This Week in Canon: An AJR Forum Sidnie White Crawford responds to the forum.
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading the three articles on the formation of the canon by Timothy Lim, Eva Mroczek and Brennan Breed. While there are clear differences among the three papers, I would first like to highlight one similarity: all three acknowledge in one way or another that our notions of when and how the Jewish canon of scripture came into existence were exploded by the discovery of the Judean Desert manuscripts in the mid-twentieth century. Prior to those discoveries, the scholarly consensus held that the rabbis at Yavneh determined the final form of the Jewish canon in the late first century CE, although most of its contents had long since been determined. Very few if any scholars would hold that position today.
Lim’s article typifies what may be called the “new consensus” around canon formation. He argues that ancient Jews did not use the term “canon,” but they did have a concept of authoritative scripture. This is indicated by the use of terminology such as “the book of Moses” or “the books of the prophets.” However, the idea of a fixed list of books does not appear until the late first century CE in Josephus and 4 Ezra. So one cannot speak of a “canon” of scripture in the Second Temple period.
Nevertheless, one can speak of “authority” for certain books in this period. The best way, according to Lim, to determine a book’s authority is by citation: citing a text with a formulaic introduction imputes some kind of authority to it. Precisely the level of a text’s authority can be difficult to determine, and it may vary from community to community. Lim suggests that textual authority should be placed along a continuum, and he recognizes a distinction between the authority of (what became a biblical) text and an authoritative interpretation of it.
Finally, Lim emphasizes that canon formation is the construct of a community. No book is inherently sacred; that status is granted by community consensus. The obvious result is the existence of different canons for different communities. Lim explains well the evidence from the Second Temple period by recognizing a broader range of authoritative literature in the Second Temple period than the present Jewish canon, and also the importance of communities in canon formation.
Mroczek wishes to explode any notion of canon, even incipient canon, in the Second Temple period. She cautions against what she terms the “problem of teleology”—scholars begin with the Bible as the end result, then reason backwards, thus enshrining a “biblical” way of organizing the evidence. As an example, she notes that since David is associated in the Jewish canon with the Psalms, whenever a body of writing is attributed to David the assumption is made that the Psalms are being referred to (e.g. the reference to “David” in 4QMMT). However, Mroczek points out that David is actually associated with a broader range of material than just the Psalms in Second Temple literature, so the referent in “the writings of David” is unclear. Her caution against assuming we know what a term meant to its original audience, and her argument concerning the vagueness of Second Temple terminology are important to bear in mind in any discussion of canon in the period.
As a second example to illustrate her point, Mroczek turns to the term “Torah.” She states that the first undoubted reference to Torah as meaning our present Pentateuch appears in Philo; thus any reference to Torah prior to Philo could signify a broader idea of law and teaching, not simply the five books of the Pentateuch. Here my response is “Yes, but…” Yes, this point is well taken, and we should not always assume that the term “Torah” when used in Second Temple literature always refers to the Pentateuch. The “but” is based on the fact that we do have indirect evidence from the Judean Desert scrolls that the writings of Moses were already conceived of as a five book corpus, and that the boundaries of that corpus were firmer in the late Second Temple period than she implies. As one example, the Qumran scrolls 4Q364 and 365 give us physical evidence for complete (when whole) Pentateuch scrolls in the first century BCE. So there may have been a more robust concept of what constituted the torat Moshe than what constituted the “writings of David.”
In the third article, Breed also argues against teleologically determined notions of canon, noting that there were (and are) multiple canons for Christians and Jews, and that canon is produced by communities (points made also by Lim). Breed emphasizes the fluid nature of the text itself in this period, a fluidity that argues against any notion of what text was “inside” and what was “outside.” He further notes, in an interesting aside, that even today the texts of the canon(s) are not fully closed; the use of critical notes and apparatuses in modern editions of “the Bible” are examples of an ongoing process of changing a supposedly frozen text. An example that comes to mind that supports his argument is the use of the Scofield Reference Bible by fundamentalist Christian communities in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where the notes and apparatuses are infused with the same authority as the biblical text itself. Breed’s argument here can be related to the distinction Lim draws between the authority of a text and the authority of an interpretation of that text.
From my own work I find myself in broad agreement with Lim; there was no “canon” as we presently understand the term, but there was a notion of what may be termed “authoritative” or, perhaps better, “classical” texts; in fact, by the second century BCE certain books, such as the five books of the Pentateuch, had certainly become considered classical literature belonging to ancient Israel, and the contemporary literature at the time worked with those classical texts in various ways, whether in interpretation, by creating new works, or by their use in worship and prayer. However, at the same time I agree with Breed and Mroczek that the boundaries and the words of those classical texts were fluid and never quite fixed; while there seems to have been a recognizable (to us) book called “Deuteronomy” by the third century BCE (although with differences within a certain acceptable range), there was no one book called “Jeremiah,” or “Daniel,” or “Psalms.” Thus at best Second Temple literature can show us the beginnings of what later became the Jewish canon of scripture, but no more than that. Taken together, these three papers illustrate the fact that discussions concerning canon formation, like the canon itself in the Second Temple period, are not closed.
Sidnie White Crawford, University of Nebraska-Lincoln