Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest complete Christian Bible

Last month I discussed a role-playing exercise that I did with my class, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible,” in which, at the very end of the course, I asked my students to recreate the Christian Bible.  If all the interested parties had a voice — which they assuredly did not — what might the canon have looked like?  I followed with interest the amazing conversation that this generated on James McGrath’s blog, “Exploring our Matrix.”  As some of the comments there suggest (or ask), the intention of my exercise was not to make judgments about each book of the present Christian Bible (and the myriad of other contemporary writings that did not enter the canon), but rather to get students to wrestle in a more general way with the issues of canon and authority.  So without further ado, this is what my students came up with:

  1. The canonical Christian Bible would consist of the historical and prophetic writings of the Jewish Bible and more or less the entire New Testament as it now exists.  Both Greek and Latin would be equally authoritative versions;
  2. The remainder of the books of the Jewish Bible (including the Pentateuch) would have apocryphal (deutero-canonical) authority;
  3. The canon will remain open, to be revisited by council meetings every 50 years (or so)

This result certainly surprised me, but was in line with our class discussions that consistently noted how important the Jewish prophetic books were — more than the written Torah (this is arguable, but I do argue it in my forthcoming book, How the Bible Became Holy) for most Jews and Christians in the first few centuries of this era.  The emperor and his court desired the historical books as helping to give authority to the monarchy; they particular wanted the story of David included.  The bishops were not entirely happy with this outcome, but they also were willing to compromise with the Marcionites and Gnostics in order to keep the peace and preserve an agreement that would not lead to schism.  (Interestingly, the rabbis decided that it would be best if the Jewish Bible was fully excluded from the Christian canon, as they determined that the Jews had no interest in being part of the Christian story.)  The decision not to close the canon was a bone thrown to the Montanists, along with a declaration that female prophecies in the Jewish Bible were to be particularly valued.

I thought that this result was as brilliant as it was historically implausible.  As several of the comments in Exploring our Matrix note (as well as my students in the post-mortem), in reality this process was not a game: many of the participants in these decisions would rather have died than compromised, and the empire decided to crush rather than negotiate with dissidents.  But that said, this solution was rather nifty and makes one wonder what would have happened if the canon was formed by taking into account the concerns of the “heretics.”

Pedagogically, I thought that the exercise was quite a success.  I would change a few things, but I plan on doing it again.  Here are a few student comments:

  • The simulation clearly showed the impact of human personality on the development of religion….  The synod also illustrated the ironies associated with negotiating a canon.  In our modern context, it often seems that theological differences lead directly to violence; in our simulation, groups who came to the synod with conflicting views often had the same goals. [Despite their bitter differences], the rabbis broke into applause when the Gnostics argued that the Old Testament should not be held on the same canonical level as the New Testament.
  • The simulation itself was an effective way to learn about the roles of several different political groups. By engaging in debate with them, it was much easier to gain an understanding of, absorb, and retain what their stances were on the Bible. I also took away some important lessons about how power and politics influenced and intertwined with religion.
  • The simulation tied this course together perfectly. It allowed us to apply what we have learned about authority while we were forced to come to a conclusion of what texts we thought deserved authority and what texts didn’t. It was an exceptional final because not only did we put a lot of effort and work into learning and preparing for this simulation, but we also were able to do all of this in an enjoyable and comfortable manner.
  • Most interestingly, the simulation put the idea in my mind of an imaginary future in which the Bible did not include the Old Testament. I am curious how history would have developed in terms of Jewish/Christian relations if the Old Testament had not been ultimately included in the Christian Cannon.
  • I learned from this experience that power is not always as centralized as it seems. While we assumed at the beginning of the simulation that the emperor could dictate the outcome as much as he wished, many of the factions could, by means of negotiation and persuasion, achieve at least some of their objectives – even if they did not have a direct vote. It was also quite interesting to see how some individuals were able to sway other peoples’ opinions just by the persuasive manner of their speech.