Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)
Chapter 31 – Development of the Canon
THE idea of a canon rests upon belief in revelation and inspiration: the revelation of divine will to and through inspired persons. In Jeremiah’s day, those who opposed him referred to the three accepted channels of inspired utterance in ancient Israel when they declared, "The law shall not perish from the priest, nor the counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet" (Jer. 18:18). The will of Yahweh was made known to priests through the Urim and Thummin, or other means of divination, but the means of sanctification and atonement, particular concerns of the priesthood, had been disclosed to Moses on Mount Sinai/Horeb and had become means of sustaining the divine-human relationship. The words of the wise, revealed by divine Wisdom, were in harmony with the very principles that brought the cosmos into being. The prophets were spokesmen for Yahweh and their words were Yahweh’s words. Some of the biblical materials are representative of these three classes of "inspired" persons. How their words came to be canonized can only be inferred from hints within the writings themselves, but it is clear that prior to the Exile these three kinds of literature were accorded some sort of special status.
In the development of the history of Israel we have been able to see how the Torah gradually took form and reached completion in the late Persian period. The beginning of the canonization of this portion of the Bible may go back to the ancient belief that the law of the land was a divine promulgation, an idea prevalent throughout the Near East.1 The Bible bears ample evidence that the Hebrews believed that Yahweh himself wrote some of the laws (Exod. 24:12; 31:18; 32:16-16; 34:1), and that those written by Moses were dictated by Yahweh (Exod. 34:27). The formularies of the Shechem covenant were labeled "the book of the law of God" and were deposited in Yahweh’s sanctuary (Josh. 24:26). The first clear move toward canonization can be seen in Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomists stated that their law was complete, with nothing to be added or removed (Deut. 4:2; 12:32); that the laws were revealed by Yahweh and were binding on all generations (Deut. 29:29); that they were designed for public proclamation (Deut. 27:4-8) but as holy writings were to be given special treatment (Deut. 31:24-26). The curses and blessings, the covenant setting, the attribution of the laws to Moses and Yahweh, make Deuteronomy the equivalent of a divinely revealed national constitution, completely removed from the sphere of ordinary literature. The use of the book in cultic settings further enhanced its unique status. During the Exile, Ezekiel’s teaching that disobedience to Yahweh’s will had brought divine punishment underscored the importance of those laws that purported to reveal what Yahweh demanded.
Perhaps the most important step toward canonization is recorded in the Ezra tradition. During the New Year festival, Ezra read publicly from "the book of the law" and instructed the people in the law (Neh. 7:73b-8:18). What this "law" embraced cannot be determined from the account.2 It is possible that the scroll included Deuteronomy and those parts of P compiled by Babylonian Jews during the Exile. It is unlikely that the bulk of the Pentateuch was read, although this document must have been nearing its final form. Ezra’s law could not have been completely new to the listeners, and it is clear that the Chronicler is suggesting that the structure of the new community was to be determined by this law which was, therefore, automatically recognized as possessing divine authority.
About this same time, the Samaritan canon (see below), which includes the complete Torah, came into being, and in the third century the LXX translation was made. The Law had reached its final form and had attained canonical status, but the details of this process lie hidden in the obscure history of the Exilic and early post-Exilic periods.
The oracles of the prophets were preserved by disciples (Isa. 8:16; Jer. 36) and perhaps by the temple cult. Knowledge of what the prophets had said was not restricted to the cultus or to the inner circle of disciples. Micah’s words were quoted by an elder in Jeremiah’s time (Jer. 26:17 ff.), and it is possible that prophetic utterances enjoyed much wider circulation than we have been willing to admit. Hosea’s portrayal of Israel as an unfaithful wife and Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard became standard illustrations of apostasy during the Exile.
The fulfillment of some predictions, such as those forecasting the fall of Syria and Israel, gave eighth century prophecy special significance.3 If a prophet had foreseen events that had occurred, there was good reason to heed warnings concerning that which was yet to happen.4 When Judah collapsed in the sixth century, there could be little doubt that prophetic predictions had, once again, demonstrated their inspired basis, for only Yahweh could know and make manifest the future. One of the writers of Lamentations commented:
Yahweh has done what he purposed,
has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
he has demolished without pity.
During the Exile, the prophetic oracles were studied for signs of restoration. The hope of return appears to have grown out of the interpretation and expansion of the remnant concept. By the time of the post-Exilic era, prophetic writings were well on the way toward canonization.
In the post-Exilic period, perhaps because of the development of hope for an idealized eschaton, prophecy began to fall into disrepute (Zech. 13:2-3; Neh. 6:7, 14). If one had assurance of an idyllic future from sources that had been proven reliable (despite the fact that the restoration oracles were added to earlier prophecies during the Exile), all further prophecy became unnecessary. By the time of the Maccabees, it was a common assumption that there were no prophets (I Macc. 4:46; 9:27; 14:41), although there was hope that true prophets would appear.
The contents of the prophetic canon appear to have been established between the fourth and second centuries in two general groupings: the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, I-II Samuel, I-II Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve). The Former Prophets are part of what Martin Noth has recognized as a Deuteronomic history. Whether or not they were included as part of the prophetic canon because they have much to report about prophets and prophetesses or because they were ascribed to prophets cannot be known. Possibly because they had been part of a theological history that extended from Genesis through Kings, when the first five books of the collection were ascribed to Moses, the remaining volumes of the sacred history were given sacred status too.
The Hagiographa or Writings are an amorphous literary collection with a most obscure history. Perhaps the cultic use of the Psalms and the ascription of many hymns to David tended to set this collection apart from secular songs. Wisdom writings, attributed primarily to Solomon, stressed reverence for Yahweh (Prov. 1:7) and declared that wisdom was a gift of Yahweh (Prov. 2:6; Sirach 1:1; Wisdom 7:7). Other documents survived through popular appeal and common usage. The fluidity of the "hagiographic canon" raised problems when the Jews attempted to standardize authoritative writings. The earliest mention of the collection is found in the prologue to Ben Sira’s work where reference is made to the "other books of our fathers," presumably the Hagiographa.
THE SAMARITAN CANON
The relationship between the peoples of Israel and Judah had always been marked with suspicion and distrust and, on occasion, open hostility. When Solomon’s empire was divided after his death, tensions between the two nations were never resolved. The destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians and the deportation of thousands of Israelites had not eliminated Yahweh worship in the northern kingdom but had tended to center the cult in Judah. What form the worship of Yahweh took in the Assyrian-held province of Israel is not known. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jewish-Samaritan hostility reached a new peak, and the Samaritans became openly hostile to the reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple, partially, no doubt, from fear of any form of neo-Judaean power that might affect Samaritan political or theological well-being. When the Samaritan temple was constructed (probably in the fourth century)5 the Samaritans, like their Jewish neighbors, possessed a body of sacred scripture consisting of the Torah or Pentateuch, which differs at many points with the Jewish Hebrew text and in some instances supports LXX readings. The exclusion of prophetic and hagiographic writings suggests that the schism took place before these collections had attained authoritative standing, although it is possible that the many anti-Ephraim statements in the prophets may have made these works unacceptable.
THE "ALEXANDRIAN CANON"
In reality, there is no "Alexandrian canon," for the Jews of Alexandria never officially canonized the LXX. The term, a misnomer, is used to designate the combined Jewish canon (Tanak) and the Apocrypha.
When the LXX was formed, the Jews had placed limits only on the Torah and the prophets. The authority of the larger group of writings out of which the Kethubhim were to be selected, had not yet been determined, although some sort of selective process must have been at work, for the LXX did not include such other well-known Jewish documents as Enoch or Jubilees or other writings now relegated to the Pseudepigrapha. What principles determined the contents of the LXX beyond the Law and the Prophets is not known.
THE QUMRAN SCRIPTURES
Like their fellow Jews, the sectaries of Qumran made use of writings now included in the Jewish Bible, with the possible exception of Esther of which no fragment has, as yet, been found. They also possessed copies of Ben Sira’s work and Tobit, as well as Jubilees (at least ten copies), Enoch and The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs which are today placed in the Pseudepigrapha. In addition, they consulted writings that appear to have been uniquely their own, including a collection of thanksgiving hymns, a manual of the order of the community ("The Manual of Discipline"), an apocryphal scroll called "The Wars of the Sons of Darkness versus the Sons of Light," a Genesis Apocryphon, a copper "treasure" scroll, commentaries on the books of Nahum and Habakkuk and numerous other writings. Clearly, the library of Qumran was not limited to books later adopted by the Jews as authoritative. At the same time, there is no way to determine how the Qumran sect weighted the authority of individual writings. Jubilees, on the basis of manuscript counting, appears to have been a popular work, and is quoted in one of the sect’s documents, The Damascus Document, but one cannot assume that it was given more weight than the book of Isaiah which was also represented by several copies.
THE SCROLL OF THANKSGIVING HYMNS FROM QUMRAN. Among the writings recovered from Qumran was a collection of hymns of thanksgiving, apparently composed by members of the sect. The hymns are not unlike the psalms of thanksgiving in the Bible. The scrolls were composed of parchment leather and were wrapped in linen. Decomposition was due to natural aging brought on by time and some moisture, and in some cases increased by rodents nibbling the edges of the manuscripts.
THE JEWISH CANON
The earliest reference to the Jewish canon is in Josephus’ defense of the Jewish faith, Contra Apion 1:8, in which he states that the Jews have only twenty-two "divine" books. He explains that "of these, five belong to Moses," and that to encompass the period between Moses and Artaxerxes "the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their time in thirteen books," and "the remaining four books contain hymns to God." The thirteen "prophetic books" include Joshua, Judges, I-II Samuel (one book), I-II Kings (one book), I-II Chronicles (one book), Ezra-Nehemiah (one book), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (one book), Job, Daniel and Esther. Ruth was probably combined with Judges, and Lamentations with Jeremiah. The "hymns" incorporated Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Josephus’ listing represents what came to be the Jewish canon, although scholars were wrestling with problems of the authority of certain writings at the very time he was writing.
OPENING A SCROLL. Some scrolls were opened with relative ease; others demanded meticulous care and a maximum of patience. Here Prof. H. Bieberkrant works on one of the more difficult scrolls.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a colony of Jewish scholars led by Johanan ben Zakkai gathered at Jabneh or Jamnia, a village located near the Mediterranean about thirty miles west of Jerusalem, and by A.D. 90 were in deep discussion about the canon. Ben Zakkai had escaped from Jerusalem during the siege-according to one tradition, in a coffin-and was permitted by Vespasian, who was then a general, to establish a school at Jamnia. Ben Zakkai was a Pharisee, a well-known product of the famous school of Hillel.6 Sacrifice had ceased with the destruction of the temple. It was clear that the future of Judaism would have to be anchored in the Scriptures. If the Scriptures were to be the norm for faith, it was imperative that the authoritative writings be separated from all others. Jews of the Dispersion had taken a somewhat freer attitude toward sacred writings than the Jews of Palestine. Moreover, the Christian sect, which was fast developing into a religion apart from Judaism, employed Jewish writings, including some of questionable authority, to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Because it was commonly believed that inspiration had ceased in Ezra’s time, there was really little point in keeping the canon open, and there was danger that some Jews, not so well informed, might continue to use questionable material or begin to use Christian writings in matters of the faith. Finally, there was a growing desire to determine the official text and to keep that text free of scribal errors, and without an official canon this was almost impossible to accomplish.
There were no problems concerning the Law. Among the prophetic writings, only Ezekiel came under serious discussion. Certain conflicts with the Torah, which was considered to be the supreme and final source of revelation, had to be resolved (cf. Ezek. 46:6; Num. 28:11) It is said that Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Garon, a follower of Shammai, labored day and night, burning 300 barrels of oil, to harmonize the discrepancies.7 Esther was accepted after much debate because of its association with Purim, and because it was said to have been revealed to Moses.8 The greatest controversies were concerned with Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes was judged by the followers of Shammai to be a product of Solomon’s own wise speculation, but members of the Hillel school judged it a divinely inspired document. The final decision, that the book was a product of the Holy Spirit, was debated for centuries. The Song of Songs, after much discussion, was finally admitted to the canon as an allegory of God’s love for Israel. Perhaps Rabbi Akiba, the famous scholar of the second century A.D., put the quietus to the argument with his emphatic declaration, "All the Scriptures are holy; but the Song of Songs is holiest of all."9
The principles guiding the rabbis in the selection of sacred books have not come down to us in any clear-cut delineation but appear to have included the following:
- The writing had to be composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, which were written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2-7, writings attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-Exilic Judaism, and Jer. 10:11. Hebrew was the language of Sacred Scripture, Aramaic the language of common speech.
- The writing had to be sanctioned by usage in the Jewish community. The use of Esther at Purim made it possible for it to be included in the canon. Judith, without such support, was not acceptable.
- The writings had to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as election, or the covenant. By reclassifying the Song of Songs as an allegory, it was possible to see in this book an expression of covenantal love.
- The writing had to be composed before the time of Ezra, for it was popularly believed that inspiration had ceased then. Jonah was accepted because it used the name of an early prophet and dealt with events before the destruction of Nineveh, which occurred in 612. Daniel, a pseudonymous writing, had its setting in the Exile and therefore was accepted as an Exilic document.
The canon produced by the Jamnia Council is usually dated in A.D. 90, but in reality represents the results of discussions taking place over many years. The canon was not closed easily. Debates over controversial books continued, and some writings, such as that by Ben Sira, continued to be pushed toward canonization. Ultimately the canonical norm was fixed in accordance with the decisions of Jamnia to include Torah, Nebhiim and Kethubhim. The three-fold division reflects the order of priority. Within the last two divisions, there was some fluctuation in arrangement of books. The poetic books-Psalms, Proverbs and Job-were grouped and placed first in the Kethubhim, perhaps because of the religious significance of the Psalter. Next, the five festal scrolls (Megilloth) used in Jewish festivals were brought together in the order in which they now appear in the Tanak: The Song of Songs, which was recited at Passover; Ruth, which was used in the Festival of Weeks; Lamentations, which was associated with the commemoration of the fall of Jerusalem; Ecclesiastes, which was associated with the feast of Tabernacles and Esther, which was read at Purim. Daniel, treated as a prophetic work, followed Esther, and finally came the historical works-Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.
THE CHRISTIAN CANON
Missionaries of the early Christian movement used the LXX in their appeal to the Greek-speaking world and did not hesitate to draw upon documents later classified as uncanonical by Jewish savants. The canonization issue had not become a particularly serious matter when the New Testament literature was being produced, and there are numerous references to sources excluded from the Jewish Bible. For example, Jude 14-16 quotes Enoch 1:9, and Hebrews 11:35 f. refers to II Macc. 6-7.10 Even after the Jamnia decisions, Christians continued to use the LXX, for there was no theory about the cessation of inspiration among Hellenistic Jews or Christians.
Not all Christians approved of the use of Jewish scriptures. In Rome, Marcion, a Christian from Sinope, a city on the south shore of the Black Sea, rejected the Jewish Bible and pressed for the acceptance of what was to become part of the New Testament as the Christian canon. In A.D. 140, he was expelled from the Christian community in Rome and formed a church of his own. For 100 years his followers were to challenge the tenets of other Christian groups.11 Apart from Marcion, no other Christians appear to have raised serious questions concerning the use of the LXX. For most Christians, the Jewish Bible was "Holy Scripture" and was to be understood and interpreted in the light of Christian convictions.12 Some uneasiness about the authority of the Apocrypha was expressed by Jerome (ca. A.D. 340-420), whose translation of the Old Testament into Latin rested on the Hebrew text. Jerome was in general agreement with the Jewish position and separated the extra books found in the LXX, which he admitted could be edifying, from the Jewish canon. Jerome’s views did not prevail, and in A.D. 393 at the Synod of Hippo, the LXX was canonized, largely because of the influence of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (ca. 354-430). Later in 397, the Synod of Carthage confirmed the action taken at Hippo, and once again, Augustine exerted significant influence.
Despite formal actions by the Synods, there were those who were uneasy about the canonization of books not found in the Hebrew canon, and up to the time of the Protestant-Catholic schism, there were scholars who made sharp distinctions between canonical and apocryphal writings.13 With the development of the Protestant Church and the tendency of the reformers to base translations of scriptures on original tongues rather than upon the Latin version, statements were included in the Protestant Bibles indicating that the Apocrypha was not to be placed on the same level as the other documents. Luther’s translation (1534) included the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments with this title:
"Apocrypha, that is, books which are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures, but nevertheless are useful and good to read."
A year later Coverdale’s Bible was published with the Apocrypha placed between the two Testaments under this statement:
"Apocrypha, the books and treatises which among the fathers of old are not to be reckoned of like authority with other books of the Bible neither are they found in the canon of the Hebrew."
There were doctrinal reasons back of the Protestant refusal to accept the Apocrypha, for it was here that the Roman Catholic Church found Scriptural authority for the doctrine of Purgatory and for prayers and Masses for the dead (II Macc. 12:43-45) and for the efficacy of good works (Tobit 12:9; Ecclesiasticus 8:33).
At the Council held in Trent (Tridentum), Italy (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church officially accepted the Jewish canon and the Apocrypha, except for I and II Esdras (III and IV Esdras in Catholic Bibles) and the Prayer of Manasseh,14 as the official Old Testament (See Chart I in Chapter 1). In response, various Protestant groups took formal action, either encouraging the reading of the Apocrypha for edification but not for doctrine, as in the Church of England,15 or placing the Apocrypha completely outside of the Canon as in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) which stated:
"The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration are no part of the Canon of Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings."
The Eastern Orthodox Church took separate action. From the earliest times, the Eastern Church, which used the LXX, was undecided about the Apocrypha:16 some Greek Fathers quoted from these books; others preferred to follow solely the books accepted by the Jews. The matter of the Apocrypha was raised in the Trullan Council at Constantinople in 692, but no binding conclusions were reached. Again in 1612, at the Council held in Jerusalem, the issue of the canon was considered and I Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men and I, II and III Maccabees17 were accorded canonical status. However, because the Jerusalem Council was a "Regional Council" and neither Ecumenical nor pan-Orthodox, its decrees were not obligatory unless accepted by all Orthodox Churches. Although there has been no official acceptance of the canon outlined at Jerusalem, all editions of the Bible published by the Orthodox Churches include the books selected in 1672.
In 1870, the Council of the Vatican reiterated the concepts set forth at Trent concerning the canon. Since this time, there have been no official statements issued concerning the canon either by Jews, Catholics or Protestants. It must be noted that in recent years there has been closer cooperation in biblical studies among the three faiths.
- Cf. Meek, Hebrew Origins, pp. 55 f.
- For a summary of different interpretations, cf. R. A. Bowman, The Interpreter’s Bible, III, 733 f.
- Cf. Isa. 7-8; Amos 3:9 ff.; 4:1-3; 9:1; Hos. 8:11-13; 10:7-10; Micah 1:6-8; 3:1-4.
- Particularly warnings concerning the fall of Judah, cf. Amos 6:1 and possibly 2:4-5; Hos. 5:5, 10; 6:4; 8:14; Micah 1:10-16; 3:12; Isa. 5:5; 6:11-13.
- Josephus, Antiquities, 11:8:4.
- Hillel, a Babylonian Jew, had migrated to Palestine to study the Torah under famous expositors. He established a school and became known as an advocate of the oral law with decidedly Pharisaic leanings. He is usually dated between 60 B.C. and A.D. 20. His famous rival was Shammai, a native Judaean and a Pharisee, but one who favored a more stringent, legalistic bent. Like Hillel, Shammai headed a school in Jerusalem. From these scholars came a long line of teacher-scholars known as the Tannaim (from the Aramaic tanna, "to teach").
- H. G. May, "Ezekiel," The Interpreter’s Bible, VI, 41.
- Moore, Judaism, I, 245.
- Moore, Judaism, III, n. 9, P. 65 f.
- Other material excluded from the Jewish canon may be found in James 1:19 (cf. Ecclesiasticus 5:11) and Heb. 11:37 (cf. The Martyrdom of Isaiah). The sources of John 7:38; Luke 11:49; and James 4:5 are not known. Cf. B. Metzger, Introduction to the Apocrypha, pp. 151 ff.
- For a brief discussion of Marcion, cf. W. A. Gifford, The Story of the Faith (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946), pp. 162 ff.; A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), pp. 58 ff.
- Cf. Robert M. Grant, The Bible in the Church (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), pp. 43 ff.
- Cf. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, pp. 178 ff.
- Manasseh and I and II Esdras were printed in an appendix.
- Cf. "The Thirty-nine Articles," Article 6. These are often printed in Episcopal hymnals, and The Book of Common Prayer.
- The Eastern Orthodox Churches reserve the term "Apocrypha" for books usually called "Pseudepigrapha" by Protestants and Jews, and use instead the word "Anaginoskomena" to signify books "suitable for reading in public or private."
- III Maccabees is a second century B.C. work by a Hellenistic Jew telling of Ptolemy IV Philopater’s attempt to enter the temple. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, p. 194, lists IV Maccabees, which appears to be a first century A.D. work designed to encourage faith written by a Hellenistic Jew well versed in Platonic philosophy. The decree of the Council of Jerusalem mentions only "the three Maccabean books," and the Orthodox Church lists TV Maccabees as an "apocryphon."
Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
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