The Correlation of the Concepts Canon and Covenant

Home/Kline’s Works/Articles and Essays/The Correlation of the Concepts Canon and Covenant

Meredith G. Kline, “The Correlation of the Concepts Canon and Covenant” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. by J.B. Payne. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970, pp. 265-279.

Preoccupation with the critique of aberrant current reconstructions has forestalled the orthodox elaboration of a genuinely Biblico-historical version of the formation of the Old Testament canon. And since the modern approach to the Old Testament canon has concentrated narrowly on the aspect of a final, definitive “limitation” of the canon, the attention of all concerned has been directed for the most part to developments, whether actual or alleged, in the last pre-Christian and the earliest Christian centuries. Discovery of the relevant new evidence from this period in the library of the Qumran community has been regarded as the most significant new light on this subject and has engendered reassessments. However, no really radical revisions of the characteristically modern viewpoint have emerged. Accounts of the Old Testament canon in the latest editions of the standard Old Testament introductions produced by that school adhere to the same theological posture and the same general historical positions presented in the old handbooks on the canon from the end of the last century.

The familiar hypothesis that the Old Testament canon recognized in Alexandria was broader than that accepted by Palestinian Judaism has indeed been challenged from within the modern school. Not, however, on the grounds that the evidence for a broader Alexandrian-Septuagint canon is inadequate, but, on the contrary, that there is evidence for a similarly broad attitude in Palestine itself during the first Christian century, particularly in Judaism before A.D. 70.

[1] The new theory contends that during the days of Jesus and his apostles no closed canon of Jewish scriptures had been defined, whether Palestinian or Alexandrian, and that the Western church accepted a broader collection while Judaism of the late first century settled for a narrower canon. The conclusion is then drawn that Roman Catholics and Protestants should be able to concur on the Christian (or ecclesiastical as versus Judaistic) Old Testament canon. This is certainly congenial to the ecumenical tide, but it may well sound startling to many Protestant ears. Nevertheless, this thesis too is only a variation on the usual theme, working as it does with the definition of canon in which human decision is decisive, and confining itself to the historical era centering around the activities at the school of Jabneh in the late first Christian century. [2]

A necessary service has been performed by the orthodox critics in the exposure of the false theological foundations of the modern approach to the canon and its misreading of the historical developments, as expressed particularly in the theory of a threefold “canonization” of the Old Testament. [3] In effect, this critique reveals that such treatments deal scarcely at all with the history of the formation of the Old Testament canon, as they purport to do, but almost entirely with its epilogue, that is, with the recognition of the boundaries of that canon in the post- formative period. The real history of the Old Testament canon’s formation — a millennium-long history — largely antedates even the era relegated in these reconstructions to the “pre-history.”

Moreover, the apologetic-critical concerns of orthodox scholarship have not entailed a total neglect of the positive historiographical task. There have, of course, been repeated, if unheeded, reminders that the formation of the canon, rather than being a matter of conciliar decision or a series of such decisions with respect to a pre-existing literature, was a divine work by which the authoritative words of God were through the mystery of inspiration inscripturated in book after book, the canon being formed by the very appearance of these books. In the positive orthodox efforts, however, concrete historical analysis has tended to yield to formulation of Scriptural authority in the dogmatic categories of the Bible’s own objective self-authentication as Word of God and the Holy Spirit’s internal testimony to the Word, and the relation of these to individual faith and the church’s sealing attestation to the Word. But the more precise delineation of Biblical canonicity requires that it be perceived as fully as possible in its specific historical character.

It is then with the relatively neglected subject of the actual history of the formation of the Old Testament canon, particularly its beginnings and their formal Near Eastern background, that this paper is concerned. The attempt is made to arrive at a specifically and authentically historical conception of the matter, and thereby to make some contribution in the area of prolegomena to Old Testament canonics. It will emerge, we believe, that for purposes of reappraising the Old Testament canon the most significant development in the last two decades has not been the Dead Sea scroll finds but discoveries made concerning the covenants of the Old Testament in the light of ancient Near Eastern treaty diplomacy. [4]

I. Canon Inherent in Covenant

We take our start with the observation that the beginnings of canonical Scripture coincided with the legal constituting of Israel as the kingdom of God by the covenant-making at Sinai. In the treaty then and there given by Yahweh as Lord of the covenant to his servant people, Scripture as canon had its origin. For that document, the foundational Scripture, precisely in its nature as a covenant document possessed the formal characteristics essential to the concept of canon.

The covenant solemnized at Sinai was an administration of the lordship of Yahweh over Israel. In it the divine Lord spoke his authoritative words to his earthly vassals, the law of his kingdom, normative for their faith and practice. And these sovereign words of God, his covenant law, were inscripturated in treaty form on tables of stone. In due course provision was made according to Yahweh’s direction for that treaty to be preserved inviolate in the holy ark of the covenant, this enshrinement of the treaty testifying to its abiding authority over Israel. Here then was everything essential to the canon concept properly conceived: a divinely authoritative revelation, [5] documentary in form, its content unalterable. It was the nuclear canon of the Old Testament.

Steadily increasing knowledge about the nature of covenants in the ancient world of the Bible has demonstrated that the Sinaitic and other divine covenants were formally analogous to the suzerain-vassal covenants by which international relationships were often governed in those days. [6] In these, an overlord addressed his vassals, sovereignly regulating their relations with him, with his other vassals, and other nations. The central role played by the treaty tablet in which the covenant was customarily inscripturated is attested by the fact that the disposition of these tablets was at times made the subject of a special document clause. Moreover, copies of the text, duplicates of which were prepared for all the parties concerned, were to be preserved in the presence of a god, carefully guarded, and periodically read publicly in the vassal kingdom. [7] In its formal features the canonical aspect of the Biblical covenants was thus already clearly present in these international treaties and it will, therefore, be instructive to refer to them along with the Biblical covenants as we seek to trace the historical sources of the Biblical canon idea.

Of particular importance for identifying the roots of canon in covenant is of course the practice that called for drawing up the suzerain’s authoritative words in writing. [8] Besides the separate document clause cited above as indicative that the written text of the treaty was integral to covenant administration, there are occasionally found in the treaties special references to the tablets, descriptive of the tablets themselves or of significant details in their history. Thus, reference is made to the extraordinary material of a tablet: the tablet of silver that Hattusilis III made for Ramses II and the iron tablet inscribed by Tudhaliyas IV for Ulmi-Teshub. It is recorded that a treaty was written at such and such a place and in the presence of named witnesses. It is stated by a suzerain that he wrote the tablet and gave it to a vassal, just as, in the case of God’s covenant at Sinai, Israel’s heavenly Sovereign inscribed for them the tables of stone. Mursilis II mentions the tablet made by his father for the vassal but later stolen, and relates his own writing, sealing, and delivering of a second tablet. According to the Hittite treaty with Sunassura the transferal of his allegiance from the Hurrians to the Hittites, that is, the abrogation of one covenant and making of another, was effected by destroying the old treaty tablet and preparing a new one.

A feature of the covenant tablets of peculiar significance for their canonical character is the inscriptional curse, or what we may call the canonical sanction. The tablet was protected against alteration or destruction by making such violations of it the object of specific curses. This protective documentary curse (not exclusively a feature of treaties, as will be noted further presently) wherever found has a somewhat stereotyped formulation. This is so both in respect to the techniques envisaged by which the text might be defaced or removed and with respect to the divine retribution threatened as a deterrent to any contemplating such transgression.

From the treaty of Tudhaliyas IV with Ulmi-Teshub comes the inscriptional imprecation: “Whoever. . . changes but one word of this tablet. . . may the thousand gods of this tablet root that man’s descend- ants out of the land of Hatti.” [9] Similarly in Suppiluliuma’s treaty with Niqmad of Ugarit anyone who changes any of the treaty words is consigned to the thousand gods. The treaty of Suppiluliuma with Mattiwaza states that the vassal’s duplicate of the tablet has been deposited before the deity and is to be read at regular intervals in the presence of the vassal king and his sons, then proceeds: “Whoever will remove this tablet from before Teshub . . . and put it in a hidden place, if he breaks it or causes anyone else to change the wording of the tablet-at the conclusion of this treaty we have called the gods to be assembled. . . to listen, and to serve as witnesses.” The invocation of a lengthy list of gods follows, with a reiteration of the purpose of their presence, and finally the curses on violators of the treaty and blessings on those who observe its injunctions. The sanctions begin: “If you, Mattiwaza, . . . do not fulfill the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out. . .” [10] Continuing this tradition in the first millennium B.C., Esarhaddon stipulated concerning the tablet of the treaty-oath with its dynastic and divine seals: “You swear that you will not alter it, you will not consign it to the fire nor throw it into the water. . . and if you do, may Ashur. . . decree for you evil.” [11] And Bar-ga’ayah cursed with death under torment anyone who boasted: “I have effaced these inscriptions from the bethels.” [12]

The way in which the content of the treaties and the treaty tablet itself merge in the charge to guard it and in the conjoined curses against offenders reveals how closely identified with the idea of suzerainty covenant was its inscripturated form. And the inviolable authority of these written tablets, vividly attested to by the document clause and, especially, the document curse, sufficiently justifies our speaking of the canonicity of these treaties.

Along with the treaties there were other ancient documents that contained authority-laden directives and thus possessed in a broad sense a canonical quality. Even though the treaty form was the particular canonical genre adopted as nucleus for the Biblical revelation, it is well that we should be aware of this wider formal background of the Bible as canonical document. One such type of document was the professional prescription; examples would be the Egyptian medical papyri, [13] or magical incantations and cultic formulae. Another type would be the documents issuing from royal chancelleries, like edicts and law codes. There were also the royal land grants witnessed to by the kudurru stones, which in general concept and literary tradition have much in common with the state treaties. [14] Another category was the “letters of gods” addressed to Assyrian kings. [15] And as previously observed, the peculiarly significant document curse was employed in various kinds of texts such as commemorative and funerary inscriptions, votive inscriptions, like those on temple gate-sockets, [16] law codes, like those of Lipit-Ishtar and Hammurapi, and elaborately on the kudurru’s. [17]

The formal correspondence of the canonical aspect of the Bible to that of other ancient writings is made strikingly clear by the appearance in the Bible, as in the extra-Biblical treaties and other documents, of the documentary clause and the inscriptional curse, the brand-mark of canonicity. They appear in the Mosaic covenantal documents which constituted the nuclear Old Testament canon. (See Ex. 25: 16, 21; 40:20; Deut. 4:2; 10:2; 31:9-13; cf. Deut. 27 and Josh. 8:30 ff.) Noteworthy as a reflection of the literary tradition of the inscriptional curse is the account of Jehoiakim’s destroying of the scroll that contained the words of covenant sanctions spoken by God through Jeremiah. [18] This account, like the inscriptional curses, concerns itself with the topics of the method employed to destroy the document and the curse visited on this offense. Moreover, the similarity extends to the use of fire in the act of destruction and to the pronouncing of curses on both the person and property of the king, and particularly to the specific curses of the cutting off of his descendants and the casting out and exposure of his corpse. [19] This tradition of the canonical imprecation continued down into the New Testament: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life” (Rev. 22:18 f.; cf. 1:3). Though referring to the Apocalypse, the appropriateness of these sanctions to canonical Scripture as a whole cannot fail to be appreciated.

To sum up thus far, the canonical document was the customary instrument of covenant administration in the world in which the Bible was produced. The formal structure of the canonicity of the Scriptures was, therefore, inherent in the covenant form as that had developed in the history of international relationships in the ancient Near East, needing only to be taken up and inspired by the breath of God to become altogether what the church has confessed as canon. And that is what happened when Yahweh adopted the legal-literary form of the suzerainty covenants for the administration of his kingdom in Israel.

Our conclusion in a word is then that canon is inherent in covenant. Hence it is to the covenant structure utilized in the historical covenants of the Bible and ancient international diplomacy that theology should turn for its perspective and model in order to articulate its doctrine of canon in terms historically concrete and authentic. It is the covenant form that will explain the particular historical-legal traits of the divine authority that comes to expression in the Scriptures.

II. Covenantal Structure of the Bible

Are we justified in extending the conclusions we have reached concerning the covenantal nature of the canonicity of the earliest Scriptures beyond the Mosaic documents that are clearly couched in the classic treaty form? Our answer will depend on our measurement of the influence that has been exerted on the literary form and content of the remainder of the Old Testament by the legal-literary tradition of the treaties, and on what we understand that to signify concerning the functional character of the Old Testament as a whole.

It was inevitable that the various parts of the Old Testament canon should bear the covenantal stamp, since the Sitz im Leben of them all was the thoroughly covenantalized life of Yahweh’s holy nation. Israel’s cult and culture (the latter in both the family-private and kingdom- public spheres) stood under the covenant rule of Yahweh. They derived their peculiar meaning from him as God-King, whose covenantal dominion, exercised from the nation’s cultic center, the royal site of his theophanic presence, claimed Israel’s life to its full circumference. And because Israel’s cult and its cultural structures were thus covenantalized, the inspired literature deriving from and related to that cult (like ritual legislation and hymns) and associated with that culture (like civil law, national history, diplomatic messages of prophets, and instruction of sages) could not but display the basic and pervasive reality of the covenant.

To arrive at a covenantal identification of the various parts of the Old Testament, an identification suggested by their covenantalized provenance and supported by formal correspondences to the ancient covenants, is not to claim that all the literary forms of the Old Testament derived from the treaty form nor even that particular features common to, say, Old Testament prophetic or wisdom literature and the treaties were peculiar to the treaties outside the Scriptures or had their ultimate source in them. The relationships of these ancient genres, even in their employment within the Old Testament corpus, were intricately interdependent. But taking account of the origin of the Old Testament within a covenantally constituted kingdom and observing that the influence of the treaty traditions can be traced throughout the Old Testament literature, revealed there both by broad, general correspondences and by strikingly specific parallels to treaty form and features, we find ourselves persuaded that the primary purpose for which the various types of literature were utilized in the Old Testament was to serve as instruments of the covenantal administration of God’s lordship over Israel. And we would maintain that thereby and in that sense a covenantal character was imparted to the entire Old Testament which comprised these several literary forms. [20]

It is the task of Old Testament canonics to display fully the covenantal orientation that is to be found throughout the several sections and individual books of the Old Testament. The effect of this would be to demonstrate that in the Bible God has created a literary organism, covenantal in its unity, while it would at the same time exhibit by form-critical exposition the rich literary variegation of the Scriptures. Indeed, it is by addressing itself to precisely this task that orthodox Biblical scholarship may hope to do something creatively instructive for the church which lives by those Scriptures, turning the trackless wasteland that usually goes under the name of Old Testament Introduction into a fruitful field. [21]

It is not possible in this paper to survey even briefly the salient data showing that the full range of Old Testament literary genres has been marshalled under the controlling interest and influence of Yahweh’s covenant, consequential though the establishment of that point is for the central thesis of the paper. [22] We may, however, indicate here how the covenant reality and the pattern of its administrative on-going explains not alone the form and function of individual parts of the Old Testament-its law, history, prophets, psalms, and wisdom-but, beyond that, the overall form of Scripture as a whole. That is, covenant accounts for the larger literary relation of the Old and New Testaments to one another-something to be reckoned with when their canonicity is being analyzed.

The ancient treaties spoke of the alliances they founded and the terms they stipulated as valid down through following generations indefinitely. [23] Nevertheless, the treaty was under the sovereign disposition of the great king and subject to his revisions. By reason of changing circumstances in the development of the covenant relationship, treaty provisions might be altered, [24] and especially by reason of changing leadership on either side, great king or vassal king, renewal of covenants took place, [25] with new documents being prepared in witness to these changes. [26] The covenant renewals, in both the extra-Biblical and Biblical traditions, gave expression at once to the (at least theoretically) eternal character of these treaties and to the fact that the covenant order was not static but correlated to historical movement and change. The legal compatibility of these two aspects, the eternal and the changing, must have resided in a recognition of a distinction between the fundamental tributary allegiance of the vassal to the great king (or the peaceful mutual stance of the partners to a parity treaty), which was theoretically and ideally permanent, and the precise details, such as boundary definitions and tribute specifications, etc., which were subject to alteration. [27]

This kind of covenant administration with its renewal arrangements, especially with the documentation of these renewals in a succession of canonical treaties, supplied a most suitable model for the Scriptural revelation given in organic connection with redemptive history. For that history is characterized by a pattern of renewal in the unfolding of the eternal relationship established by God with his people. The dynamics of eschatological progress in this renewal movement of redemptive history are unique. Nevertheless, the comprehensive schema of this history as it is reflected in its Scriptural documentation, especially in the Scriptures major divisions into old (pre-messianic) and new (messianic) revelations, clearly fits the formal ancient covenantal pattern of treaty-documented renewal.

It thus appears that the documentary nature of the Bible in its overall form is covenantal. Our traditional designation of the Bible in its major subdivisions as the “Old” and “New Testaments” has been all the while more appropriate than has been commonly realized. According to our usual understanding, this customary nomenclature merely reflects the close association of the Biblical books with the history of the covenants, or provides a succinct table of contents of the Bible. But this falls short of the truth of the matter. “Covenant,” or “testament,” denotes more than a prominent element in the contents of the Bible. The documents which combine to form the Bible are in their very nature-a legal sort of nature, it turns out-covenantal. In short, the Bible is the old and the new covenants.

Back of the common Christian designations, “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” there is inner-Biblical precedent. For the designations “law” and “prophets,” or together “the law and the prophets,” were employed for parts or all of the Old Testament, [28] and it is demonstrable that these categories had definitely covenantal significance. [29] Clearer still is Paul’s reference to the Israelites’ reading of “the old covenant” (II Cor. 3: 14). Whether he had in view there the Pentateuch only or the entire Old Testament, [30] he plainly identified Scripture and covenant closely.

If this interpretation of the nature of the Old and New Testaments as covenantal is valid, then (relating it to the central thesis of this paper) what has been noted concerning the relation of canonicity to the covenantal form may be applied to the whole Old Testament and to the total Biblical structure. The covenant words of Scripture are God’s and, therefore, their canonical authority is in a class by itself. Yet at the formal literary level, Biblical canonicity is to be classified as belonging to the category of authoritative treaty words. And in this sense, Biblical canonicity in general is inherent in the fact that the Bible is the old and new covenants. Was it out of an awareness of this that endiathekos, “covenantal,” [31] was used in the early church instead of kanon to express the canonical character of Scripture? [32]

III. Old Testament and Church Canon

The identification of the Old-New Testament schema with the pattern of treaty documented renewal found in ancient covenant administration establishes the formal perspective for an approach to the intertwined questions of the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments and of the place of the Old Testament in the canon of the Christian church. In a manner analogous to other ancient treaties, the Old Testament as canonical covenant was both “forever” and yet subject to change. The changes were determined according to the sovereign purpose of God who directed redemption’s eschatological progress by His decisive interventions, initiating distinctive new eras and authoritatively redefining the mode of His kingdom.

Reluctance to accept the reality of God’s sovereignty in history as expressed in this divine structuring of the redemptive process into distinctive eschatological epochs underlies the misguided modern analyses that view the discontinuity between Old and New Testaments in simplistically evolutional fashion and judge not a little in the Old Testament to be sub-Christian. [33] On the other extreme, interpretations of a dispensational brand, while quite insistent on the fact of divinely differentiated eras, misconstrue the discontinuity aspect of the redemptive process, positing such radical disjunctions between the successive eras that a genuine continuity between the Old and New Testaments becomes insolubly problematic. The actual covenantal continuity-discontinuity pattern of the Old and New Testaments does not come into its own in either evolutional or dispensational historiography; and, in the measure that that is so, the question of the authority of the Old Testament in the Christian church cannot be properly assessed. The danger of having our position misunderstood as fostering the errors of one or both of these viewpoints ought not deter us from drawing out its implications.

It follows from the covenantal character of Old and New Testament canonicity, at once “forever” and yet subject to revision, that Scripture is not a closed canon in some general, absolute sense. In fact, instead of speaking of the canon of Scripture it were better to speak of the Old and New Testament canons, or of the canonical covenants which constitute the Scripture. Each authoritative covenantal corpus is of fixed extent, but the historical order of which it is constitutional is not a perpetually closed system. The Old and New Testaments are discrete covenantal canons in series. Each is of divine authority in all its parts, but that does not imply the absolutizing of its norms in abstraction from the covenantally structured historical process. They share in that eschatological movement with its pattern of renewal, of promise and messianic fulfillment, the latter in semi-eschatological and consummate stages. Each inscripturated covenant is closed to vassal’s alteration, subtraction, or addition (as the proscriptions of the treaty document clauses insist), yet each is open to revision by the Suzerain, revision that does not destroy but fulfills, as the history of God’s kingdom proceeds from one epochal stage to the next, particularly, in the passage from the old covenant to the new. “Closed” as a general description of a canon would be suitable only in the eternal state of the consummation.

Another corollary of covenantal canonicity is that the Old Testament is not the canon of the Christian church. From a strictly legal standpoint, the Old Testament viewed in its identity as the historical treaty by which God ordered the life of pre-messianic Israel belongs to the church’s historical archives rather than to its constitution. Covenant Theology is completely Biblical in its insistence on the Christological unity of the Covenant of Redemption as both law and gospel [34] in its old and new administrations; nevertheless, the old covenant is not the new covenant.

A distinction thus arises for the Christian church between canon and Scripture — that is, between the treaty-canon that governs the church of the new covenant as a formal community (i.e., the New Testament) and the Scriptures, the broader entity-not really a book-consisting of the canonical oracles of God communicated to his people in the Mosaic and messianic eras (i.e.) the Old Testament and New Testament together). The character of all Scripture as equally the word of God and the thoroughgoing eschatological-spiritual unity of all God’s redemptive administrations command for the old canon the place it has actually held along with the new canon in the faithful church from the beginning-profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. And much more of like force could be said. But it is also necessary to distinguish from this general concept of the authority and truthfulness of all the Scriptures the more specific authority of the covenant canon that is currently normative.

In these terms, the Old Testament, though belonging to the church’s Scriptures, is not the church’s current canon. It works both ways, therefore; canon and covenant mutually determine one another. Canonical treaty defines the covenant and the bounds of the treaty’s canonicity are in turn determined by the specific limitations of the covenant to which it pertains. Hence the church which acknowledges that the covenant de- fined by the Old Testament has now been superseded by being fulfilled in the new, may readily acknowledge also that the new canon has superseded the old canon. [35]

IV. Antiquity of Covenantal Canon and Anachronisms of Modern Criticism

As indicated in the introductory observations above, twentieth-century critical versions of the formation of the Old Testament canon adhere faithfully to the nineteenth-century evolutionistic reconstructions, the central assumption of which was the notion that the canon concept was late in dawning on the Israelite mind. The question must be faced whether these reconstructions are not exposed as modern fictions when their central assumption is scrutinized in the light of the ancient historical-literary data that reveal canon to have been the correlate of covenant.

In order to consider the antiquity of the canonical concept it is necessary to call attention again to the covenantal nature of the very oldest Scripture. The formal nature and disposition of the Decalogue, and of Deuteronomy too, laid up in or by the ark of the covenant from the time of Israel’s Mosaic beginnings, accorded closely with the form and treatment of ancient treaties, not least with those documentary features of the treaties that were most significant for their canonical quality.

Thus, the duplicate tables of the covenant written at Sinai reflect the custom of preparing copies of the treaty for each covenant party. [36] The enshrinement of these two tables and of the Deuteronomic document to serve as witnesses to God’s covenant followed the practice stipulated in the document clause of treaties, that clause itself being included in the Deuteronomic treaty (31:9 ff.). [37] And, of course, the standard documentary pattern of the treaties was followed in the Decalogue and Deuteronomy. [38] Even the element of covenant renewal and treaty revision that marks ancient covenant administration was present in these early Scriptures. It was present prophetically in the curses and blessings section of Deuteronomy, which speaks of the radical forgiving grace of God that would renew the covenant in the last days, beyond the threatened curse of exile. [39] More than that, Deuteronomy was itself a new covenant, formalizing the restoration in a new generation of the community which in its older generation had experienced covenant excommunication in the wilderness exile. In fact, the two Sinaitic tables that were kept in the ark of the covenant were themselves the documentary witnesses to a renewed covenant. They were the new covenant given by the Lord in mercy to the vassal community which had so soon broken his covenant — as his servant Moses had attested by shattering the first two treaty tablets. [40] The structure of the Bible as old and new covenant canons was thus already incipiently present in the Decalogue and Deuteronomy.

And the origin of these covenant documents which were a nuclear model of the covenantal-canonical Bible coincided with the origins of the nation Israel.

To be sure, modern Old Testament scholarship is for the most part unwilling to accept the Biblical record of the origins of the Decalogue and Deuteronomy in the days of Moses. Some also would oppose the acknowledgment generally made of the Hittite treaty pattern in the Decalogue. The picture is further complicated by those who would support von Rad’s hypothesis that the Sinai-covenant tradition was not originally related to the exodus tradition. [41] But even the holding of such viewpoints has proved compatible with consent to the judgment of the great majority who have now been obliged to repudiate Wellhausen’s arbitrary recasting of historical sequence by which the covenant idea was made out to be a late outgrowth of prophetic thinking. Very few now fail to recognize the presence of the covenant in the pre-prophetic history of Israel’s life and thought, and the tendency is to respect the evidence that traces covenant as far back as Israel can be traced.

It is evident that an unrecognized tension has developed within the dominant type of Old Testament scholarship between its altered thinking about covenant and its unaltered, nineteenth-century thinking about canon. By the reversal of the Wellhausenian dogma of late covenant the rationale has been removed for the modern theory of late canonization. It will no longer do to assert that the concept of canonical Scripture was an innovation of the late prophetic era and at the same time admit that the covenant concept was a formative factor in Israel’s literature in pre-prophetic times. For where there is divine covenant of the classic Old Testament kind there is divine canonical document.

It is to be expected that devotion to traditional critical doctrine will tend to prevent awareness that what the modern critics have been theorizing about the formation of the Old Testament canon has been rendered obsolete by what is now known and commonly acknowledged about covenant. That, however, is the case. The theory of a process of canonization beginning in the post-exilic era, if not considerably later — whether a threefold process or otherwise, whether assuming a broader Alexandrian canon or following an approach like Sundberg’s — is a grotesque distortion of the historical facts, a Wellhausenian anachronism on a millennial order of magnitude.

The origin of the Old Testament canon coincides with the founding of the Kingdom of Israel by covenant at Sinai. The very treaty that formally established the Israelite theocracy was itself the beginning of the Old Testament canon — and the nuclear covenant-canon model for the rest. The critical fiction that has been foisted on the church as a history of the formation of the canon should be unceremoniously scrapped and orthodox Old Testament scholarship should set to work on the Biblico-theological task of delineating the real history of that process. When that is done and the relevant historical realities of ancient covenant procedure are brought to bear, the formation of the Old Testament canon will be traced to its true origins in the covenantal mission of Moses in the third quarter of the second millennium B.C., providentially the classic age of treaty diplomacy in the ancient Near East.


1. Thus, Albert C. Sundberg, Jr., in The Old Testament of the Early Church (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) ; “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should It Be Re-examined?,” CBQ, 28 (1966): 194-203 (part of “A Symposium on the Canon of Scripture” (pp. 189-207) by Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars); and “The ‘Old Testament’; A Christian Canon,” CBQ, 30 (1968): 143-55.
2. On the extreme exaggeration of the significance of these discussions see Jack Lewis, “What Do We Mean by Jabneh?,” Journal of Bible and Religion, 32 (1964): 125-32.
3. For a critique from quite a different viewpoint of the traditional modern notion of a successive “canonization” in three stages of law, prophets, and writings, conceived according to the Massoretic arrangement and with the law as the foundation and controlling perspective in the development, see J. C. H. Lebram, “Aspekte der alttestamentlichen Kanonbildung,” VT, 18 (1968): 173-89.
4. The present paper is a condensed version of an article scheduled for early publication in the Westminster Theological Journal, under the title, “Canon and Covenant” (hereafter referred to as: WTJ version) .
5. See WTJ version for a discussion of modern concessions to the early recognition of this authority.
6. The present writer has treated the matter at some length in Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963; hereafter, TGK) and By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968; hereafter, BOC).
7. Cf. F. Korosec;, Hethitische Staatsvertriige (Leipzig, 1931), pp. 100 f. For the corresponding treatment accorded the Sinai tic tables of the covenant, d. TGK, pp. 19 f.
8. Cf. Walter Beyerlin, Origins and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Traditions, trans. S. Rudman (Oxford: Blackwell; New York: Humanities; 1965), esp. pp. 55 ff. Note the combination of kotebim with koretim in the covenant ratification of Neh. 10:1 (9: 38).
9. See D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), p. 185.
10. See A. Goetze’s translation in ANET, pp. 205 f.
11. See Donald J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1958), p. 60.
12. Sefireh II, C; cf. TGK, pp. 43 f.
13. The authority of a prescription was commonly traced to its derivation from a canonical exemplar, an ancient document, particularly one found in a temple. The prescription might then be described as “what was found in writing under the feet of [the deity],” i.e., under the immediate guardianship of the god’s image. The concept and terminology here parallel the practice of enshrining copies of treaties as stipulated in their document clause. The remedy might even claim to be a divine revelation. Thus, one papyrus reads: “This remedy was found in the night, fallen into the court of the temple in Koptos, as a mystery of the goddess, by the lector-priest of this temple.” For this translation and sample texts of these prescriptions, see J. A. Wilson’s treatment of them in ANET, p. 495a.
14. For a further discussion of the kudurru’s in relation to Biblical and extra- Biblical treaties, see WTJ version.
15. Cf. A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 280.
16. Cf. S. Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law,” VT, II (1961): 137-58.
17. Cf. Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute; Chicago: Argonaut, Inc.; 1964), pp. 11,86; F. C. Fensham, “Common Trends in Curses of the Near Eastern Treaties and Kudurru-Inscriptions Compared with Maledictions of Amos and Isaiah,” ZA W, 75 (1963): 155-75.
18. See Jer. 36.
19. For parallels in treaties and kudurru’s, see Fensham, op. cit., pp. 161 ff. and Hil., lers, op. cit., pp. 68 f.
20. Cf. Ronald E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant (Naperville, Ill.: Allenson, Inc., 1965), p. 24, where it is observed that the controlling factor in the development of various literary forms (law. psalms, wisdom, and prophecy), all of them developing side by side, intersecting and influencing each other, was Israel’s knowledge of covenant relationship to Yahweh.
21. Cf. my programmatic comments to this effect in WTJ, 29 (1966): 61 f.
22. For some suggestions, see WTJ version.
23. So, for example, the copies of the Bar-ga’ayah treaty with Mati’el speak in various connections of its arrangements, sanctions, and the suzerain’s authority as being “forever”; and both Egyptian and Hittite versions of the parity treaty between Ramses II and Hattusilis declare repeatedly that that treaty of peace and brotherhood was valid “forever:’
24. For example, Tudhaliyas IV, preparing a new tablet definitive of his covenant relationship with Ulmi-Teshub, explains this revision as due to his having observed that the military-support requirement stipulated on an earlier treaty tablet had proved to be excessive.
25. See TGK, ‘pp. 36 if.
26. Cf. Klaus Baltzer’s analysis of the causes of covenant renewal and reaffirmation in the Old Testament in his Das Bundesformular, 2nd ed. (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1964), pp. 59 if., 71 if. In the historical prologues of the Hittite treaties references are found to previous treaty relationships with the vassal or his predecessors, occasions being mentioned when renewal of the covenant had been called for by circumstances like change in the dynastic succession or restoration of the vassal after violation of the treaty.
27. Baltzer, ibid., distinguishes in the treaty structure between a declaration of principle and the specific stipulations that follow it. The variations among the three Sefireh steles, which describe the treaty relationship they record as “forever” valid, show how the concept of covenant permanence was compatible even with a degree of difference in detail in contemporary versions of the same treaty. (For discussion, see McCarthy, op. cit., pp. 62 f.). Such variations are of importance too for a study of scribal freedom, of interest to the Biblical scholar as a possible explanation of textual variations in parallel passages without recourse to easy assumptions of transmissional mutation.
28. For the comprehensive use of “law” to cover the entire Old Testament, cf. I Cor. 14:21 and In. 10:34; 12:34; 15:25. For the use of “the law and the prophets” in the New Testament and Qumran as a designation for the whole Old Testament, see R. Laird Harris, “Was the Law and the Prophets Two-Thirds of the Old Testament Canon?” BETS, 9 (1966): 163-71.
29. On the virtual synonymity of “law” and “covenant,” see TGK, p. 17. Cf. also note 3 above.
30. In the context (v. 15), Paul uses “Moses” apparently as an equivalent of “the old covenant,” but “Moses” here, like “law” elsewhere, possibly denotes the entire Old Testament.
31. Cf. G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press; 1962), II, 2, p. 468.
32. Note the usage of Origen and Eusebius in the latter’s Church History III, 3, i and iii; III, 25, vi; VI, 25, i.
33. For a recent popular restatement of this viewpoint in connection with a discussion of the canon question and from an ecclesiastically significant source, see Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957) , pp. 52 fl.
34. Cf. BOC, ch. 2.
35. On the present approach to Biblical canonicity, the role of the community in relation to the canon needs reassessment. An attempt at this is made in the WT] version.
36. Cf. TGK, pp. 17 fl.
37. Ibid., pp. 19 f.
38. Ibid., pp. 14 ff., 28 fl.
39. Ibid., pp. 132 f.
40. Ibid., p. 43.
41. For a helpful recent critique of this hypothesis, see H. H. Huffmon, “The Exodus, Sinai, and the Credo,” CBQ, 27 (1965): 101-13. The counter observations of P. B. Harner in “Exodus, Sinai, and Hittite Prologues,” ]BL, 85 (1966): 233-6, do not meet the issue.

Scanned and Edited by Robert A. Lotzer on July 04, 2006.