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

Evans, Craig A. and Emanual Tov (eds.), Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). Pp. 272, Paperback. US$29.99, ISBN 978-0-8010-3242-4.

Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective consists of eight chapters, each going back to presentations given at Acadia Divinity School, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, at a special spring session of the Hayward Lectures in 2006. Craig Evans, who teaches New Testament at Acadia, provides a very clear and useful introduction to the volume and also briefly refers to the contents of the following chapters.

The chapters take roughly two different forms. Some are technically-engaged pieces of scholarship, the purpose of which is to explain in an accessible manner the complexities in text-criticism and the development of biblical texts. Under discussion are (1) the role of the Septuagint in establishing two patterns of editing (one where the translator moves with freedom and one where evidence of a different Vorlage is strong, leading one to conclude that the LXX represents an early phase in what will become a later Hebrew text tradition); (2) the evidence in favour of an early tripartite form of the Hebrew canon; (3) how the Greek language transmission of the Old Testament influenced modern translations of the Old Testament—at the level of individual passages as well as order and arrangement—even translations based on the Reformation's practice of prioritizing the MT; (4) how one might assess the so-called apocryphal Gospels and whether they should be taken seriously for historiographical purposes; and (5) the letters of Paul and the emergence of a Pauline Letter collection. Each of the authors includes an up-to-date bibliography and engages the technical discussion in a comprehensive and judicious way. At the same time, the authors make the effort to turn the technical discussion—even in its details—to an audience which is unaware of the debates, or which has formed an opinion but requires a fresh and fair engagement with the field in its present state. Emanuel Tov, Stephen Dempster, Glen Wooden, Craig Evans and Stan Porter are responsible for these chapters. It is a great pleasure to have the authors bring the audience up to speed on the present state of the discussion without getting bogged down in the debates for their own sakes. These chapters afford a clear understanding of the Pauline Letter Collection, the final form of the Hebrew Canon, and the challenge of non-canonical NT sources. They also help one to deal proportionally with the prominence of an Old Testament in translation in the church, and also as reflecting a variant Hebrew tradition.

Three other chapters are not concerned to present and make accessible the critical issues and instead seek to make broader hermeneutical and theological claims. James Charlesworth, for example, questions the very idea of a canon in any meaningful sense at the time of Jesus. He refers reflexively to the term “canon” only making any real sense in the 4th century, when Christians had a codex and needed to know which books were in the Bible (p. 58)—a view which sits quite uneasily with the chapters which follow. Charlesworth then offers a series of personal reflections on mischaracterizations of Second Temple Judaism, the Judaism of Jesus' day, what we can learn from apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, and the beauty and danger of the canon. These reflections have a homiletical character and obviously proceed from views the author has held for some time. In some ways more technically engaged, but no less concerned to offer his own view on how we should estimate the Bible, is the offering of Lee McDonald, “Wherein Lies Authority?” The answer is “Jesus.” Texts and translations do not stand in first place, but Jesus does, somehow independently. It would have been helpful to know whether McDonald means that on something of Lessing's terms, or Bultmann's, or maybe even Marcion's (who was also not keen on testimony in written form). Also unclear is why we need so much technical discussion of the canon if its only real point is to reveal its subsidiary status.

The final chapter of the book is an offering from Jonathan Wilson, entitled, “Canon and Theology.” His task was ostensibly to wrap up the conference and move the discussion toward modern reflection on Scripture and Theology (he mentions the new commentary series published by Brazos as well as the “Two Horizons” series). Canon is a dogmatic as well as an historical term, involving the material form of the Bible, and he quotes with approval essays by John Webster and J. H. Yoder. Wilson wants the relationship between texts and communities to have a place in any account of canon, and also some reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit in relationship to canon.

Exploring the Origins of the Bible is a very useable workbook. It will bring the reader into contact with the complexities of text-critical study, the place and meaning of “the Septuagint,” the function of the Letters of Paul as Canon, and present-day thinking about canon and the church. The bibliography is up to date and the authors have striven to make the difficulties of the discipline transparent for wider theological purpose and application.

Christopher Seitz, Wycliffe College, Toronto