Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not Your Grandmother's Bible: Canonicity, Dead Sea Sectarians and Revelations

Among the fundamental questions any community must address are questions of canon. What are the core texts that unite the community? What is considered required reading? What teachings are so basic that one can engage in conversation working on the presuption that one's interlocuter is familiar with them?

The Talmud wonders about this when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. Ecclesiastes is included. Ben Sira is not. Songs of Songs is in; Ben Sira is out.

In visiting recently the Discovery Center's exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls (which ends April 15), one notices that the Dead Sea sectarians who authored and/or preserved the scrolls, had a much wider set of texts. In addition to all the books of the Hebrew Bible (with the notable exception of Esther), the Dead Sea Scrolls contain numerous books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. (Needless to say, there are no mentions in the scrolls of anything to do with Christianity. The exhibition's bizarre attempt to connect the Dead Sea sectarians to Christianity is baffling.)

I juxtapose this observation to a recent review in the New Yorker:

Given that we have far too little literacy of the Hebrew Bible, it is hard to imagine where there might be room or time to give serious attention to the Christian Bible. But a little time devoted to reading a review of Elaine Pagels' new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, might be time well spent. In his recent New Yorker review, The Big Reveal: Why does the Bible end that way? Adam Gopnik highlights the most compelling aspects of this new text. Most fascinating to me, is the argument that Revelations is not so much an attempt at prophecy as it is a contemporary social critique. In fact, Pagels argues that the book is actually an anti-Christian polemic. This of course, makes the fact that it was canonzied all the more stunning. 

Issues of canonicity are always subtle reminders that we do well to evaluate and re-evaluate our own literacy of the canon. It's often more appealling to venture into the world of the contemporary, but at what expense? Have we claimed sufficient mastery of the texts we are "supposed" to know to justify the attention we give to everything else?

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