The Christian Canon in the Fourth Century Old and New Testaments

First, we want to know if Christian theologians and Judaic sages understood the same thing when they engaged in the task of identifying authoritative writings and rejecting spurious ones? And, second, we ask whether the result of the work of the one group in any way runs parallel to the result of the work of the other. We raise the question of whether, by "canon," the two groups even meant the same thing at all, and whether "the Bible" of Christianity and "the one whole Torah" of Judaism constitute counterpart documents. If so, then we have an argument about the same issue conducted in the same terms. We therefore ask, in the present setting, whether the category of canon served both Judaic sages and Christian theologians, and, if it did, whether, when they discussed that category, they composed a single argument, involving the same definitions, the same facts, and the same modes of argument and thought. Let me explain this problem, since it is somewhat complicated.

7. Also of Sifra, which serves Leviticus. That document also pursues the same polemic, in an equally systematic, way; see Neusner (1976).

We realize that, in the centuries after the Gospels were written, the Church had to come to a decision on whether, in addition to the Scriptures of ancient Israel, there would be a further corpus of authoritative writing. The Church affirmed that there would be, and the New Testament as counterpart to the Old Testiment evolved. In the centuries from the publication of the Mishnah, the standing and status of that document required an explanation. Gradually a number of theories evolved, defining the sense of the category "Torah," encompassing both the Hebrew Scriptures, now called the Written Torah, as well as other authoritative teachings. These teachings came to be deemed of the same status as the Written Torah, hence they too constituted statements of the authority and status of the Torah. They then were called Torah—without the definite article, meaning, of that same standing as the Written Torah. When we speak of the canon of Judaism, we refer to the Torah, meaning both media in which the Torah reached Israel, the written and the oral. The two categories—the Old and New Testaments as the Christian canon, the Torah of two media as the Judaic canon—really do not address the same issues and exhibit no important points of correspondence. Hence we cannot maintain that, as to the issue of the canon, an argument or a debate of any kind proceeded. Quite to the contrary, I know not a single indication, other than the passage in which Tarfon in the Tosefta is supposed to have referred to Christian Scriptures, that sages took account of the Christians' claim that their Scriptures constituted writings that found a relationship to the Written Torah. That concept, it seems to me, found no comprehension at all among sages.

Let me expand on this matter of the development of the theory of the dual Torah, with special attention to how the theory got under way. For only in seeing what was at stake shall we grasp how little connection there was between sages' thought on the dual Torah and the Christian theologians' work on the Bible. At issue for sages was not the status of a diverse corpus of available writings, but the ongoing process of reception and analysis of a single document. In the age under consideration, the Judaic sages developed an answer to the question of the standing and authority of the Mishnah. As I said, that answer involved the conception that at Sinai God had revealed the Torah through two media, one in writing, the other in memory. Through the medium of writing, what is called the Written Torah was handed on, and that is now the Hebrew Scriptures shared, more or less in the same terms, with Christianity. Through the medium of memory, the other Torah, called "the Torah that is memorized," or "the Oral Torah," was handed on. In the first apologetic for the Mishnah, Pirqe Abot, the conception came to expression that what sages teach falls into the category of Torah, that is, God's revelation at Sinai.

The reader may wonder why this information prefaces a discussion of the canon of Christianity, the Bible. The reason is that the process by which the myth being considered here reached public expression in the Talmud of the Land of Israel involved the identification of books that fell into the category of Torah—hence, on the surface, a labor of canonical inquiry. For, the same theory proceeded to posit, one principal component of that Oral Torah comprised the teachings now assembled in the Mishnah. So we may claim that the age of Constantine marked the point at which the Mishnah entered the status of Oral Torah.8 That is why the issue of canon comes to the fore, presenting a category of more than routine interest. When we contemplate the process which culminated in the development of the notion of the single Torah in two media, we realize that, in mythic terms, we trace the formation of the canon of Judaism: the identification of the books that fall into "the one whole Torah of Moses, our rabbi," as God revealed that Torah to Moses at Sinai.

But we wonder about the New Testament. Would that not constitute the counterpart to the oral sector of "the one whole Torah"? And, more germane to our inquiry, does not the joining of the New Testament to the Old Testament in the formation of the canon, the Bible, mirror the recognition of "one whole Torah" in two parts, written and oral? I think not. In both cases, the closer we come to the Christian side, the less alike do Torah and Bible appear. The issues for Christianity in the identification of the canon and in the explanation of the status of the canon as "the Bible" flow from a different set of politics. It was a politics internal to the life of the Church, the unfolding of Church order and doctrine, with no bearing that I can see on the argument with Judaism.

In the third and fourth centuries, when the canon of Judaism attained mythic expression of a decisive and enduring order, important steps were taken toward the conclusion of the canon of Christianity, that is, in the recognition of "the Bible," as "the Old Testament and the New Testament." So we turn to the canon of Christianity. When we speak of canon, we refer, in Childs' words, to "the process of theological interpretation by a faith community [that] left its mark on a literary text which did not continue to evolve and which became the normative interpretation of the events to which it bore witness for those identifying with that religious community." When did the Christian Bible, that is, the Old Testament and the New Testament, come into being? Christians from the very beginning revered the Hebrew Scriptures as "the Old Testament," regarding it as their sacred book. They denied the Jews any claim to the book, accusing them of misinterpreting it. The Old Testament served, in Harnack's words, to prove "that the appearance and the entire history of Jesus had been predicted hundreds and even thousands of years ago; and further, that the founding of the New People which was to be fashioned out of all the nations upon earth had from the very beginning been prophesied and prepared for" (Childs 1985, 26; Harnack 1972, 283). The text of the Hebrew Scriptures supplied proofs for various propositions of theology, law, and liturgy. It served as a source of precedents: "if God had praised or punished this or that in the past, how much more ... are we to look for similar treatment from him, we who are now living in the last days and who have received 'the calling of promise.'" Even after the rise of the New Testament, much of

8. I expand on this point in the next section. It rests on the research in Neusner (1984b).

the Old Testament held its own. And, Harnack concludes, "The New Testament as a whole did not generally play the same role as the Old Testament in the mission and practice of the church."

In the beginning the Church did not expect the canon—the Hebrew Scriptures—to grow through Christian additions. As Cross says, "In the new covenant the sole complement to the Word in the Torah was the Word made flesh in Christ." So it would be some time before a Christian canon encompassing not only the received writings but the writings of the new age would come into being. Before Marcion the Bible of the Church was the Hebrew Scriptures, pure and simple. While Filson assigns to the years between 160 and 175 the crystallization of the concept of the canon, the process came to an end by the end of the fourth century. Filson states, "There was no longer any wide dispute over the right of any of our twenty-seven books to a place in the New Testament canon." What was not a settled question for Eusebius, in 330, had been worked out in the next span of time. So, in general, when we take up the issue of the canon of Christianity, we find ourselves in the third and fourth centuries (Cross 1960, 60; von Campenhausen 1972, 147; Filson 1957, 121). The bulk of the work was complete by 200, with details under debate for another two hundred years (Childs 1985, 18). The orthodoxy in which "the canon of an Old and a New Testament was firmly laid down," did not come into being overnight. From the time of Irenaeus the Church affirmed the bipartite Christian Bible, containing the Old Testament, and, parallel with this and controlling it, the New Testament (von Campenhausen 1972, 209). But what was to be the New Testament, and when were the limits of the canon decided? Von Campenhausen concludes the description for us:

[The Muratorian fragment] displays for the first time the concept of a collection of New Testament scriptures, which has deliberately been closed, and the individual books of which are regarded as "accepted" and ecclesiastically "sanctified," that is to say . . . they have been "incorporated" into the valid corpus. We have thus arrived at the end of the long journey which leads to a New Testament thought of as "canonical" in the strict sense. Only one thing is still lacking: the precise name for this collection, which will make it possible to refer to the new Scripture as a unity and thus at one and the same time both to distinguish it from the old Scriptures and combine it with them in a new totality. . . . This is the last feature still wanting to the accomplishment of the bipartite Christian Bible. (1972, 261-62)

This last matter proves vital for what is to follow on the Judaic side, so we had best pursue it to the conclusion. When does the Old Testament join the New as the Bible? Von Campenhausen makes a striking point. "There was no need to look for a single name for the entire document. There was no such thing as an Old Testament or a New Testament as a single physical entity. To the eye the whole canon was still fragmented into a series of separate rolls or volumes." Von Campenhausen makes a still more relevant point: "There was no reason why in themselves the two parts of the Bible should not have different names. In the early period one possibility suggested itself almost automatically: if one had the New and the Old Testament in mind, one could speak of the 'Gospel' and the 'Law'" (1972, 262; cf. also 261-62). The use of "Old" and "New" Testament represents a particular theology. It was from the beginning of the third century that Scripture for orthodox Christianity consisted of an Old and a New Testament. So, we conclude, "Both the Old and the New Testaments had in essence already reached their final form and significance around the year 200." The authority of the Bible, for Christianity, rested on the reliability of the biblical record of the predictions of Christ in the prophets and the testimony to Christ of the apostles (von Campenhausen 1972, 327, 330). The biblical component of the "canon of truth" proved contingent, not absolute and dominant. The issues important to the Judaism of the sages were in no way consubstantial, let alone comparable, with these issues. None of the cited theological precipitants for the canonical process played any role in a Judaic formulation I can discern in the theory of the Torah in two media. It follows that asking about the "canonization" of the dual Torah confuses language-categories and produces a senseless statement in Judaic parlance. The myth of the dual Torah, which functioned as a canonical process, validating as it did the writings of sages as part of Torah from Sinai, derives neither from the analogy to the Old Testament process nor—to begin with—from the narrow issue of finding a place for the specific writings of rabbis within the larger Bible of Judaism.9 Both clauses of that sentence constitute gibberish in the context of the Judaism of sages. But what is at issue in the doctrine of the dual Torah of Sinai? To that doctrine and its unfolding we now turn.

9. To state the simple fact, first comes the explanation of the place and role of the sage and his teachings, then comes the explanation of the place of the books that contain those teachings. I do not mean to ignore interesting debates on the canonization of the Christian Bible, i.e., the Old and the New Testaments. Childs alerts us to issues that require further study: "an important and highly debatable issue turns on determining the direction from which the New Testament canonical process proceeded. Did the canonization of the New Testament develop in analogy to an Old Testament process which had largely reached its goal of stabilization before the New Testament period, or rather did the major canonical force stem from the side of the Christian church, which resulted in the definition of the Jewish Scriptures as an Old Testament within the larger Christian Bible?" (1985, 19).

The answer to that question self-evidently does not affect our study of the doctrine of the dual Torah of Sinai. The reason is that, from the viewpoint of that doctrine, the question is meaningless. So Childs' quite proper question addresses the wrong category. The category is not the place of the teaching but of the teacher. In many ways the Montanist crisis turns on its head in Judaism. That is to say, sages held that they had every authority to teach Torah, then produced books that contained Torah from Sinai (beginning of course with the Mishnah). That is the message of Pirqé Abot. But by that theory Montanism is "right" and Orthodoxy wrong, so far as Montanism validates contemporary prophecy, hence, revelation by living persons—such as, within Judaism, sages. 1 hasten to apologize for venturing beyond my limits. These comments rely on the little I learned about Montanism in the secondary sources cited above, and I do not mean to offer a theory of the matter, only a contrast that seems suggestive. But I do mean to suggest that the process of canonization of the persons and authority of sages comes about through the myth of the dual Torah, and that process only later on also validates sages' principal documents—so showing us what the process of Christian canonization would have looked like had Montanism won.

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