Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dialogue on When God Spoke Greek: Chapter 7

MosisMose Dialogue on When God Spoke Greek links: Intro to Dialogue - Ch. 1 - Ch. 2 Ch. 3 - Ch. 4 - Ch. 5 - Ch. 6

 Main Reviewer - Chris Fresch:

In his seventh chapter, titled E Pluribus Unum, Law effectively brings to a close what could be "Part 1" of his book.  The chapters after this one move beyond the translation of the Septuagint and its origins and begin to explore its use and reception in the New Testament and the Church Fathers.  The issue of textual plurality will get picked back up as will the questions of Scripture and Canon, but for all intents and purposes, chapter seven serves as the capstone to Law's narrative history of the Septuagint up to the dominance of the MT textual tradition.

This chapter is divided into two parts: "The Illusion of Merging Streams" and "The Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible."  I will discuss the salient points of each in turn.

The Illusion of Merging Streams

Law begins by discussing the significance of the Greek manuscripts from the Judean Desert, particularly with regard to manuscripts that reveal a desire to revise the Old Greek to conform, in both language and text, to a type of Hebrew text like we find in the later MT.  He concludes by making the salient point: "Without the multiplicity of divergent text forms we have discussed thus far, there would have been no need to revise" (76).  There is implicit evidence for textual plurality here.  Granted, it does not necessarily tell us more than that, but the revision efforts do at least attest that there was were streams of differing text traditions in this period.

When I first read WGSG a year ago, this section is what stuck with me the most.  Law makes an important point that needs to be considered and remembered in Old Testament textual research, and in fact, is a helpful reminder to anyone working in most any field.  He writes:

"Although it appears there was a widespread movement to bring all texts into alignment with the sources that would make up the Hebrew Bible, we are led to this conclusion only because we look at the earlier history through the lens of a later reality.  We then see a picture of all these revisions as a shared tendency to move in the direction of the later Hebrew Bible.  But since the text form of the Hebrew Bible was eventually adopted by the early rabbinic movement and soon displaced all other variations, we should expect nothing less than a distortion of the picture of the earlier variety.  There may not have been a widespread desire to align with the sources of the Hebrew Bible any more than to any other text, but since these revisions agree with the Hebrew Bible that later became standard we should expect they would have been preserved and thus be more surprised to have any traces of variety left at all." (76, emphasis mine)

When I think back on what I learned from this section, I usually compress it into one imperative sentence and one exclamatory sentence:

  1. Be cognizant of how the ultimate movement and outcome of history may be coloring and interpreting the past for you.
  2. It really is astonishing that we have so many witnesses to alternative textual traditions!

At this point, the reader comes to realize the significance of the chapter title and this section's title.  We know how history worked itself out.  There was one tradition (MT) to rule them all.  Because of the revisionist efforts, it is easy to look back and see all the streams merging with and conforming to the MT, but Law's warning should be taken seriously here.  History's outworking is coloring our interpretation of the events of the past, and we ought not let it.

In the latter part of this section, Law discusses the importance of the Minor Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever.  This scroll is especially interesting as it shows that revision efforts were being made on existing translations before the final books that make up the Septuagint (Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations) were even translated for the first time (77)!

Law finishes this section by briefly discussing the Kaige recension (a topic without which no book on the Septuagint would be complete) and the work of the Three (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion).  He has some interesting ideas regarding other revisional activity that was going on at the same time as the Three that are reasonably postulated, but I would like to speed ahead to the next section!

The Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

What does it mean to establish a canon?

This question has modern implications.  Consider the recent decision from Disney regarding the Star Wars canon.  True Star Wars fans (notice my qualifier there?) are upset about Disney's decision to demote the entire Expanded Universe, which has been built up over the past 30 years or so, to the status of "Star Wars Legends" while maintaining that only the movies and new TV show(s) are canonical.  This creates beneficial boundaries for Disney.  It allows them to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them, and still regard the older non-cinematic stories as part of the overall mythos but without being constrained by them.

"Establishing a canon presupposes the existence of variability and testifies to the desire to end all variety." (79)

Too true, Michael, too true.

Sorry, getting off my Star Wars soap box now.

But that is the first point Law makes in this section: The fact that a canon is eventually established necessarily indicates that there was some kind of diversity and a desire to end it.  In the case of the OT, we have two types of diversity: text traditions and accepted books, both of which were being made narrower by the canonization process.

What forced the canonization process?  Why did it need to happen?

Law spends the next couple pages attempting to answer those questions, tracing out what happened to bring an end to textual plurality, though he is careful to remind the reader that "this is a suggestion, not an unimpeachable interpretation" (80).  Though only a suggestion, it is rather reasonable and has some explanatory power.  There is not space to discuss it all, but there are two points in the latter bit of this historical recreation that I would like to at least mention in passing as I found them to be especially salient:

  1. The text tradition that ended up becoming dominant may have been chosen only because it was the one available (80, emphasis mine)
  2. Those who were making these decisions were excluding some texts that were used by other Jewish groups farther away from Jerusalem. (80, 81)

The first point reminds us that we should be careful to not simply assume just because the MT became dominant, that meant it was regarded as the best.  Perhaps it was simply the most convenient or the most widespread. (History may look back on us and actually think we chose VHS over Betamax because it was the better format!)

Regarding the second point, the lens through which we view the past makes it easy to regard history's outworking as a collective Jewish movement, but what we may be looking at are the decisions of the few in power in Jerusalem.  Granted, as Law notes, no one could approve a canonical list that had not been accepted by a number of adherents (83), but this would still only be reflective of the Jews living in Palestine.

The last few pages of the chapter continue to be thought provoking.  Law helpfully reminds the reader that the concept of a canon is "inescapably retrospective" since it is applied well after the books have been written and since "before the creation of the canon there was no way to tell which would eventually achieve authoritative status" (82).  This latter point is a good reminder.  The question of how to delimit a canon would have probably sounded absurd to those earlier and outspread communities who enjoyed gleaning from a wide variety of texts.  Law then goes on to discuss the use of non-canonical books outside of Palestine and the social, religious, and historical issues that probably all played a part in the text- and canon-centeredness that emerged in Judaism.  There is not space to discuss it all here, but it is worth reading and thinking through!

Responder #1 - Aaron White

I feel like I may again be forced into the role of the crotchety fundy, but before I get to enjoy that again, I would like to give acknowledgment to Chris', so-far, many and well used analogies.  The observant reader has noticed four, or so, thus far, and a skilled correction of my attempt to do the same!  It makes reviews more fun to read!  I, for one, am becoming a Star Wars fan via my three sons' wild interest in the series.  So this all makes sense to me now!

As for the chapter, I would also like to agree with Chris that I was struck by similar presuppositional things.  I am often reminding people in the church, and outside the church, that there is always a context informing the way they see things, and this chapter does a great job demonstrating this.

In that same vein, also, we continue to see that Law views canon from a certain perspective, and with specific presuppositions that are virtually unstated.  Canon for Law is chosen by a chance (?) via some expedient process and/or powerful party (83).  This is against a more historically Christian perspective that views canon as the recognition, not selection (!), of the books that are God's word and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  So, according to the latter view, canon is not about spiritual superiority nor limiting anyone's liberty concerning what they can and cannot read, but about what has been indicated divinely as the word of God (this means there is no sliding scale of inspiration, too, cf. 81 - it either is or is not inspired).  This latter view may seem awfully simple-minded and vanilla vis-a-vis the sexy diversity and freedom that is offered if we characterize canon according to the first presupposition, then reject it.  (I hate to do it) But it made an exciting blockbuster!  However, in all due respect to those who hold this view, because many of my friends do (hopefully they still like me!), it is not the only view that a scholar must hold in order to adequately, objectively, and thoroughly handle the evidence (and, I should be clear, Law does not claim this - it is simply stated because this confessional view is not too popular in academic circles).  In fact, the latter view would contend that all this evidence simply means more investigation must happen, and it endorses this exploration because they take the inspiration of a specific canon so seriously.This view, like the former, sees evidence as an exciting building block of knowledge, but not, in addition, as a type of tool of deconstructionism, here, of a view of canon.

Finally, concerning variety and diversity, I understood what Law was trying to say, and what Chris was reporting, but I am not sure what end Law has in mind.  Does this mean we leave our options open for any book that claims divine origin, and receive them as equal in spiritual value and/or historical accuracy, etc.?  I wasn't sure.  Also, as diversity and variety goes, one may have a hard time understanding why the canon we hold needs more of these things, if it is claimed that it resists it.  The genre and origins represented already is quite staggering!  I understand, however, that some have not recognized this, which gives a tall platform for some skeptical scholars who come to town and proclaims that "THERE IS GENRE IN THE BIBLE!" - and everyone is like, "variety, diversity, genre?! What?!" But, while Law is not necessarily speaking about this, I was curious to know what the end is that he is seeking by deconstructing canon because the "desire [of constructing a canon is] to end all variety."  I simply don't know if a statement like that is helpful for this discussion, or true of what the role of canon in fact is. 

But, I do not want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.  This is a good chapter.  I think there are classic historical-critical presuppositions that color it, but one should not disregard it because of this.  The chapter demonstrates that our job is not simply done with the discovery, reconstruction, transcription and publication of texts.  Rather, we as biblical scholars, have an embarrassment of riches, and these texts need explored for what they can tell us about the texts we already have (and vise versa), and see what they can tell us about how God spoke to his people in ages past, and how He is still forming our worldview in the 21st century through a inspired texts.

Responder #2—Ed Glenny
This is another valuable chapter, and I am again indebted to Timothy Michael Law for his work. He has made me think seriously about several issues. He presents in summary the thesis that the canon of authoritative books in Judaism is an accident of history, based on available manuscripts and political decisions made by the Hasmoneans (2 Macc 2:13-15). Chris has explained well the thesis of the chapter, but my main response is to note that Law is clear that this explanation of the Hebrew canon is what “some scholars have suggested” (83). It is one way to explain the evidence. And it is based on the idea that those who espouse the “merging streams” understanding of the development of the Hebrew canon are reading later ideas about the canon back into the earlier historical evidence. As I said above, I thank Law for making me think about this; however, if one does not share his presuppositions, there is little hard evidence to persuade one to accept his conclusion that the choice of the authoritative books of Judaism was an accident of history. For me the evidence from the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever and other tendencies to change texts to be more like the MT or proto-MT suggest that the authoritative status of the MT was more than an accident of history. 
            An issue that needs more discussion is the relationship of canonicity to books and texts. Does the canon refer only to a collection of books, or does it also refer to the texts of those books? My understanding of what Law is saying in this chapter is that he thinks canon involves authoritative books and texts. Tov talks about this issue in relationship to the Hebrew Bible in the article Law quotes at the beginning of the chapter (“The Status of the Masoretic Text in Modern Text Editions of the Hebrew Bible”), and he seems to conclude that the original text should not be linked with the canonical status of the MT (esp. 247-249); thus, the canon refers to a collection of books that could be represented by different texts. Among other things Tov comments that the MT is represented by many textual witnesses from the third century B.C.E. to the Middle Ages, and it contains many early errors which were preserved by later scribes (242-243). I understood Law to be referring to canonical books and texts in chapter seven, and I would love to hear more from him to clarify this.

            This is another helpful chapter, and I am thankful for T. M. Law keeping our minds in the Septuagint; thanks also to Chris Fresch for his review and to Aaron White for his response. I should note that I am responsible for the delay in the posting of the discussion of this chapter, and I apologize to Chris and Aaron for that.

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