Friday, 19 February 2010

The religious significance of ethnic Israel and the canonical shape of Esther

In response to my recent post on Biblical scholarship and the State of Israel, a friend has highlighted the complexity involved in claiming theological continuity between Biblical Israel and the modern Jewish people. The term itself is ambiguous in the Old Testament. As he says:
What does the OT mean by the moniker 'Israel' in any case? Sometimes it's the North only, other times it's both North and South, and at times it's only the South. And then of course at numerous times it is commodius, and includes people entirely outside the North and South altogether, as in the 'sojourner'. On this last example, there is the matter of the 'catholicity' of Israel, and thus the inclusion of those who are not 'Israelite' but who are part of 'Israel' nonetheless by association (similar to the status of the others on the ark as "saved" because they were "with" Noah, or those whose blessing depends on their standing relative to Abraham)
His conclusion is that "to be 'Israel', canonically defined, was never only or even primarily about physical lineage, but by participation and association."

I don't feel adequate right now to fully stake a position on this issue. I'll just cite one of the starkest quotes on the issue that I am aware of by Brevard Childs, a scholar who has deeply impacted my way of understanding the Bible. The context is a conclusion concerning the theological implications of the canonical shape of Esther:
Perhaps the basic theological issue at stake in this disagreement has been more clearly formulated by R. Gordis: 'It is fundamental to the Jewish world-outlook that the preservation of the Jewish people is itself a religious obligation of the first magnitude' (Megillat, 13). In my judgment, Gordis' assertion holds true for Christian theology if kept within the critical guidelines which have been fixed by the canonical context of Esther.
On the one hand, the book of Esther provides the strongest canonical warrant in the whole Old Testament for the religious significance of the Jewish people in an ethnic sense. The inclusion of Esther within the Christian canon serves as a check against all attempts to spiritualize the concept of Israel - usually by misinterpreting Paul - and thus removing the ultimate scandal of biblical particularity. On the other hand, the canonical shape of of Esther has built into the fabric of the book a theological criticism of all forms of Jewish nationalism which occurs whenever 'Jewishness' is divorced from the sacred traditions which constitute the grounds of Israel's existence under God (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 606-607).

22 comments:

John Hobbins said...

As Vischer, Karl Barth's pastor in Basel, put it in his inaugural lecture at University of Basel in 1947, which was promptly published in the series Theologische Existenz Heute (Theological Existence Today), Esther was a witness to Christ the acknowledgement of which, under the circumstances, meant the difference between salvation and its opposite (ein “heilsnotwendiges Christuszeugnis”).

Carl said...

As a Messianic Jew, I encounter your friend's perspective from time to time. I agree with a number of his points. However, since when are difficulties and ambiguities inconsistent with truth?

Your friend has also advanced a false dichotomy between "physical lineage" and "participation and association." Israel has always consisted of both -- with an emphasis on physical descent -- if we understand "participation and association" as the sort of thing Ruth did after saying "your people are my people and your God is my God."

As you know, Ruth (along with Rahab) are mentioned in the line of Messiah's physical ancestors (Mt. 1:5; see Romans 9:5). Jesus did not originate in a group identified by participation and association but by physical descent. That should be some indication of the importance of the physical descent.

That said, the prophets of Israel brutally condemned political and economic aggrandizement in the name of religious identity or practice. Such egregious violations of covenant would lead to exile. By the mercy of God, the same prophets who exposed Israel's sin also promised her return and restoration.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John,

I have yet to read any Vischer. I know that Childs found him inspiring (while not being uncritical, naturally).

Carl,

a false dichotomy between "physical lineage" and "participation and association."

I had a conversation with a friend who is an NT scholar about this this morning and he pretty much said the same thing in reference to Paul. I agree with everything you. Thanks for your input

Chad said...

Hi all. Great discussion. I'm the 'friend' and perhaps guilty party. Thanks Carl for your remarks. They've helped me to see how ineffective I can be at internet communication. Let me have another go.

A false dichotomy between understanding Israel only in terms of physical descent or only in terms of spiritual affiliation (e.g. through conversion or "through Christ" in a "new Israel" model) was what I was actually trying to avoid by suggesting that it was not *only* or even *primarily* one or the other. In other words, concepts like 'only' or 'primarily' are (or are almost) absolute in their connotation. And I was suggesting an alternative that could accommodate both, because that's how I see the OT especially to be developing 'Israel'.

So I'm pleading innocent to the 'false dichotomy' charge. It's precisely what I feel has been perpetuated in circles I orbit, and I'm uncomfortable with it.

I like your use of the word 'emphasis', and see it as the positive counterpart to my negative 'not only this or that' claim. Your example of Ruth is absolutely stellar.

Chad said...

On the other hand, is there a false dichotomy in the second sentence of your third paragraph? With Ruth functioning precisely as an example of why it can't be one or the other?

In any case, Robert Jenson has written an outstanding article on this subject, with a good bit of attention to the work of Michael Wyschogrod. I would love to hear people's thoughts about it.

Jenson, Robert W. “Toward A Christian Doctrine of Israel.” CTI Reflections 3 (2000): 2-21.

Warm regards

Carl kinbar said...

Hi Chad,

Thanks for your comments. I'm responding from my iPod touch - cumbersome! Theological discourse is already difficult enough in this medium!

IMO, the underlying issue here is the relationship between particularity and universalism, both of which are essential to the biblical ethos. I find Wyschogrod's thoughts on Paul in Abraham's Promise to be very helpful (especially given his absolute rejection of the Incarnation).

When I get online with my laptop I'll respond to your comments more specifically. I look forward to some helpful interaction with you.

Carl said...

Chad,

Please forgive me for the delay in getting back to you. I was traveling and, when I returned home, our conversation slipped my mind.

First, the “false dichotomy”— You’re right, it isn’t. You wrote (or is this Philip’s recollection?), "to be 'Israel', canonically defined, was never only or even primarily about physical lineage, but by participation and association." This isn’t a false dichotomy, but it does seem to place a priority on participation and association that, IMO, doesn't hold for Biblical Israel (or the Jewish people today) but it does have merit in a New Testament context. My original response was based on the perception that in your thinking the people who were/are associated with Israel somehow replace Israel.

On the other hand, now that I have reread your words in Philip’s original post, there are some very interesting comments that, IMO, are very close to how I see these issues.

My full comment is rather lengthy (about 1,000 words). Perhaps Philip can tell me if he prefers that I email you privately?

Phil Sumpter said...

Carl, I'd prefer it if you posted your thoughts here. That way all can benefit from them.

Carl said...

Chad,

[Blogger will not accept my full comment, so here's Part 1).

First, the “false dichotomy”— You’re right, it isn’t. You wrote (or are this Philip’s recollection?), "to be 'Israel', canonically defined, was never only or even primarily about physical lineage, but by participation and association." This isn’t a false dichotomy, but it does seem to place a priority on participation and association that, IMO, doesn’t work for Biblical Israel (or the Jewish people today) but it does have merit in a New Testament context. My original response was based on the perception that in your thinking the people who were/are associated with Israel somehow replace Israel.

On the other hand, now that I have reread your words in Philip’s original post, there are some very interesting comments that, IMO, are very close to how I see these issues. My tweaks are in CAPS.

“. . .there is the matter of the 'COMMONWEALTH' of Israel [Ephesians 2], and thus the inclusion of those who are not 'Israelite' but who are part of 'Israel' nonetheless by association (similar to the status of the others on the ark as "saved" because they were "with" Noah, or those whose blessing depends on their standing relative to Abraham AND HIS OFFSPRING [Gen.12.1ff]).”

Ephesians 2 zeroes in on the inclusion of those who were previously excluded. This is accomplished by Messiah in a multi-faceted act, one aspect of which is the breaking down of the wall. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament, where non-Jews are no longer required to keep Torah in order to be included in . . . Israel? Not exactly, it’s “the commonwealth of Israel.” The “politeia of Israel” is reasonably analogous to the “politeia of Rome” and, more or less, to the British Commonwealth. Without Israel, Rome, and Britain, the nature of these commonwealths changes radically. On the other hand, even if most non-Jews remain alienated from Israel or many citizens of the British Commonwealth gave up commonwealth membership, those commonwealths themselves would remain. This paradigm preserves the identity of Israel while opening the way for non-Jews to participate fully in the wealth described in the chapter, though apart from Torah observance. (Disclaimer: I realize that this barely scratches the surface of the significance of the Commonwealth of Israel.)

This paradigm also fits your remarks about Noah and Abraham. My only quibble is that the Genesis texts (and, really, the entire Tanakh) are very clear that the blessing is attached to Abraham and his descendents. But let me expand on your illustration. The others in the ark were saved because they were with Noah. Likewise, “those whose blessing depends on their standing relative to Abraham.” Of course, that is true (viz. Romans 4 and Galatians 3).

On the other hand, their blessing also depends in a different way on their standing relative to the descendents of Abraham. Again, see Ephesians 2, where non-Jews are brought close to God in Israel’s commonwealth [not Abraham’s], and Romans 11, where they are grafted into the olive tree as “wild branches” [from which some, or most] “natural branches” have been pruned]. The natural olive tree with both natural and wild branches is arguably analogous to the commonwealth of Israel. (IMO, trying to nail down the signified of the olive tree is very difficult, thus “arguably.”)

IMO, if the Church had consistently viewed her blessing as dependent not only on her association with Abraham (who is no longer among us) but also with his descendents (who are), much anguish and horror would have been averted for the past two millenia. I am speaking of a spiritual, but not spiritualized, relationship with flesh-and-blood descendents (and, of course, those who joined Israel along the way), IN PARTICULAR with those Jews who have joined the ekklesia and form a distinct body within it.

Carl said...

[Part 2]

Getting back to your statement that "to be 'Israel', canonically defined, was never only or even primarily about physical lineage, but by participation and association." It’s the “was never” that doesn’t work for me.” I can certainly agree that the commonwealth of Israel is not primarily about physical lineage (thought he existence of Israel in that commonwealth IS), but about participation and association.

This reading of Scripture is, of course, subject to huge controversy. I live by it, but I realize the difficulties (historical, psychological, social, AND exegetical and theological) most Christians would have accepting it. The most helpful work on the exegetic and theological issues is Mark Kinzer’s “Post-Missionary Messianic Judiasm” (Brazos).

You pointed out a potential false dichotomy in my comment. This helps me to clarify myself. I was trying to make a narrower statement: Jesus’ genealogy includes non-Jews who married into Israel—and I’m very glad they are, if only to debunk the idea of ethnic purity—but his descent is tracked entirely from flesh and blood Jews.

“Robert Jenson has written an outstanding article on this subject, with a good bit of attention to the work of Michael Wyschogrod. I would love to hear people's thoughts about it. Jenson, Robert W. “Toward A Christian Doctrine of Israel.” CTI Reflections 3 (2000): 2-21.”

I wasn’t able to access this article—it’s not on the CTI website. Can you give me access to it? When I Googled the article, I (re-)discovered an article in Pro Ecclesia on the issue of continuity of Jewish identity in the ekklesia, in which the author (a friend and colleage of mine) addresses what he considers to be plusses and minuses in Jenson’s article. You can download the article at http://bit.ly/bQixlh.

Thanks for listening and thanks to Phil for the blog.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts Carl. If you want the article on Jenson, e-mail me at philsumpter at hotmail dot com. I've just finished reading it: it's a real mindbender but utterly fascinating. Jenson is a really creative and deep thinker.

I have a few questions in regard to one of your statements: what do you mean when you say: "those Jews who have joined the ekklesia and form a distinct body within it"? What is this distinct body? What is its function? How is it to be maintained? Can a non-Jewish woman marry a Jewish man? If so, their kids won't be Jewish, according to Jewish law. But then, according to Jewish law Jews can't believe in Jesus, so I struggle to know what "Jewish Christian" means anyway. What are the boundary markers separating Jewish Christians from non-Jewish Christians?

Carl said...

(These are my personal responses, representing one stream of thought among Jewish believers in Jesus.)

In his Pro Ecclesia article, Rudolph summarizes part of Jenson’s article. It seems that Jenson argues that identifiable Jewishness cannot survive within the gentile-dominated church. (I would add that this “assimilation” is virtually complete by the third generation.). Torah-obedience is a divine means of ensuring Jewish continuity. The traditional synagogue, which promotes Torah-obedience, is thereby God’s vehicle of preserving the Jewish people.

I resonate deeply with Jensen’s perspective (or to the views presented in this summary of a summary) but part company with him on how the identity of Jewish believers in Jesus may be affirmed and nurtured. Certainly, our Jewish identity is strengthened in the synagogue. But what about our identity as part of Messiah’s body? That will survive no better in the synagogue than our Jewish identity will survive in a church environment.

So, “Those who as Jews who have (1) joined the ekklesia and (2) form a distinct part of it” are those who cleave to Jesus and also participate in synagogues that affirm and nurture BOTH their “Messianic” (i.e., Christian) and Jewish identities.

At the same time, in such synagogues the dynamic of the New Covenant radically deepens and modulates the observance of Torah (e.g., Hebrews 8) along lines dictated by Jesus (e.g., Matthew 5). Pragmatically, such synagogues include intermarried couples who raise their children as Jews (parallel to the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish models, these kids are Jewish).

[BTW, My wife and I make it a practice to share the Lord’s Table (or whatever you call it in your circles; we Jews call it the Zikharon = remembrance or memorial) at a nearby Episcopal church on a fairly regular basis as a concrete way of affirming our personal participation in the wider body of believers.]

According to Jewish law, a Jew who believes in Jesus is either a heretic or an apostate (depending on the sources). She remains Jewish, though her children are not considered Jews. This is the position of all Messianic Jews today. With all its attendant weaknesses, I offer the analogy of African-American legal status. I needn’t summarize the time-line of legal developments, only to point out that Blacks did not full-status American citizens until the Civil Rights act of 1964. Of course, the experience of Messianic Jews in the American Jewish community has been mild comparison. But the legal situation is similar. I do not accept the legal status quo in the wider Jewish world and I am doing everything I can on the ground to help change perceptions there.

Concerning boundary markers separating Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, I see several that would distinguish Messianic synagogues from churches: identity of Jews as part of the larger Jewish community; a set of covenantally-related practices that are distinct for Jews; involvement in a tradition Jewish value system and world-view via learning traditional texts; and involvement in one of a variety of Jewish cultural models. Within the synagogue, the only thing that would distinguish Jew from Gentile is a certain modicum of practice.

In all this, Messianic Jews and synagogues are similar, for example, to Korean and Histpanic churches (I have visited both) which preserve distinct cultures through generations.

Phil Sumpter said...

Carl, I appreciate this dialogue with you, especially as the "Jewish question" is important to me, even though it goes well beyond my expertise (my knowledge of NT is pretty weak, for reasons I gave here). At the moment, I just have questions!

- Torah-obedience is a divine means of ensuring Jewish continuity

Does this mean that a gentile Christian can convert to Messianic Judaism by taking on the yoke of Torah? Will he then be considered bona fide Jewish in the eyes of the Messianic community (even if not in the eyes of the rest of the Jewish community)? And what is "Torah" in Messianic Judaism? The written and entire oral law, as Judaism claims? Is the entire Talmud binding? What about the parts that are explicitly anti-Christian (I heard it forbids Jews from reading the NT, for example). When does the chain of tradition stop for a messianic Jew and what are the criteria for distinguishing between good and bad tradition? You yourself say that you are working against the view that Messianic Jews are not recognized as such by Judaism, but this is a deeply rooted tradition. How does one select? What are your critieria? A similar question comes to mind in relation to the Siddur: there are elements of the Siddur which were composed as explicit rebuttles of Pauline theology (according to Rabbi J. Sacks), such as the idea that our soul is טְהוֹרָה (in the shacharit prayer right before Tzitzit).

- An issue I have with Jenson is the unpleasant one of "salvation." I've always been taught that salvation is through faith in Jesus. How can a group that rejects him still be his body? Jenson really seems to be saying that the church's mission is not to tell the Jews about Jesus because if they converted this "fleshly" dimension of Jesus' presence in the world would disappear. However, if we follow Rudolph's suggestion and take the messianic community as constituting the body, then a Judaism that does not believe in Jesus is no longer neccessary - there is no detour as the Jews - at least in part - did believe afterall. Jesus' "flesh" is mediated through the messianic synagogue (I'm not claiming I fully understand what these concepts mean anyway). Perhaps you'll be able to help me out here once you've read the Jenson article I will send you.

Carl said...

Here are some brief responses. They are far from adequate, but the best I can do right now.

WILL HE THEN BE CONSIDERED BONA FIDE JEWISH IN THE EYES OF THE MESSIANIC COMMUNITY?

The acceptance of Messianic Jewish conversion is growing. See ourrabbis.org. (This my rabbinical council.)

HOW DOES ONE SELECT? WHAT ARE YOUR CRITIERIA?

I know this won’t answer your question as fully as you would like, but I start with the position that all Jewish tradition (including the Tanakh) is my tradition, whatever parts of it may be good, bad, or ugly. When it becomes clear that something in my tradition is harmful, it grieves me deeply. When I must break with the Jewish past, I do that with grief, especially insofar as it may separate me from other Jews.
The criteria are complex. William J. Abraham’s “Canon and Criterion” deals, in part, with the reform of Christian tradition. Much of it applies to Messianic Judaism (or, theoretically, to any religion that has a canon). In Messianic Judaism, this involves the Scriptures, of course, and other canons, as well as parallel or dissenting traditions (an especially rich source in Judaism!), the Messianic Jewish community and its sages as well as the Church and its sages. Messianic Judaism is now grappling with these things seriously. I live with the reality that apart from a communal process, my individual decisions in the areas you mention will certainly fall short of the best.

HOW CAN A GROUP THAT REJECTS HIM STILL BE HIS BODY? JENSON REALLY SEEMS TO BE SAYING THAT THE CHURCH'S MISSION IS NOT TO TELL THE JEWS ABOUT JESUS BECAUSE IF THEY CONVERTED THIS "FLESHLY" DIMENSION OF JESUS' PRESENCE IN THE WORLD WOULD DISAPPEAR.

This is such a large question. I can only recommend a book by my colleague, Mark Kinzer. “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism” is written primarily for Christians and deals with such issues on a very serious level.

HOWEVER, IF WE FOLLOW RUDOLPH'S SUGGESTION AND TAKE THE MESSIANIC COMMUNITY AS CONSTITUTING THE BODY, THEN A JUDAISM THAT DOES NOT BELIEVE IN JESUS IS NO LONGER NECCESSARY

I’m not sure I follow your logic. Why would a part substitute for the whole?

“DETOUR”

Am I wrong, or does Jenson see history as basically a linear, purposeful development? IMO, life and history are woven out of detours, pain, and hiccups along with a modicum of straight-line development and purposeful activity. And it’s not always possible to distinguish the strands.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for the feedback, Carl. As you can see, I'm struggling to keep my responses prompt! I apologize for that.

Thanks for the ourrabbis link. I couldn't find anything on non-Christian Jewish responses to Christian Jews ... (I think I prefer the term "Christian Jew" to "messianic Jew" because, as an Orthodox friend of mine points out, all Jews are messianic, whether they believe in Jesus or not). The article on conversion looks very interesting. I've saved it to my files for later reference. Perhaps I could e-mail you some time when I find time to really work through this stuff?

You said: William J. Abraham’s “Canon and Criterion” deals, in part, with the reform of Christian tradition. Much of it applies to Messianic Judaism (or, theoretically, to any religion that has a canon).

This is very interesting. I'm doing my doctorate on B.S. Childs' "canonical approach." I think there is a mountain of theoretical work to be done here ... . I certainly think the mountain is worth climbing and it's something I'd like to get involved in myself, one day (not as a Christian Jew [I'm not] but for Christian-Jewish dialogue/theological advancement in general).

In Messianic Judaism, this involves the Scriptures, of course, and other canons

The theoretical issue is how one constructs a "canon within the canon," if it is the case that Jewish tradition itself is "canonical" for you (if I'm hearing you right here ... ). As you say, not all of that canon is acceptable, but how does one decide? As can this "knife" be applied to the Bible itself (if it is a canon alongside an imperfect tradition)? Lutherans do this kind of thing with their law/gospel dichotomy ("Was Christus treibet ... "). Reformed Christians reject a canon within the canon. I'm with the latter bunch, but I make a qualitative distinction between the tradition that is Scripture and the tradition that is everything else. Either way, I'm delighted that these issues are being seriously grappled with! Could you give me further reading tips?

Thanks for the Kinzer book, another book for my "file."

As for the rest of your comments, I started answering them and then decided that I'm far too ignorant at this point in time to want to start airing my thoughts in public. If you don't mind, I'll send them to you by e-mail.

Thanks again for your contribution!

Carl said...

<>

At this point, it’s almost impossible for me to discuss the idea of canon apart from (William J.) Abraham’s construct. To put it briefly, Abraham believes that the historical movement from Scriptural canon as a list of materials for spiritual initiation and nurture to Scripture as an epistemological tool was a disaster of the first order. In his view, the Scriptural canon must be balanced dynamically with the canons consisting of the Church Fathers, certain creeds, councils, the Church itself, and the legitimate leadership of the Church. In other words, the past and present of the Church should function canonically. view of canonS owes a lot to Eastern Orthodoxy.

I certainly didn’t mean to suggest a “canon within a canon.” Abraham deftly deconstructs that as well.

As a self-identified Messianic Jew (and, yes, there could be better terminology, though “Christian Jew” has unfortunate connotations of which I’m sure you are certainly unaware), I accept the Scriptural canon (Tanakh and New Covenant), the (deutero-)canon of midrash and talmuds, as well as the other canons mentioned above. But, again, these are lists of materials and people that only work in dynamic interplay. As is the case with all bodies of Jesus-believers, for a coherent Messianic Judaism certain parts of all these canons come to the fore, or conversely recede to the background, depending on the concrete realities of doctrinal priorities, practical realities, etc. Certainly the Scriptural canon has a special role in this, but not an exclusive one.

<>If you don't mind, I'll send them to you by e-mail.>>

I would welcome interacting with you. Please do email me.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Carl,

after a long Easter break, I can finally respond to your comments:

I remember reading an article by Abraham in Nicene Christianity; I liked it and like the kinds of things you are saying here. I still need to think about the nature of, for example, the "canon of the Fathers" and the creeds. Although there ought to be some kind of relationship, Scripture still seems to have a special quality. This was itself a decision of Church councils etc., i.e. that the Scripture is a norm over against other canons. But there is a real complexity here which I need to get clarity on. I also need clarity on what it means to balance them "dynamically." This becomes especially pressing to me if midrash and talmud is supposed to be canonical for Jesus-believing Jews. For a start, there is a lot in these two bodies of literature which explicitly refute Christianity (as I've already mentioned), so "dynamic" would have to involve getting rid of those bits. I'm Protestant enough to be happy to do that with the Church Fathers. But I can't imagine that the broader Jewish community would accept as Jewish a group that doesn't believe in the totality of the Talmud. But then I may be being ignorant about what the broader Jewish community thinks.

And I should add that selecting what to believe within the canon is, as far as I can see, a "canon within the canon," because some kind of higher principle is used to distinguish between true and false. Please correct me if I'm wrong here. You say that certain parts of all these canons come to the fore, or conversely recede to the background, depending on the concrete realities of doctrinal priorities, practical realities, etc, but isn't this a description of what in fact does happen rather than what ought to happen? Just because interpreters are inevitably limited by their context, such that they will select one strand and make that the stand point from which to view and evaluate the other strands (e.g. Pauline theology for Lutherans), doesn't mean that that ought now to be reified into a hermeneutical principle. It is something we ought to overcome by struggling with the dialectic between various poles. I'm pretty sure that if you can prove to a modern-day Christian interpreter that he has privileged one strand over others, he will either 1) justify it by reference to a principle canon within a canon - Was Christus treibet; or 2) justify it in terms of the telos of the overall narrative; or 3) go back to the drawing board and try to account for the whole and not for the part. The second 2 options seem legitimate to me, but then I wouldn't be able to do that with the Talmud. It isn't Scripture.

I do feel awkward talking about these things, as I am so ignorant of so many facts. But through talking I learn so that's why I keep it up!

Carl said...

SCRIPTURE IS A NORM OVER AGAINST OTHER CANONS. BUT THERE IS A REAL COMPLEXITY HERE WHICH I NEED TO GET CLARITY ON. I ALSO NEED CLARITY ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BALANCE THEM "DYNAMICALLY."

While it is clear that Scripture has a distinct priority, status, authority, the issue of “norm over against” produces, in Abraham’s view, huge epistemic problems in the Church, leading eventually to sola scriptura and then a fragmentation of epistemologies. If I understand Abraham, he would say that Scripture can’t play its proper role without the other canons. Why? Because Scripture is not an inert norm but operates within a broader system, even if that system is, minimally, God and the reader(s). So if the individual is substituted for the community as normative reader of Scripture, the system is radically altered.

THIS BECOMES ESPECIALLY PRESSING TO ME IF MIDRASH AND TALMUD IS SUPPOSED TO BE CANONICAL FOR JESUS-BELIEVING JEWS.

One of the points of interrelated canons is that they are not treated equally. Your example of the Church Fathers is right to the point. They are a very varied group. What do the Fathers (and/or the Councils) say collectively, for example, about the Atonement or the inspiration of Scripture? One is not obliged to follow them on every point, if only because they are so often in tension with one another. And yet, as a group, they are still the Fathers.

Likewise with Talmud and, especially, midrash. (Check “Solomon’s Handles for Torah” at midrashetc.com for my views on midrash and the tensions within Rabbinic Judaism.) I have no hesitation recognizing these as canonical, though I usually say “on the list” to avoid the visceral push-back.
Concerning the rabbinic view of Jesus, I can only reference the work of Boyarin and others modeling the “parting of the ways” as an incomplete division. The anti-Jesus (or anti-Christian) rhetoric of the synagogue and the anti-Jewish (or anti-Judaic) rhetoric of the Church are both part of this tragedy. Even as I grieve over the rhetoric on both sides, I accept both as my Fathers, each in their own way.

(BTW, most Jews no longer accept the Talmud. The position I represent would be traditionalist by comparison.)

The rest of your response concerns "CANON WITHIN THE CANON." When I wrote that “certain parts of all these canons come to the fore, or conversely recede to the background, depending on the concrete realities of doctrinal priorities, practical realities, etc,” I certain overstated Abraham’s position. “Background” is not a good word. There are times when one canon, or part of a canon, receives more attention or has more relevance. But when any part has absolutely sway and others are occluded entirely, trouble ensues.

I really do think that Abraham’s categories are essential to this discussion, whether or not one agrees with him.

I appreciate this exchange, Phil.

Phil Sumpter said...

(due to word limit this comment comes in two)

Thanks Carl, I appreciate this exchange too. I do think I need to read Abraham's book, which sounds very interesting. Unfortunately my doctorate is a bit of a priority at the moment! It will no doubt help me to understand, for example, what you mean when you say that Scripture "operates within a broader system." As its stands, this statement is too vague for me. How does the system operate? What are the rules for relating the parts? In answer to this question I find the idea of a norma normans very helpful. Believing in sola scriptura does not necessarily lead to the "fragmenting of epistemologies," as it doesn't have to be understood in an epistemological sense. For example, it can be construed to be a theological norm rather than an epistemological one. Or have I missed the point here ... ?

Phil Sumpter said...

I also have an issue with the concept of balancing "various canons." I don't know too much about this but from what I understand the early church didn't think in terms of various canons. There was only one canon, understood as a "rule of truth," and that was the gospel itself, witnessed to by Scripture. I did a thread translating an important essay on this here. The function of "tradition" (whether in the form of creeds or whatever) was not to set up various additional canons to that of scripture, resulting in the need to balance them, but rather it was to explicate and represent a summary of the reality witnessed to by Scripture itself (i.e. the gospel). In other words, it was Biblical exegesis. According to the essay I link to above, it is gospel itself that is the norm and not Scripture, but Scripture was seen as the authoritative witnesses to this. I can sense while writing this how conceptually weak I am on this issue ... E.g. tradition is authoritative if it faithfully represents the gospel, so that we can reject interpretation of the Bible that contradicts tradition ... . Hmm. I think Brevard Childs says something along these lines when he says the following concerning Irenaeus:"The great strength of Irenaeus, in spite of certain ambiguities in his approach, was in providing a rule of faith (regula fidei) as a framework for Christian interpretation that emphasized the theological content of scripture. He did not impose a rigid dogmatic system on the biblical material; rather, he offered a holistic summary of the apostolic faith according to a biblical order" (The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, 303).

I clearly still need to think about the relation between Scripture and tradition for myself, but this is still my issue with what you are saying to (we probably agree more than we disagree).

Nevertheless, given my claim that only Scripture has the function of critical theological norm, I still am not sure that your following statement deals with the heart of my problem: "But when any part has absolutely sway and others are occluded entirely, trouble ensues.
I agree with this point totally, it is the whole and not the part that needs to be constantly borne in mind. But my point is that this can only apply to Scripture and not to tradition. If I overemphasise a strand of scripture, such as the spiritualization of Jerusalem in the NT, you can legitimately point out the OT strand, which emphasises the historical Jerusalem and demand that I bring both realities into some kind of relation to each other. This is part of the eschatological dialectic that constitutes the gospel itself. But you can't do that with tradition. I have no warrant for taking, for example, statements that Mary was a whore and bringing them into some kind of relation to statements that Mary was a virgin. Tradition doesn't have that function. It isn't a norma normans. I simply reject claims that Mary was a whore, because traditions non-normative status does not bind me. I can't reject the territorial, ethnic dimension of the OT, despite how unpopular this strand has always been amongst gentile Christianity. This is because Scripture is a norm.

By the way, I've started reading your "Solomon's handles" thread and it is very interesting. I hope to find time to finish it. I particularly like the Rav Nachman quote on the "labyrinthine" nature of Torah and the need for a guide ... It reminds me of Irenaeus' rule of faith. Does that not have a similar function to the piece of rope? When I find time I'll finish your thread and try and maybe try and answer the interpretative question you pose in the post. I'll also try and respond to your e-mail on Monday ...

שָׁבַּת שָׁלוֹם

Carl said...

I ALSO HAVE AN ISSUE WITH THE CONCEPT OF BALANCING "VARIOUS CANONS." I DON'T KNOW TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BUT FROM WHAT I UNDERSTAND THE EARLY CHURCH DIDN'T THINK IN TERMS OF VARIOUS CANONS. THERE WAS ONLY ONE CANON, UNDERSTOOD AS A "RULE OF TRUTH," AND THAT WAS THE GOSPEL ITSELF, WITNESSED TO BY SCRIPTURE. I DID A THREAD TRANSLATING AN IMPORTANT ESSAY ON THIS HERE.

(I’ll read that article.)

I’m not representing Abraham’s work as well as it deserves. Your illustration concerning Mary convinces me of that. Abraham is not speaking of the canon (whatever it consists of) as an epistemic norm. He follows the Orthodox emphasis on the healing function of the canon (again, the canon construed as the entirety of materials, practices, and persons construed as canonical in the centuries before the East-West split). Scripture has primacy but, like the fathers or the councils, its therapeutic effectiveness of any part is diminished when taken out of the context of the whole.

I am not very enthused about continuing the canon discussion, in part because, like you, I have not worked it out to my own satisfaction. Our offline discussion on other issues seems more fruitful at this time.

Phil Sumpter said...

I think that's a sound idea. I'll try and get round to your e-mail as soon as possibility.

Best wishes.