Canon Mavericks, Economic Sex Ethic, Eruv

1. Roger T. Beckwith, “Formation of the Hebrew Bible,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 59.

“What, then, is meant by a closed canon? If it means a situation where such unanimity about the identity of the canonical books has been achieved that no individual ever again questions the right of any of them to its place in the Bible, the canon of neither Testament has ever been closed, either among Jews or among Christians…If, however, it means that such general agreement has been reached, both among the leaders of the community and in the body of the faithful, that any contrary voices raised, however eminent, have no significant effect upon religious belief or practice, then the canon may very well have been closed before the rabbinic disputes about the five books ever began.”

Beckwith notes on page 51 that there were rabbis who disputed the canonical status of Ezekiel, Esther, and Proverbs. I recall reading somewhere that they disliked Ezekiel because its rules for the new Temple contradicted rules of the Torah. And they may have had a problem with Esther because she married a Gentile. The later Greek version of Esther tried to alleviate concerns people had with the Hebrew one (e.g., Esther sleeping and eating with a pagan Gentile king), so maybe the rabbis had the same sorts of qualms. I’m not sure what their problem with Proverbs was.

Beckwith also discusses Martin Luther, who didn’t care much for Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. For Luther, the most important parts of the Bible were those that emphasized justification by grace through faith alone, apart from works. Luther believed that one only had to trust in Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners to enter the good afterlife. His emphasis was the love, grace, and faithfulness of God. Consequently, he didn’t care for Hebrews and James. According to certain interpretations, Hebrews says one can lose his salvation, and James emphatically states that a person needs faith and good works to be saved. Such concepts contradicted Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, so he tended to dismiss those books.

Beckwith’s point, however, is that most Lutherans accept their canonical status, regardless of what Luther thought. And that’s how Beckwith views the few rabbis who questioned other biblical books: you’ll have your odd apples every now and then who like to question the status quo, but most of the community accepts its canon.

While I was walking today, my mind went back to a gay Bible study I attended at DePauw. II Timothy 3:16-17 states, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (NRSV). According to the liberal dean of chapel at the time, that should read “all inspired Scripture is useful.”

Why did he like that translation? Because he was about to assert that the biblical passages against homosexuality were not inspired! So of course he wanted to deny that II Timothy 3:16-17 meant all Scripture was inspired, and instead conveyed that only the inspired parts of Scripture are useful for teaching.

What was his rationale for his position? Basically, he said that canon was a complex issue. What would Paul (or, for liberal scholars, “Paul”) have meant by “all Scripture”? “Paul” probably didn’t include the New Testament in that, since it hadn’t been completed yet. Plus, the Book of Jude indicates that some Christians accepted the Book of I Enoch. Yet, it’s not part of the official Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic canons.

I think the dean of chapel did well to point out a destabilizing truth: that canon can be a pretty messy topic. But, in my opinion, he overplayed his hand about the significance of that truth. Sure, people disagree about the authority of certain books, but one cannot deny that the Christian community of those days opposed homosexual activity. Plus, biblical books that all Christian and Jewish denominations agree upon criticize it.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 354-363.

I’m not going to post a long quote here, but I’ll mention a topic that Schaff brings up. Schaff contrasts the “heathen family” with the “Christian family.” According to Schaff, Greco-Roman culture valued marriage but allowed men to have their mistresses on the side. Cultic prostitution also existed. Christians, however, did not believe in sex outside of marriage, choosing instead to value chastity.

I was thinking about this issue as I read the discussion/debate under my topic, Christian Theater Major Needs Advice. It’s about sex, nudity–all that juicy stuff. Russell Miller wrote the following: “Sex/nudity bad, lying good? The only commandment regarding sex is not to have it with someone else’s wife. And even that is because at that point in time, wives were property.”

A lot of times, Christians try to project their own values onto the biblical text. Why does the Bible prohibit adultery and fornication? Many evangelicals respond that it’s because God intends sex to be a sacred expression of love between a man and his wife. That may be true to a certain extent, but it disregards certain facts. For one, in the Old Testament, a man could have more than one wife. A woman, however, could only sleep with one man: her husband. If she slept with more than one man, then that was adultery, which was punishable by death. So the law was a little one-sided: a man could have more than one woman, but a woman could only have one man.

Second, there was a practical economic reason to avoid fornication: to safeguard one’s inheritance. As Sirach 9:6 states, “Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance.” A man didn’t want to scatter his seed all over creation, since he may have to spend a lot of money on children he didn’t want. And what would happen if these children came out of the woodwork after his death and demanded a piece of his inheritance? What would the kids he had with his wife think? Plus, it would be easy to squander one’s inheritance on prostitutes. The prodigal son did it (Luke 15:30)!

Third, there was the issue of the bridal price. Men made money when they gave their daughters in marriage, and virgins were more valuable, economically speaking (see Deuteronomy 22). If some guy off the street came along and defiled a man’s daughter, that could throw a wrench into that whole business! So Russell is right, in a manner of speaking: a lot of the Bible’s sexual ethics have an economic motivation.

At the same time, I think that the New Testament offers more than that. According to its rules on divorce, adultery applies to both the man and the woman. A man cannot divorce his wife and marry another, so he must be a one-woman man (Mark 10:11). Paul also doesn’t like Christian men defiling themselves with temple prostitutes. It’s not so much that the harlots can have kids a man will have to support, or cost the man lots of money. Paul just thinks prostitution is a defiling act. Imagine the disgust Paul feels as he writes the following verse: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!”

So there were practical reasons for the biblical sex ethic, part of which are economic. But there were other motivations as well.

One more point: I don’t entirely agree with Schaff’s characterization of Roman society. Sure, men had their mistresses, but Greek and Roman philosophy had a desire to restrain the passions. And sex ranked in the top five of those passions, believe me!

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 145.

“He whom gentiles took forth [beyond the Sabbath limit], or an evil spirit, has only four cubits in which to move about.”

This is from the Mishnah, and it concerns the distance a Jew can travel on the Sabbath day. According to Jewish halakhah, a Jew cannot go from one private space to another. Consequently, Jews merge together their property into one huge piece of private property that they all share, through a process known as an eruv. One of my relatives thought that sounded odd, like a legalistic way to circumvent a law. But who knows? Maybe the rabbis saw spiritual value in honoring God while attempting to be practical.

I’m not sure what happens when everyone’s property becomes common on the Sabbath. I know Neusner believes this replicates Eden, where private property did not exist, but what are the practical ramifications of the practice? Could a person just walk into somebody’s house and make himself a home, eating his neighbors’ food and drinking their wine? I wouldn’t be surprised if the halakhah touched on this!

I included this quote because of the reference to an evil spirit. It just sounded so Stephen King: an evil spirit transports a pious Jew beyond his Sabbath day’s limit. But people believed in those things back then. Maybe it’s not far-fetched, since I’ve seen documentaries on spirits.

But a person who’s far from his home on the Sabbath must stay within certain boundaries. I remember a class I took on Midrash Tanhuma at Harvard, and we read a midrash about a travelling Jewish merchant who had to stop where he was on the road once the Sabbath arrived, as he confined himself to a spacial limitation. Based on his past experience, my professor thought that the evangelicals in the class wouldn’t understand Judaism’s desire to honor the Sabbath, since evangelicalism can be pretty anti-ritual. But it turned out that he was wrong on that: the evangelicals in that particular setting weren’t disputing the value of the concept. They were only trying to understand what the passage was saying.

But that’s my diversion down memory lane!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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