Mechanisms of Canon-Making in Ancient Societies

[RG #78] Mechanisms of Canon-Making in Ancient Societies

August 1999 - January 2000


Margalit Finkelberg (Tel Aviv University)
Guy G. Stroumsa (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Our group will examine the mechanisms by which cultural and religious canons were formed, functioned and went through radical transformations in various societies of the ancient world. We hope that a better understanding of these processes, arising from such juxtaposing of diverse cultural models of canonization, has shed a new light upon the fundamental structures of religious and cultural canons adopted in different civilizations.

Odd as it may appear, there seems to have been no single comparative study of canons. This was not what could be expected at the dawn of the historical scholarship two hundred years ago. When Friedrich August Wolf, with his Prolegomena ad Homerum, opened the era of Homeric scholarship in 1795, he used a model which was being developed at the time for the study of the Old Testament. The fact that the two main constituents of the Western Canon, the ancient Israelite canonical text as represented by the Hebrew Bible, and the ancient Greek canonical text as represented by the Homeric poems, were being studied side by side was seen as only too natural at the time. This fruitful collaboration was interrupted, never to be revived again, in the first half of the 19th century, when the “discovery” of Sanskrit, instead of stimulating a pluralistic approach to the widening spectrum of ancient civilizations, gave rise to the idea of an Indo-European cultural unity exclusive to the world of the Old Testament and if the ancient Near East in general. To resume the process at the point where it stopped, and thus to supersede the mutual isolation between civilizations of the ancient world which was artificially created thereby, is one of our objectives.

Similarly, the study of the other canonization processes in the ancient world, and in particular in late antiquity, seems to be in need of fresh approaches. While in the last fifty years, since the discoveries of Qumran and Nag Hammadi, dramatic new insights into the canonization processes of these texts have been provided, relatively little has been done in terms of comparison. Moreover, and perhaps

more importantly, very little attention has been paid to the fact that various canonization processes in late antiquity did not develop independently of one another, but are linked in dialectical relationships. The canonization of the Mishna, for instance, should be seen in parallel to that of the contemporary canonization of the New Testament: both were meant to provide a key to the correct understanding of the Old Testament, which both the Jewish and Christian communities claimed as their own.

The main question which brought about the establishment of the research group was the perceived chasm between the “Greek” (and the Latin) and the “Hebrew” (i.e. the Jewish-Christian) traditions. The first is usually perceived to be more “literary” by nature, while the second would be essentially “religious”. We will attempt to develop a coherent and precise language that will permit us to use the same tools in order to analyse together these rather different traditions.