Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Zaman, Luc, Bible and Canon: A Modern Historical Inquiry (SSN, 50; Leiden: Brill, 2008). Pp. xv+714. Hardcover. US$199.00. ISBN 978-9-00416-743-8.

This massive tome is a revised version of a 2004 doctoral dissertation in the department of theology at the University of Brussels. The dissertation was supervised jointly by K. Smelik and P. Thomson. It was thought that since the “canon is in” it would be an auspicious time to present the original work to a broader public, revising it accordingly and translating it into English. The book represents an incredibly ambitious project and is extremely thorough as attested by its voluminous bibliography and copious footnotes. In fact, the adjective copious understates the description of the footnotes. Their content greatly exceeds the text of the book! Sometimes a footnote constitutes the entire text of a page.

The title of the book is partially misleading since the author concerns himself primarily with the first half of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, although in fairness, the results can be generalized to extend to other scriptural writings. Zaman argues that scholars in the biblical canon movement tend to lose sight of the historical shape of the canon because of their interest in theology; the resulting theological construction resembles the leaning tower of Pisa, in some ways the target of ridicule by its critics not only because of its abnormal shape but because of an inadequate historical foundation. In order to rectify what could become “a right mess” which would inevitably derail the entire study of canon, the author proposes to offer a new historical study of the canon's formation which takes into consideration many more of the factors that contributed to the evolution of the canon's shape. Thus not only is the theological idea of canon itself considered but also the evolution of the historical shape of the canon as well as the community's role in that formation.

Chapters dealing with the history of the study of the canon, terminology, an evaluation of modern canon study and the present state of the historical study of the canon occupy the first third of the book before the author begins his own project. While some of these chapters contain important information, one gets the sense of introductory “overkill.” These chapters are not for the faint of heart. Part of the problem has to do with the poor translation of the text, which is rife with errors (more on this later). The project begins with a discussion of method: 1) The complex nature of the biblical traditions demand attention not only to the final shape of the text, but also to the traces contained within it of its own evolutionary development. This demands both a synchronic and diachronic approach (pp. 196–198), which entails the study of institutions and oral traditions as well as written texts. 2) There needs to be a study of the theological intentions of the speakers, authors and editors, whose words comprised the text, giving adequate consideration to the fact that they produced literature “oriented toward the operation of the canon as an absolute dynamic norm of faith within their faith community” (p. 199). 3) The community of faith's contribution in the formation of canon also requires examination, particularly its role in determining the relationship between 1 and 2. An examination of the interplay between these three factors will result in “a global method.” “They dominate the whole of the canon process in conjunction with the innumerable smaller factors which they comprise” (p. 207).

One of the problems in past studies of the historical development of the canon has been the fixation on final form: “the history of canon research teaches that studies had long started predominantly …from the perspective of the final phase of the canonization period” (p. 207). Thus there is a concern for the final shape and the extra biblical evidence attesting to canonization as found in records and lists. The current crisis in the study of the history of Israel where the trend is to date virtually every biblical text to the exilic and post-exilic periods reinforces this concern for the final phase of the text. However, Zaman wisely hesitates to embrace such historical nihilism. As for the difficulty of ascertaining the historical sources, “like the sources of the Nile, they are more difficult to find the closer we get to them… and in doing so we follow the natural flow [of the] canonical process downward in time…” (pp. 208–209). Such an historical probing of the genesis of canon can also avoid the fault of many other historical studies of canon, which read back into the historical process conclusions reached by starting with the final form. One can think here of Eugene Ulrich's claim of the tripartite a priori which he claims governs much of contemporary canon study, even influencing the reading of extra-biblical texts.[1] Moreover, Zaman argues that the quest for the sources of the canon will help provide a common canonical foundation for all later forms of the biblical canon and their respective religious communities. Thus there will emerge a “foundation of an ecumenical house built on the so [sic.] needed common ground conducive to forging a common future” (p. 211).

The author begins his historical study by providing a synchronic snapshot of a text that he believes to date from the exile, sometimes called the Primary History, the narrative extending from Genesis through 2 Kings. The final shape of this document would have been the work of a Deuteronomist school into which priestly material was later integrated (560–521 BCE). The Dtr authors weaved existing traditions with their own unique contribution into a single unity. Since their distinctive contribution is present in the so-called Dtr History, the thesis is proposed that they wanted to anchor their work in an earlier narrative that began with Genesis. “The extension of the old story into their present offers an opportunity to show in that sequel what went so wrong that catastrophe became unavoidable. It also offered an opportunity to draw lessons, not only for the present, but also for the future [with] the pardon of Jehoiachin” (p. 219). Consequently the past, present and future were combined into a single history.

But the critical information for canon is the use of the “book of the Torah” in the narrative, which functions as the norm by which the history is assessed (norma normans). This text has three functions (pp. 220–235): a body of norms (law projected to Moses), a prophetic scope (which predicted judgment and exile for disobedience), and a wisdom emphasis (the focus on obedience to the law leading to wisdom, and a strong parenaetic function). The later integration of the P material was not decisive canonically.

The creation of a unity from the mass of data stresses the importance of the material but the fact of the discovered law book near the end of their narrative shows that this dominates the whole, and it uniquely presents the answer to the crisis of identity produced by the exile. The commitment of the final shape to writing stresses the authority attached to the whole. The shape was not fortuitous but was based on a fundamental hermeneutical principle, that of the prophetic inspiration of the tradents and the importance of Torah—the later idea of canon present in embryonic form. Finally, the account was produced by a group concerned for a broad sense of community with a concern for limitations on the monarch and a concern for inclusion of all the elements of society: priests, prophets, elders, the royal court and the people of the land.

According to the author, then, this represents the state of the canon question around 560–520 BCE; nevertheless he concludes that even though the finished product consists of approximately one-half of the later Hebrew Bible, the written material still works at a pre-canonical level. But what, then, about the period before 560 BCE, the sources used by Dtr? This is a far more complex area, particularly given the current revisionist tendency in Israelite historiography and the conflict between the maximalists and minimalists. Zaman concludes that while minimalists make some advances in certain areas, the wholesale adoption of their principles would lead to historical nihilism (p. 273). While the biblical authors did not write with a contemporary concern for historical exactitude, they did not manufacture history either (p. 386). The primacy of legal sources is the foundation of the material, completely orienting the entire narrative. Such sources include the Book of the Covenant which depicts Israel in more primitive tribal form (p. 316), the stories about pre-classical prophets and classical prophets, and various historical traditions such as election and the day of the Lord. The conviction, for example, that provided the basis of the prophetic narratives was divine inspiration, and this of course would have provided a seminal basis for a distinct canonical quality. “However distorted the history of the prophets may be presented in the prophetic legends, the dynamic starting point whose foundation is laid in the experience of YHWH remains irrevocably authentic” (p. 431). Later redactors did not distort this message but were deeply impressed and influenced by it.

Thus as far as the formal shape of the text is concerned, the redactors safeguarded the message of their sources while continuing their spirit. Secondly, regarding the actual content and “canonical intention” of the material, it is clear that there is absolute authority given to YHWH: “All traditions, everything and everyone must give way before him” (p. 470). Thirdly, as far as the community was concerned, two key historical events made the community pay attention to its situation: the exiles of 722 and 586 BCE. These events, in combination with the prophetic messages and principled lives of the prophets, produced communal acceptance of the prophets and their redactors within the larger community.

In conclusion Zaman likens the entire canonical process to the cross-section of a living tree: “A glance at the cross-section is sufficient to show how consistently the tree needs bark, phloem and sap to exist. Similarly the presence of formal, theological and social ingredients is the condition for attaining the level of the canon process” (p. 495). The three factors need to work together “to set the canon process in motion and ensure its growth.”

What can be said in response to this ambitious project? Positively, this is a major advance on previous canonical studies. The author's analysis of the problem besetting canonical studies is largely accurate. There is a dearth of studies which explore the genesis of the idea of canon in the early biblical tradition. This is probably due, as the author notes, to the inherent problems of the accurate dating of sources and the current revisionist climate. At the same time there is little or no new evidence regarding the canon question leading up to the final phase of canonization. Brevard Childs seems to be quite accurate in his belief that the biblical editors “covered their tracks so well” in order to keep the authoritative text in focus.[2] Moreover, canonical studies usually focus on one aspect of the canon question to the exclusion of others. The whole subject of canon is considerably more complex and to his credit Zaman seeks to address this complexity.

One of the solid conclusions of this study is that the canon did not just emerge as a creation ex nihilo but had a long history. Zaman's lack of discussion about the common distinction between “scripture” and “canon” speaks volumes. The concept of canon clearly had precedents and existed in seminal form from the beginning: his YHWH principle is clearly one such factor. Personally I think that Zaman demurs too much when he feels that the final product of the primary history works at a “pre-canonical level.” This stands somewhat in tension with his YHWH principle. Given the statements elsewhere in the book, I think that it would be more accurate to speak of an early stage of evolution of the canon, a seminal canon, a proto-canon. Moreover, his statement cited earlier regarding the distorted history of the prophets and their authentic experience of YHWH seems to contradict, in my judgment, the idea of canon. The decisive proof of the prophets' living encounter with God in the biblical material was the accuracy of their words. Thus their words would be preserved by the community and not discarded.

The fact that the book of the Torah orients the narrative from Genesis –2 Kings explaining the catastrophes of 722 and 586 BCE surely stamps it with the imprimatur of divine authority. This is a point that is not often taken into consideration. In other words the fate of Israel and Judah assumed a prior fundamental standard which had been violated. Personally, I would have liked to see more study of the Deuteronomic influence in the writings of the Latter Prophets. Their editing, particularly their editorial headings, contribute to this canonical authority as other studies have shown. As Freedman and others have argued the absence of the classical prophets in the Primary History is best explained by their presence in a complementary collection.

A conspicuous omission from this study—and there were not many—was a reflection on the work of scholars who have argued for large scale canonical redactions. Texts like Deut 34:8–10, Josh 1:7–9 would seem to suggest an intentional strategy to separate divisions within the Primary History. And in fact these texts also imply a wider corpus of documents which include the Latter Prophets (cf. Mal 3:24–26) and the Psalms (Pss 1–2).

One of the great difficulties of any study such as Zaman's is the diachronic speculation in delineating sources and traditions. Nevertheless, the author is to be commended for his sound analysis and modest conclusions regarding texts like the Book of the Covenant and various other strata. His steering of a middle course between the Scylla of the historical nihilism of the minimalists and the Charybdis of the historical literalism of certain maximalists deserves commendation.

The basic problem of this book though is its translation. It deserves much better. It is strewn with English words that are misspelled, grammatical solecisms, wrong translation equivalents and strange expressions which must have been translated literally from the Dutch (e.g. “all by all” instead of “all in all”). Also, footnote numbers in the text are placed before punctuation. This important book needs better packaging to become more accessible to the academic community in the West. If “canon is in,” as we are told at the beginning of this book, and the material form of the canon is an extremely important part of that canonical process, then one would think that the editorial team at E. J. Brill could have done a much better job.

Stephen Dempster, Crandall University

[1] E. Ulrich, “The Non-Attestation of a Tripartite Canon in 4 QMMT,” CBQ 65 (2003): 202–214. reference

[2] B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 59. reference