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More Thoughts on Canon

June 9, 2007


In so far as I’m currently planning out my fall intro to the Hebrew Bible class, I’ve been finding the general discussion of canon around the blogosphere quite interesting and potentially useful from a pedagogical perspective. Whether one is teaching an introductory class to undergrads or preaching to those in the pew, we all are forced to deal with the fact that there is a thing called “the Bible” — a canon of texts written over centuries but somehow seen as a unified whole by most people.

The most recent development in the discussion of canon comes from John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. A few days back, John sent out a forty page(!) pdf laying out his agenda for a series of posts So far he has three posts on the subject. His most recent post in this series is here.

Near the end of this latest discussion he makes an interesting distinction:

The scripture-truth correlation is more fundamental – in the sense of foundational – than the church-truth or tradition-truth correlation.

As will be evident to those who read this blog, I tend to find a disconnect between tradition and text. When there starts to be a distinction between text and tradition with the former being given more weight, I balk. Tradition gave rise to canon. It is from tradition that various communities affirmed their canons. More so, tradition gave rise to the texts at the outset. All along the process from text to canon, tradition is in control. Granted, faith communities view this tradition in different ways, from those who would sing with Tevye to those in evangelical circles who would prefer to couch the language in terms of sovereignty; but the fact remains that tradition is the key.

In response to my comments to this effect, John responds:

That same tradition makes a distinction, even drives a wedge if you will, within itself between one part and another. The result is a constructive dialectic.

I think John is right here. Further, there is an interesting correlation here between the way tradition and ritual work. Catherine Bell talks about how ritual asserts power by conveying a sense of community while simultaneously creating a power distinction — by deliberately obscuring the fact it has power. This seems to be the case with tradition as well. Tradition gives rise to a canon that it distinguishes over against itself. However, this canon is always being reinterpreted and effected by the tradition.

Tradition has the power but maintains that power by obscuring it and creating a distinction between itself and the canon it created. It is a constructive dialectic only in so far as people believe that there actually is a dialectic. (One might also draw analogies here with the “Coke vs. Pepsi” political situation in the States.) The point being: tradition really has the power.

  1. June 9, 2007 3:22 pm

    I would have to agree. What we call “text” is only a written expression of an earlier tradition. We only give the “text” precedence because we have defined it as such is certain circles. Yet the distinction between text and tradition, to me, seems chosen rather than having its own pre-existence before that choice. The only reality the distinction holds, is within the faith communities which give it that distinction. At the end of the day, we each choose which “text(s)” to follow by submitting to a particular tradition that chooses them. I believe we each choose that tradition for a particular reason, and possibly the true discussion about canon lies in why we choose a particular tradition/denomination from which to express our faith(s). Within that tradition, the “texts” we use will in turn help shape our expression of the faith.


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