A very sad cautionary tale ... never trust your "authoritative" source

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Sun, Feb 23 2020 9:08 PM

I am speaking of this resource: McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Biblical Canon. Vol. I & II. London; Oxford; New York; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury; Bloomsbury T&T Clark: An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.

I seriously considered not naming the offending source because McDonald is a very serious and usually reliable source of information on the formation of the canon of the Bible. But after considerable thought, I decided it was important to name the resource so you won't think "I don't need to double check N because we all know he is careful".

The beginning of the story: It started innocently enough. I ran into two sources that disagreed as to what canon the Sadducees accepted. One source said that they accepted only the first five books of the Torah, placing them with the Samaritans on the canon question. The other source said that the Early Church Fathers were erroneous in limiting the canon to five books. The Sadducees accepted the standard Masoretic canon -- what they rejected was the Oral Torah i.e. the Mishnah, Talmud ..., placing them with the Karaites on the canon question.

Act II: I discovered that some sources said that the Karaites accepted only the first five books and others said they accepted the entire Masoretic canon but rejected the Oral Torah.

On the trail to the truth: Fortunately unlike the Sadducees, the Karaites are still around ... in fact, there is a congregation in the Bay Area (San Francisco Bay for foreigners). I quickly ascertained:

  • Karaites claim that their canon was set at about the same time as the Jewish lectionary of Torah readings was set (okay, this is irrelevant but you know I have to follow a lectionary rabbit trail).

  • Karaites reject the Oral Torah

    “Karaite Judaism or Karaism (also spelt Qaraite Judaism or Qaraism), is a Jewish religious movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh alone as its supreme authority in Halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology. It is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral Torah, as codified in the Talmud and subsequent works, to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud.[1]

  • Karaites were active in pointing the Masoretic text and preserving a canon of the Tanakh

    “Because of this, a proper reading of the text depended on the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. The origins of vocalization reflect differences between Babylon and Palestine. The Tiberian Masoretes (scholars working in Tiberias in Palestine) provided the most complete and exact system of vocalization. The earliest dated manuscript from that tradition is a codex of the Prophets from the Karaite synagogue of Cairo dated A.D. 896.” [2]

I could find no Rabbinic Jewish or Karaite Jewish site that gave the canon as a matter of division. There are disputes on the interpretation of the written law, the rejection of the oral law, the literal interpretation of Scripture etc. But absolutely nothing than even implied that the Karaites use anything other than the standard Masoretic text ... 

The Crescendo: Unfortunately, McDonald, in the book referenced, four separate times refer to the Karaites as rejecting the prophets, like the Samaritans, disagreeing on canon ... Even when acknowledging that the Codex Cairensis by Moses ben Asher and pointed by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher was in the possession of a Karaite congregation, he ignores the debate among scholars that Aaron ben Moses ben Asher may have been a Karaite. McDonald gives as his source Abreham Wasserstein and David J. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 217-37 which says:

"For reasons which remain obscure, the Karaites separated themselves from the bulk of Jewry, probably in the ninth century. Somewhat like the Samaritans, they claimed that they followed only the sacred texts of Scripture and rejected such later writings as the Mishnah and the Talmuds."

IE. his reference does not support his statement. No, there is no absolute proof that McDonald is in error ... but there is plenty of proof that I can't take his word as trustworthy. He is still one of the best in the field ... and an object lesson in why you must always double and triple check. To not do so, is to set yourself up to believing and spreading that which is false.

[1] “Jewish Concepts” in Jewish Virtual Library: a Project of AICE. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/karaites accessed February 23, 2020

[2] Philip Wesley Comfort, ed., The Origin of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2004), 175.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Glenn Crouch | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 4:24 AM

Thanks for sharing, MJ Yes

Pastor Glenn Crouch
St Paul's Lutheran Church
Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia

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PetahChristian | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 4:28 AM

What about contacting the author, to find out whether this was unintentional — perhaps a misunderstanding on their part — or deliberate?

Mistakes happen, and people aren’t perfect. Shouldn’t we be gracious and learn whether he’d correct any error or not, before deciding that his work should never be trusted?

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Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 4:42 AM

Some interesting thoughts there, MJ.  Keep well Paul 

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 8:34 AM

I pretty much ignore all of the Logos data sets and other "innovations" created by Logos for this very reason. The only way you can know if a "reference" resource is accurate is to do all of the leg work yourself, which calls into question the utility of the reference to begin with. They are fine for presenting a perspective that is not your own for comparison and contrast, but just accepting any source as complete and accurate is riddled with danger. But that's just the world we live in--every choice we make has the potential for disaster as a result of prejudice, ignorance, arrogance, assumption, and a host of other lurking phenomena.

Speaking of...one potential assumption is that people who identify as Karaite ARE indeed Karaite. The most well-known current-day Karaite is Nehemia Gordon--except that many Karaites reject his self-identification as Karaite, insisting that his on-going trafficking with Christians and Rabbinic Jews pollutes his integrity. He was a periodic guest at one of the Messianic Sabbatarian congregations I used to attend. So, is he a Karaite, or not? Seems like some Karaites want to reject him, if you check out Wikipedia. His name is not mentioned in the body of the article, but if you look at the Talk page, he is clearly described as being the world's most influential self-described Karaite. Who do you go with? Can people be Christian if they have never read the New Testament? Can Donald Trump be Christian if he openly says he's never felt a need to ask for forgiveness and verbally rejects the teaching of loving one's enemy?

One of the things I noticed back in high school is that when a person births a new innovation (be it political, religious, scientific, cultural, etc.), it often happens that some of the first ( students / proponents / supporters / aficionados / adherents ) who take up the mantle of the new movement often don't understand the innovator's concept or they don't really care about the innovative concepts apart from the ability of the new movement to gather attention and consolidate power, so they attach themselves to the movement as a leech for furthering their own purposes. When this happens, outsiders rarely have sufficient awareness to perceive what's happening with any nuance, and so contradictory, subversive, and incompatible streams end up being rolled into the outsider's view of the single original concept. This muddling of descriptors is made all the more easy for those who are invested in preserving the "old guard" paradigms. "Square" establishment media outlets didn't bat an eyelash about calling Charles Manson a "hippie", even though he was a prima facie antithesis of the hippie ideal of "love". It was convenient to lump everything together to achieve the desired effect.

Anyway, because of one Bible passage that describes what the Sadducees DON'T believe, and some widely mishandled interpretations regarding the Pharisees, Christians have developed a totally inverted sense of the two groups. Most Christians think the Sadducees were lax about the Tanakh: and that it was the Pharisees who were sticklers for following the details of the Tohraah. That is 100% backward. The Sadducees were the ones who believed the Law should be kept strictly according to the Book, whereas the Pharisees were more than willing to introduce "interpretations" that obviously neglected or even contradicted the plain meaning of the text. This comes down to the fact that the Bible gave the priesthood clear authority, and the Sadducees were the politico-religious club that included most of the priesthood. The Pharisees had religious disagreements with the priesthood (because they were becoming Hellenized), but since they had no authority based on the Tanakh:, they had to manufacture a "credible" source of authority, and they invented the secret-handshake myth of the "oral law" passed down from Mohsheh through the fictional Great Assembly. They took advantage of the distance the common people felt with the priesthood, and used the synagogue (they may have even invented it for the purpose) for ingratiating themselves as the teachers of the Jews, even though they had no legitimate authorization. One of the ways the Pharisees won the common folks was by making rulings that were generally favored by the populace. Some of the rulings were stricter than Scripture, but many others were less restrictive. 

If you haven't read it yet, check out this book. I think Saldarini does a pretty adept job of describing Josephus as the quintessential practitioner of Judaistic realpolitik. He identified as a Pharisee and said that the Sadducees were the ones who believed in following the Book "as is", whereas the Pharisees made "adjustments" as they were considered "necessary".

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 11:24 AM

PetahChristian:
Shouldn’t we be gracious and learn whether he’d correct any error or not, before deciding that his work should never be trusted?

He is retired and highly respected. I still highly respect him. The error he made is one made often - mistaking adherence to only the written Torah and rejecting the oral Torah  as acceptance of only the written Torah and not the whole Tanakh. He makes it multiple times in multiple books. I suspect that it is simply a matter of having gotten incorrect information on a note card and reusing the card throughout his career without having reason to go back and question it. Therefore, my point - we as readers must go back and question it even if said by a favorite expert. Or put another way, never completely trust anyone's writings.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 11:30 AM

David Paul:
because of one Bible passage that describes what the Sadducees DON'T believe, and some widely mishandled interpretations regarding the Pharisees, Christians have developed a totally inverted sense of the two groups.

I would offer Saldarini as a counter-example to such a broad brush statement. Wink But yes, the Sadducees often fell victim to being "merged into" unrelated groups based on a common characteristic or two.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Denise | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 12:44 PM

Now, all you have to demonstrate, is the Karaites knew the MT canon, and didn't predate it (pointing to Philo, and smiling).

"I didn't know God made honky tonk angels."

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EastTN | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 24 2020 4:44 PM

M.J., thank you for sharing your research and clearing up what appears to be a long standing misconception.  I especially appreciate your doing it in such a gracious way that respects the dignity and integrity of an older scholar who has contributed much to our understanding of Scripture.

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Dave Thawley | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Feb 28 2020 1:27 AM

Thanks everyone (especially M.J. and Dave) for this informative thread :-) 

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