The two topics have come together this week, at least in my mind. It was triggered by Childs's assertions about the Masoretic text:
The thesis being proposed is that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament. …I wish to make two points in response to Childs's proposal.
There were many different Jewish communities in the Hellenistic period with different authoritative texts. Why should the one community which finally supported the Masoretic text be singled out? The reason is that only this one historic community has continued through history as the living vehicle of the whole canon of Hebrew scripture. …
But was not the relation of canon and text very different for Christians from what it was for Jews? Did not Greek-speaking Jewish Christians continue to use the Septuagint as an authoritative text, as the New Testament and early church fathers appear to demonstrate? Why should decisions within the Jewish community, some of which extended chronologically after the rise of Christianity, be deemed normative in any sense for Christians? …
The crucial point to be made is that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish. It made no claims of having a better text of scripture, as did, for example, the Samaritans. …
In sum, the church's use of Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament was valid in its historical context, but theologically provides no grounds for calling into question the ultimate authority of the Hebrew text for church and synagogue.1
First, "that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish" is completely irrelevant. We should not think, anachronistically, in terms of a formal council giving its official imprimatur to a specific canon of books and a specific (Masoretic) text.
There was no promulgation of a canon even at Jamnia, as Childs knows. The various books were recognized as normative by the religious community (or communities) in a piecemeal fashion. The Law and the Prophets were agreed upon first. But the boundaries of the Writings and what we regard as the apocryphal texts were still disputed during the formative era of the Christian Church.
The determinative consideration was the practice of the various communities: which books they treated as normative when they gathered for worship and instruction. Therefore it is irrelevant that Christians did not develop a doctrine of scripture.
As Childs indicates, the New Testament and the Church fathers appealed to the Septuagint as an authoritative text. This matters, because at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text is.
Which brings me to my second point. The establishment of a normative text was not a purely spiritual act, but also a socio-political one. The stabilizing of the Masoretic text enabled the religious authorities to seize control of the theological agenda. As Childs indicates (p. 98),
Following the stabilization of the Hebrew text, the various Jewish communities began to establish their identity on the basis of the Masoretic text.Childs sees that development as constructive; and no doubt it was, in large part. But consider the very different perspective of Joseph Blenkinsopp. He says that the decisive factor in delimiting the canon
was the need to resolve conflicting claims to authority, the point at issue being the interpretation of the received corpus of tradition. This may not lead us to view writing, with Lévi-Strauss, as an instrument of oppression and control, but it should alert us to the possibility that it will embody claims of a polemical and tendentious nature.2I submit that this polemical impulse — an impulse to seize control of the theological agenda from one's opponents — applies not only to the selection of a canon, but also to the many choices which had to be made as the text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized.
Childs indicates that the Masoretic text was stabilized around the end of the first century. In other words, it was stabilized after the core documents of the New Testament had been written.
We ought to consider whether partisan considerations were at work in the formation of the Masoretic text. In a follow-up post, I will consider the text of Amos 9:12 in light of that question.
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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, pp. 97-99.
2Joseph Blenkinsopp, Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins. University of Notre Dame Press, 1977, p. 4.