Consequences,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 16.2 {january 2007]: 91-137. [This article called to mind the chapter in McDonald’s and Sanders’ The Canon Debate by Jack Lightstone, “The Rabbis’ Bible: The Canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Early Rabbinic Guild,” pp 163-184, in which Lightstone reasonably posits the existence of various later Christian regional canons to have originated with divergent canons among the various earlier pre-Rabbinic Jewish communities and the divergent canons of books that they held. The two articles are perfectly complementary.] From the variety of canons and their organization, McDonald moved into the lack of evidence for discussion of a canonizing process among Church writings. In the New Testament itself, the only usage of “canon” (κανονος) itself involves reference to the scope of Paul’s ministry (see 2Cor 10.13,15,16) and to the rule of faith (Gal 6.16). These references show the lack of connotation to “canon” of an exclusive set of books. Indeed, says McDonald, the original canon or measure of the Church was Jesus Christ. The Gospels were so immediately popular and accepted so widely as authoritative precisely because they reflected that original canon, Jesus Christ, in His words. [At this I would like to emphasize something I’ve posted on before, “Canon(s) or Canonical?,” regarding the preference for looking at books as canonical rather than as a canon–McDonald making precisely that point here with me. Books were recognized as canonical insofar as they adhered to or reflected the Canon of Faith. They were not initially considered a new rule in and of themselves, i.e., a canon. This is a crucial distinction.] McDonald continues that Irenaeus memorably commented on the, by then apparently longstanding, recognition of the four Gospels being the only Gospels (indeed, actually that they rather comprise a four-fold single and only Gospel; Ireneaus Adv. Haer. 3.11.8), but focuses on the rule/canon of faith, the regula fidei, as the result of the apostolic tradition (see esp. Adv. Haer. 1.10.1-3). So, seeing that even the word “canon” was used differently, McDonald shows that we also need to recognized that all our language relating to this subject is anachronistic: Bible, canon, canonical, non-canonical, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, etc, all of it. These modern categories, traditional in scholarly circles, are now recognized not to map well to the processes and works under discussion. An important article on the subject related to these terminological problems is Bob Kraft’s Presidential Address to the SBL, delivered 18 November 2006 at the last annual meeting in Washington DC: “Para-mania: Beside, Before and Beyond Bible Studies” JBL 126.1 (Spring 2007): 5-27, particularly section I: The Tyranny of Canonical Assumptions: The Parascriptural Worlds (pp 10-18). McDonald proceeded to lay out briefly several past consensus positions on the formation of the canon, and as briefly described problems with them, including even the understanding of “canon” as a lit of books to which nothing may be added or taken away. There are numerous books that “fell out” of different canons, e.g., The Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas, both of which are found in Codex Sinaiticus. Should this be categorized as “decanonization”? McDonald says:

“Canon” continues to be a useful though confusing term, but if used for a complete and fixed collection of scriptures, then it is technically and chronologically inappropriate for any writings before the fourth century when the greater church defined the parameters of its sacred literature (“What Do We Mean…” p. 23).

He also notes that often too much is drawn from the citations of various books in patristic sources [see below on Ken Penner’s talk] as though every quote would indicate another book to the author’s canon. A related problem is seeing such a personal canon of a writer as anything more than that. Such should not be imposed on the wider church of the time.

In the end, whatever the precise process, it appears largely to find its completion in the fourth century, when precise lists of books to be considered canonical appear. [I would also add that a Biblical canon is then physically possible to be represented with the the technological innovation of the great codex, which could fit a large number of books in its pages.] The process of how these lists were concluded remains inferential.

What I have taken away from McDonald’s paper (and various of his other works) is the very clear impression that studies of the canonizing process have come to the point of the rejection of old canards, and have commenced asking the important questions of methodology, terminology, and epistemology related to this subject. It’s an exciting time for canon studies obviously.

Loren Johns was McDonald’s respondent. An issue that McDonald brought up in the paper but that I don’t recall hearing in the reading regarded governmental influence on the churches toward the formation of the canon, an influence that McDonald rejects. Johns thinks this avenue could stand some more attention. Johns didn’t have a chance to elaborate as there was so little time. I think his idea was that the government of Constantine’s time (and later) was concerned with peace and unity among the Christian factions and might have suggested a single set of books in order to attempt to accomplish that unity. I actually would think this is not the case, as the problem wasn’t that, say, Arius and Athanasius were reading different books, but that they were reading the same books differently. That is, each had his own particular exegetical stance based each in his own regula fidei. That the government-sponsored Council of Nicea was charged with producing a creed, a concise summary of the Rule of Faith that would be universally adhered to, rather than a particular list of books, shows that at this period the Rule of Faith was of primary importance. Books would be read according to this Rule, or recognized as reflecting that Rule, the inheritance from the Apostles themselves (with Irenaeus, et al.). Johns also noted the serious need, agreeing with McDonald, for new terminology for books like The Shepherd of Hermas. I would prefer “historically canonical” myself, but that’s still problematic, as it doesn’t transparently reflect the temporary status that it held as canonical. Perhaps something like “Erstwhile Canonical Books” would cover it, but that’s somewhat odd. I’m sure we’ll hear more on this subject soon enough.

Ken Penner was next with “Citation Formulae as Indices to Canonicity in Early Jewish and Early Christian Literature.” His four page handout consists of notes on the kinds of quotation formulae used in various corpora, and a chart of samples for each: “TNK”/”Old Testament,” “Deuterocanonicals”/”Apocrypha,” “Dead Sea Scrolls” (including CD), Philo, Josephus, “Mishnah,” “Pseudepigrapha,” “New Testament” and “Early Church Fathers.” His conclusion from the handout describes the talk perfectly (emphasis his):

The original qustion, and that of the title of this presentation, was how the formulae can indicate the “canonicity” of a quoted text. The evidence of these nine corpora is sufficient to approach an answer, namely that the formulae used to introduce the quoted text, phrases such as “it is written,” “as a prophet says,” “the scripture says” are in fact useful for indicating the divine origin or scriptural status of writings quoted by early Christian and Jewish authors. In contrast, the quotations from Epimenides in Titus, Aratus in Acts, and Plato and Homer in Philo and Justin Martyr are introduced with formulae that dissociate their origin from the Judeo-Christian God, usually by simply mentioning the human author. This difference in the usage of citation formulae constitutes evidence that they did consider some writings at least divine or scriptural and others not.

It seems then that the citation formulae for Yashar and the books of the wars of the Lord cannot distinguish them from other scriptures; the citation formula places Jubiless in the same category of other scriptures at Qumran, as does the formula used for Enoch among the other inspired writings known to Jude. Eldad and Modat was not distinguished by the Shepherd of Hermas from other recorded prophecies of the Hebrews. The presence of such typical formulae used for scripture may safely be taken to imply the special divine origin of the work being quoted. The patterns of usage of citation formulae indicate they belong in a distinct category that may be called either divine or scriptural.

Whether this category could or should be called canonical is a question I will leave for my respondent to address. But if by canon we mean a list of books to which none can be added, the citation formulae cannot indicate the canonicity of a quoted work. On the other hand if by canon we mean a special class of divinely authoritative writings, then yes, the citation formulae can function well as indices to canonicity in Early Jewish and Early Christian literature.

It’s this last paragraph that comes closest to explicating what I found most valuable in Penner’s discussion. Too often studies of citations miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. That is, studies of citations are usually focused only on the citation formulae themselves, while neglecting the larger context and the rhetorical/narratival point of using the citation. Indeed, the work in which the citation is made as a whole can be argued to be a kind of rhetorical entity in itself, an ordered presentation of an argument with an intended point, toward which those citations contribute. That’s always bothered me about citation studies in the past: too much micro, not enough macro. Penner breaks free of that, which is refreshing.

Despite Penner’s reference to his respondent, program changes left him without one. But he did have an interesting question/response from Bob Kraft during the question period. Kraft noted the importance of physicality in discussing canon, particularly in the context here of someone quoting a number of various writings. Kraft said he wished he’d brought along a hatbox (a larger one of which is roughly equivalent to the size and shape of ancient “book buckets” for scrolls) to show how little of any such canon a person was likely to be able to travel with. The storage for all the scrolls of the OT alone would be the size of an armoire or a very large chest, certainly furniture sized and non-portable. Most people outside of the very rich wouldn’t own very many scrolls at all, and would likely have relied on scrolls of excerpts, each of which was perhaps not well or quite properly labelled. He also noted that references like “Law and Prophets” aren’t transparent at all, as the constituent members of each aren’t enumerated. It’s a very important point, and one that deserves repetition. I was first made aware of the need for caution in assumptions of this kind in connection with Luke 24.44 (“…in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…”) in Andrew Steinmann’s short but helpful book The Oracles of God: The Old Testament Canon (Concordia Publishing House, 1999), particularly in his cautioning against seeing “the psalms” in Lk 24.44 as a label for anything other than a group of psalms, and certainly not as a kind of pars pro toto label for all the books now in the Ktuvim of the Hebrew Bible. As Kraft stated, the principle applies more widely, and such labels as “law” and “prophets” cannot be assumed to include any particular list at all when that list is not explicitly given.

Susan Schwartz was next with “Pseudepigrapha among the Pagans? : Exploring the Boundaries of Audience.” There was no handout, unfortunately, though one would’ve been particularly helpful. Essentially, Schwartz would like to have us recognize things like certain of the Greek Magical Papyri, apotropaic amulets and such items which bear Biblical names within their texts among the pseudepigrapha. Moses, Jesus, Solomon, and various angels and other Biblical characters all appear in various such contexts, as in PGM 4.3007, where we find mentioned both the “Seal of Solomon” and “Jesus, God of the Hebrews.” The point is then made by Schwartz that “perceived efficacy” rather than affiliation is what led to the use of these various Biblical names in such different contexts that their original Judeo-Christian ones. There is a certain amount of overlap in these magical texts and some of the pseudepigrapha, most notably in one of my favorites among the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Testament of Solomon, where Solomon has demons working on the construction of the temple in Jerusalem through his superior magical wisdom. Such similarities show that the inclusion of some of these magical texts among the pseudepigrapha would not be so far-fetched.

Jonathan Soyars responded to Schwartz with complete agreement, wanting only to re-emphasize that “pagan” doesn’t necessarily eqate to “polytheist.” In describing the “God-fearers”, people who were attracted strongly to the synagogue but not so as to be circucised and convert fully, as an example of this, Soyars shows the variation of beliefs, including proper Judaic monotheism, among these “pagans.” This is another case where I think an appropriate terminology is lacking. Pagan, polytheist, Greek, Gentile–all in various contexts are used to refer to non-Jews/non-Christians, though the latter two eventually loose that connotation, particularly as more Greek Gentile Christians came onto the scene.

The Steering Committe Lunch
The morning session was held in a fairly large meeting room (probably with the capacity for seating about 300, though it was only perhaps 1/3 full) in the positively beautiful Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel. The hotel’s lobby, restaurants, and bars were all quite splendidly furnished. Prior to the conference, Lee McDonald and James Charlesworth had invited me to join them at their steering committee lunch, which was held immediately after the morining meeting at the delightful Buster’s Beach House, in the Seaport Village right west of the Grand Hyatt, on the marina. The meal was Macadamia nut crusted chicken with ginger soy glaze and Hawaiian chutney, served with garlic mashed potatoes, steamed fresh vegetables, and fried battered onion strings. At the lunch were Lee McDonald, Bill Hupper, Ken Penner, Fr Veselin Miha, Andrei Orlov, Henry Rietz, Jonathan Soyars, James Charlesworth, myself, Loren Johns, David de Silva, George Zervos, Burke Gertstenschlager, and Craig Evans. A couple of other people were apparently invited but unable to join us, including Amy-Jill Levine. The food was good, the conversation better. My greeting from Charlesworth (we’ve done quite a bit of email correspondence) was “I’m so glad you’re here” with each word punctuated by a a punch to my right arm–a prefect greeting to put me at ease, actually, although I then wondered if one of my San Diego SBL souvenirs minght not turn out to be a healthy bruise. He also made a joke about pirates infiltrating the steering committee–I generally wear a bandana on my shaved head and have a small gold earring in each ear, which do lend quite a pirate-like appearance to yours truly. I should put up a picture here sometime. Anyhow, the food began arriving promptly. After a prayer by Lee McDonald (who also used to be Craig Evans’ youth pastor–now there’s a long friendship for you!), each of us introduced ourselves. Most of these folks didn’t need introductions, but then there were the rest of us, of course. I introduced myself with a short precis of my current work, training and interests, ending with, “I’m just a guy who reads alot.” Charlesworth prompted me to tell them what I’m working on, which is also the reason for our correspondence–a full index and concordance to his OTP volumes which he’ll see is published (with the both of us as co-authors), and which they all thought was a great idea. Lee McDonald was also very kind in noting how helpful I’d been in sending him a list of corrections for his book, The Biblical Canon. Since it was an actual meeting of the steering committee, there was no chit-chat at first. I didn’t take notes during lunch, of course, so I only recall a few items out of what was discussed. One topic was on potentially rearranging the sessions so that they alternate speaker and respondents, with questions in a half-hour lump at the end. Another topic was the possibility of devoting an entire session to the Protevangelium of James, one of the NT Apocrypha, which George Zervos has worked on for two decades. After the business was over and general topics were being bandied about, I asked if anyone had any ideas how to track down detailed manuscript information for manuscripts containing pseudepigrapha, since in many cases they are not alone in those manuscripts, and that physical context could be very telling. George Zervos recommended to me a particular bibliography/catalogue of manuscript catalogues, which will be a very useful starting place. I should mention that not only are all these people sharp as tacks, they’re personable and pleasant, too. That’s be a great environment to be in every day, of course, but no one has that. These SBL conventions are almost like religious pilgrimages–people are energized by the opportunity to interface in large groups with similar interests, away from the bureaucratic tedia waiting back in the desk’s inbox at the office. After lunch was over, people went there separate ways until next year’s lunch or the consultation’s afternoon session for some of us who were planning to attend. I walked down along the marina with George Zervos for a bit until he doubled back to head to some session. I finally found a quite monumental (and exhausting, as I was still suffering from a cold) staircase leading up to the Convention Center, but to a floor that was creepily quite empty. So, after wandering a bit in this positively enormous building (it must be 1/2 mile long, if not longer), and wondering why all the various sessions weren’t being held in the convention center itself (I suspect the hotels required meeting space rental in exchange for the offering of reduced rates), I got in a rather long line for an iced coffee. After the coffee, I wandered into the book fair. I finally met James Spinti in person at the Eisenbraun’s booth, where we chatted for a bit. Then I went over to the Oxford University Press booth, where I got Albert Pietersma and Ben Wright to autograph my copy of NETS, A New Translation of the Septuagint, just like some silly, sycophantic schoolgirl. Well, not just like. Then I wandered on over to spot out the meeting space for the 4:00 pm session of the Function of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity Consultation over at the Marriott. It was in a place called the Chicago Room which seemed as distant from the lobby as its namesake. I toyed with the idea of going down to the pool for a fruity drink and a comfy spot in the shade to read some, but thought I might just fall asleep at that point. So I instead found a farly uncomfortable chair at a little table with someone else’s bag of finished take-out Chinese food sitting on it. Knowing that the garbage would be something of a deterrent to table-mates, I happily settled in and got more reading done in the midst of glad-handing, noisy, occasionally slightly tipsy AAR and SBL folks than I normally get done anywhere outside of home back in Berkeley. Fortunately only one person recognized what I was reading (NETS) and asked how was it–something I hadn’t experienced since the last Harry Potter book. Eventually, my intersessional break was over, and it was time to head to the afternoon session.

I will continue with the afternoon session in the next installment.


  1. Hello Kevin,

    Thank you for a thorough and interesting rundown. Very informative. I haven’t read McDonald’s new book, but I loved “The Canon Debate.” I’ve also been a fan of Charlesworth’s since “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” So I’m always interested to hear what he’s up to.

    Thanks for bringing the conference into our living rooms.

    John McBryde

  2. Hi John! You’re very welcome. I’d suggest you just wait for the new printing of McDonald’s The Biblical Canon. It should be out in January or February, they told him. Once I hear that it’s actually out, I’ll let everyone know here, too, of course.

    The book that really hooked me on Charlesworth (of those written directly by him and not just edited, at least) was The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament: Prolegomena for the Study of Christian Origins (Trinity Press International, 1988), which seems to be out of print, unfortunately. It’s a more economical reprinting, sans appendices, of the 1985 title of the same name, intended for the student. I should pick up the 1985 one some time….

    Anyhow, I’m glad you’re enjoying the notes. I thought I might as well post them for others to enjoy, too, since I want to get it all down in detail before I forget too much, and there’s no reason not to share it all.

    All the full papers from this consultation in San Diego are intended to be published in a volume by T&T Clark, too. That’ll be nice to have.

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