The Hebrew Bible
It is extremely difficult to trace how this conception of canon developed, and how it is connected to related notions, such as the eventual stabilization of the biblical text. Until the midtwentieth century, many scholars thought that the canon of the Hebrew Bible was established at Jabneh (Jamnia), a city near the Mediterranean coast, west of Jerusalem, that was a center of Jewish learning after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). According to this theory, a group of rabbis met there in about 90 CE and voted on whether or not certain books are canonical; at the end of this meeting, the official contents of the Hebrew Bible were supposedly established. It is now acknowledged that this overly neat reconstruction is wrong and was based on a misunderstanding of rabbinic texts. Unfortunately, evidence is not available to offer a clear picture of how the canon of the Hebrew Bible was formed. Much of the material from early Jewish sources (for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic texts, and the firstcentury CE historian Josephus) and Christian sources is ambiguous. Furthermore, many of the sources were written several centuries after the canon was clearly established, and are more interested in fostering a particular viewpoint than in presenting the facts objectively; they must, therefore, be used with great caution.
This much is clear: The canon of the Hebrew Bible did not develop at a single moment in time but rather in stages. There is general agreement that the Torah or Pentateuch was the first section of the Hebrew Bible to be canonized, that is, to be recognized as central by the community. Exactly when this happened is uncertain. Many scholars had associated this development with Ezra, and they saw the “law of your God” (Ezra 7.14 ), with which Ezra was entrusted in the fifth century BCE, as the Pentateuch. We now recognize, however, that this assertion goes beyond the evidence of the text. Though the Jewish community had recognized the Torah as central to its identity by the Persian period (sixth to fourth centuries), a conclusion suggested by citations of Torah material as authoritative in biblical books from this period (e.g., Chronicles, Ezra‐Nehemiah), it is unclear exactly how this happened, or whether this development should be associated primarily with a single individual such as Ezra, or should be seen as part of a larger, more complicated process.
According to rabbinic tradition, the Torah is the first part of a tripartite (threepart) canon, followed by Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketubim (writings), forming a work that much later was known by the acronym Tanak(h), Torah, Nevi’im, Ketubim. Nevi’im is composed of Joshua, Judges, Samuel (seen as one book), Kings (seen as one book)—historical works known as “the former prophets”—and “the latter prophets,” consisting of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets (Hosea through Malachi, seen as one book). The order of these eight books has been relatively stable. Ketubim is comprised of the following eleven books, which, by contrast, appear in a wide variety of orders in various book lists and biblical manuscripts: Psalms, Proverbs, Job; the “five scrolls,” whose order has been especially variable, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther; Daniel, Ezra‐Ne‐hemiah (seen as one book), and Chronicles (seen as one book). The number of canonical books according to traditional Jewish sources is thus twenty‐four (five in the Torah, eight in Nevi’im, eleven in Ketubim).
The origin of the tripartite canon has been a topic of recent dispute, with several scholars suggesting that a twopart canon, the Torah and other works, was the original form, and that only later was it divided into three parts. It is more likely, however, that the tripartite canon is primary, and evidence for it appears in such sources as Lk 24.44 , which refers to “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms,” and in parallel expressions in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The tripartite canon likely reflects the gradual nature of the canonization process, with Nevi’im canonized before Ketubim. This would explain why the Ketubim contain the book of Daniel (dating from the second century BCE), and several late historical books, such as Ezra‐Nehemiah and Chronicles, which would seem more appropriately to belong with similar works such as Joshua and Kings. The tripartite canon most likely suggests, therefore, that Torah was canonized in the Persian period, followed by the canonization of Nevi’im in the late Persian or early Greek period, while the Ketubim were canonized last, around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).
The tripartite order is not the only order known in antiquity, nor is the number of twenty‐four books the only number mentioned in ancient Jewish sources. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century CE, refers to twenty‐two biblical books (Ag. Ap. 1.42). It is not clear if he simply had a smaller canon or if, instead, his canon had the texts in a different order, combined in different ways. Some traditions put Ruth after Judges and Lamentations after Jeremiah, treating these smaller books as appendices to the ones they follow, rather than as independent works. Such an arrangement would yield twenty‐two books, a number that conveniently corresponds to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet; some early Christian sources also cite this as the number of books in the Bible. The arrangement of Ruth and Lamentations mentioned above is that of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the second century BCE (see “The Greek Bible” below). According to this tradition, mentioned by some early church fathers and reflected in the arrangement of the earliest comprehensive Septuagint manuscripts (fourth century CE), the Hebrew Bible is divided into four parts: Torah, Histories, Poetical and Wisdom books, and Prophets (see the Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books, p. 721 HB). This order continues to be used by Christians in their organization of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) materials. Older scholarship spoke of this fourpart, twenty‐two book arrangement as the Alexandrian canon, in contrast to the tripartite, twenty‐four book Palestinian canon, but scholars now recognize that such a clear dichotomy never existed and therefore avoid the use of those terms.
Scholars also now recognize that even when canonization took place, the contents of the Bible did not absolutely freeze. This is true, first of all, about books whose status as scripture continued to be debated. The Bible had begun to stabilize significantly by the fourth century CE, with the development of explicit lists in the Christian community of books considered canonical (see the discussion below). Other groups, too, had their ideas about the canon; it is unlikely, for instance, that the Qumran community, most of whose texts date from the century or so immediately before and immediately after the Common Era, viewed Esther as canonical, since no clear biblical manuscript of that book has survived among the thousands of fragments discovered. In contrast, many manuscripts of Jubilees, a set of comments on Genesis and Exodus, have survived, and given this work's affinities with the practices of the Dead Sea community, it was probably a canonical text for them. Within rabbinic literature, the Wisdom of Jesus
Canons of the Hebrew Bible
|Jewish Canon||Protestant Canon||Roman Catholic/Orthodox Canon|
|Samuel (1 & 2)||1 &2 Samuel||1 &2 Samuel|
|Kings (1 & 2)||1 &2 Kings||1 &2 Kings|
|1 & 2 Chronicles||1 & 2 Chronicles|
|The Twelve||POETICAL/WISDOM BOOKS|
|Hosea||Job||1 &2 Maccabees|
|Jonah||Song of Solomon||Psalms|
|Habakkuk||Song of Solomon|
|Zephaniah||Wisdom of Solomon|
|Song of Solomon||Nahum||Hosea|
|Chronicles (1 &2)||Habakkuk|
|1 &2 Esdras|
|There is no Apocrypha||Haggai|
|in the Hebrew Bible||Zechariah|
|Esther (with additions)|
|Wisdom of Solomon|
|Baruch||Orthodox Canons generally include|
|Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch ch 6 )||1 &2 Esdras|
|Prayer of Azariah and Song of||Prayer of Manasseh|
|Daniel and Susanna||3 Maccabees|
|Daniel, Bel, &Snake||4 Maccabees (as an Appendix)|
|Prayer of Manasseh|
|1 &2 Maccabees|
This flexibility may also be seen in the extensive divergence with respect to the wording of the biblical text as shown in manuscripts from Qumran, in translations of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint and elsewhere, and to a lesser extent in early rabbinic citations. These differences are not just small, such as a variant spelling here or there, but are often major, and affect the meaning of the text. There are cases where the text is found in two or more different recensions—identifiably different versions, revisions, or critical texts, not merely two different copies of the same original with minor variants—which may simply vary the order of materials or may exhibit fundamentally different texttypes (for example, short types versus expansive types, as with the text of Jeremiah; see the Introduction to Jeremiah). Early in the first millennium, however, these variations subsided as canonization and certain types of rabbinic exposition that paid a great deal of attention to the exact spelling of the individual word developed. This eventually brought about textual stability, though here too this was a gradual process, and the means by which it was accomplished are largely unknown.
The most basic question is why particular texts were canonized while others were not. Canonized texts within Jewish tradition were considered part of “the holy scriptures” or “that which is read” (to use rabbinic designations). Excluded texts in some cases had been translated in the Septuagint and were therefore canonized in the Christian community (see “The Greek Bible,” below); others were lost, or survived as pseudepigrapha (writings falsely attributed to major biblical figures), or were preserved only in fragmentary form in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of these excluded texts date from after the Persian period (later than 332 BCE) and thus were seen as too recent to be eligible.
In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views on their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. The Song of Solomon, for instance, was originally an erotic love poem; by the early rabbinic period, it came to be interpreted allegorically as a love poem between God and Israel. It was also seen as the inspired composition of Solomon himself. Why was it canonized? Was it canonized before it was seen as a holy, allegorical text? In that case, its canonization might reflect a central role that it held in culture or ritual. Or was it canonized only after it was viewed as allegorical and as a composition of Solomon? In that case its significance, whether of authorship or of ideas, could have played a more important part. There is no way to judge between these two paths to canonization, and the resulting difficulty is characteristic of the problems in dealing with issues of canonization in general.
Despite such major uncertainties in our understanding of the process of canonization, however, several points seem fairly certain. First, it is likely that the final stages of canonization were a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This crisis intensified a development which had begun over half a millennium earlier, with the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE). Through this development Israel gradually became the people of the Book. Second, it is unlikely that canonization represents a purely topdown process, through which a small group of leaders (rabbis) determined the canon; instead, the designation of certain works as canonical was more like the official recognition of the works that a large segment of the community had already held to be central, holy, or authoritative. Finally, the act of canonization was remarkably inclusive, creating a body of works richly textured by a wide variety of genres, ideologies, and theologies. This is, fundamentally, a typical ancient Near Eastern process: Instead of creating a small, highly consistent text, as we perhaps would now do, those responsible for the process made efforts to include many of the viewpoints in ancient Israel, incorporating differing and even contradictory traditions into this single, and singular, book.