My most memorable old paper. It was memorable mailing for receiving over two pages of angry handwritten criticisms when I received the draft back.
In recent scholarship there has been a hot debate over dating the completion of the Jewish canon. Scholars have dated the Jewish canon’s completion anywhere in the range from of second century B.C., at the earliest, to the third century A.D, at the latest. This paper will argue for a completion date of the canon by the end of the first century B.C. This paper will limit itself to looking at several of the key arguments in support of this conclusion. The paper wishes to outline the basic reasonableness of holding to a pre-A.D. canon.
Due to the massive scope of the argument this paper will limit itself to four key arguments in favor of a pre-A.D. completion of the canon. The paper will consist of two main sections. The first section will give arguments for why the books now understood to be part of the Hebrew canon were understood to be part of the Hebrew canon by the end of the first century B.C. This section will use two main arguments. The first argument is based on Meredith Kline’s understanding of scripture as covenant. The second argument will be based on the Jewish concept that scriptural books make the hands impure. This section will not address that thesis’s assumption that apocryphal books were excluded from the canon by the end of the first century B.C.
The second section will continue the argument started in the first section and it will add evidence pointing toward the thesis that other books, such as the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, were no seriously being considered for entrance into the canon at the time period in question. This section will rely on the testimony of Josephus and also upon the evidence based upon the New Testament. Before this paper addresses these arguments it will begin with a short introduction to define what a canon is and what the three categories of Hebrew scripture are before moving on to the its arguments.
The word canon literal means “straight rod” or “bar.” The concept of canon implies a group of books that are a standard for worship. As Harris notes the Catholic and Protestant churches have always believed that the bible’s authority comes from its inspiration. (80) This view of inspiration causing scriptures recognition into the canon was also held by the Jews. The Jews frequently used the introductory words, “as it was written” to introduce the scriptures. These words denoted that the scriptures held decisive authority in the subjects they referred to. (Beckwith 70) It is important to distinguish that books became part of the canon because they were believed to be inspired. It appears many scholars assume that the Jews began to believe their scripture was inspired because their scripture become part of the canon. This is obviously not the thought pattern of the Jews at the time. Obviously they would have believed their scripture to inspired and then made it part of their canon.
The Jews considered their scriptures to fall into there categories. These categories were the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law consisted of the five books of the Pentateuch. What fell into the Prophets and Writings is far less clear. This distinction is still useful because the ancient Jews often referred to these three sets of books. What exactly fell into these three sections is beyond the scope of this paper and will not be crucial to its arguments. This three part distinction is useful because the Law, the Prophets and the Writings encompass all of the scriptures and covering Jewish statements about each set individually means covering statements about the integrity of the Jewish scriptures.
The Hebrew division of the bible into the Law, the prophets, and the writings in and of itself almost denotes the concept the idea that they are part of the canon. The Law was God’s word to Moses and the Prophets were God’s messengers to his people. The names law and prophets in of themselves nearly denote their place in the canon. One of the names for the writings in Hebrew is hagiographa which means sacred writings. That the three categories names nearly imply that their contents are part of the canon. These names for canon are far more ancient than the dates when scholars claim the canon came to exist in.
Meredith Kline argues for the thesis that all of the Hebrew Scriptures come in the form of a covenant between God and Israel. (35) The Pentateuch undisputedly is written in the form of a covenant in which God as sovereign makes know his will to Israel. Curses are found though ancient covenants and make them binding documents. Kline notes that these very curses are found all thought the Pentateuch and all the way thought the book of Revelation. Curses are what made ancient world covenants binding. Thus from the moment the Pentateuch was given it must have been viewed as part of the canon. (36)
Kline’s claim seems radical, but there is good evidence to support it. In the Pentateuch and rest of the Hebrew Scriptures we see Israelites cultic traditions absorbed many of the responsibilities typically assigned to the government. Typically secular institutions such as governance, legal disputes, and military were swallowed up into the cultic sphere. (49) This points toward a serious belief of the ancient Hebrews that the Pentateuch was a covenant and that their suzerain was God. Thought the bible failure to follow Pentateuch and Prophetic books failure to follow the law was an offence primarily against Yahweh. This points the Hebrew belief that the law was a covenant with Yahweh and as a covenant that it was authoritative from the moment it was given. Later in the paper I will show Josephus and the New Testament witnesses will paint a similar picture of scriptures authority from its creation.
Kline notes that the prophets, writings, and psalms all fit under this covenant scheme and thus they all are authoritative from their moment of creation. The office of prophet was a ordained position by the Pentateuch. (59) Thus the prophetic writings are an extension of the Mosaic covenant and must have entered the canon shortly after completion. The writings were interspersed with the law showing that they to were part of the covenant. (Kline 49) Kline notes that, “The central thesis of the wisdom books is that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, which is to say that the way of wisdom is the way of the covenant.” (63) Kline notes that psalms were like the Amen of the covenant in that they were sung in the temple which was the sphere of the covenant. (63)
As covenant all the writings have their origin in God. In covenants the suzerain draws the terms. Leiman notes that the Rabbis considered all inspired literature to be part of the canon. (111) It is well documented that the books of the Law, the prophets, and the writings all defile the hands. Leiman notes that this is due to their inspiration from God. And that they are part of the canon because of that inspiration. (114). According to Cohen the Jewish idea of a book that renders the hands impure is the same as the later Greek notion of a book that is part of the canon. (175) The rabbis, however, appear not to consider Ecclesiastes to have defiled the hands, however, they did consider it part of the canon. The book of Ester seems to have been in a similar category. (Leiman 112)
There appears to be no scholarly consensus on when all the books that defile or do not defile the hands came into place, but Leiman notes that the Rabbi’s never question that sacred books defile the hands. (118) This indicates that the decree that sacred books defile the hands must therefore have been far more ancient than the earliest Talmudic discussion that happened in first half of the first century of the AD. This means the discussion and conclusions of the sacredness of the ancient books was quite and old one. Leiman notes that there is no evidence in the Talmudic literature that the Rabbi’s attempted to add a book to the biblical canon. (120) This points toward a very ancient canon.
Josephus wrote that the Israelites had only twenty-two sacred books. Scholars note that the number twenty-two probably comes from the fact that Josephus combined several of the books and this explains why he cites only twenty-two books instead of the Hebrew Scriptures twenty-four. Josephus claims that these books were considered part of the canon from the time of their birth. Note that this is exactly the same thesis Kline was arguing for with his arguments based on covenant. Josephus goes on to say that there was no addition to the canon in recent time periods.
Josephus opinion is weight, in that, as Ryle notes, “We must remember that Josephus writes as the spokesman of his people…. He does not merely express a personal opinion; he claims to represent his countryman.” (Green 39) Josephus was not only writing as a representative of his people he was also writing to a well informed and hostile historian. These facts make Josephus writing significantly more plausible because it would have been not hard to disprove Josephus if he had not been writing the common view of his people at the time. Josephus points in his writings toward a three part division in scriptures. This indicates that the three parts we have been discussing as sacred are the three parts Josephus calls canon.
A common objection to this is that Josephus sees prophetic power in John Hyrcanus who was high priest in B.C. 135. Green’s reply to this objection is that Josephus clearly view John Hyrcanus as not being equal to scripture and that he views Hyrcanus on a much lower plane of authority than scripture. (40) Green notes Welte who claims, “that raising opinion in the time was that with Malachi the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.” This departing was a departing in which the Holy Spirit closed the revelation of the canon explaining its closure in the time of Malachi. (Green 40) The point of this is that the Jews of the time did not expect new revelation that was on par with the old revelation they had been given.
Moses Stuart points out that there was significant rivalry between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essences and that these three groups disagreed on practically every issue. (Beckwith 86) Beckwith points out that since there is no record of disagreement between these three groups on the contents of the canon we can assume that the canon was well established before the first century A.D. (Beckwith 86) Further evidence of a unified canon is that the Essences made no protest when the Pharisees condemned of the Essences beloved Apocalypses as being non-scriptural. (Beckwith 86) If there was on going debate over the canon one would expect a record of it especially on an issue like this. There is, however, to be no record of intense debate on the issue of scripture between these groups, who could agree on so little.
A common objection to Beckwith is that the Sadducees rejected all law accept the Pentateuch. However, scholars commonly note that the Sadducees also rejected angles which are quite common in the Pentateuch. The Sadducees rejection of the angles is probably a rejection of the new wave of angles of the time. If the Sadducees had truly rejected angles they would also have had to reject the Pentateuch. Similarly, the Sadducees rejection of law other than the law of Moses probably refers to their rejection of the widely increasing oral traditions of the Pharisees, rather than their rejection of the prophets and writings.
In fact the Sadducees must have accepted books other than the Pentateuch as part of the canon. The majority of the priests after John Hyrcanus were Sadducees. The temple during the period was under their control and clearly had scriptures other than the Pentateuch that were being used in worship. It seems difficult to rectify the Sadducees control of the temple and books not part of the canon being used in worship there. (Beckwith 90) The Sadducees are also recorded in the New Testament as resenting Jesus calling himself the son of David. It seems difficult to find a good explanation for this resentment if the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch. (Beckwith 89)
The New Testament also offers much testimony pointing toward a completed canon. The New Testament is a valid representative of what the Hebrew Scriptures consisted of before the first century A.D. because Christianity arises out of the Jewish worldview and adopted on the Jewish scriptures. The New Testament also records the debates between the early Christians and the Jews. A striking feature of this heated debate is that there is no mention of resentment of each group for the books it considers authoritative. This points toward a canon that was widely know and attested to at the time.
An objection to the New Testament witness is that the early Church adopted the Apocrypha and that the closure of the Jewish canon was a reaction to this. However, Green notes that the New Testament writers quote freely from the Old Testament, but never quote from the Apocrypha. He notes that all the New Testament similarities with the Apocrypha are either very vague and nothing like citations or they are also held in common with the Old Testament. (145) The Apocrypha, also, clearly does not have the status of the other books in the early church’s canon. There are numerous disputes in the early church over the books of the Apocrypha. The protestant rejection of the Apocrypha follows in the line of Jerome and his followers on the issue.
Because Christianity arose out of Judaism the Apostles would be assumed to be accepting the Jewish scriptures unless they made comments to the contrary. (Green 145) In fact Christ and the apostles never make any claim that charges the Jews with corrupting the scriptures or of excluding any of the scriptures. (Green 141) The Christ and the apostles do not hint that the Jewish choice of scriptures was lacking in any way. (Beckwith 91-92)
Christ and the Apostles used the scriptures to debate with the Jews on points of contention. The gospel of Acts points to many debates between Christians and Jews where both sides shared and used the same scriptural texts to support their positions. (Beckwith 92) The apostles in fact accused the Pharisees of making void the word of God with their traditions. The position of Christ and the Apostles was, thus, one that affirmed the scriptures as being the final authority in all debates. This dialogue between the early church and the Jewish leaders should point toward a largely unified picture of the canon. One would expect there to be much record of dispute if Christ and the Apostles affirmed a different canon than the Jews.
The New Testament directly quotes from all the Old Testament books except Ezra, Nehemiah, Ester, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. The lack of quoting from these books is probably due to the fact they were not needed to prove the New Testament’s points rather than a disagreement in the canon. (Green 143) Leiman notes that the New Testament frequently bears witness to the Torah and Prophets as separate units in the canon. Leiman notes that the canonicity of the writings is assumed by the New Testament. (40)
Scholars frequently sight Jesus’ words in Luke 24:44, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” as pointing to the complete collection of Jewish scriptures. They point toward the psalms as the completion of the Jewish scriptures and thus by the psalms Jesus is referring to the totality of the Jewish canon. Psalms is also the most quoted book of the New Testament so it seems likely that the writings were held as part of the canon by the Apostles.
The evidence presented here is a brief argument for the case for a canon set before the first century A.D. Other evidence such as the Apocryphal books could also be brought into the argument. This paper has avoided a discussion on the dating of the writing of the Jewish scriptures. Recent scholarship has tended to push the dates of authorship very close to the first century A.D. There are reasons in support of this, but this is not necessarily a correct. Until the enlightenment the date of the books authorship was considered far more ancient. This paper assumes that the canon is, likely like the church had a consensus on until the enlightenment, a more ancient canon. That discussion of course is far beyond the scope of this paper.
In conclusion if one assumes that the writings of the books are more ancient than recent scholarship argues than there are many good reasons to affirm a set pre-A.D. canon. This paper has outlined four main arguments for this thesis. There is also ample evidence from the Apocrypha on the issue. This paper avoids that evidence because scholars have had much more widely ranging debates and more disunity on that subject than other issues. In summery this paper assumes that the canons completion sometime before the first century A.D. is a reasonable stance and falls better in line with the New Testament and Jewish testimony.