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Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament – 3

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Chapter 2: The Problem of the Canon

In the second chapter Childs deals with “The Problem of the Canon” from seven perspectives: 1) Terminology; 2) The Traditional View of the Canon and its Demise; 3) The Nineteenth-century Historical Consensus and its Erosion; 4) The Search for a New Consensus; 5) A New Attempt at Understanding Canon; 6) The Relation between the Literary and Canonical Histories; 7) A Sketch of the Development of the Hebrew Canon.

Childs begins this chapter with the question: “What is meant by ‘the canon’? However, the real problem with defining this term is not settled by philological evidence. History of interpretation shows how different the concepts of canon have been over the centuries and Childs states that the reason for the present confusion over the problem of the canon is because of the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology.[1]

Old Testament itself does not directly explain when and how the history of canonization took place. Still various Jewish traditions developed during the Hellenistic period that was accepted by both Jews and Christians until seventeenth century. Elias Levita developed the theory that it was men of the Great Synagogue under Ezra who established the canon of the Hebrew Bible and divided it into three parts. This theory was accepted by Jews and Christians until the end of nineteenth century. The traditional viewpoints varied but they had in common an underlying assumption of an unbroken continuity between writing and collection authoritative scriptures until the last book was written and the canon was closed. This traditional understanding of the canon eventfully collapsed because of attacks from critical research, which questioned the accuracy of the traditional concept of the canon’s history.[2]

This new critical theories of the canon from a strictly historical perspective (Eichhorn, Corrodi, de Wette, and others) failed however to achieve wide consensus, because of the disagreement over the history of the literature. But the growing dominance of Wellhausen’s reconstruction of Israel’s history and literature developed a new consensus regarding the history of the canon. Therefore the classic literary critical construction of the formation of the canon continued, with some modification, to be represented in Introductions (Pfeiffer, Bentzen, and Eissfeldt).[3]

This nineteenth-century classic reconstruction of the history of the canon has however according to Childs in turn seriously eroded in several ways: 1) Most of the historical points upon which the theory was built on seem no longer able to bear the weight placed upon them; 2) The assumption that the Masoretic division of a tripartite canon was the original order reflecting three historical stages, and that the Septuagint’s order was a later adjustment, has been questioned; 3) The recovery of a sense of oral tradition which criticized the literary critical school for identifying the age of the material within a book with its literary fixation.[4]

Because of this erosion in the classic critical reconstruction new attempts was made in an effort to form a new synthesis. The characteristics of these efforts are sketched out by Childs by referring to five scholars who represents five views of the development of the Old Testament Canon. They are G. Hölscher, David Noel Freedman, Z. Leiman, M. G. Kline and A. Sanders. Childs summarizes his analysis of these efforts by explaining that the task of assessing the role of the canon in understanding the Old Testament has proven to be an enormously difficult problem. Its terminology, history, and function remain highly controversial. Childs thus concludes that up to the point of the publishing of his own Introduction “no fully satisfactory new interpretation has been able to achieve a consensus”.[5]

Childs feels it is now time to formulate a new definition of the term canon. He begins with the criteria of such a definition: 1) It has to do justice to all the dimensions of the issue and be consistent in application; 2) It has to contain both a historical and theological dimension of process and reflection; 3) It has to avoid a too sharp separation between the authority of writing and its canonization. Thus, according to Childs, the term canon has both a historical and theological dimension, which involved a series of decisions that shaped the books. It involved a “profoundly hermeneutical activity” that was built into the structure of the canonical text. This activity consisted of Israel’s response too and understanding of divine scripture. The heart of this process is the transmission and ordering of “the authoritative tradition in a form which was compatible to function as scripture for a generation which had not participated in the original events of revelation.”[6]

To further understand the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures one has to study its history of literary development, which shares in general many features with Near Eastern literature. In this discussion Childs is critical too how different scholars have tried to identify the literary and canonical histories. He means that these two historical processes are not to be identified, but they belong together. What follows are Childs’ general observations regarding the relationship: 1) The development of Hebrew literature involved a much broader history than the history of the canon’s development; 2) There were periods in the history of Israel in which the canonical history was largely subsumed under the history of the literature’s development; 3) Because of the lack of historical evidence, it is extremely difficult to determine the motivations involved in the canonical process. Childs conclusion concerning the relationship is: “Caution must be exercised not to hypothesize the history of the literature’s growth in such a way as to eliminate a priori the religious dimensions associated with the function of the canon.[7]

Childs says that Deut. 31:24ff records an early stage in the growth of the canon of the Law. This “Deuteronomic description” has a close relationship with earlier tradition. Concerning the canonical history of the Prophets, scholarly opinions differ because of insufficient evidence. Childs criticizes different positions regarding the canon of the Prophets, and points to different signs of canonical development from both the pre- and post-exilic period. Also, according to Childs, there are signs of mutual influence between the Law and the Prophets, which shows that the canonical process of these two sections was not isolated from each other. The evidence regarding the Writings is sparse and contested. But Childs means that in spite of lack of evidence for dating and closing the third section, the stabilization of the Hebrew text by the end of the first century AD point to a rather closed Hebrew canon by the beginning of the Christian era. Finally, the canonization process involved a selection of a limited number of books from a much larger group of literature. The motivation behind this narrowing process is much debated, but Childs does not attribute this process to an anti-Christian move.[8]

Childs concludes so far that 1) there was a genuine historical development involved in the formation of the canon, and 2) the available historical evidence allows for only a bare skeleton of this development. The implications drawn from this is that “the history of the canonical process does not seem to be an avenue through which one can greatly illuminate the present canonical text.” Childs thus wonders if there is any way out of this deadlock.[9]

[1] Ibid., 49–51.
[2] Ibid., 51
[3] Ibid., 52.
[4] Ibid., 52
[5] Ibid., 54–57.
Ibid., 57–60.
[7] Ibid., 60–62.
[8] I
bid., 62–67.
Ibid., 67–68.


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