More Thoughts on Gillingham’s book, “One Bible, Many Voices” – Part 4

Re: Chapter 3 — “A Biblical Corpus? The Canon and the Boundaries of Faith”

In Chapter 3 of Professor Gillingham’s book, One Bible, Many Voices, she focuses the discussion on clearing up confusion and misunderstandings with regard to the canonization of biblical texts. This is an area of biblical knowledge that is incredibly lacking among Christians today. Most Christians I know believe that the Bible their denomination uses is the one true canon of authoritative texts. The problem is that there isn’t just one list of canonical texts, but several. So for many who identify as Christians, their Bible has more than the sixty-six books of the very modern Protestant Bible. As Gillingham notes at the outset of the chapter:

  • …because it is impossible to draw up clear boundaries for the inclusion or exclusion of particular books, we do not possess just one authoritative collection (or Canon, meaning a rule of faith) called ‘the Bible,’ or ‘Scripture,’ but several different collections. This has important consequences for the ways in which we read those books which we have in our own particular Bible, for our reading is contingent upon the particular theological tradition—Jewish or Christian—with which we have become familiar (p. 46, emphasis is mine).

Of the three oldest codex manuscripts —from the 4th and 5th centuries CE—we have that constitute a collection of Old Testament and New Testament texts, not one is identical to another in terms of specific books it contains and the order in which they are placed! Also, these codices (plural of codex) are completely written in Greek both Old and New Testaments. These represent the earliest “Bibles” of the Christians. In fact, many early scholars and church leaders—often referred to as Church Fathers—believed that their Greek version was inspired by God and was superior to the Hebrew Old testament text! Again, as Gillingham notes:

  • Hence between the third century BCE and the fourth century CE, the ‘Hebrew Bible’ and the ‘Old Testament’ meant different things to different Jewish and Christian communities. Obviously, each community found its own criteria for inclusion and exclusion (p. 54).

Even when it comes to the formation of a New Testament canon of texts, “it took over three hundred years after the death of Christ before a major church council achieved it, and even then, this ruling was by no means fully accepted by all the Christian communities in the Graeco-Roman world” (p. 55). Gillingham writes, “It is thus impossible to draw up any one definitive list of the New Testament Canon from before the fourth century” (p. 60, emphasis is mine). With regard to a so-called “biblical canon of scripture,” Gillingham concludes:

  • It should be clear from this survey that there has never been one such thing as a universal ‘biblical corpus’ of either the Old Testament or the New, whether we are speaking of the formation of a corpus in its earliest stages or of any uniform acceptance in the later stages of church tradition (p. 66).

Professor Gillingham concludes this chapter with a critical analysis of the most common way that Christians read and interpret their Bibles—that is, “the canon-critical method (or canonical reading) proposed particularly by B. S. Childs” (p. 68). As she notes—along with an increasing number of reputable biblical scholars—“Childs…has one major concern, and that is theological uniformity. Such uniformity, Childs defends, is discernible through the final canonical form of Scripture” (p. 68). However, several problems arise with Childs’ canonical reading (pp. 69–71).

  1. “The emphasis on the ‘final form’ immediately raises the question of which final form, and for which community this was ultimately acceptable” (p. 69). Yet, many who adhere to Childs’ approach, clearly believe that the “final form” of the canon is found in the Protestant Bible, thus ignoring 1000 years of church tradition (e.g., Gregory Boyd).
  2. Although the Septuagint (Greek translation) was used by most Christian communities, Childs and his adherents ignore the Greek text and favour the Hebrew (Masoretic) text that was “hardly itself a first-century phenomenon” (p. 69).
  3. Gillingham asks the extremely relevant question of Childs and his adherents: “Why discard the equal significance of other earlier believing communities, whose language, culture, and theological concepts shaped the texts in its earlier stages?” (p. 70).
  4. Childs’ canonical reading imposes a theological unity on an anthology of texts which—when read without the lens of that subjective assumption—presents as ancient, diverse, ambiguous, and often contradictory in terms of theological perspectives.

Gillingham concludes her critique—quite correctly in my opinion—with the following statement:

  • A more pluralistic open-ended way of reading the texts is not only desirable; it is unavoidable, if one is to face honestly the evidence of the long, complex process of canonization. Childs’ problem is that he limits the Canon to a fixed period of time, and his view of the history of the text is therefore distorted (p. 71, emphasis is mine).

This is one of my favourite discussions in Gillingham’s book. She takes a very long, complex, and convoluted process and explains it in clear, unequivocal, language that is accessible to anyone who is truly interested in understanding the actual story of how we got the Bibles that we read today. Maybe one day I’ll write a book with the title, How We Got Our Bibles: The Often Untold but True Story.

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