Book Write-Up: Canon and Community, by James Sanders

James A. Sanders.  Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

I stumbled upon this book when I went home over a year ago for my sister’s wedding.  I was looking through the closet of my childhood room for books that I could read for My Year (or More) of Nixon, and I discovered this short book by James Sanders explaining canonical criticism.  The book probably meant more to me when I found it in that closet than it did when I first picked it up over a decade before.  I first picked the book up way back when I was an undergraduate, and the chaplain of the college was giving away some of his old books for free.  A professor of mine had recommended that I look into canonical criticism, since, as a conservative Christian at the time, I was upset with how the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible tended to split the Bible up into contradictory, sometimes historically-inaccurate sources that related only to the time of their own composition, not to today.  My professor pointed me to canonical criticism so that I could be exposed to a scholarly methodology that was more holistic, synchronic, and faith-affirming in its engagement with the Bible.  I remember her recommending to me Brevard Childs’ books, though she may have also mentioned Sanders’ work.  In any case, I remembered Childs’ name, perhaps because it struck me as rather unusual, but not Sanders.  When I first saw Sanders’ book on canonical criticism, I decided to pick it up because it was about canonical criticism, but I did not realize at the time that Sanders himself was a significant figure in terms of this methodology.  I would come to appreciate that years later.  Consequently, when I found the book in my old closet over a year ago, I appreciated it for the jewel that it is, more so than I did when I was an undergraduate.

I was one time talking with an old student of Sanders about canonical criticism, asking him if Sanders’ canonical criticism is the same as that of Childs.  His response was that they are different—-that Childs’ enterprise was more theological, whereas Sanders focused more on the use of Scripture within religious communities.  After reading Canon and Community, I can see differences between the approaches of Childs and Sanders, many of which Sanders himself highlights.  At the same time, I also notice similarities, as I will explain in the course of this post.

Essentially, Sanders argues that traditions in the Bible have been re-interpreted and re-used within religious communities to speak to their own concerns.  Sanders contends that one can see this process going on within the Bible itself, and also after the Bible’s canonization.  Consequently, according to Sanders, historical-criticism that limits the writings of the Bible to their own historical contexts is incomplete and misguided, for traditions within those writings (and even before those writings) were continually reapplied to speak to new contexts.  Many scholars have acknowledged this, but Sanders wants for people to appreciate it.  His impression in 1984 was that many did not.  Some tended to over-value what a prophet originally said, while dismissing or under-valuing the redactors and writers within the Bible who re-applied or built upon those prophet’s words to speak to new situations.  A number of preachers chose to avoid exegetical preaching of the Bible, choosing instead to give topical sermons, for historical-criticism seemed to consign the meaning of the Bible to the past, thereby convincing certain preachers that they could not adequately relate it to the present.  Sanders’ canonical criticism speaks to this problem by affirming that traditions in the Bible were historically not understood to relate only to their original context, but were applied to speak to new contexts, even within the Bible itself.

How does Sanders’ approach compare with what Childs did when Childs attempted to address the same problem?  According to Sanders, Childs’ canonical criticism primarily focused on the final form of the biblical text.  Childs would, say, focus on what the final form of the Book of Isaiah appears to be saying, or what a passage in Isaiah may mean in light of its final form, rather than the sources within the Book of Isaiah.  Childs would also discuss how a biblical book or passage would fit into the larger canon: the Masoretic Text, and Christian Scripture.  Sanders had issues with these sorts of emphases, however.  For one, interpretation and re-interpretation of biblical traditions were going on prior to the “final form” of the biblical book, and Sanders believes that this should be acknowledged and appreciated, as opposed to acting as if interpretation jumped off after the final form came to be.  Second, there were cases in which there was more than one final form (i.e., different versions of Jeremiah), and even more than one canon within Judaism and Christianity.  Why privilege some over others?  And third, I would say that Sanders does focus more on religious communities than does Childs, who primarily looks at what different sources can mean theologically when they come together into one book or are juxtaposed with books elsewhere in the Bible.  My impression is that Childs also highlights more the history of interpretation—-the church fathers, Ibn-Ezra, etc.—-not so much to define how a text was historically applied to speak to the concerns of a religious community, but rather to demonstrate how great thinkers interpreted the Bible in a synchonic, theological fashion, the way that he seems to support.

But I believe that there is some overlap between the canonical criticisms of Childs and Sanders.  Sanders himself attempts to derive theological ideas from the biblical text, and he, like Childs, explores how one can read one biblical tradition in light of a different biblical tradition that appears elsewhere in the Bible.  Sanders argues that the diverse traditions within the Bible serve to balance each other out or correct each other.  Israelites in the Book of Deuteronomy affirm their chosen status before God, for example, whereas Jesus in the Gospel of Luke criticizes a Pharisee who praised God that he was more righteous than others.  The latter, according to Sanders, can serve as a corrective to the former when the two are read together by Christian devotees to the text.

There are questions that one can ask about Sanders’ approach.  Should we accept every interpretation and re-interpretation of biblical traditions in history to be true (as in, how God wants us to understand the text)?  Are, say, Qumran, rabbinic Judaism, and the New Testament all correct in how they interpret Scripture, notwithstanding their different beliefs and agendas?  And what exactly defines an interpretation or re-interpretation as true?  Are there any boundaries?

I do not think that Sander adequately answered these questions in Canon and Community, but I doubt that he would even claim that he did, for he acknowledges in the book that there is still a lot of work to do.  He does offer suggestions regarding interpretation, however.  He states that the text itself can provide some boundaries as to its own meaning.  He proposes that interpreters keep in mind what a biblical passage meant in its original context, even if they are applying the passage to new contexts, for that can keep interpretations from getting out of hand.  He also identifies trends that perhaps can guide interpretations: there are trends within and outside of the Bible towards monotheism, for example, exalting God as the truth of the universe, above all competitors for our worship and allegiance.  Sanders also exhorts readers to focus on what God is doing in the biblical text, and to try to identify with the perspectives of different biblical characters, good and bad, as a way to learn from them.  Sanders’ presupposition here is that even the bad characters are children of God, and thus we need not be afraid to learn from them, as that can correct us and build in us empathy and love towards our enemies.

I cannot say that all of my questions about canonical criticism were answered, but Sanders did give me fresh ways to look at the text.  Suppose that I read the Bible and sought to understand the perspective of, say, Goliath?  The thing is, I fear that such an approach would lead me to have less sympathy for the God of the Bible, who tends to side with some over others!


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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1 Response to Book Write-Up: Canon and Community, by James Sanders

  1. I see your scholarly talents strong at work here and it is so very impressive. I can feel your passion for biblical and spiritual understanding leap out of your post. I like this a lot. 🙂


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