Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.23

M. Finkelberg, G.G. Stroumsa, Homer, the Bible, and Beyond. Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World. Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture, 2.   Leiden:  Brill, 2003.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 90-04-12665-1.  EUR 76.00/$91.00.  

Contributors: Finkelberg, Stroumsa, N. Veldhuis, S. Chapman, C. Grottanelli, Sh. Shaked, H. Pelliccia, H. Cancik, A. Vardi, Ch. Markschies, R. Lamberton, H. Sivan, D. Stern, M. Halbertal, A. Plaks


Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (PvdHorst@theo.uu.nl)
Word count: 1911 words

In this volume, an international team of experts discusses the processes of canon-formation in a wide range of societies of the ancient world, addressing such issues as canon and the articulation of identity, the hermeneutical attitude toward canonical texts, textual fixity and openness, oral and written canons, methods of transmission, and more. In an introductory essay, the editors put the contributions into a wider perspective, with special reference to the modern debate on the so-called 'Western canon' (Harold Bloom). Canon-formation is about 'foundational texts' (exemplified in the book's title by Homer and the Bible), which, "in that they embody the essentials of a given community's collective self-consciousness, are the indispensable factor by means of which its ethnic, cultural, or religious identity is articulated" (5).

In his contribution on Mesopotamian canons, Veldhuis describes the Old Babylonian canon around 1800 BCE, in which the Sumerian heritage is recreated and used as inspiration for new compositions, and the Neo-Assyrian canon around 700 BCE, where libraries have become repositories of reliable knowledge and textuality is reflected upon. The problem with this paper is that the author writes for specialists in Assyriology so that much is far too technical for the average classicist.

In his essay "How the Biblical Canon Began," Stephen Chapman first sketches the standard critical theory regarding the canonization of the Old Testament which conceived of three discrete acts of canonization, one for each of the three subcollections of the canon (Torah, Prophets, Writings). He next describes how this conception has increasingly come under fire and why there is presently a terminological impasse as far as the term 'canon' (and 'scripture') is involved; the broad definition uses the criterion of religious authority of written documents, the more narrow one speaks of canon only in terms of a 'closed' list of sacred books. Chapman himself defines canon as "an intertextual collection of scriptures" with a history in which the broad and the narrow definition are only stages in an evolving process. "The editors in the late stages of the formation of the biblical books registered their assumptions that these books belong together. ... Later canonical decisions were for the most part confirmatory in nature, usually securing de jure approval for writings that already possessed de facto authority." (39-40). The article concludes with a number of important methodological considerations.

"On Written Lies" is the title of a paper in which C. Grottanelli tries to solve the baffling riddle of a text in the book of the prophet Jeremiah (8:8-9) that seems to condemn Torah scribes as liars. After a survey of previous exegetes including their hidden agenda's G. proposes his own solution in what is, again, a rather too technical article for a non-specialist.

In his contribution "Scripture and Exegesis in Zoroastrianism," Shaul Shaked briefly but clearly sketches the great problems of dating Zoroaster's life and the obscure early history of the sacred Zoroastrian scriptures. He emphasizes that in their case canonization certainly preceded the process of a written redaction, but at the same time the written redaction did not stop the process of canonization for "Zoroastrian traditions indicate that at certain times the scope of the sacred canon of scriptures underwent considerable expansions, and that, at other periods, it suffered from a substantial shrinking or diminution" (67).

"Homer As a Foundational Text" is the contribution by Margalit Finkelberg, in which she argues that "the Iliad and the Odyssey were intended to supersede the other traditional epics from the very beginning" (75). By incorporating many narrative elements from the Cypria, Aithiopis, Iliou Persis etc., the Iliad and the Odyssey "function as symbolic compendia of the entire history of the Trojan War and the Returns.... By the very fact of reinterpreting the other versions of the Trojan saga, Homer signalizes their subordinate status as regards his own poems and privileges the version that he offers" (78). His claim became universally accepted because his updating of the past was purposefully and inseparably linked up with the large-scale Panhellenic Renaissance of the 8th cent. BCE. Both expressed "the same tendency towards establishing a continuity between prehistoric and historic Greece that became dominant at that period" (82). For that reason, epic traditions that offered alternative versions of the end of Mycenaean Greece had to be marginalized. "As a result, like the Bible and some other ancient corpora, Homer's became a manifold text, which carried within itself both the original message and its re-interpretation in the vein of later values" (90). That is why Homer's text became 'foundational,' the 'Bible of the Greeks.' F. devotes the final pages of her fine essay to the effects Homer's sacrosanct status had upon the history of interpretation of his poems from the 6th cent. BCE up to the late Byzantine era.

In "Two Points About Rhapsodes," Hayden Pelliccia argues convincingly that there are strong reasons to believe that 6th and 5th cent. BCE Athens (or Greece) "was a society that had an experience and expectation of the verbatim repetition of precisely fixed poetic texts" (102). Applied to Homer, this implies that "while there is no direct evidence that supports the theory of a fluid, evolving, and creative rhapsodic tradition in the late 6th and early 5th centuries, what evidence there actually is implies a fixed text" (115), which was memorized by rhapsodes (contra Rosalind Thomas, Gregory Nagy et al.). This is an extremely rich and instructive article, that has, however, only an indirect bearing on matters of canonization.

More pertinent to that topic is Hubert Cancik's "Standardization and Ranking of Texts in Greek and Roman Institutions." The question he wants to answer is, "What was the impulse that drove the Greeks to become a canon-making species?" (117; think of the canons of the best 10 orators, 9 lyric poets, 5 [or 3] tragedians etc.). It is the circumstances at the great festivals (such as the Panathenaia) with their contests, both rhapsodic and dramatic, that helped to develop criteria for ranking. In addition to that, the great theatre reform by Lycurgus in Athens ca. 330 BCE implied a lot of standardization and 'canonization,' which went hand in hand here (plays being acted in accordance with the text of the copies in the Athenian archives). And the kritai of the festivals played, of course, a central role in the ranking process. In Rome, it was the private school setting that led to a similar kind of canon formation with, of course, Cicero and Virgil in the Latin leading positions.

Rome, in a wide sense, is also the focus of Amiel Vardi in "Canons of Literary Texts at Rome." He first discusses in general ancient lists of authors (whether selective or not), then lists of authors serving as recommended reading lists in manuals (esp. rhetorical ones, closely connected with the theory of mimesis), and concludes that "What was originally an enumeration of the best representative writers within a specific genre in a given literary corpus, came to be considered a list of archetypal examples which every future author in that genre had to follow, and against which all future works of the type would be evaluated" (138). Such lists often tended to become "a body of texts every educated person should be familiar with," i.e., a canon in the modern sense. The larger numbers of papyri found of such authors reflect this development. A helpful chart of the various canons found in ancient authors concludes the article.

Stroumsa's paper, "Early Christianity - A Religion of the Book?", deals with various aspects of orality and literacy in early Christianity and comes to the conclusion that books do not seem to have played a major role in the early Christian mind, a conclusion that seems to be contradicted by the revolutionary success of the codex in early Christianity stressed by Stroumsa himself (although he calls that the 'religion of the paperback'). The discourse of this paper is rather theoretical and not always easy to follow. The reference to B. Lang's publication discussed on p. 165 is missing (or it dropped out); it is: "Buchreligion," in the Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, vol. 2 (Stuttgart 1990), 143-165.

In his "The Canon of the New Testament in Antiquity," Christoph Markschies argues for replacing the traditional picture of a great crisis in second century Christianity as the impetus for canon formation with the model of a laboratory: A number of different thinkers tried to solve the same theological problems on different levels with often the same tools; so different kinds of canons developed. This is a somewhat rambling piece.

Robert Lamberton writes about "The Neoplatonists and Their Books." In this eminently readable contribution, L. usefully stresses the fundamental difference between religious canons (in the monotheistic religions of the Book) and the aesthetic canons of Graeco-Roman antiquity and argues that in view of the absence of religious canons it is all the more paradoxical that in Late Antiquity some non-philosophical works gained precisely that status among the Neoplatonists. Of course Plato's dialogues formed the core of their library, but gradually one finds also books of 'alien wisdom' on their shelves (L. calls it the 'orientalism' of the Platonic 'underground'), most prominent among them the Oracula Chaldaica. In the last two centuries of the history of polytheist Platonism, the philosophers discovered more and more 'parallels' between the ontology they developed out of Plato and the ontological systems they discovered in these theurgical documents, which they regarded as having divine origin. Of all the books in the world Proclus wanted to preserve only the Chaldaean Oracles and the Timaeus.

I will summarize the final four contributions more briefly. In "Canonizing Law in Late Antiquity: Legal Constructs of Judaism in the Theodosian Code," Hagith Sivan argues that one of the purposes and consequences of the canonization of past and current legal decisions by Theodosius II was the construction of Judaism as deeply alien to Roman = Christian traditions.

D. Stern discusses "Canonization in Rabbinic Judaism." He shows, among other things, that the process of canonization of rabbinic literature took place through many of the same principles that midrash [= rabbinic Bible exegesis] uses to explain Scripture. In this way "Oral Torah acquires the 'canonical' state of being treated as Torah through being studied and interpreted via the same techniques and hermeneutical methods as are applied in midrashic literature to the Written Torah" (250). This is an excellent article, and his comparison of Homer and the Bible as prime examples of canonization is very useful (although I disagree with Stern's statement about "the relatively insignificant influence of Homer upon later Greek poetry and literature," 240).

Moshe Halbertal discusses aspects of the opposition between oral tradition and literary canon in 13th-14th century Kabbalah in his "From Oral Tradition to Literary Canon"; and in an "Afterword" Andrew Plaks reviews the various contributions to the volume from the outside perspective of Chinese textual tradition. I quote from this article the following statement, since it encapsulates exactly my main point of criticism of this otherwise valuable work: "The editors of this volume make an attempt to downplay the distinction between canonic texts attributed to divine revelation and those ascribed to more secular forms of inspiration, and they try to paper over the gap between these two opposing concepts by falling back upon the very vague expression 'foundational texts,' indicating not much more than that these books are all of great cultural significance" (268). Lamberton had in fact already made the same point. I wish this book in the hands of many readers.

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