What is canonical criticism?

gds at dor.kaiser.org gds at dor.kaiser.org
Tue Mar 19 13:40:44 EST 2002

Liz and others:

I've spent a lot of time reading most everything that has come out of the
canonical criticism 'camp' before I realized, it is a perspective rather than a
method.  I agree with John Barton that it is essentially a structuralist issue,
meaning, it is about the reading codes we bring to the text.  Secondarily, it is
a criticism of the sort of non-religious reading grids that the
historical-critical method had foisted upon the biblical reading community, both
Jewish and Christian, for the past two hundred years.  I would hesitate,
however,  to delimit my understanding of canonical criticism to Childs for
several reasons.  First, he would never call it 'canonical criticism' because he
doesn't see this as method.  He has said that over and over, and so, we need to
see him as the precursor to a new perspective whose endgame is ultimately,
structuralism in terms of asking the question, what codes are implicit in
reading a text that various communities have terms a 'scripture'?  Those who
contributed to this discussion we saying that the strictly historical reading
grid of the historical critical method was not totally consistent with the sorts
of reading codes one would naturally expect of a religious document that has
been elevated to the level of a scripture by several faith communities.  In
other words, the genre (used loosely) called 'scripture' demands and expects
more than a strictly historical endgame.  And that, ultimately gets into issues
of religion that this list does not support, but the perspective is essentially
asking for the various 'canonical' texts to be read as religious literature
rather than strictly historical documents.  

Fortunately for us all, Childs was not the only person who contributed to our
understanding of what it means to read a canonical text not as a document, but
as a transhistorical religious text, i.e., a scripture.  Now, Childs stands in a
very conservative Reformed Christian tradition, and it is no secret that Karl
Barth is his patron saint of theological exegesis.  However, the perspective has
Jewish interpreters who brought there own particular kind of theological
perspective to the task of delimiting what religious reading might look like. 
For instance, Joseph Blenkinsopp wrote a wonderful book on Canon and Prophecy
that shows how the canonical shaping of Torah and Prophets in terms of their
macro structures shows the theological reflection of a later commuity that is
post-authorial.  It is a very insightful book that draws on sociological theory
as well as historical perspectives.  But, his frame of religious thinking is
Jewish, and not too subtly so.  I however think he widened my views of what is
going on theologically at this level of the text.  This should not be
surprising.  Jewish methodology and exegetical perspectives shows up quite
clearly in the work of the other giant in this field, James Sanders.  Sanders
was trained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati under folk like Samuel
Sandmel.  His version focuses quite clearly on reading issues.  His alternative
name for canonical criticism is termed comparative midrash.   He is a Christian
who has read to real in a Jewish tradition of thinking.  I think his perspective
is wholly more satisfying, and very much more ecumenical.  Of course, if you
know Jim, you know this is simply the man's ecumenical spirit coming out as
well.  In some ways, Sanders does for Christianity what Sandmel does for Judaism
- both men worked with the testaments of that 'other community' and found
insights they could bring 'home', so to speak (I refer to Sandmel's work in the
NT and what I found to always be wonderful reading of the texts he chose).  In
my opinion, this is the real spirit of canonical criticism - the sort of
ecumentical reading that enriches both reading communities in their quest for
what Sanders would call, "The Integrity of Reality".  So, I think it is too
facile to say canon criticism is Christian religion wrapped up in the garb of
the Massoretic Text (as Childs admittedly comes close to doing).  It might also
be of interest to note that many Christians have criticized Childs at this point
- why chose one textual tradition, especially the "Jewish" text of the
Massoretes over say, the Christian tradition of the LXX.  Give the man credit
for that at least  - he does know which community's text is better received as
'scripture'.  So I do see some ecumenical spirit in that regards, but I do have
to supplement his views from how his argument was more fully shaped by folk like
Sanders, Barton, Blenkinsopp and Donn Morgan.  

Ultimately, all this is about reading.  What canonical criticism does is to
highlight the issue of what reading a scripture entails in terms of the codes
that various reading/faith communities will allow and support and indeed, need
for their continued existence.  If you are interested in how I recalibrate
canonical criticism into structuralist and reading issues, you might refer to
the first chapter of my book that came out last year, "Vain Rhetoric" (JSOTS
327) where I discuss what a post-canonical perspective on reading might look
like.  What I hope we all gained from that backlash in the 70s and 80s was that
there is no one way to read a religious classic like the TANAK or the Christian
Bible - which is what the historical-critical method implies quite strongly. 
However, to read any canonical text merely as an historical document, which is
what the historical-critical method does unless an interpreter bootlegs his or
her theology into the exegesis, is surely a violation of the text's
classification by the community as a 'scripture'.  What I am saying, is that
Childs is only the point of departure here, and surely the perspective is much
broader and more ecumenical than any one interpreter.  One can faithfully
address these structulist issues for any faith community, including even, the
academic ones, and I think, prosper from the issues this inquiry will raise.

Gary D. Salyer

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