The Canon(s) of the Jewish Scriptures

Edmon L. Gallagher on Timothy H. Lim’s The Formation of the Jewish Canon

formation of the jewish canon, canon debate
Timothy H. Lim, The Formation of the Jewish Canon, Yale University Press, 2013, 304pp., $45

We don’t know where the Bible came from. It took shape over a period of centuries, and rarely can we do more than take educated guesses about the context in which the individual books achieved their final form or entered a collection of scripture. These problems make study of the Bible’s origins so engrossing. Today, it’s also big business: promises to reveal “lost scriptures” or to unveil the motives of the Bible’s authors are ubiquitous.

Questions about the biblical canon — which books are in the Bible and how they got there — lead endlessly down paths our sources only poorly illuminate. The questions remain subject to controversy. Even now in the 21st century, different Christian groups have different canons, whether Protestants with their 66-book Bible, Roman Catholics with their 73-book Bible, Orthodox Christians with their 75-book Bible, or the Ethiopians with their two different canons, one broader than the other. Jews, on the other hand, seem to have achieved a remarkable consensus around their 24-book Bible. Understanding how they did this is another matter entirely.

There is some evidence for the development of the Jewish canon, but not nearly enough, and trying to interpret the evidence poses notorious difficulties. Hebrew Bible manuscripts reflect the traditional Jewish canon, but they are all very late (tenth to sixteenth centuries CE). Manuscripts of the complete Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, are earlier by several hundred years, but all of these are Christian, not Jewish; regardless, one cannot assume that the contents of a manuscript will correspond precisely with what ancient communities considered the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls are earlier still (third century BCE through the first century CE), and they preserve almost all the books of the Hebrew Bible but also a great variety of other compositions. The community at Qumran that used these documents did not tell us which ones formed their Bible.

Ancient statements on authoritative religious literature would seem more promising, but the few statements we have — in the prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach (= Ecclesiasticus), or in Josephus’s polemical work Against Apion, where he limits authoritative Jewish literature to 22 books composed at or before the time of the Persian king Artaxerxes, or the rabbinic disputes about certain books such as Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes — present their own problems of interpretation. Scholars disagree in nearly every conceivable way.

These disagreements are legitimate, allowed by the lack of evidence. The two most prominent groups of scholars divide over what aspect of canon formation should be emphasized. Some stress that already in the second century BCE the major formative stages had transpired and the authoritative scriptures were more-or-less agreed upon, with some books — including Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther, and a few others — still in uncertain territory on the fringe. Others stress that a canon with uncertain borders is no canon at all: the process of canon formation continued into the second century CE or later, when those borders closed and the definitive 24-book collection emerged as universally accepted. Viewed this way, the disagreement is really about the semantics of the word “canon,” as John Barton and others have stressed. But on either side of the debate are those who take their theory beyond the evidence and either assert a completely closed canon during or before the second century BCE or downplay any sort of canon until the rabbinic era, if even then.

The major points up for debate revolve around several questions. What was the early status of the various books on the fringe that either did (e.g., Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) or did not (e.g., Jubilees, 1 Enoch, Tobit) end up in the Jewish canon? Did the canon in the pre-rabbinic era have a tripartite or bipartite arrangement? How does the textual pluriformity of several authoritative books — like Psalms, Jeremiah, and Samuel — relate to the issue of canon?

What is not up for debate is that by the turn of the era Jews generally recognized the authority of a significant number of books. Chief among these was the Pentateuch, but also the Former Prophets, the Psalter, and most or all of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets). We could probably include Job and Proverbs as well. It is uncertain whether the other books of the current canon enjoyed the same or similar status at this early date.

Timothy Lim’s new book The Formation of the Jewish Canon does not seek to provide a comprehensive treatment of canon formation but rather attempts to address select questions with some depth. He thus gives little attention to what we can learn of the Jewish Bible from patristic sources, which scholars such as Gilles Dorival have shown to be valuable for this task. Nevertheless, each of the debatable points listed above receives treatment here. Lim concentrates on the pre-rabbinic sources that illuminate (however faintly) the process by which the main contours of the Jewish canon were established during the period from Ezra in the fifth century BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Lim argues that before the rabbinic era different Jewish groups maintained different “collections of authoritative scriptures” (to follow Lim’s avoidance of the term “canon” as anachronistic for this period). Only with the gathering of the Rabbis at Yavneh (Jamnia) following the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE did a particular canon become authoritative for basically all Jews. Lim attributes this result not to a conciliar proclamation, as some scholars of a previous generation had done, but to the majority presence of Pharisees at Yavneh, who, he imagines, maintained this canon in the previous century (or centuries?). Lim calls this canon the “majority canon.” Something like this reconstruction is probably correct. Evidence from the rabbinic period, whether from rabbinic literature or patristic sources, does indicate a Jewish canon more-or-less universally acknowledged, and it is not unreasonable to associate this rabbinic unity on the canon with the Pharisees.

The most helpful chapter deals with the Dead Sea Scrolls, not surprisingly since this field is one of Lim’s primary areas of expertise. He problematizes the concept of authority: while certain books had “scriptural authority” (Torah, Prophets, Psalms), other books or writings had what we might call “derivative authority” (Jubilees, Pesharim). Lim also adds a further category, “literary authority.” This category division brings much-needed nuance to discussions about which documents ancient communities received as scripture and what we can learn about this from their quotations of these documents, or the number of manuscripts they had on hand, or their use of previous texts to create new compositions. We cannot know precisely which scriptures functioned authoritatively at Qumran since the group does not inform us, but the abundance of manuscripts of the Pentateuch as well as of most of the prophetic literature and of the Psalms, along with the re-use of these texts in later citations and commentaries — not to mention the authority granted to these texts in other contemporary Jewish communities — makes it a pretty safe bet that they attributed “scriptural authority” to at least these books. Their reception of Jubilees is less clear, especially given the way Lim has distinguished varying notions of authority. Lim’s is probably the best available discussion of authoritative writings at Qumran.

Other parts of the book are less insightful. I did not find particularly helpful his chapters on the early canonical lists, or Ezra and Nehemiah, or the Letter of Aristeas, either because they merely summarize previous scholarship (though, admittedly, this is one of the aims of the series in which this volume appears) or because Lim couches his conclusions in endless qualifications. Sometimes he ventures too far from the topic of canon: his treatment of Paul’s use of the Septuagint helpfully analyzes the textual form of Paul’s scriptural quotations and their possible implications for Paul’s interaction with the textual plurality of scripture in the first century, but it did not inform me much about the books Paul considered authoritative.

One of the most tiring features of the book is Lim’s insistence on burying his discussions of the crucial evidence within lengthy investigations of peripheral details. Take his analysis of 2 Maccabees 2:13–15. This text has featured prominently in some recent discussions of the Jewish canon, as it narrates Judas Maccabeus’s collection of books following his war against the Seleucids. Lim cogently argues that the passage tells us very little about the Bible; we do not know which books Judas collected, and the passage says nothing about their sacred character or about Judas canonizing them. But before getting to these brief and sober reflections, we must first wade through several pages discussing the redaction of 2 Maccabees. That would not be so onerous if it were made clear how such a discussion informs our interpretation of the relevant passage. Likewise, the date of the Letter of Aristeas is a significant issue for Septuagint studies, but it is unclear how Lim’s seven-page discussion contributes to his argument about the formation of the canon.

Lim’s basic thesis is that at the end of the first century CE a diversity of canons (or, rather, “collections of authoritative scriptures”) gave way to the standard 22- or 24-book canon of the Pharisees when the Pharisees became the majority group. But Lim is unwilling to say that the canon was closed before the third century, and even then he will say only that it was “a de facto canon” because the Rabbis continued to debate certain books.

Lim also carefully avoids explicitly attributing canonical status to the earlier collections of authoritative scriptures, but this doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in his narrative. Consider this statement from his final chapter: “Philo’s retelling of this story [of the Greek translation of the Pentateuch] shows that his own authoritative scripture was the Greek Pentateuch, whereas Josephus considered the Septuagint a translation. His own canon, however, was the twenty-two book canon.” Does this statement not imply that Philo’s “own canon” was not “the twenty-two book canon” but rather merely the Greek Pentateuch? Of course, Lim will not say that Philo has a canon since he considers the term anachronistic for Philo; instead, Philo has “authoritative scripture.” Still, Lim restricts Philo’s authoritative scripture to the Greek Pentateuch and contrasts this with Josephus’s 22-book canon. Whether the term canon is used or not, it sure does sound like Philo’s got one.

Or, consider this from the next paragraph: “Also in the second century [BCE], the Prologue and Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira presupposed a much larger collection of authoritative scriptures. This collection included all the books of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of four biblical books: Ruth, the Song of Songs, Esther, and Daniel.” If Ben Sira’s “collection of authoritative scriptures” excluded these four books — and if Lim is in a position to assure us of the fact — it comes awfully close to being a canon, whether closed or not. It is not clear to me how these “collections of authoritative literature” that Lim attributes to Philo and Ben Sira were unlike the rabbinic “de facto canon” of the second century CE.

Given the near identity of these “collections” with the concept (if not the term) of canon, Lim’s hypothesis becomes more difficult to sustain. After surveying the evidence provided in his book, Lim concludes: “The theory of the majority canon, therefore, is amply supported. Before the emergence of this Pharisaic canon at the end of the first century CE, there was a diversity of collections of authoritative scriptures.”

But what evidence is there that diversity preceded this later canonical unity? For Lim, our lack of data has great implications: absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence. Since the Jewish community in Alexandria (Philo, the Letter of Aristeas) emphasized the Greek Pentateuch to the almost complete exclusion of other books, we should infer that they limited their authoritative scriptures to the Greek Pentateuch. Since Ben Sira includes references to nearly all the books in the Hebrew Bible (as it was later defined) in the “Praise of the Fathers” (Sirach 44–49), this author must have had a bigger collection than Philo. But Lim immediately adds that positing different conceptions of authoritative scriptures for Ben Sira and Philo is only “one possible explanation.” It is, however, the only explanation he considers.

We next hear about “a third conception” of authoritative scriptures in 2 Maccabees. Nehemiah founded a library as a parallel to Judas’s collection of the books damaged during the Maccabean War, as mentioned earlier. Nehemiah, we are told, collected “the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings” (2 Macc. 2:13). According to Lim, “It is not certain that this is about a collection of authoritative scriptures, as is sometimes supposed, rather than a description of the holdings of the library. In any case, the collection of books is unusual and is otherwise unattested, and there is doubt about the notice’s authenticity.” If this notice is not about a collection of authoritative scriptures, then how can it serve as a “third conception” of authoritative scriptures, as Lim introduces it? And how can it serve as evidence for a variety of collections of scripture before the unity achieved at the end of the first century?

Lim brings nuance to the conception of authoritative literature within his discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where he also refuses to exaggerate the evidence. But he does not carry the same caution and insistence on careful distinctions with him through the rest of the book. While Lim’s conclusion is, as he says, “one possible explanation” for the data at our disposal, the unhappy fact is that we possess far too little evidence to make any sort of confident claims about what ancient Jews received as scripture before the rabbinic period. We can, happily, take some pretty good guesses at which books some considered authoritative (e.g., Torah, Prophets, Psalms). Was there a diversity of collections prior to the late-first-century unity? There might have been. I wish we knew more.