In Jacob Neusner’s The Talmud: A Close Encounter, he contrasts the solutions of normative Judaism and orthodox Christianity to the question of what to do with the tradition. On the one hand, he argues, the authorship of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli), created what amounts to a well-constructed system, built on principles drawn from both Scripture and Mishnah but following its own autonomous questions and mode of organization, but presented it as nothing more than “tradition” in the sense of what happened to be handed down to them. That is, they were incredibly creative but legitimated their effort by appeal to the past.
The Christian solution was the opposite:
What they did was to join together the received writings [both the Hebrew Scriptures and what would become the New Testament] as autonomous books but to impute to the whole the standing of a single, coherent and cogent statement, a harmonious Christian truth. This they did in the work of making the biblical canon. Joining diverse traditions into one, single, uniform, and therefore (putatively) harmonious Bible: God’s word. And, once more, that explains my view that the Christian solution to the problem of making a statement but also situating that system in relationship to received tradition is to be characterized as imputing system to discrete traditions through a declared canon. Thus… the comparison of the solutions that would prevail, respectively, in Judaism’s Bavli and in Christianity’s Bible, is characterized as a system to which the standing of tradition is imputed [Bavli], as against traditions, to which the form of a single system is, through the canonization of scriptures as the Bible, imputed. (148-149)
This is a really elegant way of putting it, which I never would’ve thought of without the comparison to Judaism. (Of course, Neusner’s perspective on Judaism isn’t the only game in town — there are plenty of people who view the Talmud as an accretion of received tradition, and I haven’t yet studied the Talmud at first hand and likely never will study it to the degree necessary to feel confident taking a side in this debate.) This sheer assertion that the diverse traditions brought together into “the Bible” had major consequences:
The final solution of the canon sidestepped the problem of bringing these logics together within a single statement. If diverse logics work, each for its own authoritative writing, then I do not have to effect coherence among diverse logics at all, and the canon, the conception of the Bible, would impose from without a cogency of discourse difficult to discern in the interior of the canonical writings. That decision would then dictate the future of the Christian intellectual enterprise: to explore the underbrush of the received writing and to straighten out the tangled roots. No wonder, then, that in philosopy, culminating in the return to Athens, the Christian mind would recover that glory of logical and systematic order denied to it in the dictated canon, the Bible. (154-55)
This contrast in the mode in which they achieved their respective self-identities in relationship to a certain revealed text may explain a key difference between Judaism and Christianity. While normative Judaism appears to be, if not strictly “progressive,” at least “accumulative” in the sense that one does not normally go “back behind” the work of a generation that has been accepted as authoritative (i.e., doing commentary on Scripture independently of the Mishnah once the Mishnah was written, reading the Mishnah afresh once the Babylonian Talmud was redacted, etc.), the history of Christian thought is continually haunted by the threat of a “reboot.” This took place most disruptively in the Reformation, but the potential is always there and has arguably been actualized more often than the traditional narrative might have it — precisely because the supposedly “definitive statement” represented by the Bible is internally incoherent (indeed, frankly a total mess).
Christianity failed at the outset to provide a coherent authoritative statement and therefore has been caught in the endless dialectic between ecclesiastical authorities and the incoherent scriptural account that serves as a final court of appeal. Calvin at least seemed to have recognized this problem to the extent that he undertook to distill Scripture into an authoritative systematic statement — but the very Reformation principles he espoused kept the Institutes from becoming the equivalent to the Talmud. The horse, in short, is out of the barn: it’s too late for Christianity to have a Talmud. That might be good in certain ways, but we should recognize that it is in many obvious respects a serious, serious disadvantage.