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The Jewish Canon and the Christian Canon

The Hebrew Bible (often called The Old Testament by Christians) was the result of many revisions and changes over time. The concept of a Hebrew canon probably first began to emerge shortly after the Babylonian Exile (587 BCE), when the Hebrew people were transported against their will away from the Holy Land. The religious leaders, fearful of growing cultural contamination, tried to create an official version of the various scriptures and gather them into one organic collection. It was probably at this time that the P text or Priestly Document first emerged by combining elements of the J text and the E text.

To better understand the process of canonization, we should first explore other important religious writings. Then we can follow this discussion by looking at why some writings "made the cut" and others did not. I am following Slayden Yarbrough's organization here from his lectures and handouts at Oklahoma Baptist University. Yarbrough is a professor emeritus and Dickinson Professor of Religion who outlined the materials appearing below for the Hebrew canon. His overview is so concise and easy to follow that I use the same format and order as he does, but I also add material from Metzger and Coogan's The Oxford Companion to the Bible to describe the canonization of the New Testament and Jaroslav Pelikan's Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages for additional discussion of the Hebrew Bible.

Parts of the Hebrew Bible--specifically the Torah and some sections of the Nebhi'im--appear to have been standardarized by about the year 300 BCE, as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls (Pelikan 46). The rest was still in flux for 200 years. Sometime around 95 CE, perhaps twenty years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman War, a council of exiled Jewish rabbis met in Jamnia (Western Palestine). The leader of this council was Rabbi Akiba (Pelikan 46). The council officially "closed" the canon of the Hebrew Bible, intending for no new works to be added. (In a moment, we will compare this to the way a church council near the end of the 4th century decided to close the Christian Canon by limiting it to a set number of books.) Before this time, the Song of Solomon, and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) had been considered doubtful as sources. The council at Jamnia asserted that these should be considered "real" scripture. They formally divided the Hebrew Bible into three sections as the Torah, Nebhi'im, and Kethubhi'm, but they apparently excluded the Old Testament Book of Daniel.

However, many rabbis could not agree completely about which books should be in this canon in spite of the Jamnian Council. Some Jewish communities raised questions over Ezekiel, the Song of Solomon, and Esther, for instance. Many Jewish communities accepted some of these texts, but rejected others. In general, however, only a few versions of the official cannons were approved across the ancient world.

The first is what scholars call The Hebrew Canon or the Palestinian Canon (i.e, the one from Jamnia around 95 CE). This first canon contains 24 books in the Old Testament. It appears as a reaction to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and responds to the rising Christian movement by "closing of the ranks" in the Jewish community (Pelikan 47). Christians later took the 24-book model and altered it--chopping the collection into 39 books in several ways--such as cutting Samuel into 1st and 2nd Samuel, or dividing the book of minor prophets into twelve separate books). Hebrew scribes prefer in general to classify the Hebrew Canon into three sections (1) The Torah (the Law), (2), the Nebhi'im (the Prophets), and (3) the Kethubi'im (the Writings.) A quick chart illustrates the distinctions here. Protestant Christians divide the Hebrew Canon instead into five groupings: Law, History, Poetry and Wisdom, and the Prophets, a quite different schemata.

The Alexandrian Canon arose in Alexandria, Egypt, where many Jews resided during the Greek period (c. 330-30 BCE). It was probably about this time that the Jewish tradition developed the idea of an immortal soul. Previously, older books of the Bible often stressed sheol ("the grave"), and did not dwell on a potential afterlife. This material doctrine reflected a more traditional religious perspective that persisted even unto the time of Christ, where we still find the Sadducees embracing the older beliefs. Initially, the Alexandrian Jews accepted the Torah (Law) and the Prophets. However, they gradually expanded the canon to include fifteen extra writings. Modern Protestants typically reject these additional books as being apocryphal. The Alexandrian Canon powerfully influenced the medieval/patristic scholar Saint Jerome, who in the late fourth and early fifth century of this era translated the Greek Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible according to the Alexandrian Canon) into the Latin Vulgate, adding to it the New Testament.

The Apocrypha includes fifteen books--1, 2 Esdras; Tobit; Judith; the additions to the Book of Esther; The Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach; the Letter of Jeremiah; the Prayer of Azariah and the song of the Three Young Men; Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; the Prayer of Manasseh; and 1, 2 Maccabees. These were a standard parat of the Bible until Protestant groups rejected them--and this rejection did not take place until the 16th and 17th centuries. Even editors as late as Martin Luther and the original 1611 King James translation included the Apocrypha, and the Catholic Church still retains them, as witnessed by the contents of any Douay-Rheims Bible from a Catholic bookstore.

The Pseudepigrapha (Greek, "false writings") are a collection of writings composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE. They include a number of apocalypses, legendary histories, psalms, and wisdom writings. Often they are attributed to ancient figures such as Adam, Moses, Isaiah, and so on. None of these writings is currently held as canonical by any orthodox Jews or Christians (though the texts may be reverenced in the Coptic church and other groups with more unorthodox beliefs).

The Dead Sea Scrolls: These writings were discovered in 1947 near Qumran, a community not far from Jericho located near the Dead Sea. They contain fragments and (in some cases) complete scrolls of every book in the Old Testament except the Book of Esther. Additionally, they contain a number of non-canonical Jewish writings. Essenes, a separatist Jewish sect, wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, hid them in sealed clay jars, and deposited the containers in caves so they would survive the destruction of Qumran when the Roman army attacked in A. D. 68. (The Romans were en route to destroy Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman War, and stopped briefly to demolish the Essene community.) With the exception of a short fragment from Proverbs, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest biblical manuscripts available as physical artifacts.

The Process of Canonization: Yarbrough describes the process of Hebrew (Old Testament) Canonization as occuring in three stages, but Metzger and Coogan break the canonization of early Christian (New Testament) texts into four stages. Let us deal with the Hebrew Bible first.

(1) The Torah (Law), the first five books of the Old Testament, appeared as a collection possibly as early as the Babylonian captivity. It was probably accepted as authoritative sometime after the Babylonian exile, perhaps during the time of Ezra (5th century BCE). For the Sadducees and the Samaritans, the canonization process stopped here. They argued that none of the later additions to the Hebrew Bible were legitimate.

(2) The Prophets, for the Hebrew editors, existed as a collection by at least the second century BCE. The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, had a prologue attached to the work. Sirach's grandson probably did this about 132 BCE. He refers to the "the law and the prophets" and the "others" or the "other books." (See "Prologue," Sirach, RSV Apocrypha, p. 128). This is the earliest evidence we have that the first two parts of the Old Testament Canon had been linked together and anthologized and that the first half of the Canon was on its way to becoming accepted as authoritative.

(3) The Writings are the third division of the Hebrew Canon. By the time of Jesus and the early church, we can see the Jews accepted them as authoritative. Luke 24:44 and Matthew 23:35 contain statements strongly indicating the authors already had some vague idea of an authoritative collection--one covering the range from Genesis to Chronicles, the entire range of Old Testament Scripture. Hence, the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible had gained recognition as official by 90 CE, and it would receive official sanction in the Council of Jamnia.

The New Testament Tradition, however, awaited Saint Jerome's loving care and the Council of Nicea's influence (about 323-325 CE). It took a few hundred years to finalize. The four stages are roughly as follows according to Metzger and Coogan's The Oxford Companion to the Bible (pages 101-04):

(1) During the first phase (c. 90 CE-96 CE), the young Christian church discovered that Christ had not yet returned as predicted, but the generation of the apostles and those who had directly encountered Christ was rapidly dying out. Originally, knowledge of Christ had been transmitted orally. At this point, the church fathers wrote down the early Gospels and preserved the Pauline letters as ways to give pastoral guidance to new churches. The writers (who still expected Christ's return any day) probably did not imagine that their writings would be part of a future "canon," and they probably did not seek to normalize or standardize any of their texts against other versions. The Gospel of Mark was probably written first. Scholars date it most commonly to circa 70 CE--the year year Titus and his Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem. Mark is generally (though not universally) thought to be the oldest of the Gospels, with the others appearing in later decades after the year 90-150 CE, about sixty to a hundred-twenty years after Jesus' crucifixion.

(2) From 96 CE until about 150 CE, the written gospels gradually replace the oral traditions. Initially, early Christians relied on oral tradition alongside (and even in preference to) the written Gospels, but as the reliability of the former declined, the four Gospels replaced them. In 1 Clement, the Didache, Ignatius, and Papias, we read of how "the living voice" (as Papias calls it) of the oral tradition is superior to that of the written word. As late as the 350s, many church fathers still opposed writing down the Gospel stories. For instance, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem told his flock, "This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all dilligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory of your heart" (quoted in Pelikan 18, italics his). However, in Polycarp's letter to the Philippians (c. 135 CE), for the first time we see the argument made that the Gospel texts are more reliable than word of mouth, and more to be trusted. In 2 Clement (c. 140 CE), twice as many quotations come from the written Gospels than from any other source.

It is clear, however, that many of the oral traditions and alternative written accounts once existed. It is also clear that the early church treated them at least as respectfully as the texts that survived to the modern day. For instance, in Saint Paul's letter to the elders of the church in Ephesus, as recorded in Acts 20:35, Saint Paul warns, "we should keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, who himself said, 'Happiness lies more in giving than in receiving.'" The question then becomes, when or where did Christ say this? If dutiful students search the rest of the Bible for this quotation, they will not find it in any of the Gospels--not even Luke or John--but Saint Paul quotes this lost version of the Gospel narratives (either written or oral), and he is apparently confident his audience will recognize his quotation and acknowledge it as authoritative. That strongly indicates the early church relied on some scriptures or traditions later lost to the ravages of time.

We see a similar phenomenon in the account of Judas' death. In Matthew 27:5, we read how Judas hangs himself after betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. However, in Acts 1:18, Saint Paul recounts that Judas stumbled in Akeldema, fell, and "burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out." Some Christians seek to harmonize the two accounts by arguing that Judas either (1) fell to his death after a failed suicide attempt, i.e., that he flung himself off a cliff or tree with a nose around his neck, and the rope broke, so he fell and his body ruptured, or (2) that he successfully hanged himself and later on his dead body somehow fell and split open.

That explantion seems unlikely given that both the Greek and later the Latin Vulgate grammar--through verb tense and case--suggest in the first account the death occurs instrumentally, i.e., through the means of hanging, and it occurs instrumentally through a fall in the second account. Instead, most biblical scholars see this apparent discrepancy as indicating two different textual traditions competing during the period of "canon wars." What is their evidence? Other early Christian writers.

For example, Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, was a "hearer" of Saint John. He lived c. 125 CE, and he also discusses Judas' death. He refers to Judas' "ruptured entrails" as part of a gruesome traffic accident in which Judas falls beneath a chariot when he is too fat to avoid it. He makes no mention of hanging as he describe's Judas fall beneath a chariot's wheels: "Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out" (Papias, Fragment III, lines 1742-44). Given the close similarity in wording when it comes to the ruptured entrails, scholars find it simpler to assert that Saint Paul and Papias were familiar with the "fall-and-get-crushed-until-your-guts-pop-out" tradition of Judas' death that was still in circulation as late as 125 CE, and that was what Paul alludes to in Acts 1:18, while Matthew knew and alluded to a different tradition that focused on death-by-hanging.

In any case, after 150 CE, the written Gospels have clearly become predominant over word-of-mouth transmission. By the time of the Apocryphal Gospel of Truth, the author clearly knows all four of the Orthodox Gospels, but only uncertain, faded remnants persist of alternative oral traditions. About this time, the Pauline correspondence begins to appear in a collected form rather than as scattered, independent letters. The fact that these texts all have Paul's name attached to them by tradition help them survive as a group when anonymous texts tend to fall by the wayside.

(3) From 150 CE to 190 CE, the canon wars begin in earnest. The earliest attempt at a canonical collection (or at least the first writer to actually visualize the idea of a New Testament collection to match the canonicity of the old Testament) actually comes from a heretical author. The Gnostic Christian, Marcion, creates an "official" canon. This new Bible deliberately excludes the Old Testament, and the New Testament is limited to Luke and ten Pauline letters (from which Marcion removed certain Jewish traits). In reaction, the orthodox church emphasized the normative qualities of all four Gospels and all thirteen letters ascribed to Paul, but their version did not include the writings of John of Patmos (i.e., they did not include Revelation as canonical). Bishop Irenaeus reflects this stance in his writings by excluding Revelation, but he broadens his idea of the Canon to include all of the other current New Testament books and he also includes the Wisdom of Hermas as an additional text. Irenaeus also reacts positively to 1 Clement and the Wisdom of Solomon, but it is not clear if he regarded them as "holy scripture." Clearly, the idea of the canon has appeared, but the church cannot yet agree as to what parts should go into this canon. What is holy scripture? What is not? A broad base of consensus exists for a core collection (Luke, certain Pauline epistles), but the peripheral works remain contested.

(4) The period from about 190-400 CE is the time Andrie Du Tott calls "The Closing of the Canon." During these centuries, many heretical groups had prophets who declared they had received new revelations from God. The Montanists, in particular, called for a clear limitation of the canon since their sect stressed apocalyptic and prophetic movements. Origin and Eusebius in the Eastern church and an anonymous author of the Canon of Muratori together argued that the scriptures should be classed into the three groups (1) the texts nearly all Christians accept, (2) the uncertain texts about which Christians are mostly undecided, and (3) works that should definitely be excluded because only small, isolated groups of often heretical Christians hold them to be scripture.

It is during this time that readers appear to start thinking of the "Bible" as a single work. Note that the title Biblia in Greek is originally neuter plural, meaning "little books." That very title harkens back to the older time period when Christians thought of their text as the scriptures (plural--multiple independent entities) rather than the scripture (singular--one unified entity).

In particular, many Eastern churches questioned the status of Revelation as the one prophetic-apocalyptic book in the canon. (They disapproved of it primarily because heretical Montanists embraced it so fervently rather than for any particular point about its content or any textual evidence.) In the same way, in the Western church, anti-Montanist sentiment reacted against the book of Hebrews because of passages found in Hebrews 6:4-6. Accordingly, mainstream Christianity rejected the book of Hebrews, accordingly, until the fourth century. Uncertainty persisted also in some quarters regarding the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Wisdom of Solomon, which a significant number of churches considered important.

In the East, Saint Athanasius, a well-respected and powerful figure in the church hierarchy, wrote the thirty-ninth Paschal Letter in which he instructed pastors under his metropolitan supervision concerning which scriptures to teach. His choice of texts was powerfully influential, and gradually it became widely approved in the East. This Athanasian canon included all the books of the present New Testament and also the Hermas, the Didache, and the Wisdom of Solomon, and certain Old Testament Apocrypha. His canon was possibly approved at the Synod of Rome in 382 and papal declaration made it official in the year 405--but the historical evidence here is a bit murky. Saint Augustine, that powerhouse and dynamo of the patristic period, influenced the North African Church to accept these standards at the Synods of Hippo Regius (393 CE) and Carthage (397). Unfortunately, persistent squabbles over the adoption of Hebrews, James, and Jude forced the church at Carthage to reiterate and reinforce its decision again in 419, given the uncertainty of the later texts and the degree of local resistance.

The standards set here gained almost universal Christian acceptance in later centuries. Some exceptions included, as Du Tott notes, the Syrian Church, the Nestorian Church, and the Ethiopian Church, where there was strong local rejection of the general epistles and to the book of Revelation and the Christian tradition tended toward Coptic and Gnostic beliefs. In the case of the Syrian Church, the church rejected the four Gospels in favor of the Diatessaron of Tatian. This work was a second-century harmonization of the Gospels designed to remove inconsistencies between the Gospel accounts--especially minor matters like what color Christ's robe was before the crucifixion, or the various responses Christ gives in the Gospels when the crowd demands a sign, or what Christ's last words were on the cross. The Ethiopic Church also included the Gospel of Hermas, the two Clementine epistles, and the Apostolic Constitutions, which are left out of most modern Protestant bibles.

The clincher was Saint Jerome and his translation of the Vulgate Bible. The work was enormously popular because an increasing number of Christians spoke only Latin in the west--not Greek. When Jerome decided to exclude works like the Gospel of Thomas or the Shepherd of Hermas in his anthology, leaving them untranslated, it tolled an ecclesiastical death knell for the spurned texts. They were doomed to obscurity in future decades.

Other Tinkerings: The above process covers canonization for the most part. Some medieval groups argued for the addition of one obscure text or the removal of another, but such small heretical movements gathered little speed against the inertia of the canon. By the Protestant Reformation, many Christians completely rejected the Apocrypha. This is why modern Protestant bibles lack 1st and 2nd Maccabees and similar texts still found in Catholic bibles. Interestingly, Martin Luther also rejected the book of James, calling it "a right strawy epistle." He felt that it did not emphasize faith in Christ sufficiently as the sole basis of salvation, and he found its emphasis on works to be suspiciously Jewish and Catholic since it contradicted his Protestant doctrine of "salvation by faith alone." Regardless of Luther's statements, the mainstream Protestant churches refused to excise this text from the canon.

Groups like the Latter-Day-Saints also advocate expanding the canon. For instance, Mormons consider The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ to be additional sacred books overlooked by other Christian sects. It is unlikely in the near future that the canon will be further altered, however, due to four reasons: (1) the inertia of mass-produced texts (2) their general acceptance in modern day Christianity, (3) the rise of literalist readings of the Bible appearing in Harvard Seminary in the late nineteenth-century, and (4) the publication in America of The Fundamentals (1910-1915). This influential series of writings started the new-fangled American Fundamentalist movement, which departed from traditional "fourfold theories of interpretation" and argued for literal readings of scripture and biblical inerrancy. This belief in inerrant, perfect accuracy excludes the possibility of addition or excision of any texts, and its advocates typically argue that the current edition or translation has reached perfection through divine intervention in the editorial process over many centuries, or else they dismiss the process of earlier revisions as irrelevant.

Works Cited:

  • Metzger, Bruce M. and Michel D. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford, Oxford U P, 1993.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.



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