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The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures

Ahasverus, Haman and Esther, RembrandtExcerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The close of our discussion of the Persian period is an appropriate point to take up the question of the biblical canon, or corpus, and how and when it was defined. This problem will take us somewhat afield, since the process of canonization, defining the scope and contents of the Bible, spans several historical periods. Nonetheless, the implications of the process are crucial to the history of Judaism as it will be described in the following chapters.

The term “canon” refers to the closed corpus of biblical literature regarded as divinely inspired. The Hebrew biblical canon represents a long process of selection, as testified to by the Bible itself, which lists some twenty-two books that have been lost to us, no doubt, among other reasons, because they were not included in the canon. Books were only included if they were regarded as holy, that is, divinely inspired.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts, Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Writings. This division is not strictly one of content; it derives from the canonization process in that the three parts were closed at separate times. “The Torah of Moses” was already the name for the first part in the various postexilic books. We will not attempt here to deal with the complex questions regarding the history and authorship of the Torah. Suffice it to say that a unified, canonized Torah was available to Ezra for the public reading which took place in approximately 444 B.C.E. Further, the various legal interpretations (midrashim) found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are themselves a result of the issues raised by a Torah in which there are apparent contradictions and repetitions. It can therefore be stated unquestionably that the canonization of the Torah was completed by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Later rabbinic tradition asserts that prophecy ceased with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. In effect, this meant that books composed thereafter were not to be included in the prophetic canon, the second of the Hebrew Bible’s three parts. This view can be substantiated by the absence of later debate about the canonicity of the prophets, the lack of Greek words in the prophetic books, and the inclusion of Daniel and Chronicles in the Writings rather than in the Prophets. (The debate about Ezekiel recorded in talmudic sources concerned its place in the school curriculum, not in the Prophets.) It must be the case, therefore, that the Prophets were canonized late in the Persian period, probably bythe start of the fourth century B.C.E.

The Writings are a diverse collection. Some of the books included in this corpus are earlier than the canonization of the Prophets and were placed in the Writings because of their literary form or because they were regarded as having a lesser degree of divine inspiration. Other books appear in this collection because they were authored after the canon of the Prophets was closed. As already mentioned, this was the case with Daniel and Chronicles. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are regarded by some scholars as of Hellenistic origin, but rabbinic tradition attributes them to Solomon. Daniel is widely regarded by modern scholars as having been written in the Hellenistic period. There is no evidence at all for the oft-repeated view that the Scriptures were formally canonized at Yavneh. While virtually all the Writings were regarded as canonical by the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., arguments continued regarding the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, and these disputes are attested in rabbinic literature. Second Temple literature indicates that a collection of Writings existed as early as the second century B.C.E. but was not yet regarded as formally closed. We shall have occasion later on to speak of the Hellenistic Jewish Bible, or Septuagint, which included in its canon several later books avowedly authored in the Hellenistic period.

The unfolding of the history of Judaism, and indeed of Christianity and Islam as well, takes place against the background of the interpretation of a revealed, authoritative body of literature. For Judaism this corpus is the text of the Hebrew Bible. The notion of a canon provides a fixed consensus on the contents of this body of sacred literature and, therefore, helps to give unity to the diverse interpretations proposed by the varieties of Judaism encountered throughout history. It was the decision of the Christians to reopen the canon for a moment, and to place the New Testament within it, that created one of the basic disagreements separating Judaism from Christianity. The Hebrew biblical canon drew the lines within which Judaism was to develop and provided grist for the mill of a long and varied history of exegesis. The concept of a canon, with the attendant notions of authority and sanctity, endowed the Hebrew Scriptures with their enduring place in the history of Judaism.

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