Canons

Frank Kermode

  • Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism by James Barr
    Oxford, 181 pp, £13.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 826323 6
  • Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth by Edmund Leach and D. Alan Aycock
    Cambridge, 170 pp, £15.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 521 25491 4

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the question of canons is at present much discussed by literary critics. Their canons are of course so called only by loose analogy with the Biblical canons, so it may be of more than strictly clerical interest that there is a major row going on among the professionals who deal with the real thing. This powerfully written book by James Barr is for the most part a polemic against a new wave of Biblical criticism called by its proponents ‘canonical criticism’, and to get the hang of Barr’s book one needs some idea of what he is attacking.

Canonical criticism is not a one-man operation, but its most distinguished theorist, and Barr’s main target, is Brevard S. Childs, a professor at Yale. Barr is Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and a scholar of immense distinction, so this is not a battle of pygmies. The arguments of Childs are most conveniently set forth in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979). Briefly, he wants to reinstate in a modern form the concept of canon which, first weakened by the Reformation, has collapsed during the past two centuries, when a predominantly historical style of criticism has directed attention away from the wholeness of the Bible to the study of individual books and segments.

It was plain even in the earliest days of the new German Biblical criticism that the historical critics would dismantle the canon. The Bible was dissolved into its constituent biblia. The bringing together of these discrete books into an exclusive group deemed in principle to be uniformly inspired now seemed little more than a historical curiosity. The element of fortuity in the process, and the obsolete mental attitudes it commemorated, were perhaps not without some interest: but the canon as such could no longer be the prime object of study. Childs doesn’t want to Medievalise our view of the canon, or undo the vast achievements of what he calls ‘traditio-historical’ criticism: what he wants is to reduce the tension between that tradition and the one he seeks to revivify. He wants to look with a modern eye at the whole Bible as a literary and theological unit ‘with fixed parameters’, while recognising that the canon was the product of a series of decisions which need to be considered historically.

The climax of this process of decision was the final fixing of the Jewish canon at the end of the first century of the present era. It was about that time that Judaism became a religion of the Book. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 there could be no Temple cult, and in any case there were already many more Jews in the Diaspora than in Palestine. The Book, constructed out of elements which had their own disparate histories, became the preservative of national and religious identity, and would remain normative for Jews throughout history.

Childs sounds moderate; he thinks the canonical critics and the historians can live together, only requiring the other party to yield some ground: to admit that the canon isn’t simply a wrapping that has to be removed before one can get at the historical goodies inside. The canon remains a unit, endowed with perpetual applicability. Before it existed there could be rewriting and updating; afterwards modernisation had to take the form of commentary, and the sense of the Scripture would be determined by subsequent applications. Obviously, then, the canon must not be disintegrated. However, this kind of criticism stresses the inseparability of understanding and application, and so it is committed to a hermeneutic position very unlikely to appeal to the ‘traditio-historians’ Childs would prefer to conciliate.

James Barr is one of them. He takes a wholly different view of what it is to read a book, and especially a book that purports to be history – to speak of events that happened and persons who existed. He thinks it only sensible to hold that individual books are more important than the collections in which they may be found; and he also thinks that what the books are about is even more important than the books themselves. It is not the canon that confers authority on its members, but the events and persons they report. Barr says very forcibly that to behave as if this were not so is dishonest. Childs is his main target, but he deals some terrible blows to less respectable authors of similar persuasion.

Barr notes that the people represented in the Bible managed very well without a canon. It never occurred to Paul, dictating his letters to an amanuensis, that they would later form part of one. When Childs argues for a connection between the identity of a Church and its possession of a canon, Barr replies that the connection is illusory. What harm would be done to the Roman Catholic Church, he asks, if it had to get along without the Book of Wisdom, which is part of its canon? And what harm would come to the Protestant Churches if they had to declare that same book canonical?

In its purest or most extreme form the canonical argument is that 66 books are inspired, and that nothing else is. But this is a position entirely lacking in Scriptural support: moreover it is offensive in its implication that there is no truth outside those books. And who would want to say that Jude deserves canonical privileges denied to the Confessions of St Augustine? Well, Augustine, very likely. But it can be made to seem very odd that a choice made seventeen hundred or more years ago, on the basis of arguments of which we don’t know the details and probably wouldn’t accept in any case, should demand perpetual endorsement.

As to the Old Testament canon, Barr questions whether it is proper to speak of such a thing. The textbooks (with some support from the Talmud) say that the Jewish canon was established at Jamnia about the end of the first century of the present era: but according to Barr, whatever may have happened at that Council had nothing to do with canon. And the so-called Alexandrian canon of the Greek Old Testament isn’t a canon at all – just the Torah plus some other books. And even if it were proper to speak of a Jewish canon, it was much less important than it appears ‘to those who have seen the notion of canon through the glass of the Calvinistic Reformation’.

All this amounts to saying that even if there is a canon we should be far better-off without it. Holding that opinion, it is obvious that Barr rejects any idea of making historical and canonical criticism work together: for the historical critic, the canon is mostly an impediment.

The more general implications of this disagreement may be expressed thus. For Childs, it is the meaning constituted by the canon – the final meaning – that is the interesting one. For Barr, only the original meaning matters, and it has to be got at by cumulative historical research. The difference, therefore, is in the end a consequence of incompatible hermeneutic predispositions. Barr’s is a ‘recognitive’ hermeneutics along the lines, say, of E.D. Hirsch. Childs prefers the other sort, now by most people associated with the name of H.-G. Gadamer, which denies the separation between understanding and application, between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. Thus it appears to Barr that Childs, in neglecting the original sense and context, destroys the meaning, whereas to Childs it must seem that Barr is the victim of a myth which has supported historical criticism throughout its relatively brief history, and which claims that we can have immediate access to objects and texts remote from us in time, that we have no difficulty in liberating ourselves from the constraints of our own historical situation.

Barr admits that his method was discovered only lately, but maintains that it is nevertheless God-given, an ‘ultimate datum of faith’. The books of the Bible are valuable because they provide access, however difficult, to real events and persons: to the truth of history. He has little but contempt for his opponents, trained, he says, in hermeneutics, especially in bastard versions of Bultmann’s hermeneutics, and having, as he sees it, no interest whatever in the truth. ‘The final criterion for theology cannot be relevance; it can only be truth.’ The historian’s predecessors may be seen to have been conditioned, more than they can themselves have known, by the prejudices of their times: but he himself need not be. Argument to the contrary is simply wrong. The point isn’t argued; the rival view is simply treated as self-evidently absurd and repellent in itself and in its consequences, one of which is the practice of treating the Bible as a ‘separate cognitive zone’. That it was so treated for centuries is dismissed as an error one should no longer endorse.

Barr remarks justly that some of the rote rejections of history by lesser canonical critics would have disgusted their supposed godfather Bultmann, who was a historian as well as a hermeneutic philosopher. Yet Bultmann shows how hard it is, in the end, to keep history and hermeneutics apart. He believed that ‘the interpretation of Biblical writings is subject to exactly the same conditions of understanding as any other literature.’ But he also believed that all understanding requires fore-understanding: that is, it depends on something presupposed. In the case of the Bible, that fore-understanding must, for him, be theological. Bultmann’s solution was to say that ‘historical exegesis rests on an existential confrontation with history and therefore coincides with theological exegesis,’ but one imagines that this formula would not attract Barr. It does, however, express rather well the problems of historians who are also believers. In the past, some have even left religious for secular institutions in order to avoid seeming contradictions between their professions of faith and their research. For a prior commitment to the New Testament as the donnée of faith is, on the face of it, in conflict with a posterior commitment to break it up into separate historical douments. Barr solves his dilemma by claiming that there is a religious vocation to pure linguistic and historical criticism.

Writing about these conflicts, Gadamer remarks that the historian is always seeking in the text ‘what the text is not, of itself, seeking to provide ... he will always go back behind the [texts] and the meaning they express to enquire into the reality of which they are the involuntary expression.’ The critic, on the other hand, is concerned with the text for the sake of its own beauty and truth. Their practices are now in conflict, after a long period in which criticism allowed itself to be regarded as ‘an ancillary discipline to history’. It is Gadamer’s opinion that the historical method, as advocated now by Barr, violates the intention of the text; his opponents think that Gadamer’s hermeneutics violates the intention of the author.

Whatever one thinks of that, it is interesting to reflect, with Gadamer, that neither the historian nor his opponent behaves as if he were perfectly conscious of the myth underlying his operations. The historian refers his events and persons to a context of total history; the canonical critic establishes his total text and context with fixed parameters. In Gadamer’s terms, then, both sides undertake a task of application: so the historian is, presumably without wishing to, performing in relation to ‘the great text’ – the history of the world itself – what the canonical critic attempts in relation to the world of his ‘separate cognitive zone’. Again one can hardly suppose that this argument would appeal to Barr.

The new canonical criticism might conceivably, in some very qualified way, revive older modes of attention to the canon. If you treat the canon as a self-sufficient world, with many mysterious, occult correspondences within it, you are in touch with ancient techniques that may be modernised, possibly with some help from secular literary criticism. In that field, books which may, by analogy, be called canonical, are given special sorts of attention. The whole idea of literary canons, undogmatic though it must be, is at present under attack by those who regard it as arbitrary or authoritarian, and wish to end the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ books. This attitude is, ultimately, founded on the same sort of fore-understanding as Barr’s: when the Bible is reduced to biblia, the biblia retain no privilege and are accorded the same kind of attention as any other book. Yet Paradise Lost and Ulysses continue to get attention of a different degree and quality than that made available to The Purple Island and Sorrell and Son; and analytic techniques are usually designed with special reference to the ‘inside’ books. There is, of course, an act of faith involved in the decision to continue thus. Its consequences are that we do not treat certain books as mere historical records but as possessing each its own kind integrity, and also as belonging to a larger whole. Their virtues may be entirely independent of any historical reference they might have. Nobody reads Ulysses to find out what happened on 16 June 1904. My conclusion is therefore that if we take seriously the rule that scripture must be read under exactly the same conditions of understanding as other books, Childs complies with the rule more closely than Barr: which is surprising.

The Barr-Childs dispute is not one in which one might expect Edmund Leach to be very interested, but if by chance he were, one assumes that for all his religious scepticism he would be on the side of Childs and not of Barr, though he would probably prefer Barr’s prose style. He has his own challenging, even boisterous way of talking, and will not say things by halves. In the present book he continues the structuralist analysis of Biblical myth which has interested him over the past fifteen years. He contributes five essays, and there are two more, using similar methods, by D. Alan Aycock; with one of these Leach expresses forcible though good-natured disagreement in his Introduction.

This Introduction states his general position. His approach to Biblical narrative is synchronic, and he has no time for the historical critics who for the last century and a half or more have been trying to ‘unscramble the omelette’. Before they came on the scene it was always assumed that the Biblical stories had mysteries encoded in their texts; the prehistorical interpreters pointed out the patterned structures underlying the narrative transformations, just as he does. But nowadays ‘truth’ is ‘equated with “historical truth” ... If only we could know what really happened in history we should understand the truth, including religious truth.’ This seems as absurd to Leach as the contrary view does to Barr; and what we have here is another attempt, quite different from that of the canonical critics, to throw off the yoke of the historical method and get back to occult patterns immanent in the text.

The quest now is for myth, defined as ‘a sacred tale about past events which is used to justify social action in the present’; it is true for those who believe it, which is all that matters. It is as important to Leach as it is to Childs that the makers of the canon saw all their disparate materials as hanging together, and it is the hanging together that matters, not whether there were real people called Moses and David, who may or may not have done this or that.

Of course the patterns and fulfilments of the old interpreters were different from Leach’s; the resemblance lies only in that they are concealed, and require to be detected by elaborate methods of investigation. The structuralist technique elucidates relationships previously unsuspected by showing how invariant motives reappear in structural permutations. Biblical texts prove susceptible to techniques developed by anthropologists for the interpretation of myths in any society; they offer sacred tales, unconnected with history and having meanings quite other than their manifest senses.

An instance of the practical difference between this approach and that of the historians is this. The Old Testament has many contradictions and inconsistencies: these are explained by historical scholarship as the result of the Bible having been assembled as an edited compendium of distinct documents of different provenance, so that overlapping or contradictory versions were brought together. This is, in Leach’s words, the omelette they seek to unscramble. To the anthropologist, however, these phenomena are not simply to be explained away, for they are highly significant.

Mythologies are clusters of stories which seem to make sense in themselves but often contradict one another. Considered as parts of a corpus, they have a different import, which is to be sought precisely at the junctions between them. Those joins and conflicting versions have real religious significance; they indicate liminality as a temple does, and give a subliminal sense of betwixt-and-betweenness that seems an essential part of communal religious feeling. It is as if the parapraxes of the canonical texts gave us access to their deepest meaning. It may be worth adding that some Jewish Old Testament scholars, working with more literary presuppositions, have also been studying these bad joins and contradictions, and they, too, defy the historian’s wish to explain them away.

Leach’s thesis is illustrated in some fascinating exercises. One chapter is entitled ‘Why did Moses have a sister?’, and the answer to the riddle, achieved after a prolonged but masterly journey through a labyrinth of evidence, is ‘because mytho-logic requires that his mother be no older than himself.’ The trail has led from Abraham as a double of Pharaoh to Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s. Why are there in Mark and Matthew not one but two magical feedings, of 5000 and 4000? Because the feedings are eucharistic and tied to epiphanies: since these Gospels have two relevant epiphanies there must, at the cost of whatever narrative awkwardness, be two feedings also. The feeding stories work like parables (St Augustine knew that, by the way), but indeed all the Biblical narratives work like parables. Believing that to be so, Leach does some work on the parables themselves, and produces some novel results. The Sower parable has had thousands of pages of explanation devoted to it, but I doubt if any one else has said it was part of a rite de passage and a figure of the Resurrection made manifest in the Eucharist. Of course all these results depend on the assumption that time in the Gospels is mythical time, in which no event happens before or after any other event.

I can no more give a fair idea of the ingenuity, or incidentally of the fun, of these essays than I can of the brio with which they are composed. They will undoubtedly meet with resistance: Leach will enjoy that. That there are, in disciplines remote from his own, indications that the grip of conventional historical scholarship on Biblical studies is being loosed doesn’t at all mean that he would approve of these other approaches, or, despite his lively proselytising in lectures to theologians, that the others will approve of him. And finally one should not underestimate the power of the historians’ resistance: Barr’s strong-minded book is a sufficient reminder of that.