Where did our Bible come from? Part 5: Settling on the Old Testament Canon

This is part 5 of a series on the history of the biblical canon. Feel free to read parts 1, 2, 3, or 4 first.

Last time, I essentially argued that the canon of the Old Testament was not really established, as it used to be supposed, by the Jewish council of Jamnia. Instead, I suggested that Jamnia merely noted the collection of texts that had already begun to function authoritatively, or as the early phase of the biblical canon. I also noted that in order to talk about canon, we should probably talk about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in terms of the division the Jewish people gave to it: Torah (Law), Nabi’im (Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings).

When did it all become canonized

Unfortunately, because much of this history stretches back over a few thousand years, we can’t definitively state exactly when each part became part of the canon. It seems pretty clear that by the time of Josephus and the council of Jamnia there was a (more or less) assumed canon. After the rejection of the Jamnia theory, another possible suggestion was that each section (Law, Prophets, and Writings) became considered canonical independently. While this is probably the case, the first modern formulation of this theory gives a fairly late date to each process: it argues that the Law was canonical around 400BC, the Prophets around 200BC, and the Writings around 100BC. The problem is, all of those dates seem far too late. We have very good reason, actually, for suggesting a much earlier date than this.

First, it should be noted that as far as Christians are concerned, the primary criterion for Canonicity should be related (in some way) to Jesus Christ. It is certainly the case that Jesus himself refers to the “law and the prophets” numerous times throughout the gospel. While this may seem to leave the “writings” in an uncertain place, in Luke 24:44 Jesus does explicitly refer to the “law, prophets, and psalms” the latter of which we could take to mean the “writings” (since the formal approval of it as a category with that exact name might not have been until later). Therefore, while the formal council recognition of it as a category may not have occurred until later, all three categories at leastfunctioned as part of the canon, which is really what makes it a canon anyway.

For additional evidence, it should also be noted that while Jesus does not explicitly refer to the category by name, he nevertheless quotes from it throughout the gospels. This is true even of  the (what many consider very late) book of Daniel since he regularly refers to himself as the “son of man,” which is the preferred term for the universal ruler in the latter half of Daniel. So whatever else may be said about the Protestant Hebrew Bible, it at least seemed to function as authoritative in Jesus’ estimation, which should be adequate. Nevertheless, let’s look at this a bit more.

It does seem pretty clear that the law was considered canonical from a very early period of time. At the absolute latest, one would have to acknowledge that by the time of Josiah, it had already begun to function as canonical. But there is reason to think that it functioned as canon before that time. Even during the writing of the Torah, allowances were made for it to be kept in the tabernacle (and later temple) including how it was to be handled (in the ark of the covenant). Throughout virtually all of Israel’s history, there was an understanding that the Law was different from other writings (indeed other law codes). This was not something made by man only, but something that God had directly inspired, seen most clearly by the dictation he gives at Mt Sinai. While God does intervene in the other sections of the Hebrew Bible, though, it is never in as direct a manner as it was in the Law. For this reason, the law is elevated in Judaism above other writings, the same way that the Gospel is (at least implicitly) elevated in the Christian Church. It forms the heart of the community because it is there that we first have an encounter with God that is more direct than at any other point in history. In Judaism it is through the law that the Hebrew and God meet, in Christianity it is through the incarnation of Jesus that God comes and meets all of us (Jew and Gentile). Ultimately, however, beyond the Torah we have no clear date for when the rest of it functioned as canon. Any type of dating (beyond giving an end date) amounts almost entirely to guess work. What we might be able to talk about, though, is the more fundamental question of why it is considered canonical.

Criteria for the Hebrew Canon

While a myriad of possible criteria for canonicity, none of which were ever formally stated, have been suggested, many can be rejected outright. The limitation to Hebrew is inadequate because large sections of Daniel, and various bits of Ezra were written in Aramaic which, although related, is nevertheless an entirely distinct language (it’s related to Hebrew in roughly the same way German is related to English, which is to say it is an etymological relation, not a practical one). It was also suggested that only books thought to be composed prior to the events in Ezra would be considered Canonical. While this is promising, it is not clear that this would be a valid criteria as it is entirely possible that Malachi (and possibly a few others) were written later than Ezra. Really the single criteria suggested from a Scholarly standpoint again has to do with how the text functioned:

Only those texts that were regularly read and used within the Jewish religious community were considered (ultimately) to be canonical. This is why Esther, though it does not explicitly mention God, is nevertheless canonical: it was read during Purim (note: it is readily acknowledged by virtually all Jewish scholars that even though God is not mentioned, he is nevertheless present throughout the book, and this may have been a rhetorical device). Thus, by the time of Jesus, it seems that each of these sections were regularly read, recited, and studied in the Jewish community. However, while that may be the primary scholarly criteria accepted for canonicity, I do not think it should be the only criteria. I’d like to suggest two more criteria for canonicity of the Old Testament (which I think would also apply to the New Testament): historical accuracy, and a response to revelation.

First, historical accuracy. By this I mean to say that the books in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, accurately reflect the history they are attempting to depict. While this has been disputed at various times by a number of scholars, archaeological evidence has nevertheless shown the bible to be remarkably accurate. For instance, for a long time it was assumed that David was nothing more than a mythological king, something like the tales of King Arthur in Anglo-Saxon legends. There may have been a David, so the statement goes, but he could not have been as successful as he is portrayed. That was a popular theory until, however, numerous archaeological findings both in Israel in and in the countries that would have surrounded Israel confirmed that there was, in fact, a highly successful King David who ruled the territory explicitly mentioned in the bible.

All of this seems to make sense, of course, if you read the bible in detail next to the pseudo-history of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Each of these other groups tended to portray their leaders in incredibly glowing terms. Never did their king lose a battle, he always decided to retreat because it wasn’t worth his time. Never did their king commit any egregious errors, but was always a model. Of course they were exhibiting a strong cultural bias. The same cannot be said for the histories recorded in the Old Testament. No one is perfect and everyone, even the model of Kings in David, makes large blunders. The hero of the Old Testament is no culture nor any man, but is God, therefore there was no need to mask the errors their kings committed or the massive failures Israel had at the hands of their enemies (numerous times).

This question of historical accuracy, though, is likely one of the primary reasons why Protestants and (I think) many Jews rejected the later Greek books that are contained in the Apocrypha. Why else would the Jewish people exclude 1 Maccabees, which describes one of Israel’s greatest victories that was celebrated at Hanukkah at least as early as the time of Jesus (if not earlier). However, it is almost universally acknowledged that the history of almost all of the Apocrypha is inaccurate, and that has no place in Christian Scripture.

The second criteria I’d like to add has to do with the reason for writing. Ultimately, I believe that the whole bible was written as a response to the revelation of God in history. While it may function as revelation (by showing us something about God), and is inspired in its composition, it is that it was written following a radical experience of God that makes it part of canon. While the Psalms may not reflect any specific event, they are nevertheless tied to a specific historical event and written as a result of that event. While we continue to experience God today, I think that it is nevertheless in a distinctly different manner than was the case in the Old Testament (more on that in a later post). This, really, is the hallmark of Scripture, and so I’ll reserve some of my comments until later.

To summarize, then, we know that Jesus considered what we know as the Old Testament to be authoritative, and that, coupled with its function in the early Jewish community, its historical accuracy, and the divine impetus that led to its writing are why the Old Testament can be considered Scripture or part of the Canon. Unfortunately many of the specifics beyond this are lost to history, but we have good reason to accept these books as canonical based upon these criteria. Next post: the New Testament.


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