Ordained Servant Online
Review of Exploring the Origins of the Bible
James W. Scott
Exploring the Origins of the Bible, edited by Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, 272 pages, $22.99, paper.
A special spring session of the Hayward Lectures at the loosely evangelical Acadia Divinity College (the theological faculty of Acadia University) in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, brought together eight scholars in 2006 to address various aspects of the canonical formation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Four of the lecturers were Acadia faculty members, two others were also Canadian professors, and two were prominent nonevangelicals from warmer climes: Emanuel Tov and James H. Charlesworth. Two of the lecturers, Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, edited the eight lectures as Exploring the Origins of the Bible, which Baker Academic has now published.
Anyone who is seriously interested in the literary-historical origin of the Bible, especially as that is understood from a generally conservative (if not necessarily theologically Reformed) point of view, will find much to think about in these essays.
Emanuel Tov, the leading Jewish authority on Old Testament textual criticism, starts off with "The Septuagint as a Source for the Literary Analysis of Hebrew Scripture." Looking at some of the major differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text, he argues that the translators of the Septuagint used Hebrew manscripts that often differed from (and sometimes were antecedent to) those upon which the Masoretic text was based. Both textual traditions need to be considered in literary analysis of the Old Testament, he insists. This should have been clear to Christians all along from the New Testament's heavy use of the Septuagint.
In "Writings Ostensibly outside the Canon," James H. Charlesworth commends the study of the Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament canon. There is background information to be gained from these writings, to be sure, but he goes too far when he denies the crucial distinction between canonical and noncanonical writings, claiming that "God's Word" (whatever that means to Charlesworth) can be found in the latter as well as in the former.
Stephen G. Dempster's "Torah, Torah, Torah: The Emergence of the Tripartite Canon" is the longest and most footnoted essay, as is appropriate for a Westminster Seminary graduate. He makes a solid case for the view that the Old Testament canon developed in three parts (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings), a view that has come in for considerable criticism of late.
R. Glenn Wooden addresses "The Role of 'the Septuagint' in the Formation of the Biblical Canons." He surveys the various Greek books of the Old Testament (and their variant forms) that existed in antiquity, how they differed from the Hebrew, and their use in the church. This complex situation he imagines is problematic for the traditional views of verbal inspiration and a fixed canon; it shows, rather, that the boundaries of Scripture have not always been properly respected. His solutionsmultiple canons and texts of divine authority, and a continuing "inspiration" in those canons and texts over the centuriesare inconsistent with Scripture being the word of a truthful and self-consistent God.
In "The Apocryphal Jesus: Assessing the Possibilities and Problems," Craig A. Evans argues that extracanonical gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas) are of dubious historical value as independent sources for the life and teaching of Jesus, and have been given far too much credence by certain (more radical) scholars. This essay is a welcome dose of sanity.
Stanley E. Porter presents the intriguing essay "Paul and the Process of Canonization." He argues that the Pauline collection of epistles was assembled toward the end of Paul's life or shortly thereafter, and was instigated by Paul or one or more of his close associates. This controversial thesis is probably correct, in my judgment. It tends to refute the modern denials of Pauline authorship to a number of epistles attributed to him (such as Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles).
"Wherein Lies Authority?" asks Lee Martin McDonald. It lies not in the text of Scripture itself, he says, but in Jesus Christ, who comes to us through the biblical text (in the church's various canons, texts, and translations). However, the authority of God (or Christ) and his word are the very same authority. It is true, as McDonald argues at length (though I would dispute some of his assertions), that we do not have a perfectly certain original text or a perfectly reliable translation, but our Bibles are still the authoritative Word of God to the extent that they represent the inspired text, and that extent is quite high.
Jonathan R. Wilson concludes with a short essay on "Canon and Theology: What Is at Stake?" He argues that both classical Protestantism, basing authority on the biblical text, and classical Catholicism, basing authority on the church, do not acknowledge the messy realities of history (including canonical formation), and thus dehistoricize Scripture and the church, respectively. Modernism (or "high Modernity"), on the other hand, basing authority on reason or experience, dehistoricizes humankind. And now postmodernism (or rather "late Modernity") historicizes everything. Wilson seems to accept this historical flux, but wants to find historical redemption in it, without the faulty universals of doctrine, as the Holy Spirit works in history. This is a conceptually profound, but deeply non-Reformed essay. If historical flux is ultimate, there is no redemption in it.
This collection of essays is a challenging read. It deals with current scholarly controversies, but often from a distorted perspective. I would recommend the book only to those who are already quite knowledgeable on the subject and well-grounded in Reformed theology.
James W. Scott
Willow Grove, Pa.
Ordained Servant Online, April 2010