I was asked by a student if the early Jews (of the second Temple period) held to a canon of the likes of the later Church.
Here is my brief response:
No. There was considerable debate. For instance, the Sadducees of Jesus’ day only held to the Torah/Pentateuch. They rejected everything else. Same with the Samaritans. The Pharisees seem to represent a group that held to what we know as the OT (which was a collection of 22/24 scrolls equivalent to our 39). While the community (?) at Qumran seems to have held to a wider idea of sacred Scripture that included other texts. And still others, Greek speaking Jews, made use of what we have come to call the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon later received in the Roman Catholic tradition.
This causes me pause with regard to the certitude we can occasionally speak with regarding our ideas of canonicity. These are questions complicated by the communities we find ourselves a part of and the traditions we have received.
I often hear complaints (and have offered my own) about movies not being like the book and just how much better the book was by comparison. This may be true enough, but perhaps what we are latently getting at suggests we simply do not understand how changing media automatically changes the message. I wrote the following comment on a friends blog review of the film “Noah”(you should really read his review):
“…changed media ALWAYS alters the message and its fullest (or limited) contents in some fashion. This is true of preaching (though we don’t want to admit it). This is true of lectures, Sunday School lessons, etc. It is true of translations. It is most definitely true of films. Altered media, altered message (at some level). Some are truer to intent, some less. Some downright intentionally change, some ignorantly, some faithfully offer a harmonizing understanding, but all changes alter the message in some fashion.”
Perhaps some examples of what I am talking about might be helpful with regard to the changing media of Scripture:
Commentaries – While I did not mention this one in my comment to my friend, it is still worth mentioning. Commentaries on Scripture alter the message by offering (it is hoped) a reading of the text for clarification. Some are more intentionally rooted within the theological traditions of the Church (the Brazos series), others offering contemporary significance (NIVAC series) as part of the explanation. But by explaining the text, the text is altered. It is not offered without comment. To comment is to change. Whether this is for the better (as in clarifying what the intent really was) or worse (changing the intent altogether) remains to be seen.
Sermons – Like commentaries, sermons offer an explanation of the text. To preach a text of Scripture is to alter it. Some portions of the text are given greater emphasis. Some less (or none at all). A preacher also selectively chooses only a portion of the text thus already stripping context even while the faithful preacher includes descriptions of context to attempt to locate the passage within its original context. But still…a sermon alters the message…sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposefully…but always alters. (Lectures also fit this category).
Translations – The oft-quoted Italian proverb/pun is fitting: “Traduttore tradittore” (“the translator is a traitor”). To translate is to alter. Some are more faithful, some less. Some offer greater conceptual faithfulness, others word-for-word faithfulness. But all sacrifice something in offering translations. (HERE is a brief explanation of three general philosophies of Bible translation)
Canon – To read the Scriptures as a part of the canon is to alter the reading of Scripture. The various texts and books of Scripture were not a part of a finished work, but were created independently (sometimes interdependently), but it is not as if the human writers colluded on writing one book of many different sections (though the Spirit is confessed to have superintended and inspired the whole as parts and whole). For example, to read or hear the Old Testament as a Christian is to hear the Old Testament through the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s plan for the ages. This alters the message. To join the sixty six books of the Protestant canon together is to alter the message (and likewise for the various canons of the other streams of the Church).
To be clear, what I am NOT stating is that somehow in altering the message we have automatically been unfaithful to the One who has given us this testimony of grace. The Spirit enlivens the text to bring about preaching, teaching (commentaries/lectures), translations, and canon. The retelling of the story of Jesus in preaching might be yet more faithful to the intent of our Lord in the moment of preaching than in simply reading the original language in the study.
Let me go one step further: the message of Scripture is altered when it is applied by the illumination of the Spirit to us. The words are driven home in different ways than when read. Some facets are illuminated while others remain shrouded.
And still further: the obedience of the message alters the message by not simply rote mimicry, but by faith-filled Spirit enabled listening and following. And this is the will of God for us. It is true to His intent for us in this moment, even while altering the original media form. Indeed, His word is living and active! To those with ears to hear…