Friday, February 13, 2009

Canonical Order to the OT

Here is an interesting essay written by Jim Hamilton, professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the blog of Russell Moore, professor of church history at the same. It's a good essay and I recommend heading over to check it out. Hamilton is arguing that we should start publishing English Bibles using the Hebrew canonical order of the Old Testament rather than the order that we commonly know in our English Bibles. Here is a link to a site with a table comparing the two orders.

Hamilton has three major reasons that he thinks we should use the Hebrew Tanakh order. (1) There is not a "Christian" order to the OT. The orders used in the writings of the church fathers tend to differ and the two main teachers responsible for our current order, Origen and Jerome, tried to order the Hebrew Bible according to the Alexandrian standards of genre, author, and chronology. (2) This fits with the Protestant exclusion of the Apocrypha from the Old Testament. The Reformers did this following the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint or the Vulgate. So Hamilton thinks we should do the same with order. (3) The Hebrew order is the one acknowledged by Jesus and the NT writers, specifically Matthew, Luke, and Paul. See his article for the proof texts on this.

Those of you who sat in my Old Testament Biblical Theology class at Shady Grove this past Spring may remember that we studied the Old Testament using the Hebrew order of the canon. That said, I'm not sure that I would go so far as advocating either our present English or the Hebrew order for publishing as a law just as I wouldn't recommend that people tear the pages out of their Bible and rearrange the order themselves. The reason is that I'm not sure that any canonical order is mandated by Scripture, which as we know is the only rule for the interpretation of Scripture. To clarify, while we hold that the canon is inspired and all the books belonging to it are inspired I don't think that we want to go so far as to say that the canonical order is inspired. That is the only reason that I can think of for making a rule out of a certain order of books. So I would rather use what we've learned of the Old Testament canonical order in the Tanakh as an interpretive help than as a rule. I think that this is a better way to use passages like Luke 11, 24, Matthew 23, and Acts 23 that hint at the Hebrew order. This is Scripture interpreting itself in giving us a key to understanding that the entire Old Testament canon; the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms; testifies to Christ's person and work.

Now I do think that when we use the Hebrew order there is a more natural and logical flow to the Old Testament canon. For example the Hebrew order includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in the Former Prophets to describe the history of Israel and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Books of the Twelve (what we know as the twelve minor prophets) in the Latter Prophets to comment on that history. I think that this is a helpful way of reading the OT as we read the account of God's dealings with his people and then the explanation of those dealings and the promises of God's future covenant relationship with his people. In the Writings we see the order of Proverbs, Ruth, and Song of Songs. This is helpful in teaching us about marriage as Proverbs closes with a description of the "virtuous wife" who is to be sought, Ruth gives an explicit picture of that woman, and then Song of Songs portrays the marriage relationship. I also think that there are a number of explicit ties between Chronicles at the end of the Hebrew canon and Matthew at the beginning of the New Testament canon.

So my advice is to learn and practice reading the Old Testament as a whole this way and to keep this order in mind whenever you read an Old Testament text to help in understanding the passage in its context. In other words, one hermeneutical tool is to think of the text in light of Christ by reading it within its proper context and purpose as a part of the whole Old Testament; this is what we could call a "Christotelic" interpretation of the Old Testament (though I don't entirely mean that term the way that Peter Enns uses it). But I'm not sure that I would mandate publishing Bibles with this order as if it were required somehow; certainly at least not until someone writes a new song to help teach children the books of the Bible. :-)

If this topic does interest you then there are a couple of other works that you can check out. Stephen Dempster's book Dominion and Dynasty is a biblical theology of the Old Testament that uses the Hebrew canonical order (although not the exact same order linked to above). Paul House's Old Testament Theology also does this although I will warn you that this is a pretty hefty theological tome that does not make for easy reading. Bruce Waltke's An Old Testament Theology is not written using this order but he does make reference to it as he examines the Old Testament and is sensitive to it so this is an excellent example of the approach I advocated above. Finally, Miles Van Pelt from RTS Jackson has a series of lectures on biblical theology that you can download for free.

1 comment:

richard said...

This has been discussed for some time, and the logic is appealing. The order is so imbedded in our culture, however, that I don't see any real traction for this any time soon. It does make studying the OT more understandable, at least for me. Placing Chronicles at the end of the OT, for example, makes it a nice historical wrap-up of Hebrew history. The current Protestant order, on the other hand, with Chronicles hard on the heels of Kings, can be a bit too repetitious and thus can lose some value. I can recall teaching an OT class, once we got to Chronicles, with some of the students routinely commenting on the fact that they had just seen this a little whle ago. Here's a handy chart: