Interesting post over at Reading Acts on Reading the New Testament: Chronological or Canonical?, engaging with an article by Marcus Borg on the subject.
Certainly I grew up believing that the canonical order was pretty much chronological, because it’s chronological with respect to the world inside the text. And that makes sense: if you’re presenting the story of Jesus and the church, you would present it in story-order, not the order in which the “chapters” were written.
I was startled to learn (fairly late, and only because I pursued additional education, though I think it was before graduate school) that the Pauline epistles were written before the gospels. And I just surprised somebody with this information the other day: I expect that most adult Christians in this country are unaware of it. I learned that Mark was the earliest gospel in college, I think: anyway, early and thoroughly enough that I usually unthinkingly look for Mark first and then have to recite the little children’s prayer to remind myself of the canonical order.
And this summer, as I’ve engaged with those epistles, it has seemed very very weird to me that they are not in chronological order in the canon. There’s something about the genre of letters in particular that seems to me to cry out for chronological ordering. Letters come with dates on them, after all! at least, in our day they do. And a series of letters, like a series of diary entries, inevitably reflects the development of the writer in response to time and changing circumstance. Dr. Gorman’s book does treat them in chronological order, which I found helpful.
Only in the past few weeks as I’ve spent more time with Romans (as I struggle to finish this project, already!) has it occurred to me that there exists a way of thinking in which “most important to least important” makes as much sense as, or even more sense than, an ordering of “oldest to newest.” (Romans does seem to be generally and historically appreciated as the most important of Paul’s letters.) It’s a physical implementation of something I frequently encounter in the blogosphere today: If you’re only going to read one thing on this topic, read this.
I’ve never heard that the intra-gospel canonical order is based on importance (have you?),
but it would be consistent with the opinion of a church shaped by Paul’s letters that the gospel that’s been described as “the passion story, with an extended prologue” would be considered the one thing you should read about these Christians, if you were only going to read one thing. (Updated to add: See? I think of Mark as coming first in the canon. Ahem. Move along, nothing to see here.)
In his post, Phillip remarks
I find it fascinating that Borg considers the trajectory from the earliest to the latest books as a trajectory of accommodation with culture
This surprised me a bit because I don’t find it fascinating; it’s essentially what I was taught and what makes sense to me. It seems inevitable to me that a group that went from a persecuted underground movement to the official religion of the empire would obviously have undergone accommodation with the culture.
It occurs to me that one way in which our changing culture could engage with the issue of ordering is via the use of technology. A bible published as an ebook could come with presentation settings so you could toggle between chronological and canonical ordering; and between Jewish and Christian canonical ordering for the Shared Scriptures (I would so set mine to Jewish ordering). You could even choose which canon you want: with the deuterocanonical books, or without? How many books of Maccabees? Wouldn’t that be fun! And so convenient for ecumenical gatherings, too.