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The Formation of the Jewish Canon

The Formation of the Jewish Canon

by Timothy H. Lim

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The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provides unprecedented insight into the nature of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament before its fixation. Timothy Lim here presents a complete account of the formation of the canon in Ancient Judaism from the emergence of the Torah in the Persian period to the final acceptance of the list of twenty-two/twenty-four books in the


The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provides unprecedented insight into the nature of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament before its fixation. Timothy Lim here presents a complete account of the formation of the canon in Ancient Judaism from the emergence of the Torah in the Persian period to the final acceptance of the list of twenty-two/twenty-four books in the Rabbinic period. Using the Hebrew Bible, the Scrolls, the Apocrypha, the Letter of Aristeas, the writings of Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature as primary evidence he argues that throughout the post-exilic period up to around 100 CE there was not one official “canon” accepted by all Jews; rather, there existed a plurality of collections of scriptures that were authoritative for different communities. Examining the literary sources and historical circumstances that led to the emergence of authoritative scriptures in ancient Judaism, Lim proposes a theory of the majority canon that posits that the Pharisaic canon became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism in the centuries after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

Editorial Reviews

Eugene Ulrich

"Timothy Lim offers a comprehensive exploration, wrestling with the ancient sources and modern scholars, deposing the old “early tripartite” consensus. His argument is intelligent, balanced, and non-polemical."—Eugene Ulrich, University of Notre Dame
Shaye Cohen

“With great learning and great clarity, Timothy Lim studies the origins and significance of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. This book instantly becomes the point of departure for all future discussions of the subject.”—Shaye J.D. Cohen, Harvard University
John Barton

"Timothy Lim has dispassionately examined one of the most intractable problems in biblical studies, with detailed attention to the ancient sources, and the result is a magnificent contribution to an increasingly lively field.  All biblical scholars should read it.”—John Barton, University of Oxford
Lee Martin McDonald

"In this cogently argued book, Timothy Lim’s important and fresh interpretations of all of the pivotal ancient texts are informed by his considerable knowledge of the relevant ancient languages and his advanced awareness of both canonical and non-canonical literature.  An excellent volume!’’—Lee Martin McDonald, Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia
James VanderKam

“Lim has written a disciplined, substantive study of the evidence from ancient texts regarding the development of a Jewish canon and the many modern publications about the topic.  The result is a valuable, up-to-date addition to the literature on this fascinating subject.”—James VanderKam, University of Notre Dame
Judith Lieu

"Lim is a confident guide through the sources and the debates regarding the formation of the Jewish canon. In this essential and readable book, he deftly explores the problems of interpretation and recovery, cogently arguing for a persuasive yet nuanced position of his own."—Judith Lieu, University of Cambridge
Forward - Jay Michaelson

“A valuable contribution to biblical scholarship”—Jay Michaelson, Forward

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The Formation of the Jewish Canon



Copyright © 2013 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-16434-3


Modern and Ancient Views of the Canon

The concept of canon is a contentious topic, and not just in Biblical and Jewish Studies. The view that there is a canon that represents the highest literary merits and core values of Western society has been championed by some and denounced by others. The "Great Books" debate in American universities is a curricular manifestation of this philosophical and cultural clash. Supporters argue that it is possible to identify a set of works of heroic stature from the time of homer to the present day that represents the touchstones of Western civilization. Critics counter by pointing to the imperial, ideological, ethnic, political, and gender bias of such a concept, which has no place in postmodern society. The very idea of a canon divides and polarizes opinion in a way that few other concepts do.

In Britain, the discourse took a different turn and was instigated by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who in his criticism of the public policy of multiculturalism and its fragmentation of society advocated a national culture based on the idea of canon, "a set of texts that everyone knew," including the Bible, Shakespeare, and the great novels. Sacks' view that there is a closed list of works that represents core values has been criticized, and dissenters have wondered whether ethnic and religious diversity could not be better embraced by advocating a multiplicity of canons, including those of the minorities.

The debate in the public sphere over the canon is fueled by ideological, philosophical, political, and pedagogical contretemps. One of the vital points of disagreement is about the nature of the canon itself. Is the notion of the canon inherently prescriptive—endorsing what ought to be accepted and read—or is it endemic, validating the eminence of a set of texts in Western society? What does the canon signify by way of a common set of values? Is the concept of a single canon justified, or is it better to think of a plurality of canons, with each community championing its own set of accepted texts?

This public debate could be better informed by our returning to the beginning and investigating the notion of canon in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. When did the canon of the Hebrew Bible or old Testament close? What process led to its formation? Did all ancient Jews hold a single canon, or did each group have its own canon? By shedding light on the origins of the canon, I hope that a historical perspective can be added to the public discussion of canon.

Terminological Considerations

The term kanon, from Greek and literally meaning a measuring stick, rule, and (by analogy) a list, was used by the Christian church in its conciliar decisions that determined which books were to be included in the Bible. It seems an unsuitable term to use for describing the historical formation of Jewish scriptures since it is anachronistic and implies a fixed list.

John Barton points out that there are two clearly identifiable scholarly traditions, one that "speaks of texts as 'canonical' if they are widely received as possessing authority, and another which reserves the term for those texts which, after a process of sifting and evaluation, have been approved and stand on a limited list." he argues that the word "canon" is an inappropriate term to use to describe the scriptures of Jews and Christians in the first few centuries of the Common Era, primarily because there was not to be found any sense that scripture formed a closed list.

Eugene Ulrich advocates a strict definition of "canon" to describe only the decisions made by official bodies. He nonetheless recognizes that the making of official lists is related to the historical development that saw the transformation of oral and written literature into scriptures, and he calls this activity "the canonical process."

A recent conference proceeding on the subject avoids the term "canon" and instead uses the term "authoritative scriptures" in its title. That is not a designation that an ancient Jew would recognize, but it is not thereby unsuitable.

In the ancient sources, scripture is denoted in Hebrew and Greek by various phrases and titles, but "authoritative scriptures" is not one of them. In Ezra-Nehemiah, several designations are deployed with the terms "torah," referring to laws and narratives, and/or sepher, meaning book or scroll: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Neh 8:13); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Neh 8:3); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Ezra 7:6); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Ezra 6:18); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Neh 8:1); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Neh 8:18; cf. Neh 8:8); and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Neh 9:3). Moreover, there are Aramaic expressions embedded in the documents and narratives: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("the book of the law of the God of heavens," Ezra 7:12) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("the law of your God," Ezra 7:26).

In Chronicles, the passover tradition is retold in a way that claims dependence on the earlier prescriptions of the laws of Moses, legal ordinance, authority of the ruling king, and the prescriptions of David and Solomon (2 Chr 35:4–12). Significant is the mention that the passover tradition is to be found "in the writing of David" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "in the document of Solmon" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and "in the book of Moses" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

Among the sectarian texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, designations of scriptures include the following: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (CD 4:8; 5:7; 6:4, 7; 1QS 8:15; 4Q159 fr. 5, l. 6, etc.); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (CD 5:2); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (CD 15:12; 16:2; 1QS 5:8); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (4Q397 fr. 14, l. 10; 2Q25 fr. 1, l. 1; verso of 4QpapCrypta); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (CD 7:17//4Q266 fr. 3 col. 3, l. 18; 4Q177 fr. 1, col. 4, l. 14); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (11Q13); and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (4Q491 fr. 1, l. 4).

In Jewish texts of the hellenistic and Roman periods and in the writings of the early church, scripture is most commonly called "the writing" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Let. Aris. 155, 168; Philo, Virt. 51; Gal 3:22, 1 Clem 34:6); "the writings" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Philo, Cher. 11); "the holy writings" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Philo, Abr. 121; Mos. 2.290; 2 Tim 3:15); "the law" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Philo, Opif. 46; Contemp. 78; Luke 10:26); "the law and prophets" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Sir 1:1; 2 Macc 15:9; 4 Macc 18:10; Matt 7:12; Rom 3:21); "the book" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Let. Aris. 316); "the holy books" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., 1 Macc 12:9; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Philo Mos. 2.36); and "the oracles (of God)" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Let. Aris. 158; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; e.g., Philo, Decal. 48; Rom 3:2).

In Rabbinic literature, scripture is designated commonly by "what is read" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "what is written" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "the writings" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "the holy writings" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "the book or scroll" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "the books or scrolls" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "the law" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and "the law and prophets" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

"Authoritative scriptures" is not a term that the ancients used. In fact, whatever term one chooses would be problematic in some sense, and one could expend an inordinate amount of effort discussing terminology without shedding much light on the matter. It is important to maintain a sense of proportion about the terminological debates. I agree entirely with Ulrich, who wrote: "The definition of a canon is a relatively minor matter. Much more important, interesting, and ripe for analysis is the canonical process—the historical development by which the oral and written literature of Israel, Judaism, and the early church was handed on, revised, and transformed into the scriptures that we have received, as well as the processes and criteria by which the various decisions were made."

The essence of the problem is that ancient Jews did not use a term equivalent to "canon" or "authoritative scriptures," but they did have the concept. Implied in the titles "the books of Moses" and "the books of the Prophets" is the idea of a collection, which is an important element of a canonical or authoritative list. Moreover, Rabbinic Judaism used the term "outside books" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to describe "heretical books" (e.g., m. Sanh. 10:1). This implies that there must have been books that were included, most probably in a list (b. B. Bat. 14–15), but they were not called "inside books" or "canonical books." Those included in the list were called "holy scriptures" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In addition, when the rabbis debated whether the Song of Songs and Qohelet "defiled the hands" and therefore were to be considered "holy scriptures," they also knew what was holy and not holy, but they did not explain their thinking.

Canon and Authoritative Scriptures

In this study, I will use "canon" to refer to the list of biblical books. As will be seen, there is more than one list and therefore strictly speaking more than one canon, although the lists overlapped to a large extent. This definition is consistent with the decisions of the ecclesiastical councils, the first being the Council of Laodicea in ca. 360, which decided which books were to be included in the Bible. But the definition is only broadly "conciliar" in meaning since it is not confined to the deliberations of early Christianity. Josephus' Contra Apionem, 4 Ezra, and Mishnah Yadayim imply lists of biblical books; Baba Bathra, Origen, and Jerome enumerate Jewish lists of biblical books.

I use "authoritative scriptures" to refer to the collections of authoritative writings before the appearance of the first lists. Authoritative scriptures are to be found among the post-exilic Judean community, Samaritans, Alexandrian Jewish community, communities reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Essenes, Therapeutae, Pharisees, Sadducees, Pauline churches, etc. before the end of the first century CE.

My understanding of authoritative scriptures is indebted to Sid Leiman, although, unlike him, I avoid using the term "canon." he argues that from the traditional Jewish perspective, a canonical book is "a book accepted by Jews as authoritative for religious practice and/or doctrine, and whose authority is binding upon the Jewish people for all generations. Furthermore, such books are to be studied and expounded in private and in public." In the tannaitic period, moreover, the rabbis drew a distinction between the categories of "canonical" and "inspired," the latter referring to those books believed to have been composed under divine inspiration ("by the spirit of holiness"). In this sense, the Mishnah and Megillat Taanith were canonical but not inspired; the biblical books were both canonical and inspired.

Leiman's equation of canon with authoritative scriptures is instructive. For traditional Jews, authority is established by the acceptance of the community in matters of religious belief and practice and is binding for all time. This authority is thought to have its origins in divine inspiration and is manifest in the command to study the books and to comment on their meaning.

This definition is consistent with the biblical understanding of authority. In Exodus 24:3–7, Moses took the record of the covenant and read it out loud to the people, commanding them to do all that is written in it. The people of Israel accepted the binding nature of the commandments by declaring that they would obediently do all that the Lord had spoken. Likewise, in the time of the monarchy, King Josiah read out loud to the people the book of the covenant that had recently been discovered been in the house of the Lord (2 Kgs 22–23). Both the king and the people made a covenant before the Lord, pledging to do all that was written in the book of the covenant ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In the post-exilic period, Ezra is reported to have read out the book of the law of Moses ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) before those assembled in front of the Water Gate. Ezra blessed the Lord, and the people affirmed by replying "Amen, amen," lifting their hands, and bowing their heads and worshipping the Lord with their faces to the ground (Neh 8:1–6). Leiman's definition, therefore, is not only applicable to Rabbinic Judaism but is also a biblical concept of canon.

However, the distinction that Leiman draws between "canonical" and "inspired" is open to challenge. David Kraemer argues that in the later Rabbinic community, "the literature that embodied the norms and values of Jewish society had finally to be understood as inspired," and therefore Leiman's distinction between inspired and uninspired canon is untenable.

Andrew Steinmann criticizes Leiman for combining two kinds of authoritative writings, the scriptural canon and another canon of religious literature. The critique exposes the weakness in Leiman's failure to distinguish among different kinds of authoritative literature. In Steinmann's words: "That religious communities oftentimes accept other collections of books as authoritative but not on the level of scripture does not mean that they have one canon divided into two categories. Instead, it implies that they recognize two collections: a collection of Scripture and a collection of other books that, though useful, are not recognized as both authoritative and inspired." As an example, Steinmann points to the way Lutherans also regard the Book of Concord as authoritative when they already recognize the scriptural canon of the old and New Testaments.

One doubts, however, that Steinmann's criticisms are justified. The comparison between the Lutheran Church and Rabbinic Judaism is questionable since the former has had a fixed canon for hundreds of years, whereas the latter has its beginnings when the Bible itself was in its formative stage. It is highly doubtful that the authoritative status of, say, the Mishnah in Rabbinic Judaism is comparable to the Book of Concord in the Lutheran Church.

For Rabbinic Judaism the oral Torah has an authoritative status in a way that the Book of Concord does not. The Rabbinic belief is that Moses did not receive just the Written Torah at Mt. Sinai, but also the oral Torah, literally "torah according to the mouth" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which has been passed down in an unbroken chain of succession. Also, in Leiman's view the Mishnah and Megillat Taanith are canonical but not inspired. The different historical context and period, the break from the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura mean that the authority of the Book of Concord is not a suitable parallel to the authority of Rabbinic literature in Rabbinic Judaism.

My working definition, then, is the following: "authoritative scriptures" refer to collections of writings that were accepted and used by a particular Jewish or Christian community. The term does not refer to a fixed list of books decided by an official body but implies a community's recognition of the divinely inspired nature of certain writings. That these divinely inspired writings were gathered in "collections" is evidenced by the titular descriptors, such as "the books of Moses," "the books of the Prophets," and "the Psalms of David." That these writings were considered authoritative is shown by their acceptance and use within a community for study, commentary, worship, ritual, teaching, and moral behavior.

Prophetic Status and Revealed Writings

The above terminological discussion raises the issue of authority: Are there different kinds of authority? Is a distinction to be drawn between the authority of the writings that were eventually included in the canon, which is scriptural authority, and the authority of other writings? What are the indicators of authority? There is no one answer to these questions since the sources under consideration are diverse. They reflect a variety of literary contexts and historical circumstances. Moreover, the evidence that is available in the sources is often indirect and oblique. For the most part the sources do not address the issue; the principles, where they exist, are implied or couched in passing comments.

There are nonetheless a few indicators that will help point the way forward. Several of the sources identify prophecy as an important element. This prophetic legitimacy is expressed in different ways, and writings were considered prophetic and inspired by God. Inspiration may be attributed to God alone or through his holy spirit. The writings so characterized are, by implication, different from other kinds of writings.

Excerpted from The Formation of the Jewish Canon by TIMOTHY H. LIM. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Timothy H. Lim is Professor of Hebrew Bible & Second Temple Judaism at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.

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