Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder

The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.

By Robert Brow 1999

I should reveal my prejudice in favour of this book. Donald Akenson teaches at nearby Queen's University and attends Christ Church, Gananoque (Anglican). Other qualifications are that he is Beamish Research Professor of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool, the author of sixteen non-fiction books and five novels. And Surpassing Wonder has been recommended for the Governor General's Award. Wow! "Thou shalt not covet the literary output of thy neighbour."

"With wit, elegance, and clarity, Surpassing Wonder, reclaims the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Talmuds of the Rabbis from biblical scholars, theologians, and fundamentalists, renewing our sense of awe before these religious works" (The blurb on the cover, which in this case is right on).

Here is a superb book which may not add much to our store of information, but it offers an extremely important model shift. The shift could move NT criticism out of a century of theological irrelevance into the study of what our canon was designed to be.

The model shift is introduced by a broadside. "Within the community of biblical scholars there is a misplaced notion that historians search for objectivity . . . No one, save perhaps the odd eccentric, believes that there is such a thing as objective historical truth. . .all historical writing is merely a series of heuristic fictions. . . we spend our time studying what people -think- happened" (p.11, 539).

The next step is to view the first nine scrolls of the Jewish canon (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as a unity (p.23, 24, 25, 27, ). Akenson thinks these books, obviously using using huge amounts of older material, were produced say 550 BCE (p.20) by a single final author/redactor who invented "a religion that was virtually new" (p.27, 61).

This interests me because that is exactly the center of what I call the Sixth Century revolt against priestcraft when seven major world religions emerged in fifty years (Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Vedanta, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, followed a century later in Greece by Socrates and the Sophists, see Religion : Origin and Ideas, 1966, 1972, chapter 3 on my web site).

Nobody knows the name of "the religious genius" (p.20), who invented the structure of the Jewish book of nine scrolls. He was a "religious curator, seer, historian, priest" (p.24). And Akenson totally rejects "the largely unconscious but pervasive, almost instinctual, belief in modern biblical studies that authors and editors are separate categories of human being" (p.24). Akenson's genius was "writer-editor, author-editor, editor-writer, editor-author" (p.24). "The great inventor was a historian, and how else do historians work, but by being magpies of the intellectual world" (p.30).

This person is pictured as a young man from a priestly family, a son of diaspora, "in the city of Babylon on the river Euphrates" (p.19). Using many sources, he "put together a coherent religious program that was so strong, so convincing, that it replaced whatever had been there before. Judahism reigned" (p.50). That does not deny that God was involved in this. "Depending on one's own theological or ideological commitments, one can think of the whole business as being either the work of remarkable humans, but nothing more, or of the hand of God working by way of humankind" (p.411).

Akenson's model shift deftly upsets the OT scholarly apple cart. The most important events in the history of the Old Testament are the decisions that the writer-editors performed, day by day; without their attestation, nothing occured." That sets up a totally new agenda for biblical studies. "The art "is to watch, and watch very carefully, the men who wrote texts; in how and why they shaped their texts lies the kernel of each of those faiths" (p.82). I like that, and I believe it will result in a much needed palace revolt. Biblical scholars should watch out, this revolution may force them to rewrite their lecture notes.

I will not deal with Akenson's similarly quirky brilliant treatment of the later Second Temple area (pp.107-207), or with the rabbinic invention of the Jewish faith after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, or his Winnie-the-Pooh exposure of the methods of the Jesus Seminar (pp.538-605). My interest is in the New Testament because that is what I use for preaching the good news.

Instead of beginning with the historical evaluation of sources for the emergence of Yeshua of Nazareth, Akenson turns "that rhetorical structure upside down" (p.214). He begins with the NT canon and sees it as the product both of the "wonderful inventiveness of some ideas" and "of quite ruthless suppression of others" (p.214). As in the case of the first nine books of the Jewish Bible, the completed Christian canon "is not a collection of books, but a cohesive unity, and any particular piece of the work can only be understood in relationship with the whole" (p.214).

Among many other New Testaments that could have been constructed, Akenson views our canon "as one of the wonders of world culture" (p.214). It is "not an anthology, but is a very carefully constructed literary-historical entity" (p.215).

The next step is "to pretend that the canon, in its final form, had a single editor" (p.222). "This is not a real figure, or set of figures who worked together. He is entirely a heuristic device" (p.223). Akenson assumes that this "editor-inventor" was an orthodox Christian "of the sort who triumphed in the church councils of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries" (p.223).

With this pretence, it is easy to see that our "editor-inventor" used as components "only texts that were written within the grammar of invention established by the Hebrew scriptures" (p.223). The final product "in all its lineaments - symbols, figures of speech, narrative strategy, and in the arrangement of material - was both a replication , and a reinvention of the Hebrew scriptures, considered as a whole" (p.223). "Matthew-Acts is to the Christian scriptures what Genesis-Kings is to the Hebrew " (p.223). Both are "a work of historical creation" (p.224). The result is that "there is very little in the Christian scriptures that does not come directly from late Second Temple Judahism or from the Hebrew scriptures" (p.229).

Having given full force to the fact that the NT was brilliantly invented for a purpose, (as was the Old Testament) Akenson is again careful to explain that this does not deny their inspiration. Just once he shows his hand. "I hope that believers (using that term in the most inclusive sense) will see in the complex filigree of invention of the Bible and of the Rabbinic texts, the hand of their god" (p.411). That allows Akenson as a Anglican to view the Old and New Testament as his inspired Scriptures to be read every Sunday, without denying that God also had a purpose for the Jews. Hence the sub-title of the book, The Invention of the Bible and of the Talmuds. This may be why the dust jacket has the recommendations of Roger Rosenblatt, and Rabbi W.Gunther Plaut.

If this book survives being "still born from the press" (as Hume said of his Treatise), being massacred with the innocents, and being remaindered by publishers, what will it do? It takes us far beyond Brevard S.Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, 1984. We will no longer study the canonical books to get at what really happened. We begin with the fact that the NT was invented to interpret the OT in the light of the Trinitarian creeds. And I would add, that is exactly what God had in mind and He achieved it infallibly for His purpose.

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