Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book Review: The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation

Among scholars studying the shape and formation of the Hebrew Bible, few would contend that Christopher Seitz leads the pack in terms of publication and respect. Having studied under Brevard Childs, one of the fathers of Old Testament (OT) canonical studies, and having previously held professorships at Yale and St. Andrews, Professor Seitz now teaches at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, as a professor of biblical interpretation.

The shape of the OT lends itself to many questions. For instance, the ordering of the books in the Septuagint (LXX), a major Greek translation of the OT, is largely different from the ordering of the books in the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT). A first year Hebrew student is often surprised to open their Hebrew Bible for the first time and find that the final book is not Malachi, but Chronicles! Furthermore, there are fewer books in the Hebrew Bible when compared to the English translation as some books such as Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are combined as one. New students might even hear discussions of how the twelve minor prophets were shaped as one book, simply known as the Twelve.[1] This doesn’t even begin to address the differences in the shape of the books within the LXX versus the MT and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). How can an evangelical believer or young apologist sort through this deluge of seemingly confusing information?

In The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets, Professor Seitz builds on the work of his mentor by outlining an argument for the shape of the OT canon. He has begun the endeavor, for he himself claims that this work is an outline based partially on insights from an article written by Brevard Childs near the end of his life.

Furthermore, this book is short. It is a mere 136 pages including the footnotes. On the one hand, someone could complain about the brevity in Professor Seitz’s work, but on the other hand, I dare say that nobody would equate brevity with a lack of substance. In fact, some pages may take a couple of reads to think through the argument. After all, this is only the first fruits of a potentially fuller argument. The book comes from a series of lectures given at Acadia Divinity School with only slight edits and an added introduction.

Professor Seitz begins his work with a bang by arguing that canonical arguments both from recent evangelical work and recent critical work are both wrongheaded.[2] He does not think that the historical reconstructions of McDonald and Allert adequately deal with the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures on the “rule of faith,” nor their significant role in the early church. To Seitz, the OT was the foundational witness against which the NT witness was measured. He does not believe that the NT canon arose first and only then incorporated an OT that was largely a diverse and conflicting collection of texts, as some evangelical and critical authors have suggested. According to Professor Seitz’s perspective, the deep literary connections within the Twelve, as well as between Deuteronomy and what has been called the Deuteronomistic History betray a complex literary relationship that denies the possibility of this being a random collection of mismatched non-Mosaic literature.[3]

For Professor Seitz, there is a reciprocal relationship between the Law and the Former Prophets, with Deuteronomy serving as the connecting work between the two greater compositions.[4] Deuteronomy ends with a discussion of the prophetic legacy of Moses that is then worked out through God’s prophetic action from Joshua to the end of Kings.[5] The Major Prophets and the Twelve are to be read in light of the prophetic action at work from the end of Deuteronomy until the end of Kings.[6] 

Thus, according to Professor Seitz’s argument, the canon formed around the “one divine word spoken by different prophets.”[7] The unified work of the Twelve, when considered alongside the development of a final Isaiah, as well as the shape of the Deuteronomistic history demand a unified canonical development grounded in this prophetic voice. The interrelationship between the Law and Prophets is the “grammar” for understanding the relationship between the rest of the books in the OT canon, including the Writings.[8] Although brief, his argument seems compelling.

Evangelicals will feel at home with his explicitly confessional writing. Professor Seitz nowhere hides his Christian belief as if he held to a mythical, “neutral” viewpoint. Instead he makes his arguments as a Christian. Thus, he can argue that the shaping of the New Testament depends on seeing Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the prophetic voice in the Hebrew Scriptures. Furthermore, he can argue that the gospel of Jesus Christ was constantly in a dialectical conversation with the OT, and that the OT stood as the anchor against which other early Christian witness was compared. Therefore, the shaping of the New Testament came second as a result of its witness matching the distinctly Christian witness of the Old Testament. This explicitly Christian viewpoint is essential to his argument and makes for a refreshing read. One only hopes that the field moves in a more confessional direction where all perspectives, regardless of individual faith or lack of faith, will make their worldview explicit since it shapes their hermeneutic.

The arguments that Seitz uses to make his case are terse, but well reasoned. Although it may require some knowledge of the field in order to understand his points completely, the original lectures were to a mixed group of students and thus can be understood by most students of the OT. A young apologist with a basic grasp of OT history and textual criticism could understand the argument rather easily.

Professor Seitz also considers the issue of an open canon. From early collections and lists there is divergence on the placement of certain books in the OT, primarily among the Writings. Professor Seitz convincingly argues that canon and authority do not come into effect only after the order and contents are fixed. Instead, authority comes from the prophetic voice of the text, and in the relationship of the book to the more established prophetic voice of the Law and Prophets.

Evangelicals should have no fear in such discussions of canonical formation. Who among us would disagree that the Pentateuch was authoritative before the writing of Daniel, or that the oracles of Amos were authoritative before they were put into their final written form? To quote Professor Seitz, “closure does not authority make.”[9] The authority comes in the voice of God in his written text.

Overall, this book fills a need for apologists interested in studying the Old Testament. Whereas books defending the shape of the New Testament canon are rather common in evangelical circles, those discussing the shape of the Old Testament are rare. Professor Seitz, has given the beginnings of an argument that will fill this gap. One only hopes that other evangelical Old Testament scholars will do the hard work of filling out his outline.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.

[1] The Twelve, which factors heavily in Seitz’s book, are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
[2] See Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon and Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture? for the more evangelical work, and James Sanders, Canon & Community for the critical view.
[3] Deuteronomistic History was a concept created by Martin Noth referring to literary similarities from Deuteronomy-Kings.
[4] Law refers to the Pentateuch or Genesis-Deuteronomy, Former Prophets refers to Joshua-Kings
[5] Deuteronomy 34:10
[6] The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel
[7] location 149 in Kindle edition of The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets
[8] The Writings refer to those OT texts not in the Law or the Prophets.
[9] location 442.


RkBall said...

We need more books written by Christian scholars from an overtly Christian POV. Use of BCE/CE in scholarly works written by Christians bugs me.

MaryLou said...

I have just started reading Kaiser's The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? and was looking at the Seitz book last week, wondering whether I should buy it, too. Now I know I should. Thank you, Kyle!

I noticed there is a book by Kitchen along these lines as well. I'm wondering if anybody has read it and whether it's a good buy, too.

G. Kyle Essary said...

I would recommend both Kaiser and Kitchen. Both are valuable resources. Also, you might be interested in the work of James Hoffmeier. All of these are helpful for historical issues of things behind the text. It is important to remember though, that God inspired the text and not historical reconstructions of events behind the text.

MaryLou said...

Thanks, Kyle. I didn't even know about the Hoffmeier book. That's one more to add to my ever-growing wish list.

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