Eastern Canon

It’s complicated.  The Bible, that is.  Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon.  If we should.  My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.  The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it.  Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  That makes these two books by definition “biblical.”  You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

This privileging of the western canon has implications.  How do we know what really belongs in the Bible?  Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized.  Early Christian writers had different Bibles.  It took almost four centuries for them to agree  generally on what should be included.  In Europe, that is.  Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome.  Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made.  For some.  Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain.  Or the desert.  Whichever.

The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that.  The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?”  These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees.  The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name.  This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon.  What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries.  Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians.  It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version.  Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.

Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.