Recently, I had the chance to teach Old Testament (Biblical) Theology at a local Bible College here in the Philippines. I usually teach Missions, and Pastoral Care on occasion, so it was rather exciting.
As I was preparing, and as I was teaching, several interesting things struck me. I won’t go into everything here, but I was struck by some aspects of the Bible as the Inter-testamental period was approaching. They are rather related, and tied to issues of Prophecy and Canon.
- The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) does have a feel of ending a plot line as we reach the post-exile. If one looks at Hosea (a book NOT from this period), Hosea’s rocky marriage feels like the history of God with Israel– as it was meant to. But in the exile, one feels like one has hit the resolution of the crisis, in a narrative plot— followed by the gradual restoration. With Nehemiah, one reaches the denoument. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abram a vast people and a land. This was fulfilled and restored. With the Mosaic Covenant, the people are, finally, throwing away their idols and seeking God (Yahweh), trying to abide by the Law (terms of the treaty with God). The promised dwelling of God with Israel, evidenced in the tabernacle and the first temple– and lost with the exile– is seen as restored with the second temple.
- There is a transition from the oral prophetic word to the written canon. This can be seen, for example, in II Baruch 85:3, “But now, the righteous have been assembled, and the prophets are sleeping. Also we have left our land, and Zion has been taken away from us, and we have nothing now apart from YAHWEH the Mighty One and HIS Torah” Additionally, Babylonian Talmud Sotah 48b, states that when Malachi died, “the Holy Spirit departed from Israel”…. meaning, I suppose, that there was no more prophetic witness. Tied to that was the role of Ezra, as well as new institutions to support the written word, including the Sanhedrin, synagogues, and rabbinical schools. People like to argue when the OT books were written… but the Torah appears as if it must predate considerably the exile (and I, personally, have no problem with it being penned primarily by Moses). The Deuteronomistic history is completed during the Exile, and the history of the Chronicler appears, based on the geneologies, to have been completed around 400BC. This transitio relates to the change of attitude of the people. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the people seem to be generally surprised and saddened at their faithlessness when read the Book of Deuteronomy. Knowing the unreliability of prophets (perhaps, especially, court prophets), the written word, canon, provided a stabler ground for their beliefs and ethics.
- There is a strong case for “Unfinished Business.” The Abrahamic Covenant wasn’t fully met. It would be difficult to say that through Abraham’s seed, all of the nations of the world were blessed by the time the Hebrew Bible was completed. The Davidic Covenant did not appear to have been fully met, with an unending dynasty. The New Covenant of Jeremiah (and related ideas in Ezekiel) did not appear to be fully established either. Finally, the lack of prophecy at this time was directly stated to be a temporary thing as both Joel and Malachi look forward to the restoration of visions and prophecy.
- The Septuagint established the precedent for the translatability of God’s Word. This is no minor thing. Even though the Jews did back away from it 300 years later, the pattern had been set. And Christians, despite some embracing “sacred languages” or “inspired translations” over time, generally recognized that God’s revelation is still God’s revelation even in translation. This is HUGE. In general, Islam never really made that leap. Truthfully, they really should have. There are no true “heart language” readers of 4th century BC Hebrew, 1st Century Koine Greek, or 7th century Arabic… so readers of Holy texts in the original must always translate to some extent. So the question is not whether translation is good or bad. Rather, the question is “Who should do the translation– unskilled readers, or skilled translators?”
So why does this all matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but it does for me.
- The Hebrew Bible does really seem to set the stage for a New Covenant (as Jeremiah describes it). It seems like the end of a story arc, but much like the seasonal finale in a TV series, establishes hints as to what the new season will reveal and develop.
- There is something healthy about the transition from oral prophecy to written canon. The focus on written canon appeared to be good for the Jewish people, providing a better standard for conduct. This is hardly surprising. Prophets were often unreliable in the Old Testament because of the temptation to say what what is not true. Some were false prophets because they were spokesmen for a false god, while others were false prophets in that they claimed to speak for God (Yahweh) but said what the people wanted to hear rather than what God needed them to hear.
- The replacement of prophets with canon repeated itself in the New Testament time, with claims of false prophets and false Christs. The Didache warned of prophets and apostles who were false due to improper motivations. Into the 2nd and 3rd centuries, prophets and apostles faded away, as the canon of NT Scripture, and the leadership structure of churches began to take away much of the need for these other offices. Some of the problems may be control issues between churchplantes/apostles and local churches (sodality versus modality structures), and a similar thing could be of prophets and local churches. The growth of cultic schisms in the second century led to a focus on determining a written canon. It also led to the idea of “apostolic succession”– establishing a ecclesio-geneological canon of sorts.
- The growth today of the tendency of some denominations to embrace prophets and prophecy again– particularly among “Restorationist” groups, can be a bit troubling as the problems of the past have roots that can still resurface in the present. A fascination with prophecy (whether foretelling or forthtelling) still tempts people to fake it, saying what people want to hear. American “prophets” love to come to the Philippines to tell local Christians what they want to hear. The fascination with the contemporaneity and novelty of “new revelations” (and “secret knowledge”) can dull people to the reliable (but old) canon of the written word. I recall an acquaintance of mine who was attending a “prophecy” conference in the US. A self-styled prophet gave my friend a whole bunch of “prophecies” regarding the Philippines to take back here and publish. I just haven’t seen a good track record with these things, and considering the number of Christians living in the Philippines, if for some reason God decided that his written revelation and Spirit-illumination were inadequate, it seems pretty likely he would find a messenger who was local. But I could be wrong. (There is also a movement to create “Apostles” again as an office… but since the role has essentially nothing to do with the original NT role/office, it hardly deserves comment.)
- The Septuagint, as well as the Jerusalem Council makes it clear that written canon does not mean ossified written relics. Canon is both translatable and contextualizable. As such, it has the qualities of both permanency and dynamism. The permanancy provides a better foundation to base one’s faith and action on, while the dynamism provides unique applicability to unique cultural circumstances.
I guess, in the end, I would say that a transition from oral prophecy to written canon is a good thing, and seeking to reverse it is going backwards, in more than one way.