Like Jacob wrestling with the nocturnal angel, the reader will be repaid by a tenacious reading of Martin Hengel's highly compacted rehearsal of the Greek Bible's origins and use by Jews and Christians.
Robert Hanhart contributes an extensive introduction to this volume (pp. 1-17), in which he argues against the grain of Hengel's argument that indications of canonical concern are visible in the pre-Christian era. The essay was originally a contribution to Hengel's Tübingen seminar, invited to the colloquy because it represented a `different' point of view and generously included her as a kind of intellectual foreground to Hengel's own argument.
With respect to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, Hanhart believes that `the literary forms of the two communities--regardless of whether "canonized" or "extra-canonical"--are fundamentally the genres of canonized witnesses.' Indeed, he continues to read the famous statement in the prologue of Ben Sirach as a straight-forward indicator that a tripartite canon was already available to `the grandson and translator', a distinction that was `grounded first and foremost in the distinction between "canonical" and "apocryphal" already current at the time.' The author underscores the element of essential agreement between the Jewish Scriptures and the body of literature accepted by Christians as canonical. The end of the Urgeschichte is signaled by Origen in his treatment of divergent views in the Christian community regarding the precise delimitation of that literature, a discussion in whish Hanhart does not hesitate to use the terms `Palestinian' and `Alexandrian' canon(s). However, the author of this complex prefatory statement to Hengel's book does not find clear evidence for an early sustained argument about the formal limitations of the canonical Scriptures, only a pronounced `recensional principle' that habituates Christian writers to compare their Greek Scriptures with exemplars of the Hebrew text used by Jews, to the degree that these become available.
Following upon the complexity of Hanhart's extraordinarily dense preface, Hengel is wise to choose brevity in his introductory chapter and to provide it with a warning label (chapter one, `A Difficult Subject', pp. 19-23). This is principally a brush-clearing effort. In viewing the later Church's `large' Greek canon, Hengel points out that we cannot prove the pre-Christian, Jewish, Alexandrian origins of this. We can observe the New Testament authors citing the LXX as the rule, and assuming a kind of `fixed core'. But whether this core was at the time larger in the Alexandrian hinterland than in the Palestinian homeland is simply impossible to declare. We simply do not know. So much for any hope for a simple explanation and so the justification for the chapter's title comes clear.
In a lengthy second chapter (`The LXX as a Collection of Writings Claimed by Christians', pp. 25-56), Hengel chronicles the adoption and use of the Greek Bible by the Christian churches and the elaboration of the translation legend initiated by the Letter of Aristeas to justify the nearly exclusive usage of the Greek Old Testament text by Christians. The author offers the intriguing observation that only the long-term embellishment of this version allowed the Church to embrace the Old Testament and avoid a Marcionite rejection of the Jewish Bible, thus raising interesting questions about ends and means.
The use of the nomina sacra `kurios' for the Tetragrammaton, together with the move from scroll to codex, distinguishes Christian use of the biblical text from earliest times. In a pregnant aside, Hengel observes that the content of the Greek Egyptian biblical texts indicate that--popular and cinematic fads aside--Egyptian Christianity was hardly Gnostic.
Jewish opinion of the time did not easily accept the Christian appropriation of the biblical text. Anticipating the surprising conclusion of his book, Hengel observes that even the `rabbinical' closure of the text must be considered `anti-heretical', that is, anti-Christian! Christian partisans of the Massoretic Text--whom this reviewer regards with a degree of appreciation in a context where `pluriform' explanations have become something of a reflex--will find grist for reflection here.
Hengel is a keen observer of the contradictions that plagued Christian attempts to reconcile a received Greek text with the undeniable presence--even if not availability--of a Hebrew prototype. Augustine's famous `compromise' is seen as just that: a concession to a two-text reality that bore the seeds of a scholarly curiosity that would blossom in Renaissance humanism and reach full flower in the Reformation.
The author begins the next phase of the story by observing the high degree of variance in both content and order that characterizes the great codices of the fourth and fifth centuries (chapter three, `The Later Consolidation of the Christian "Septuagint Canon"', pp. 57-74). This circumstance is apparently counterweighted by the rather more restrictive `canon lists' that appear as early as Melito's of the second century. Again, Hengel is able to foreshadow Reformation and counter-Reformation debate by framing Jerome's campaign on behalf of the `hebraica veritas', as well as the counter-reaction and `undiscerning inclusion' at the Synod of Carthage (397 CE) of the books not represented in the Hebrew collection.
Thereafter a constellation of `second class' books neither represented in the Hebrew text nor capable of demonstrating a birthright fixed in the period between Moses and Ezra continued to hover in biblical orbit by virtue of their inherent piety and church usage. In spite of considerable efforts to shake free of the `Jewish model' and a Hebrew textual prototype, the Christian Church--to its benefit--never proved itself free enough of its roots successfully to do so.
Though discounting the narrative claims of the Letter of Aristeas, Hengel does find in it an historical kernel relating to the `victorious' dissemination of the Greek Torah in Diaspora Judaism (chapter four, `The Origin of the Jewish LXX', pp. 75-103). He correctly views the ongoing translation of the `biblical' documents into Greek as a function of the Motherland's propaganda in the Diaspora, an understanding that marginalizes the importance of the celebrated `temple' at Leontopolis. I am sure that Hengel is correct in his assessment that Palestinian Judaism continued to play a central role among Diaspora communities that maintained connections to and a programmatic nostalgia with the old country. Hengel's repeated usage of the term `motherland' is apt, even without reference to `metropolis' in Greek Isaiah 1.26. This is an argument that runs across the current of the promotion of `Hellenistic theology' that prevailed until scholarly work into Diaspora/Hellenistic Judaism during the last few decades. Hengel is also on the right track with his surmise that the Greek Isaiah translation is likely a revision of an earlier translated edition of the book. His argument derives from the demonstrable importance of Isaiah within the Judaism (and subsequently Christianity) of the era, but there are also textual indications that support his conjecture.
The last ten pages of this chapter will be of interest to those readers interested in the perennial question of why certain writings well known to both Jews and Christians were excluded from the `Pharisaic' canon. Also of interest is Hengel's assertion Ben Sirach tells us much about how the biblical content was viewed in (some Palestinian) Jewish circles near the end of the Era (a three-fold classification), but little or nothing about strict delimitations of a canon.
In contrast, Josephus is able to speak in detail about such definition at the end of the first century CE. His is one and the same as the rabbinical canon. Jewish antiquity's great historian, rabbinical consensus, and later Christian apologists thus arrive at an unwitting agreement regarding the reliable source documents of Israelite history. Significantly, Josephus joins Christian theologians in reading history forward towards a messianic age, while the rabbis opt for an ahistorical conception, as though Jewish history has ended with Hebrew prophetism. Hauntingly, Hengel avails us of (proto-?)rabbinical thinking that Jewish history had come to an end and that it fell to others to make history from this point forward. Quoting Glatzer: `The Jew no longer made history, but endured it.
Hengel's concluding offering argues for the unimportance of canonical issues in primitive Christianity (chapter five, `The Origin of the "Christian Septuagint" and its Additional Writings', pp. 105-127). New Testament citations are accompanied by a relatively system of reference, like `the law and the prophets' and even simply `the prophets'. The three-fold canonical system is only glimpsed, perhaps in deference to a Christian understanding of Scripture that emphasizes their `prophetic' function. The text of choice for New Testament writers is the Septuagint. Paul is credited with a `spirit-guided apostolic freedom' that would have distinguished him markedly from those who shared his scholarly and Pharisaic training.
Hengel summarizes: `This picture of the New Testament and early Christian use of the Greek Bible, sketched with over-simplifying brevity, indicates a thoroughly bipartite reality on the one hand, the concentration on a tight circle of frequently cited scriptures in which "the Scriptures" were primarily seen from the perspective of the fulfilled prophetic promise. Thus, the nomos was no longer placed at the centre, but the "prophetic word" fulfilled in Christ, with a clear preference for quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah. In contrast, a quite free, inspired treatment of the text could adduce as "Scripture" even individual apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, some known to us and some no longer known, or oral statements "of the Lord". The question of the external compass of the scriptural canon is not yet clearly posed.
It is customary in reviews like this to credit Hengel's `Lutheranism' for certain details of this summary, but the arguments of such a scholar should be allowed to stand free of such ad hominem insinuations.
At this point, one might suppose that the author will wrap up his treatment of the biblical text's history with several pithy conclusions. One does well, however, to recall the title of his introduction (`A Difficult Subject') and so to cushion one surprise upon reading that the question of the great codices' contents is `essentially insoluble' and that the detail of other exclusions and inclusions `remains a mystery'.
Hengel's concluding pages lean decidedly towards a smaller collection of Christian scripture, one with marked local variations and aligned essentially with the documents that would have been recognized by synagogue elites. Here the book demonstrates with clarity how far scholars have come from a prior differentiation between a small `Palestinian canon' and a large `Alexandrian canon'. Indeed, Hengel's little book may be the best statement of this scholarly progress available in English, though it requires a fair bit of wrestling before it looses its argument for how this came to be.
Hengel is noted for combining the roles of Christian theologian and historian of early Judaism and so the explicit putting on of his theologian's cap at the conclusion of this work is not a complete surprise. The content of his theological musing, however, may be.
Hengel disassociates himself with the sort of `unhistorical biblicism' that `clings to a limited "Hebrew" , or better pharisaical, "canon" from Jabneh.' Rather, the Old Testament realizes its messianic completeness only as it remains open to the `post-biblical Jewish text tradition' that contemplates both Jewish and Christian contributions.
The author approves of H. Gese's startling conclusion that `(a) Christian theologian may never approve of the masoretic canon.'
One hopes that M. Hengel's distinguished career will yet allow time and energy for reflection upon such provocative theological suggestion, anchored as it is in detailed and concrete understanding of the biblical texts that he has so ably brought under our attention.