Ehrman, Canonization, and the OT Prophets

After teaching through the Latter Prophets and Writings this past quarter, I was continually struck by two things – the fact that the prophets were generally ridiculed, persecuted, and ignored, and the fact that the entire Old Testament canon is a coherent whole, continually tied together textually. Each author appears to relate his work to previous material in the OT and especially to the Torah.

Couple that with the fact that Bart Ehrman has been on my mind recently (I blame Dan Wallace and the Mark fragment), and you know why I’ve been thinking about canonization. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the entire worldview Ehrman has attempted to construct (or, rather, glom off of Walter Bauer) concerning the formation of the biblical canon. Ehrman would have us believe that the canon is the product of the “orthodox” winning against Gnostics and others whose writings were of a completely different character from what we find in the New Testament. Of course, Ehrman’s focus is on the NT but I would imagine he might say something similar of the OT canon’s formation.

Back to the Latter Prophets – I just don’t see how Ehrman’s view of canonization fits, especially with the prophets. The prophets were not popular, and even after the exile their message probably would not have been especially well received. This doesn’t fit with Ehrman’s view that the “popular crowd” wins out in canon battles.

More importantly, though, I simply don’t see how Ehrman’s view fits given the organic growth of the canon. Scholars like Brevard Childs, Stephen Chapman, and Christopher Seitz have demonstrated again and again that the Old Testament was formed through continually re-appropriating the received text in light of new situational circumstances. The people of God continued to receive a fresh word, but it was always a fresh word tied to the word that had already been received.

Furthermore, I don’t see why we shouldn’t view the New Testament’s formation this way as well. It wasn’t as if the NT authors’ message was wildly popular among the larger Roman population, and though it was much more accepted by the time of Athanasius’ festal letter, evidence suggests that the canon was quite stable well before that point (see David Trobisch, The First Edition of the NT).

Additionally, I understand that Seitz argues that the New Testament canon was formed in much the same way as the Old in his new book (although I haven’t been able to get to it yet). And by studying the way the New Testament uses the Old I think this makes abundantly more sense than saying that a council 400 years (or 600 if you want to take Ehrman’s most ridiculous proposal) after the fact chose the 27 books of the NT. The NT clearly uses OT texts, narratives, and themes to interpret Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, commissioning of the Church, and eventual return. The books of the NT were written for the same reason and using the same approach as the OT. God had done something new, this time decisively and finally, in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to interpret that event in light of the received word of the Old Testament.

So the fact that both the OT and NT are the products of organic growth flies in the face of Ehrman’s assertion that the canon is a disparate group of writings that fit with what the “orthodox” felt needed to be included.

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