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Do Jews have anything to say about the Catholic canon?

February 13, 2014

In an interesting pair of comments to a post on Tim McCormick’s bog Catholic Bible, active commenter CJA Mayo observed

The canon is closed, and can not be re-opened. The Jews lost their stewardship of the old revelation around the time the NT canon was completed (if not recognized as closed) — to use an infamous saying of Justin the Martyr’s, speaking to Trypho, his Jewish interlocutor: "Not your scriptures, but our scriptures." [Chapter 29] […] As the early Christian church had no competence to define (for lack of a better word — the canon is not defined, it is recognized: and it was left to the Jews to recognize the OT canon) the OT canon, the Jews had no competence to affect the NT canon. And so on.[…]

The Jews can’t change their canon now, not in a way that affects Christians, because the OT canon was transferred to the care of the "New Israel" after the close of NT revelation.[…]

Now in a very real sense, I agree with him.  Each religion defines its own canon.  You and I might consider The Book of Mormon to be 19th century cultist writings in pastiche of the KJV, but to a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, The Book of Mormon is sacred scripture.  

And further, the Roman Church has an Old Testament Canon distinct from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Roman Church has a Deuterocanon considered to be apocryphal by Jews (and even its own Catholic apocyrpha in an appendix to the Vulgate.)  We are fortunate to have ecumenical scholarly translations such as the RSV, NRSV, NETS and the OTP (the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – recently expanded) which present these texts.

Finally, the Christian churches do not generally accept the body of greater rabbinic “Torah writings” (including the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and medieval writings).  Christians may study Rabbinic “Torah” writings for historical insights, but regardless of the degree of reverence granted to these writings by Judaism, they are most definitely not regarded as scriptural by most Christians.

But yet, it seems to me that the Hebrew Scriptures are in a different category.  Jews guarded these texts with care, and this carries weight in the Christian churches.  Thus, for those books in the Hebrew Scriptures, Divino Afflante Spiritu gives primacy to the Hebrew version (and this is subsequently clarified in later Vatican writings to include consultation of the Septuagints).  In practice, this means that translations tend to be based largely on the Masoretic texts of the 9th-11th centuries; even though these versions were under Jewish stewardship (as opposed to the Septuagints, which are sometimes available in more ancient forms and were under Christian citizenship).  The reasoning, as I understand it, is that even though the Masoretic text is much later and under Jewish control, it is generally acknowledged that Jews have been careful custodians of their sacred texts and thus the Masoretic text is generally considered to be less corrupt than a translation from the Masoretic text.  (There are clearly some exceptions to this rule – there are places where the Masoretic text appears corrupt or incomprehensible – but overall, the Masoretic text carries the day.)

Now to be fair to CJA Mayo, I do not think he was necessarily making any statement about text critical issues, but rather he here restrictied his statements to the question of the list of books included in the canon.  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that despite the centuries of animosity between Judaism and Christianity, there is still is a degree to which contemporary Christianity sometimes relies on post-Common Era Jewish scholarship.  (A notable exception to this rule, of course, is the practice of certain Eastern Churches to solely rely on particular Septuagint texts in the suspicion that Jewish texts may be seriously corrupt. )

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 15, 2014 12:34 am

    As a Catholic, my theological imagination is thoroughly Christian: I can consciously remind myself that the Shared Scriptures weren’t written by their human authors with Jesus in mind, but I can only really hear them as the Christian Old Testament, not as the Tanakh… and it was the Tanakh that Jesus’ hearers heard. So Jewish translations of, and commentaries on, these books are very important to me as a means of approaching what the disciples heard when Jesus quoted scripture. Rabbinic Judaism is not the same as the Judaisms of the time, but it’s a lot closer to them than Christianity is!

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