Earlier this month I wrote on the history of Christian biblical canons, of which there are several in use today, and the role of Church Councils in the making of Christian Bibles. Today I want to write about the Jewish Bible and what we know about how it came into existence. Just as there is a myth linking Christian Bibles/canon and council, in particular the Council of Nicea, so too with the Jewish Bible, there's a (scholarly) myth that it came into existence following a council of rabbis.
Many Christians assume that the Jewish Bible, is nothing more than the Old Testament. As most Christians are also unaware that there is a plurality of Old Testaments, they also assume that their Old Testament is the one that makes up the Jewish Bible. That's the way I used to think in my younger years until I entered the world of biblical studies.
The standard Protestant Old Testament is the one that most resembles the Jewish Bible. That's because the Reformers, following Jerome's example, took the Hebrew canon as the model for their old Old Testament canon on the notion that original language means original text. Nevertheless the Protestants kept the traditional Christian ordering derived from the old Greek Bible, a four part arrangement of Torah, historical books, wisdom literature and prophets. In contrast the Hebrew Bible has a tripartite structure of Torah, Prophets and Writings (Torah, Nebi'im, Kethubim, hence Tanakh as another name for the Jewish Bible). The Prophets comprise the four 'historical' books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings (the latter two not divided into 2 books as in Christian Bibles but each counted as one book/scroll) plus the four prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets (counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism). The Writings comprise the rest, (150) Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism), Chronicles (likewise counted as one book/scroll in traditional Judaism). Christian Old Testaments usually end with Malachi, the last of the Twelve Minor Prophets and thus look forward to the Christ event. Jewish Bibles end with Chronicles and thus end with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The central revelation for Judaism is the giving of Torah to Moses; the Prophets and Writings are understood as commentary on Torah. The endpoint is the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon which also evokes the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the final Roman destruction of Jerusalem as a Jewish city in 136 CE. In traditional Rabbinic Judaism, Jerusalem is destroyed and the people banished from the land for failing to fully observe Torah. So the Jewish Bible is structured with the main revelation at the start and closes with the reminder of what happens when that revelation is ignored.
So what are the origins of this canon? When was it defined? The short answer is we don't know. The most traditional answer is that the canon came into existence with Ezra, in the early Persian period, at "the end of prophecy". Some scholars, such as Phillip Davies, have suggested the Hasmonean period, late 2nd century - early first century BCE as the time of canonisation. The only problem is that all the evidence from the time of Christ and before indicates that only the five books/scrolls of the Torah had achieved a canonical status amongst most Jews and Samaritans.
There are a number of references to scriptures as a whole in ancient Jewish texts: Sirach 39.1 and in the Prologue; 4QMMT (4Q397 14-21 ii 10-12); 2 Maccabees (2:13); Philo of Alexandria (de Vita Contemplativa 25). Most commonly they are referred to as law(s) and prophets/prophecies/oracles. (In his writings, Philo wrote commentaries only on the 5 Books of Moses and, more broadly, cites mainly from the 5 Books of Moses but also from Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon.) This same pattern is found in the Gospels where Jesus regularly refers to Moses and the prophets or the law and the prophets. The Letter of Aristeas, which recounts the myth of the miraculous translation of the scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, clearly intends the Torah and not a wider collection of scriptures.
The other evidence we have from the turn of the era is the collection of scrolls discovered at Qumran. Copies of all the texts comprising the Hebrew canon were found at Qumran, with the exception of Esther. Esther is likewise omitted from some early Christian canon lists too. However at Qumran copies were also found of Sirach (in Hebrew), Tobit (in Hebrew and Aramaic) and the Letter of Jeremiah (in Greek). All three are excluded from the Jewish Bible and counted as Apocrypha by Protestants but are included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments. Furthermore, the various Psalms scrolls not only included Hebrew texts for Psalms 151, 154 & 155 but quite a number of other unknown psalms and two thirds of a poem included in Sirach 51. It's also clear that at Qumran the Psalms and David were regarded as prophetic, an understanding also seen in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles. So when we read ancient references to the Law and the Prophets we can't be certain what texts the designation Prophets includes and refers to. Does it include the Psalms and does it include Daniel (Jesus refers to Daniel as a prophet in Matthew), both of which are included in the Writings in the Jewish Bible?
And does the term Prophets include other texts and figures too? As well as the three Deutero-canonical texts and Psalms 151, 154, 155, multiple copies of two texts included in the Ethiopian canon were also found at Qumran, fifteen scrolls of Jubilees (in Hebrew) and 20 scrolls of 1 Enoch (in Aramaic). Just to put that in context, only four canonical biblical texts were found in equal or greater numbers: Genesis (20), Isaiah (24), Deuteronomy (27), Psalms (34), the last, of course, including non-canonical and hitherto unknown psalms. Jubilees is itself cited in a number non-biblical texts at Qumran and was used extensively; it seems to have been regarded as scripture there. Furthermore many traditions found in later Jewish literature make their first appearance in Jubilees. 1 Enoch was not only important for early Christianity but is likewise probably the oldest text of Jewish esoteric tradition. 1 Enoch gives us a glimpse not only at the mystical (and apocalyptic) gestalt from which Christianity was born but also the matrix from which would come not only Jewish Merkabah mysticism but subsequently mystical traditions including Kabbalah. Neither of these texts made it into the standard Jewish biblical canon but they are pivotal for subsequent Jewish traditions that enframe that canon.
Do ancient references to Law/Torah and Prophets include these two texts? Jubilees is a retelling of Genesis and part of Exodus; it presents itself as a revelation from Sinai given by an angel to Moses. Do ancient references to the Law include Jubilees alongside the five books of Moses? It's quite possible some do. And does 'the Prophets' include Enoch, the great primal prophet of the antediluvian world? If David and the Psalms were counted as prophetic and given the importance of 1 Enoch for ancient Judaism and early Christianity, it's hard to rule out the possibility.
The earliest glimpses of a defined canon in Judaism can be found in Josephus and 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) both from the late 1st century. In Against Apion (1. 38-43) Josephus declares
We have but 22 books, containing the history of all time, books that are believed to be divine. Of these, 5 belong to Moses, containing his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind down to the time of his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in 13 books. The remaining 4 books comprise hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life. From the days of Artaxerxes to our own times every event has indeed been recorded; but these recent records have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them, on account of the failure of the exact succession of prophets. There is practical proof of the spirit in which we treat our Scriptures; although so great an interval of time has now passed, not a soul has ventured to add or to remove or to alter a syllable; and it is the instinct of every Jew, from the day of his birth, to consider these Scriptures as the teaching of God, and to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to lay down his life in their behalf.
But there are several problems here. The standard Jewish canon has 24 books with the Prophets comprising 8 books and the Writings comprising 13 books. Furthermore the biblical texts existed in differing editions some of which, such as Greek and Hebrew Jeremiah, were quite markedly different in size and ordering.
With 2 Esdras we get the first reference to a 24 book canon: "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people" (14:45-46). However in 2 Esdras, we actually find a two-tier, inner-outer, greater-lesser canon with the outer/lesser one being the 24 books and an inner/greater canon of 70 additional books! 2 Esdras also gives no details of what books are included in either of these canons.
The earliest canon listing of the Jewish Bible comes from several centuries later, roughly 550-600CE, in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b-15a):
Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. Let us examine this. Hosea came first, as it is written, God spake first to Hosea. But did God speak first to Hosea? Were there not many prophets between Moses and Hosea? R. Johanan, however, has explained that [what It means is that] he was the first of the four prophets who prophesied at that period, namely, Hosea, Isaiah, Amos and Micah. Should not then Hosea come first? — Since his prophecy is written along with those of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi came at the end of the prophets, he is reckoned with them. But why should he not be written separately and placed first? — Since his book is so small, it might be lost [if copied separately]. Let us see again. Isaiah was prior to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Then why should not Isaiah be placed first? — Because the Book of Kings ends with a record of destruction and Jeremiah speaks throughout of destruction and Ezekiel commences with destruction and ends with consolation and Isaiah is full of consolation; therefore we put destruction next to destruction and consolation next to consolation.The order of the Hagiographa is Ruth, the Book of Psalms, Job, Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles. Now on the view that Job lived in the days of Moses, should not the book of Job come first? — We do not begin with a record of suffering. But Ruth also is a record of suffering? — It is a suffering with a sequel [of happiness], as R. Johanan said: Why was her name called Ruth? — Because there issued from her David who replenished the Holy One, blessed be He, with hymns and praises.Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and [the last] eight verses of the Pentateuch. Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah. Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations. Hezekiah and his colleagues wrote the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Men of the Great Assembly wrote the Twelve Minor Prophets, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther. Ezra wrote the book that bears his name and the genealogies of the Book of Chronicles up to his own time. This confirms the opinion of Rab, since Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: Ezra did not leave Babylon to go up to Eretz Yisrael until he had written his own genealogy. Who then finished it [the Book of Chronicles]? — Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah
I have quoted the text in full as it makes a strong contrast to the ancient passages on canon by its very specificity and detail. (Note that Ezra and Nehemiah are written together on one scroll and so the Book of Nehemiah is not specified in the list; also note the different order of the four Latter Prophets: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve) Given how late this passage is, it appears to me that the Jewish biblical canon was evolving at the same time as the Christian one(s).
Nevertheless, just as there is a popular myth about the Council of Nicea and the Christian Bible, there has also been a (scholarly) myth about a Rabbinic Council and the Jewish Bible. This Council was believed to have taken place at Jamnia/Yavne (near modern Jaffa in Israel) around 80 or 90 CE i.e. after the 1st Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple. This Council was believed to have both defined the Jewish biblical canon and also to have issued a prayer against the Minim, a category thought to have included Jewish Christians, designed to exclude them from the synagogue. For many years last century, Jamnia was important for scholars of both Old and New Testaments, the former understanding it as defining once and for all the standard (Protestant) Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, while the latter understood it as both marking the parting of Christianity and Judaism as well as giving a likely date for John's Gospel, believed to have been written for those Jewish Christians being excluded from the synagogues by the prayer against the Minim.
So big a mountain out of such a molehill, on both counts, but I will only address the canonical one here. Josephus wrote after Jamnia but seems not to have known about and neither do early Christians. Whatever might have been happening at Jamnia it was hardly a council like those of the early Church. Furthermore we only know about it from references in later rabbinic texts. Only one of them, Mishnah Yadayim (3:5), refers to scriptural matters but it does not define a canon as in Talmud Bavli quoted above but rather it describes a discussion about whether Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are to be counted as scripture:
All the holy writings make the hands impure. The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure.R. Judah says: The Song of Songs makes the hands impure, but there is a dispute about Ecclesiastes.R. Jose says: Ecclesiastes does not make the hands impure, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs.R. Simeon says: Ecclesiastes is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai [who say it does not make the hands impure] and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel [who say it does make the hands impure]..R. Simeon b. Azzai said: I received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the court that the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure.R. Akiba said: God forbid! No one in Israel ever disagreed about the Song of Songs [by saying] that it does not make the hands impure. For the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. So if they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Ecclesiastes.Johanan b. Joshua the son of the father-in-law of R. Akiba said: in accordance with the words of Ben Azzai so they disputed, and so they reached a decision.
Indeed, early rabbinic texts recount similar discussions about whether various other biblical texts are to be counted as scripture too. So rather than an account of a final ruling what we really have is an account of one of many discussions that would lead to the final canonical ruling recorded in the Talmud Bavli. And yet, ironically, three times in that same Talmud, Sirach is cited as scripture, one of them citing it as part of the Kethubim or Writings (Baba Kamma 92b, also Hagigh 13a and Yebamoth 63b). What's also overlooked by Christians is that the Mishnah, itself is regarded as Torah in Rabbinic Judaism, given to Moses on Sinai along with the Pentateuch and passed down orally by the sages until written down after the Jewish Wars and the destruction of the Temple. So Mishnah stands beside Tanakh as equally Scripture for Jews. And furthermore, the subsequent texts of Judaism, Talmudim, Midrashim, Targumim, even the much later Zohar come to be counted as part of that Oral Torah Tradition that ends up in writing and so all share to some degree in the authority of Scripture. So in reality the Jewish canon is bigger than anything that Christians can imagine in terms of sacred text, the Tanakh or Jewish Bible being part of a much broader (and open/expanding?) canon of sacred, inspired texts.
My discussion has mostly focused on ancient Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritans, famously, regard only the Five Books of Moses as canonical scripture. Curiously, however, the Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel (or Falashas), kept the Book of Jubilees in their Bible just like their Christian neighbours. Whether or not their Bible included other texts outside the Hebrew canon I've yet to ascertain.
Nevertheless the history of scripture in Judaism demonstrates the same principle found in the history of Christian biblical canons. Bible or canonical scripture did not just fall out of heaven one day but was created and shaped by the communities that cherish it. Furthermore there is no normative canon binding on all communities but multiple and overlapping canons shared by many different communities now and in the past. There is not and never has been and never can be a single normative canon binding on all. Such a singular and exclusive canon would in fact mark a serious breach, rupture, distortion of the richness of the biblical tradition itself.