Review of Timothy Stone’s Book on the Five Small Scrolls

A version of this review was published in the most recent issue of Themelios.

Timothy J. Stone, The Compilational History of the Megilloth. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 59. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. 258pp. Paper. $94.

What is the Megilloth and what difference does the history of its compilation make? The Megilloth are the “five small scrolls” (Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations) in the third section of the tripartite Hebrew Bible referred to as the Writings (Law, Prophets, and Writings). The issue of how these scrolls came to be grouped together is related to the wider question of when and how the Writings began to be considered in relationship to one another. Some think that the Old Testament canon was not closed until after the time of Jesus, and this view is often accompanied by the idea that the Writings are a random collection into which later rabbis sought to introduce meaningful organization.

Tim Stone[1] makes a historical and exegetical case for the view that these five small scrolls were intentionally grouped together into a meaningful arrangement as the canon was being formed and that “the tripartite canon was likely closed within mainstream Judaism sometime considerably prior to the end of the first century C.E.” (3). Stone builds on the work of Brevard Childs, Roger Beckwith, Julius Steinberg, Christopher Seitz, and others. He first discusses the question of Canon and Compilation, contending that “Canonization is not a dogmatic judgment passed down from above, but rather one at work in the canonical process” (13). Using the assembling of the Twelve Minor Prophets into a meaningful whole and the strategic arrangement of the Psalter as points of comparison for what he argues about the five small scrolls, Stone develops “compilational criteria” that he employs to analyze the relationships between the five small scrolls: 1) catchwords at the end or beginning of juxtaposed books; 2) framing devices such as inclusios; 3) superscriptions; and 4) thematic considerations (33). Discussions of the collection and arrangement of the Writings follow, and these set up the exegetical probes Stone uses to test and confirm his theories. Ruth and Esther receive chapter length treatment, and then the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations are sounded before Stone summarizes his findings.

Stone helpfully sets out three theses that outline his project (9). I will shorten these theses further, allotting only one statement for each: 1) the tripartite canon of the OT was closed well before the end of the first century [AD]; 2) there are only two main arrangements of the writings before the eleventh century C.E. (after which orders proliferate): those found in BB 14b and the MT; and 3) the five small scrolls are purposefully arranged (with slight variations) and sit in the middle of the Writings, preceded by a wisdom collection, followed by a national-historical collection.

I am enthusiastic about the confirmation Stone provides for an early closure of the OT Canon and the purposeful arrangement of those books. His project is a stimulating contribution to the pursuit of canonical biblical theology. As intriguing as his suggestions are, however, and as much as I agree with him that the canonical context of a biblical book should influence its interpretation, I hold vastly different conclusions on the meaning that results from consideration of the canonical context of books such as Esther, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Stone’s view is that the canonical context of the book of Esther results in the conclusion that Hadassah (the character named Esther) is “an assimilated Jew who has forgotten Israel’s God” (173). Privileging other canonical material, I would see Hadassah as a model of biblical femininity, a faithful Jew who trusts God and makes the best of a bad situation. This example illustrates the inevitably subjective, perspectival nature of the necessary task of looking beyond the boundaries of a particular biblical book for wider canonical context.

On the matter of the organization of the five small scrolls, Stone proposes a chiastic structure:

Ruth

Song of Songs

Ecclesiastes

Lamentations

Esther

Ruth is positive, Esther negative; the best Song is matched by the worst; and at the center of the chiasm stands Ecclesiastes, the only book in the collection that “lacks a main female character” (206–207).

Some of the interpretive conclusions Stone draws, such as the idea that Mordecai and Esther are made to appear in a negative light by virtue of the way their actions differ from those of Daniel and his friends in Daniel 1–6, seem speculative and unwarranted. I am remain unconvinced that the author of Esther intended his audience to derive a negative conclusion about Esther and Mordecai because their circumstances were different than those of Daniel and his friends.

This point about authorial intent leads to a wider difficulty with the project of deriving meaning from the arrangement of the biblical books—and I say what follows as one who seeks to do canonical biblical theology and believes that English translations should adopt the tripartite order of the books of the Old Testament. In my view, the biblical authors were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21), with the result that the final form of what they wrote is what should be regarded as inspired by the Holy Spirit. With this, the controlling concern in interpretation is what the Spirit-inspired biblical author intended to communicate. So unless it can be shown that the author of Esther, for instance, consciously composed Esther to be read against the backdrop of Daniel 1–6 and as a foil to Ruth, intended meaning is being attributed to someone other than the biblical author. It seems impossible to establish that an inspired prophet such as Ezra was responsible for the arrangement of the canonical order of the books, though there is strong evidence that Ezra may have done just that. If we cannot be certain that the Spirit inspired a prophet to organize the books into meaningful arrangement, then it seems we are considering the history of the reception and interpretation of the books and their arrangement rather than interpreting the intended message of the biblical author(s).

[1] Timothy Stone taught for two years at Zomba Theological College in Malawi as a PCUSA mission co-worker and now serves as a visiting professor at Eastern University. The Compilational History of the Megilloth is a revision of his doctoral thesis done at St. Andrews.

4 Responses to Review of Timothy Stone’s Book on the Five Small Scrolls

  1. Mike S January 5, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    I have been searching for some time more for convincing evidence of Esther’s canonicity. There is a huge contrast between it and say….Ruth. I sat in a Sunday School class not long ago that was beginning a study on Esther and the comments around the room trying to make the case for Esther’s place in the Bible was troubling.
    In Ruth, you have the narrative culminating in the preservation of the genealogical line of the Messiah- explicitly spelled out in the text; you have the intertextual connection of “visit” in Ruth 1:6 (Gen. 50:24-25, Ex.3:16, Luke 1:68 and more)…oh yes, I almost forgot…it unashamedly mentions GOD.
    In Esther, you have Jewish nationalism which avoids many chances to at least mention God or that they are the people of God- the common defense is “He is behind the scenes in his absence in the text’- perhaps, but couldn’t you say that about alot of material? The Jews fast but they don’t pray (the Sunday School class assumed they did).

    Maybe this book will help make the case for Esther in the collection history but one would feel better with at least a passing reference by a NT writer or a scrap of papyri at Qumran.

    • JMH January 5, 2015 at 11:27 am #

      See my take on Esther in GGSTJ. For canonicity issues, see Beckwith, OT Canon of the NT Church.

  2. Max Strange July 3, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    Greetings professor Hamilton,

    I appreciate your posts. I am a member of Clearcreek Chapel, Ohio. Dan Turner is one of my pastors, whom you know through the Masters program at Southern. Pastor Dan and I taught on the Song of Solomon last year and your book on SoS was a pivotal resource for us. Thank you.
    I am now going through the book of Esther. I have not used the Canonical compilation as a tool for my exegesis. I have remained within the book itself, although I have thought about the way the O.T. Scriptures have been organized and how one might “derive meaning from the arrangement.”
    I have noticed several things, which I would like your opinion, regarding Esther’s & Mordecai’s assimilation, which I noticed that you were not yet convinced. Also, I have not tackled the idea of Biblical femininity because I have not seen it as a dominant theme in the text. I do see humility and caution, but it doesn’t seem to be at the foreground of the narrative in the early chapters.
    Before I launch, I just want to say that the assimilation idea of Mordecai and Esther is also espoused by Alistair Begg and Iain Duguid. Which admittedly, has impacted by thinking. However, sentence diagramming of the structure of Esther has also led me to similar conclusions.
    To be clear, I am not an academic. That is for sure. I love Jesus. I want Him to be known and I want His Word to be heard clearly and with passion. I not only want to submit to the Word but also its arrangement internally and perhaps even its canonical position. Since the interpretive principle, scripture interpreting scripture, doesn’t seem to apply here (Even in the New Testament’s Use of the Old: by Beale and Carson find no direct or inferred references to Esther in the entire Canon! (except for the lineage of Mordecai and Haman)), it feels like I am “confined” within Esther to teach Esther. Which, if that is the way God wanted it, who am I to argue. I must yield. 🙂 However, I am a new comer to Biblical Theology and I see thematic “zip-lines” tracing through the book “King, Kingdom, Bride, Feast, Consummation, etc). So, I feel regulated by themes tracing in and out and regulated to the context of each pericope/bookends.
    So, I have found the following with regards to the assimilation of Mordecai and Esther:
    1. Mordecai/Esther have kept their pagan names
    2. Mordecai has not gone back to Jerusalem (No one is convinced on Ezra chapter 2)
    3. Cyrus gave the decree that the Jews could go home
    4. The clear command from Mordecai to Esther to keep their lineage “a secret”
    5. Esther seems compliant to the Empire with no ethical or spiritual push-back.
    6. Esther is in the harem for 5+ years. No one knows she is a Jew. Mordecai’s coworkers at the King’s gate do not know that he is a Jew (Chap.2).
    7. Esther has married a pagan. In the harem, there are no indications in the text that she has been a compliant Jew (dietary, festival, visits to Jerusalem, etc.). She is disconnected from her people and her identity (Chap 4 shows her uninformed about the happenings in the world-quarantined from a Jewish life).
    8. God is “absent” from the text. Perhaps a clue to the absence of God in the life of the remnant (notice Nehemiah’s heartfelt prayer in Nehemiah chapter 1).
    9. Both have privatized their faith in the Empire, which was known for allowances of varying religious persuasions.
    10. Mordecai works for the government “sitting at the king’s gate” in some capacity and appears reluctant (up until chapter 3) that his Jewishness ever go public.
    11. If folks find out who Esther is, then folks find out who Mordecai is. Mordecai’s position at the king’s gate may be in jeopardy.
    12. Esther, having a dual name, I believe, is a clue that Esther/Hadassah has an identity crisis. While, in the case of Mordecai, the readers NEVER find out his Hebrew name. I believe to be a clue to his assimilation.
    13. Our main characters of the book are Mordeca (Marduka) and Esther (Ishtar). Clue to assimilation.
    14. Chapter 2:19-24 place two narratives together that “equate” Bigthan and Teresh’s secret plotting in a parallel to that of Esther and Mordecai. All secret conspirators may be hung on the gallows!

    Now, I don’t want to give either Mordecai or Esther a black eye. I do not see them as model Jews at the outset of the narrative or heroes. However, in God’s subtle providence, He does carry them along to a full confession. I believe that the end of the story is often read into the beginning parts, which lessen the drama/seriousness/gravity of the situation which Mordecai has truly placed them. Doctrines of grace dudes, which I am one, want to cry out, “But God is sovereign!!” I agree. But the context shows, at least in the early parts of the story, that God is absent. Ahaseurus is running the show. All that he decrees, he gets. Two Jews are hiding out in the Empire and they feel the weight and pressure of assimilation and privatization. Similar to what we, as 21st century Christians experience today. In assimilation, I don’t mean to say that they are completely frigid to God. I do mean that they have bought the lie of the empire and have pushed Yahweh out of their daily paradigm (practical atheists).
    I do believe God is sovereign and that God, the ultimate Hero of the Story, will eventually make two Jews come to the fore and declare allegiance to the one true God. I do believe that the nation is in a downward trajectory (the glory has left Solomon’s temple never to return until Jesus appears) and that the end of the story appears to be just another layer of religiosity. Yet, I do believe that the favor given them by God is to move the storyline in an upward trajectory toward Bethlehem and the coming of the Seed of the woman.
    Forgive my rambling thoughts. I am sure there are many errors in this post grammatically and theologically. I am all ears. Blessings on your ministry.

    • JMH July 4, 2016 at 8:28 am #

      I disagree. You can look at it that way. I think my read on Esther in GGSTJ better suits its canonical context.

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