This week in Canon: An AJR Forum Timothy Lim discusses his theory of the "majority canon."
The question of how we should talk about the Hebrew Bible can be subdivided into three issues: 1) terminology, 2) the nature of authority, and 3) the formation of the Jewish canon.
First, what term should we use to describe the Hebrew Bible in the Second Temple Period? This question is more complicated than is often realized. Ancient Jews did not use the word "canon" to designate the collection of their authoritative scriptures, but they did have the concept. When Jews used titles such as "the book of Moses," "the books of the prophets" or "the psalms of David," they imply a collection of writings, which is an essential feature of "canon." When the Rabbis proscribed "the outside books," they must have known what were the inside books, but they did not call them ‘"inside books." They called them kitvey ha-qodesh or "holy scriptures." When the Tannaitic rabbis debated whether Qohelet and the Song of Songs were holy writings, they must have known which books "defiled the hands."
Why use the term "canon"? The word canon derives from Greek etymology meaning "a measuring stick, a rule" and by analogy "a list" of writings. A series of Christian councils from antiquity to the sixteenth century and beyond used the term as they deliberated on the books that were included in the Old Testament and Apocrypha. This Christian usage is based on the earliest lists found in the writings of the church fathers, such as Melito, Origen and Jerome.
It is widely agreed, however, that "canon" is nonetheless a suitable term to use for discussing the Jewish Holy Scriptures. When the church fathers referred to the list of Old Testament books, they were appealing to Jewish lists. Origen, for instance, listed "the canonical books as the Hebrews have handed them down." Likewise, Jerome referred to the three ways of counting the books (22, 24 and 27) in relation to the alphabet and peculiarities of the Hebrew language.
An important distinction should be drawn between "canon" and "authoritative scriptures," between the first list and the open collections of writings that have yet to be defined as "holy scriptures." Evidence of the list is found in the first century CE in the writings of Josephus. While Josephus does not name the books contained in this list, he does enumerate them as containing 22 books. About the same time, a Jewish apocalypse called 4Ezra also mentions the books of the public canon as containing 24 books. We do not know how they counted the books or divided them into the three sections; however, it is clear that by the first century there was a Jewish canon. Not everyone agreed with all the books contained in this canon, as Mishnah Yadayim attests, but there was consensus as the canonical list in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Baba Batra) later shows.
Before the first century, it is better to use the designation of "authoritative scriptures." This terminology is a modern creation; no ancient source uses it to describe the sacred writings. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that the terminology is useful to designate the open collections of writings that were accepted and used by a particular Jewish or Christian community.
Second, how can we judge the authoritativeness of a text for ancient Jews? We have no real way of judging the mind of a contemporary, let alone an ancient Jewish writer. We have texts, and we can make inferences about what they say by paying close attention to their words and rhetoric. We can, however, judge the plausibility of the inferences made. For instance, there is a great deal of discussion on the “rewritten bible” or “scripture,” such as Jubilees. Much of this scholarship is about showing how this or that text adopts and adapts an earlier source text for various purposes. The implication is that a text must have been important enough for it to have been transmitted and rewritten. This is one inference, but it is not necessarily the only one. Another inference is that the texts were rewritten because the scribe considered the source text to be defective in some way. The ideas could be better expressed, and the material better organized.
One widely recognized way of inferring the authoritativeness of a text is to pay attention to the way it is cited in a subsequent text. When an author cites a text with an introductory formula, such as "as it says" or "as it is written," he imputes a certain authority to the source text. He is appealing to a text that he and possibly the implied reader considers authoritative. The cited text could support his opinion, or he may be citing it to refute it. Either way, the verbatim citation implies textual authoritativeness.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide unprecedented insight into the authoritativeness of both biblical and non-biblical texts. The sectarian writings are replete with biblical allusions and citations, evidencing the textual authority of books that eventually ended up in the Jewish canon. But they did not confine themselves to these biblical texts. Other writings, such as the book of Jubilees, the book of Enoch, and sectarian rules, also contain authority. The sectarians seem to hold a dual pattern of authority of biblical text and authoritative interpretation. The authority of the biblical and sectarian texts is graded and should be placed along a continuum.
Third, how was the Jewish canon formed? Canon formation is the construct of a community. Despite what some ancient sources state, the Bible did not drop down from heaven. It is the community that decides which books are to be included in the canon. This is most evident in the way that each community today, whether Jewish or Christian, refers to its own collection as "the Bible" rather than "a Bible." Each community recognizes only "the Bible" that it advocates, describing it in a way that does not recognize the existence of rival versions.
In the Second Temple Period, I have suggested that different collections of authoritative scriptures preceded the emergence of the one Jewish canon. Before Yavneh, different Jewish communities held their own understanding of authoritative scriptures. The Alexandrian community, represented by the Letter of Aristeas and the writings of Philo, for instance, regarded the first five books of Moses or the Torah as their holy scriptures. The Israelite Samaritans, likewise, regarded only the Pentateuch as Holy Scriptures. The latter even went so far as to repudiate all the books of the prophets, with the possible exception of Joshua, which elevate the importance of Jerusalem as the cultic site of worship.
By the first century, it is clear that the Pharisees held to the twenty-two or twenty-four book canon, and it was this canon that eventually became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism because the majority of those who founded the Jewish faith after the destruction of Jerusalem were Pharisees. The Jewish canon was not directed from above but developed from the "bottom-up." Ancient Jews did not have a council in the way that the Christian did, and while the Temple in Jerusalem kept some scrolls, it did not do so to prescribe the books of the canon.
I have called this the theory of the majority canon, and it takes seriously the historical circumstances that led to the formation of the Jewish canon of ancient and modern Jews alike.
Timothy Lim. University of Edinburgh