A Book of the People: Judaism and the Canon of Scripture

A Book of the People: Judaism and the Canon of Scripture

As is certainly the case today, Judaism was not a monolithic religion in the first century.

Limiting ourselves to even the New Testament witness, there are various, competing sects—such as the Pharisees and Sadducees—who disagreed over everything from the resurrection to the proper interpretation of God’s law.

Alongside these doctrinal differences was a debate regarding the boundaries of special revelation, or what we today call the ‘canon of scripture.’ Was Esther an important, religious text? Should the books of the Maccabees be read in the synagogues? There were far more questions than answers in the first century context, and all of this sheds light on our understanding of canonical scripture in the twenty-first century.

Emerging from the ruins of the temple in the latter-half of the first century was the greatest Jewish sect of all: the early Christians or disciples of Jesus. As the Christian Church was well-established in the lifetime of the apostles, Judaism underwent a sort of metamorphosis. With the temple now a thing of the past, what would be the central focus of the Jewish religion?

It is in this context that the canon of scripture for both Jews and the early Christians took shape.

Despite the advent of synagogues across both the diaspora and Palestine, the primary focus of Judaism—even in the diaspora—was the temple cult. Anyone that lived remotely near Jerusalem would make pilgrimage several times a year for the festal celebrations. The temple was at the heart of the Jewish faith. And as a result, there was not the same level of textual study as seen in both Christianity and Judaism today. Scriptural commentary was just beginning to take shape by the first century, and still only the scribes and priests could actually make sense of the ancient, Hebrew language.

Between the diaspora and the various forms of Judaism in Palestine, there were as many opinions on the canonical texts as there were sects. This is all important to us as Christians because it helps us understand the manner (and time) in which the scriptures, as we receive them today, began to take shape—and this was well after the apostles and the end of the first century.

Lester L. Grabbe sets forth a Second Temple Judaism of the first century that is different than some might assume, especially when it comes to the biblical text:

Judaism could not become a “religion of the book” until the books were edited or written and then became accepted as authoritative. Instead, Judaism began as and remained a temple religion until the temple was destroyed for good in 70. The cult was the main form of worship, and for Jews in Palestine within relatively easy reach of Jerusalem to neglect worship at the temple would have been regarded as a grave omission.
An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism, p. 131

Indeed, it was impossible for either Judaism or early Christianity to be ‘a people of the book,’ as the confines of this ‘book’ were yet to be determined (with any consensus, at least). Grabbe continues:

The canon as we think of it was not in existence before 70. Many or perhaps all of the books which went to make up the later Jewish canon were already extant and most of them had become authoritative in some sense to many Jews. Nevertheless, we have no evidence that the later Hebrew canon was accepted as standard. The Qumran community apparently accepted a variety of sacred books beyond those of the Old Testament and also did not use some in our present Hebrew Bible (e.g. Esther); other Jewish communities (e.g. Alexandria) may have had a different estimate of the various biblical books.

Additionally, the Samaritans and Sadducees both accepted only the Torah or first five books of Moses as divine, while Jesus himself mentions merely “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24:44). The ‘law’ and the ‘prophets’ correspond to the scriptural divisions of contemporary Judaism (the Tanakh), but this does not speak to the definite content of each, nor are the ‘writings’ or Ketuvim mentioned. Alexandrian/diaspora Judaism and its canon—which the Church inherited from her earliest days—has several more books than most contemporary divisions of Judaism today.

So what does all of this tell us about the development and canonization of sacred scripture?

First, we should keep in mind that there was not a settled canon of scripture before A.D. 70.

In fact, there’s not a universally accepted canon of scripture between the various branches of Judaism today. Rabbinical Judaism, as a lineage of the scribes and Pharisees, came to some consensus on these issues by the end of the second century, but this was already long after the Church had assumed the canon and textual tradition of the Septuagint as normative and even authoritative in most cases.

Second, there were different textual families of the scriptures even in the first century.

There were various Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek sources for several books of scripture even prior to the first century, and not all of these agreed in reading. Some differences are minor, but some are more significant—and this can especially be seen in how different authors of the New Testament chose particular source texts when citing the Old Testament. The Septuagint family was extremely popular throughout the diaspora, while certain Jews and even a Christian heretic later did their own Greek translations of the Old Testament (based on different manuscript traditions) in the second century.

Third, having a single, ‘original’ text of scripture was apparently unimportant to both Jews and Christians in the first century.

In distinction from Islam, Christianity did not originate as a ‘religion of the book.’ The Bible, as Fr. Thomas Hopko has often put it, is not a ‘Christian Quran.’ The scriptures are the pinnacle of God’s special revelation to his people, the Church, but they are not the only form of revelation. We are not Deists, and our God has not left us with only a book to try and ‘figure things out’ as best we can. Instead of being a people of the book, the scriptures were the book—the divine writings—preserved and compiled by the people.

The transmission, preservation, and proclamation of the scriptures is something inspired in the life of the Church as the Body of Christ, in and through the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, what we have received and what we read in Liturgy is the most important and essential ‘canon’ of Christian scripture today.

By studying the scriptures—carefully, and with reverence—between the markers set by our fathers, we can do so without fear of being led astray.