Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings

Tim Wellings NT Canon - Armstrong
#554 9/29/11
Forgotten Scriptures – Questions Needing Answers

In his book, Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings, Lee Martin McDonald offers a very different perspective from traditional conservatives such as B.B. Warfield and the recently reviewed Brooke Wescott. However, though McDonald brings up similar questions to those of the Jesus Seminar, his conclusions would not be considered liberal, placing him between the two extremes that dominate the New Testament canon debate. McDonald’s thesis is stated on page 193: “The Scriptures that informed the faith of early Judaism (200 BCE to 200 CE), and early Christianity (first-third centuries CE) are not exactly the same as the Scriptures that inform the faith of Jews and Christians today.” McDonald offers convincing evidence to prove this statement from the fluidity of the Old Testament canon at the time of Jesus to the fluidity of the New Testament throughout most of the history of the church. 
It seems that a substantial amount of McDonald's argument against a fixed Old (or First as he calls it) Testament canon rests on the findings at Qumran. He cites the fact that although a copy of every book of the Old Testament is found at Qumran (except for Esther), so are a number of non-canonical religious books. McDonald lists out how many copies of each Old Testament book have been found and the reader is shown that though a few books like Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms have between 20 and 40 copies, most of the books have between two and six copies (McDonald 53). In contrast, the reader is told that 1 Enoch has twelve copies, Jubilee's has fourteen, and Tobit five copies. According to McDonald not only did these books and others like it function as scripture, they were more valued than books like Ezra and Chronicles, each of which have only one copy that's been discovered (McDonald 60).

I do think the findings at Qumran are a very important addition to the search of the early church's scriptures. I had not looked into Qumran significantly before reading what McDonald had to say, so it is hard to compare his conclusions with others. However, I do feel like the fact that Qumran had so many copies of Enoch and the Jubilee's is significant. McDonald claimed that they functioned the same as scripture, but I would have to look more deeply to be convinced.

McDonald also brought up that a copy of Esther was wanting at Qumran. Coupled with the fact that there is no mention of the Feast of Purim in other Qumran literature, he concluded that the community did not hold Esther to be scripture (McDonald 54). The second part of his evidence may be more convincing, but I am slightly skeptical of the argument from silence. We are basing a lot of our conclusions on solely what we have discovered from this community at Qumran. What if everything we have found is only five percent of their literature? Conclusions stemming from the number of copies found of the five percent would no longer be valid.

Another piece of McDonald's argument is based on the books included in the Septuagint. He asserts that not only were the Diaspora Jews using more books in the first century BCE but the Western Diaspora used them until at least the 9th century CE (McDonald 58). McDonald goes on to say that the early Christians inherited this fluid canon and quoted “non-canonical” books as scripture (McDonald 61), all of which would directly conflict with the opinion of a fixed and closed canon at the time of Jesus. McDonald concludes with the question of opening the canon today. He responds that he is not anxious to take away or add to the canon but rather seeks to simply be informed by the same books as the early church (McDonald 61).
The Septuagint is not the only translation that had different books included or excluded. McDonald notes other translations whose book lists vary from what we have today including the Targum, the Syriac versions, the Latin versions, the Ethiopic version, the Coptic versions, and the Armenian version. He concludes that even though most of the versions have the 39 books that make up today's Old Testament canon, most included some of the books we deem apocryphal (McDonald 96).

This is quite convincing that the canon was not fixed for either the Jews or the Christians. A few people may have set their own lists, but you cannot argue with the evidence. Most regions included more books. I just cannot see a way around that whatsoever.

McDonald next examines the books that Jesus and the early church quoted and alluded to. The most obvious example is Jude's quotation of 1 Enoch 1:9. McDonald acknowledges that just because a reference is made does not mean that the author held that the text is sacred (McDonald 126). However, McDonald insists that Jude cited Enoch as a prophetic and inspired literature (McDonald 127). I would have to agree with McDonald at this point. I agree with the idea that just because another work is cited by a biblical author does not make it authoritative. Paul quoted one of the Athenian poets and affirmed it as a truth. He also quoted a poet to prove his point about Cretans. But the manner Paul did so was much different from the manner which Jude uses Enoch. Jude was using the prophecy found in Enoch as his very statement whereas Paul was making his own statement and appealed to poets his audience knew in order to show that his statement was not unique. Paul's statement that Cretans were lazy did not need the authority of the poet, while Jude based his entire statement on the words of Enoch.

Aside from that, McDonald claims that a number of Jesus' sayings are paralleled in the Apocrypha (McDonald 128-135) proving that Jesus was influenced by these books. He continues with examples from the Apostolic Church Period of quotes and allusions to extra-canonical books as authoritative (McDonald 136). McDonald also states that The Shepherd of Hermes was so popular with the early church that is was cited “only less frequently than the Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew and John” (McDonald 142).
Again, I see no getting around this information. For a book like the Shepherd of Hermes to be so popular negates the opinion that the early church held to the same New Testament that we have today. I would have to see exactly how the early church would use The Shepherd, but McDonald seems to be under the impression that they used it as scripture. How come Athanasius excluded it from his list? I wonder what his qualifications were for books to be considered scripture. Was it along the lines of Luther – if the books preach Christ they are canonical?

Lee McDonald touches on the ancient Christian manuscripts once more and points out that of the early church manuscripts discovered, not one of them has the complete Old and New Testament as we have it today (McDonald 168). He also states that though it seems that the canon was closed no later than the fourth century, Daryl Schmidt points out two twelfth century manuscripts that contained extra books (McDonald 168).

As for the books that were eventually discarded: The Shepherd of Hermes, the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, and the Didache to name a few, McDonald argues that these books were “decanonized” (McDonald 191). For at one point they were used as authoritative, and at another thrown out. From these observations and the others discussed earlier, McDonald concludes that the scriptures that informed early Judaism and Christianity are not exactly the same as the scriptures that inform us today (McDonald 193). But, McDonald does agree that the core of the scriptures is the same today as it was in the early church. His basic argument is that the early church inherited a fluid Old Testament. The idea of a fixed New Testament would be foreign to them, and the historical evidence proves this.

McDonald then takes a turn down a dark road. After wading through all of the different textual differences in the early church and even today, McDonald expresses that the manuscripts that we reject as faulty were considered scripture to their communities (McDonald 191). He then asks a few interesting open-ended questions about how these faulty manuscripts would affect worship and theology. The reader's reaction would probably be that of confusion, but this would become clear in McDonalds concluding chapter where he challenges biblical inerrancy (McDonald 197).

Overall, the book was a great resource. It gave me some new perspectives after reading Metzger and Wescott. McDonald raised some great questions and gave solid answers that were very convincing. I would agree with him that the church should be more aware of and value these books that were “decanonized.” I also want to be informed by the same literature as the early church and I feel like the traditional answers I have heard about the canon do not adequately answer the questions raised. McDonald gives great evidence for his views but I would have to disagree with him when he gets to the point of discarding biblical inerrancy. Everything else seems to be tight logically but with this view he seems to take quite a leap. I would recommend this book to anyone who already has a grasp on the conservative stance of the debate.

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