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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Collecting the Hebrew Scriptures.

1.

If the Hebrew Scriptures were complete by the beginning of the Common Era, that does not mean that the collection was new at that time. Many of the OT books were recognized as authoritative long before the first century BCE. The Pentateuch, or five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), probably existed in something like its present form by the fourth century BCE, and the historical and prophetic books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor—i.e. shorter—prophets) may well have been compiled no later than the third century BCE. The Jewish arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures recognizes these two collections, which it calls respectively ‘the Torah’ and ‘the Prophets’, as having a certain special prestige above that of ‘the Writings’, which is the Hebrew title for the third collection in the canon, consisting of other miscellaneous works (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the five scrolls read at festivals, Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes). This may well be because the Writings were formed rather later, perhaps not until the first century BCE—indeed, some of the books contained in them, notably Daniel, are themselves much later than most of the books in the Torah and Prophets, and so did not exist to be collected until that later time.

2.

In the Greek Bible, followed by the traditional, pre-Reformation Christian canon, this division into three collections is not followed, but a roughly thematic arrangement is preferred, with all the ‘historical’ books at the beginning, the ‘wisdom’ or teaching books such as Proverbs in the middle, and the prophetic books (including Daniel) at the end. This produces what looks like a more rational arrangement, but it may obscure the process of canonization to which the Hebrew arrangement is a more effective witness. This commentary follows the traditional Protestant arrangement, which adopts the order of books in the Greek Bible but extracts the deuterocanonical books and groups them into the separate Apocrypha. The different arrangements can be seen in the chart at 1.

3.

The collection of scriptural texts was probably undertaken by learned scribes, the forerunners of the people described as ‘scribes’ in the NT. But it should not be thought of as a conscious process of selection. On the whole the HB probably contains most of what had survived of the writings of ancient Israel, together with more recent books which had commended themselves widely. Growth, rather than selection, was the operative factor. Specific Jewish communities, such as that which produced the Dead Sea scrolls, may have worked with a larger corpus of texts, but there too the texts we now know as biblical had pride of place. There is no evidence of disputes about the contents of the Bible until some time into the Common Era: in earlier times, it seems, old books were venerated and not questioned. Even where one book was clearly incompatible with another, as is the case with Kings and Chronicles, both were allowed to stand unreconciled within the one canon.

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