Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity

By John Barton
Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox (1997). xiii + 210 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 107-109

 Holy Writings, Sacred Textis the American edition of The Spirit and the Letter (London, SPCK, 1997). The author is Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford. He also wrote Reading the Old Testament: Method in Bible Study (Westminster/John Knox, 1984; revised 1996). Readers with a decided interest in the topic of canonicity will appreciate this in-depth analysis of the early church’s views regarding the authority and meaning of the OT and NT. Few seminary graduates would succeed in completing a reading of it—at times it is exceedingly heavy.

Barton’s approach to the canon in this volume is historical. He attempts to demonstrate how the believing community has viewed the text of the Scriptures at a variety of points in the past. In chapter 1 (1-34, “The Origins of the Canon: An Imaginary Problem?”) Barton proposes that the growth of the canon and the delimitation of the canon are independent of each other. One significant observation is that the acceptance of the Scriptures as authoritative already existed prior to any formal canonization (23). As a result, the NT itself was already established as authoritative for the Christian faith by the early second century (24, 30-31, 64). Early synods (both Christian and Jewish) tended to “concentrate on exclusion rather than inclusion, simply leaving the central core as they find it” (29). This situation paved the way for the views of Marcion.

Marcion’s role in canonization is the topic of chapter 2 (35-62, “Marcion Revisited”). Barton takes issue with Adolf von Harnack’s view that Marcion was a radical innovator. Instead, he argues that “Marcion can be understood better as a conservative, overtaken by events” (37). Marcion rejected the allegorical interpretation of the OT but proclaimed that it was not Scripture for the Christian even though it had been for the Jew (42, 54).

Chapter 3 (63-15, “Two Testaments, One Bible”) discusses five issues. The first is the relationship of age and venerability to the canonizing of the NT (64-68). The second issue is the argument for NT authority on the basis of Christ being the fulfillment of OT prophecy (68-74). The third issue is the tension created by the early Christians who, unlike Marcion, began to view the OT as a Christian book (74- 79). Barton’s fourth issue is the idea that the NT served as an aid to the memory for gospel proclamation (79-91). The last issue in this chapter is the relation between oral and written traditions (91-104). Barton concludes that the authority of the NT actually derived from the fact that it embodied that which was accepted as authoritative: the gospel message (104-5).

Then, in chapter 4 (106-30, “Writings of Holiness”) Barton confirms what the reader who has persevered to this point already knows: this volume is not intended as light reading. As he puts it, “The additional complication which I want to introduce in this chapter is the question whether this [that texts were preserved because of the importance of their contents] is necessarily the case” (107). This chapter touches upon two matters related to the OT canon. One is the Mishnah’s use of the phrase “defile the hands” in a discussion of whether the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes should be considered Scripture (108-21). Barton presents an intriguing possibility that the question related to whether or not a book not containing the Tetragrammaton could be included in Scripture. This would also affect the problem of the Book of Esther, since it, too, does not utilize the Tetragrammaton. The second matter concerns the kethib-qere’ (123-26). Appealing to James Barr (“A New Look at Kethibh-Qere,” Oudtestamentische Studiën 21 [1981]:19-37), Barton claims that the Masoretes were identifying two equally significant traditions of readings. The first was the kethib (that which was written in the text). It was to be copied and retained even though the qere’ (that which was preserved in the margins) preserved the oral traditions that attempted to make the text more understandable and meaningful. According to the author, “The Q is not a correction of the K, but a registration of the reading tradition which enables the scribe not to be misled by it” (124). Both of these matters lead to the conclusion that, even in the Gospels, the holiness of the text itself may have been more important to the early Christians than its contents and meaning (130).

That conclusion is carried through into chapter 5 (131-56, “Canon and Meaning”) in which the author discusses divergent attitudes about the canon and its meaning. He observes the differences between the ancient readers and modern readers, and between Christian readers and Jewish readers. As Barton’s “Conclusion” (157-62) reveals, one of the underlying factors in the writing of this collection of essays was a partial response to canonical criticism.