Where did our bible come from? Part 4: Introducing the Old Testament

Ok, now that we’ve determined that we are talking about the bible as it is understood and accepted by the majority of Protestant Christians (for what the excludes and why click here), let’s look at the process of how we actually got to the bible we use today. The major division of the bible, into Old and New Testament, is a helpful dividing two because both sections came about, and were “canonized,” in very different ways. For the sake of historical continuity, let’s talk first about the Old Testament. Now there is an easy answer to where the Old Testament came from, which is both very likely to be wrong and not particularly helpful, and a more complicated answer which, I promise, we will get to next time (sorry)

The Old Theory of the Hebrew Canon

The old theory of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible is that this was decided at the Jewish Council of Jamnia, which was called following the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70. Most scholars date the council as roughly occurring over a period of time roughly between AD 75- 117. The statement produced at Jamnia concerning Scripture likely occurred around AD90. According to the old theory, the council declared that what we now know as the Old Testament would be the Hebrew Bible out of a need to have a defined Scripture to work in the synagogue (which would take a place of prominence after the destruction of the temple), and out of a desire to prevent the still fairly new Christian church from adding their books (what we know as the New Testament) to it.

While it may have some element of truth to it, this theory was eventually challenged in the 19th century, and the more strongly in the 20th century. There are three main reasons to reject this theory:

1) The council of Jamnia did not give an absolute ruling, but a recommendation. Very little that Jamnia produced could be considered binding on other communities

2) The recommendation of the council seems to have been based upon the general feeling of the Jewish community at the time. In other words, what the council recommended had already begun to function as canon.

3) It seems that the process of canonization actually took place more gradually than as a singular event.

(Sidenote: some have tried to point to the group of books that Josephus referred as having canonical authority, but considering the reference in Josephus is even later than Jamnia, this doesn’t seem particularly helpful).

Second, it is not particularly helpful for the Christian Church to understand canonization as the result of a single declarative statement, particularly one that may have, at least in part, have been motivated by a desire to exclude that very Church. For Protestants, if a single council can create a canon, it seems odd that we would reject a Christian council (which suggested the Roman Catholic Canon) in favor of this Jewish council. Further, if it is our contention that the canon of the bible was determined by divine providence (i.e. that it is God who decided which books were in the bible), then it seems unlikely that a human council would do much more than affirm what was already canon, or at the most be the final stone in a long process of canon building. In order to get at the historical development of the Old Testament canon, then, we need to look first at the structure of that canon.

Structure of the Old Testament

The first thing I need to say about this structure is that the Old Testament should not be divided in the way that it usually is among Christians. This division, into to early history, law, later history, psalms and wisdom literature, and prophets (including Daniel), as well as the specific ordering of books is based upon the Septuagint, not the Hebrew understanding of Canon. The Septuagint (sometimes written LXX for 70, the number of days and scribes it supposedly took to translate) is the earliest translation of any major religious text. Following the exile of Judah to Babylon, a number of Jews did not return to ancient Israel. To further complicate matters, soon after the return from exile, Alexander the Great conquered much of what we consider the Ancient Western World and even more Jews spread further throughout this empire. As a result, many of the Jews no longer spoke Hebrew as their primary language, but instead spoke the common language of Greek. In order to accommodate the Jews spread out, the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek. The order of the Hebrew Bible was slightly changed (to the order in English bibles) and a few non-Hebrew books were added (most of which would be the apocrypha), but this was, nonetheless, likely the bible read by Jews, and even early Christians, outside of Israel. However, I would argue that the Jews of the Greek diaspora who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek had to have some reason for translating the books that they did. It will be my contention that the Hebrew canon was largely set prior to this translation effort. Since I’m assuming that the Jewish people were working with some sort of canon prior to their translation, so let’s look at that structure.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three major sections: the Torah (or Law), the Nabi’im (or Prophets), and the Kethubim (or Writings). Together they are collectively referred to as the TaNaKh. The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Nabi’im are divided between the former prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and the latter prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve (what many call the “minor prophets”). All the other books are included in the Kethubim. It is notable that the Kethubim includes Ruth, Esther, Chronicles and Daniel. While this may impact interpretation of one part of the canon in relation to each other, which I won’t take time now to talk about,* [see * at end for brief word about why this division may be in place] I want to primarily discuss how this impacts their function in Ancient Israel.

The question of function, interestingly, seems to be how we come about with a canon of Scripture. Once a text begins to function in an authoritative way, it can be considered part of the canon of Scripture. This is the same whether we are talking about the Old Testament or the New Testament. Although we could leave the answer to the question at that, this fails to answer the more fundamental question of why did the text begin to function as authoritative in the community of God. The question of why is a bit more complicated than what, and by addressing this question that we can begin, finally, to talk about the process of canonization (next time).

Apologies for how long and drawn out this seems to be, but I’m trying to give a very thorough answer. (Honestly when I started this I thought I’d do 4 posts max, guess that was wrong).

Question: Do you like this methodical approach, or would you rather just see me give a quicker answer? Once I finish this little series, are there any other questions you want me to look at?


*How thinking of the Old Testament in the Hebrew categories might affect interpretation: While things like Chronicles, Ruth and Esther seem to fit well with this Old Testament Category of “History” and Daniel seems to fit very well with the “Prophets,” this distinction is based entirely upon the content of these books. The former prophets, together with Chronicles, Ruth and Esther have mostly historical content. Daniel has a content we would consider prophetic. However, the Hebrew categorization seems to work best in light of their function (I’ll be talking about that a lot next time).

While the Torah has its own unique function, it is really the way the prophets function that seems to be the distinguishing factor (because the Kethubim/Writings, while they tend to be mostly poetry and post-exilic writings, nevertheless seems to function like a catch-all category).

The one thing the prophets seem concerned with is the preservation and adherence to covenant, which the Torah first laid out. Thus the former prophets address the gradual fulfillment of that promise (which meets its height in David prior to his fall with Bathsheba), and the latter prophets are concerned with calling Israel back to the terms of the covenant while also addressing how, in light of various external factors, God will preserve Israel. In contrast to that, both Ruth and Esther seem concerned with those groups who are beyond Israel, both their inclusion (Ruth) and Jewish relationships as a result of Exile (Esther). Chronicles, rather than having the focus entirely upon Israel, sets the Israel history in a global context involving other nations. Finally, while the beginning of Daniel is almost indistinguishable from other forms of prophecy (especially the idea of Israel as “unique”), the latter half of Daniel is concerned with events that stretch far beyond the scope of Israel. While Isaiah (and some of the other prophets) address this to a certain extent, in those prophets it is still done from the perspective of Israel. In Daniel, the perspective unique to Israel is subsumed in the idea of a “Global” history. Those are just my thoughts though.

Bonus Question: Could categorizing the bible according to the Hebrew manner change how you read the Old Testament?


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