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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Origins of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

A. Important Texts in the Formation of the OT Canon

There are a number of important texts that offer guidance in tracing the processes of canonization. Each of them speaks of collections of sacred writings that are not yet clearly identified. Before this there are texts that refer to prominent individuals in Israel and some familiarity with stories preserved in written materials, but writings do not receive much attention. Sirach (c.180 BCE), for example, identifies in his list of famous men (Sir. 44: 1–50: 24) those who had positively influenced the nation of Israel and led them in the ways of God. There is one exception, in Sir. 49: 10, where he mentions the ‘bones of the Twelve Prophets’ that comforted the people of Israel—a clear reference to the collection of Minor Prophets that circulated at that time in one volume. Sirach does not identify any literature attributed to these prophets or others; rather, he emphasizes their roles as persons of God. In his focus on the Patriarchs, kings, and prophets who best influenced the nation, he shows familiarity with the Law and many of the Prophets. He praises the activities of the scribes who devote themselves to the law, prophecies, and wisdom (38: 24–39: 3), but does not identify any particular writings associated with the groups of writings or the famous men he praises. It may be instructive that Sirach's three groupings of writings (law, prophecies, and wisdom) reflect an early stage of a three-part collection of scriptures (see Luke 24: 44, discussed below), but that is not clear.

The most important ancient texts that signal a development in the canonical processes for both the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament of the Christians include the following:

  • 1. Prologue to Sirach Sirach's grandson (c.130 BCE) moved to Egypt and translated his grandfather's work into Greek. He identifies in his prologue to that work the great teachings of the ‘Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them’ and he followed up with a reference to his grandfather, Jesus (Jesus ben Sirach), who ‘devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our ancestors’. He does not identify the ‘other books’, probably because they had not yet reached a fixed form in his generation. Some scholars frequently seek to equate that collection of writings called ‘others that followed them’ with the third part of the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Writings’, Hebrew Ketubim, Greek Hagiographa), but there is nothing in the text itself that leads one to that conclusion or limits that collection to the biblical books that eventually became the Writings.

  • 2. Jubilees 2. 23–24 (c.160–140 BCE) This text speaks of ‘twenty-two chief men from Adam until Jacob and twenty-two kinds of works were made before the seventh day’. A later text of this passage from Epiphanius's De mensuris et ponderibus (22), that some scholars contend pre-dates the copy found at Qumran, also lists ‘twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet and twenty-two sacred books’, but there is no convincing evidence that shows that this reading represents an earlier tradition of a twenty-two-book collection.

  • 3. 4QMMT Similar to Sirach's description of sacred books is a passage found in the Qumran text, 4QMMT (or Miqsat Ma‘aseh ha-Torah), also identified as the 4QHalakic Letter or ‘the Second Letter on Works Reckoned as Righteousness’. It is a fragmentary document dating perhaps as early as 150 BCE, and the pertinent passage in it for our purposes reads: ‘to you we have written that you must understand the book of Moses and the words of the prophets and of David and the annals of each generation’ (4Q397, frr. 7 + 8: 10–11, Martinez trans. 84). It is possible that ‘David’ is a reference to psalmic literature, but it is uncertain which psalmic literature is in view. Some scholars contend that the ‘annals of each generation’ is a reference to the Chronicles that concluded the third section of the Hebrew Bible, but this is speculation and the precise contours and contents of the literature referred to are not identified in the text.

  • 4. 2 Maccabees 2: 13–15 This well-known text (c.104–63 BCE) refers to an act that is not preserved in the biblical book of Nehemiah: namely, that Nehemiah founded a library and collected ‘the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and the letters of kings about votive offerings’ (on votive offerings, see Ezra 7: 15–20). The author further indicates that Judas Maccabeus ‘collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war [with the Seleucid dynasty] that had come upon us and they are in our possession. So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you’ (2 Macc. 2: 13–14). Earlier, when Antiochus IV profaned the temple and sought to force the Jews to sacrifice to Zeus, he also confiscated their sacred books and destroyed them: ‘The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king’ (1 Macc. 1: 56–7, NRSV).

    There is no evidence that the books that were salvaged by Judas constituted a canonizing process of selecting books received as sacred scripture among the Jews. It is valid to say that several books besides the Law were acknowledged as sacred and important to the beliefs and conduct of the Jews at that time, but nothing suggests that Judas Maccabeus was the ‘canonizing force’ behind the Hebrew Scriptures. There is also considerable ambiguity in terms of what was collected and preserved by the Jews. Some scholars conclude that the ‘books of the law’ is a reference to all of the Jewish Scriptures, not just the books of Moses (Leiman 1976: 29).

  • 5. Philo (c.20BCE–40 CE) This native of Alexandria and a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, identifies the writings of a religious Jewish sect in Egypt known as the Therapeutae who take into their sanctuary or closet, or consecrated room for study purposes, ‘laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and psalms and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety’ (Contemplative Life 25, LCL). Later, Philo calls those writings ‘Holy Scriptures’ (hierois grammasi) (ibid. 28). Once again, there is nothing in the text that identifies the contents or books of these scriptures.

  • 6. Dead Sea Scrolls At roughly the same time, a similar but not identical religious sect from Qumran, perhaps to be identified with the Essenes, appealed to a body of literature that is larger in scope than the scriptures of the later ‘canonized’ Hebrew Scriptures. These additional writings included 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll, the Psalms of Joshua, and many others as well (VanderKam 2000: 23–4). See more discussion on Qumran below.

  • 7. Luke 24: 44 As the risen Christ met with his disciples on the last day of his appearances, he told them that what had happened to him in his death and resurrection was a fulfilment of the Scriptures that he identified as ‘the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms’ (Luke 24: 44). Normally in the NT, the Hebrew Scriptures are simply identified as ‘the Law’ or ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (see examples below). This appears to be an early reference to other writings that were advancing into the category of scripture for the church. A few scholars have tried to identify the reference to ‘psalms’ as a fixed collection of scriptures that made up the Writings, or third part of the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, there is nothing from first century or before that suggests that Ezra, Nehemiah, the Chronicles, and the other poetic literature (the Megilloth)—the writings that eventually comprised the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures—were ever called the ‘psalms’ (contra Beckwith 1985: 438–49).

  • 8. Luke 11: 49 (cf. Matt. 23: 45) When Jesus mentions the deaths of martyrs from Abel (Gen. 4: 8) to Zechariah (2 Chr. 24: 20–4), some assume that he was referring to all of the books of the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to 2 Chronicles. This theory depends heavily on the current order of the Hebrew Bible, which cannot be demonstrated in antiquity. Even in the previous passage (Luke 24: 44), the scriptures end with ‘psalms’ and not Chronicles. In any event, whichever books concluded the Jewish canon, and in whatever sequence they were found, it would not affect what Jesus had to say about the final martyr (McDonald 1995: 46–8). The text merely reflects Jesus' awareness of a common tradition of his day about martyrs in Israel. Further, it cannot be shown that the ‘prophets’ are the same as those in the Hebrew Bible. All writers of sacred literature at that time were considered prophets (Barr 1983: 55–6).

  • 9. Baba Bathra 14b (?c.140–180 CE). This is the first Jewish text that identifies the books of the Hebrew Bible. Although preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (BT), this passage is generally understood as a baraita (‘external’; pl. baraitoth), that is, a tradition from the time of 70–200 CE that was not included in the Mishnah. That this baraita did not find a place in the Mishnah suggests that the text had not yet found widespread approval by the closure and codification of the Mishnah at the end of the second century CE. It clearly identifies the second and third parts (Prophets and Writings) of the Hebrew Bible and assumes the Law, or Torah. The Prophets (Nebiim) and Writings (Hagiographa, or Ketubim) are identified as follows:

    Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets.…The order of the Hagiographa [or ‘Writings’, = Ketubim] is Ruth, the book of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles. (b. Baba Bathra 14b, Leiman trans.)

    Following the listing of books in the Prophets and the Writings, the authorship of each book in this passage is identified (see complete text of 14b–15a). The order and books of these scriptures varied considerably for Christians until the technology used in producing writings materials in the fourth century CE had progressed sufficiently so that all of the scriptures could be included in a single large volume. When that happened, there was a greater stability in the order and specific books in the Bible. While the Baba Bathra text likely reflects an early understanding of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, there is no evidence that this view was widespread in the second century CE. Otherwise, it would probably have been included in the Mishnah in the early part of the third century CE.

B. The Importance of Qumran

The collection of books found near the location of the Essene community at Qumran is very important for determining the status of scripture among the Jews in the first century. It is well known that all of the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament of the Protestant churches except Esther were found in the caves of Qumran. One should not make too much of the absence of Esther, however, since the failure to find a copy of Esther at Qumran may be more a matter of chance than design. Only a small fragment of the Chronicles was found at Qumran, and had there been more worms in the cave where it was found, it too might not have survived. Cross could be right in suggesting that the absence of Esther may be due to worms rather than rejection by the Essenes (Cross 1998: 225)! Nevertheless, a wide collection of non-canonical literature was also found alongside canonical literature in the eleven caves at Qumran. Remarkably, except for the books of Genesis (fifteen copies), Exodus (fifteen) Deuteronomy (twenty-five), Isaiah (nineteen), and Psalms (thirty), there were more manuscripts of several non-canonical books than most of the books in the Old Testament. For example, there are multiple copies of 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll. The Damascus Document at Qumran cites Jubilees as the authority on divisions of times (CD 16. 3–4), a reference to the sacredness of that text.

C. The Rabbinic Tradition

The rabbis of the late first and early second centuries CE distinguished sacred writings from non-sacred ones by calling the former writings those ‘that defile the hands’ (for the use of this description for holy books see m. Shabbath 14a–b; m. Pesahim 10. 9; m. Yadayim 4. 5; cf. t. Yadayim 2. 12–13; t. Niddah 9. 18; y. Sotah 18a). The reading of a text in public worship and teaching it in a religious community imply its sacredness, and the forbidding of that reading in worship also suggests that it was not yet or was no longer considered sacred. For several centuries the rabbis debated the merits of several books that were eventually included in the Hebrew Bible (Leiman 1976: 92–101; see examples below). To account for this phenomenon, Leiman suggests that the disputed writings were ‘canonical’ but not inspired (Leiman 1976: 100)! Nothing in antiquity suggests such a separation between inspiration and canon, however, and inspiration was always a corollary of canon. Later, the rabbis pronounced curses on those who read disputed or rejected books (those that did not ‘defile the hands’), and they were eventually excluded. In the Tosephta (Hebrew for ‘supplement’), that is, writings that were produced some time after the Mishnah (c.220 CE) and before the editing of the two Talmudim, perhaps around 300 CE, it is stated:

The gospels (GYLYWNYN) and books of heretics do not impart uncleanness to hands. And the books of Ben Sira [Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus] and all books written thenceforward do not impart uncleanness to hands. A. R. Simeon b. Menassia' says, ‘The Song of Songs imparts uncleanness to hands, because it was said by the Holy Spirit. Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] does not impart uncleanness of hands, because it is [merely] the wisdom of Solomon’. (t. Yadayim 2.13–14, trans. Neusner: 1907–8)

Elsewhere in the Tosephta, another reference to the Gospels states that ‘The books of the Evangelists and the books of the minim [heretics] they [pious Jews] do not save from a fire. But they are allowed to burn where they are, they and the references to the Divine Name which are in them’; and further, ‘Said R. Tarfon, “May I bury my sons, if such things come into my hands and I do not burn them, and even the references to the divine Name which are in them” ’ (t. Shabbat 13.5, trans. Neusner: 405). See also b. Gittin 45b, which states that a Torah book written by a heretic, even if it contained divine names, was to be burned on the spot, including the divine names. The usual practice of rabbinic Jews was to cut out divine names and store them in a special store-room in a synagogue (a Geniza) used for ‘hiding’ old sacred manuscripts, and to burn the rest of the scroll or book, but not in the case of heretical literature.

According to the Mishnah, those who have no part in the world to come are those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who deny that the Law comes from heaven, and the Epicureans—that is, those who live without restraint. Rabbi Aqiba adds to that, ‘Also he that reads the heretical books’ [= external books, or those excluded from the Hebrew Scriptures] as well as the one who ‘pronounces the Divine name with its proper letters’ (m. Sanhedrin 10.1). In the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers (c.400–500 CE), those who read non-canonical writings are condemned: ‘The following have no share in the World to Come: among others, he who reads uncanonical books’ (Num. Rab. 14. 4; trans. Slotki 1983). The rejection of some of the apocryphal books may have had something to do with the influence that those books had among the Christians, who recognized them as sacred literature, but also because some believed that all books written after Ezra had no prophetic voice and so were considered heretical. What all of this suggests, of course, is that some in the Jewish community continued to read books that did not make it into the Hebrew Scriptures, and this is at a relatively late date in the rabbinic tradition (fourth to fifth century CE).

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