George A. Kennedy makes some interesting observations about the order of the New Testament books that probably many Christians have at some time thought about. I suppose when a professor of classics publishes the same it gives us an assurance that our senses have not failed us.
The canon of the New Testament was established by Councils of the Church in late antiquity. Whether consciously determined or not, the order assigned to the books is interesting, for it is consistent with conventions of rhetoric as taught in the schools.
- First come the Gospels, which proclaim the message;
- then the narrative of Acts, which describes its reception;
- then the epistles, which may be viewed as arguing out interpretation of the message;
- and finally the Apocalypse, as a dramatic epilogue.
(p. 97, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, my formatting and numbering.)
It’s not quite true, of course. Acts can hardly be said to describe the reception of the message we read about in the Gospels, unless the message of the Gospels is confined to their final verses. And the epistles appear to be even less interested in arguing out the interpretation of anything we read in the Gospels. But the order of the books as bound in canonical black with gold edging does rhetorically convey the impression that it is quite true.
And then there is the order of the Gospels.
The order of the four Gospels probably reflects what the Church thought was the chronological order of their composition and is consistent with Eusebius’ reports on the subject. But it is also rhetorically effective in that
- Matthew, with his introductory genealogy, account of Jesus’ birth, and extended speeches, gives a comprehensive initial picture of Christianity and links it to the Old Testament;
- Mark, with his emphasis on what Jesus did, approximates a narration;
- Luke works out details and smoothes over problems to create a plausible whole;
- and John supplies a moving epilogue.
(p. 97 ditto)
Image by sarrazak6881 via Flickr
If one reads the Genesis 22 account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac there is very little reason to think that it has very much to do with the details of the Gospel narrative about Jesus. And that’s the problem — it is too easy to read Genesis 22 as if the canonical text so familiar to us was all there was to read and know among Jewish readers of the Second Temple pre-Christian era.
Some scholars neglect the potential significance of Isaac for the Gospel of Matthew due to an anachronistic and often reflexive focus on the canonical forms of Old Testament texts. (p. 64, The Matthean Jesus and the Isaac of the Early Jewish Encyclopedia, Leroy Andrew Huizenga, in Reading the Bible Intertextually)
Huizenga uses the analogy of the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia to explain. It has been customary to compare specific details of Gospel narratives with potentially corresponding texts in the Old Testament and decide on the basis of one to one correspondences of semantics whether there is a real relationship between the two. This is like consulting a dictionary to find a direct one-to-one theoretical explanation of a word. A better approach is to explore relationships through “an encyclopedia” that speaks of actual experiences in the way the words have been used and interpreted in cultural knowledge and traditions. In short, this means that
Scholars must ask how Old Testament texts were actually understood within Jewish culture when the New Testament documents were written and not assume that any “plain meaning” of our canonical Old Testament text was the common, obvious, undisputed first-century meaning. (p. 65)
So when one reads in Matthew what appears to be a verbal allusion to Genesis 22, it is valid to ask what that allusion meant to those whose understanding of Genesis was shrouded in other literary traditions and theological ideas of the time. It is not just about what we read in our canon. It is about what Jews of the day wrote and understood and acted upon in relation to their scriptures that is the key.
So what did the Jews make of the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah)? (more…)