What is the Good Word (2)? The Old Testament

This is the second in the series What is the Good Word?:

Here is how I learned the number of books in the Bible: there are 39 in the Old Testament; if you multiply 3 x 9, you get 27, which is the number of books in the New Testament; when you add the two together, you get 66, which is the number of books in the Bible.  Hands up my Catholic friends if this is the math you did. The Roman Catholic Church, however, accepts 46 books of the Old Testament, as do some Eastern Orthodox churches, not to mention other eastern churches, such as the Ethiopic church, for example, which accepts 46 OT books, but includes among them 1 Enoch and Jubilees, which are not accepted as canonical by any other church or by the Jews.


The mention of the Jews brings us to the beginning of our quest: granted the Jews do not have an “Old Testament,” which is dependent upon the existence of and acceptance of a "New Testament," but all of the writings of the Christian “Old Testaments”, however construed, have a Jewish origin. Is the OT, either of the Protestants or the Catholics or the Orthodox Church, in line with the Jewish scriptures? What do the Jews accept as canonical texts in the Tanach  (a term which combines the first Hebrew letter of the three divisions of the Scriptures: Torah, Prophets {Neb’im} and Writings {Chetubim or Ketubim})? When did the Jews decide upon their canon and was it fixed at the time of Jesus? And if some Christians have more texts in the OT, which are nevertheless Jewish texts, who wrote them, when did they write them and where did they write them? Did any Jews ever consider these texts canonical themselves or only the Christians?

As construed today, the Tanach has the same texts as are found in the Protestant Old Testament – which the Reformers chose in the 16th century – and these can be divided into 39 separate books, as in the Protestant OT , or into 24 books, as they were in the Hebrew. The content, however, is the same. One of the reasons that Protestants did not accept the deutero-canonical or apocryphal books, as they came to be known, is that the Jews did not accept them.  Yet, although we cannot delve into it here, many prominent and orthodox voices in the early Christian church argued for only the books that the Jews themselves used in Hebrew (Jerome, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem and others: see NJBC, 1041-42), so the issue was alive long before Martin Luther or John Calvin.  

When did the Jews “close” their canon? This is hard to determine exactly.  Many scholars, Jewish and Christian, point to the “loose” nature of the canon prior to the 2nd century A.D. (or C.E.), but this should not be exaggerated. The books of Moses, the Torah that is, the Prophets, even most of the Writings would have been accepted as scripture, certainly in Jesus’ day, so it is not as if any and every text was in the race for canonical status. On the other hand, it is precisely on the margins where the boundaries are fluid or crooked or unclear. The Septuagint (LXX) and other Greek versions contained writings which seem to have been popular amongst Greek speaking Jews long before the rise of Christianity, but it is not clear that any of them were considered “scripture.” Before the scrolls and bits of scrolls were found at Qumran and other sites around the Dead Sea it was thought that a number of these texts were written originally in Greek, though now we know that many of them were written in Hebrew first. Does their translation into Greek indicate that they were considered scripture or simply that they were considered valuable, interesting and edifying texts?  At any rate, it was from these Greek texts, additional to the Tanach as we have it now, that Catholic and Orthodox Christians derived their additional OT texts. It is difficult to know if Jesus would have been aware of these texts, in Hebrew or in Greek, but early Christians were and the Church “chose” these texts over a period of time as their OT – Paul, for instance, seems to rely on the LXX for citations and his documents are the earliest of Christianity. The fact that Greek became the predominant language of the early Church certainly would have made the LXX an attractive option as well. Certain readings in the LXX, such as Isaiah 7:14, which supported Christian understandings of a passage to a greater degree than the original Hebrew, would also have been compelling reasons.

Most of the texts on the margins were produced in the Hellenistic period, which some scholars would describe as “between the Testaments,” and all appeared in Greek, though we know now that many had an original Hebrew text. Ultimately, the Church chose an OT canon based upon its authority, even though some of these texts never were considered scripture by the majority (or perhaps in some cases any) Jews.  Interestingly, the argument used to be made that the Tanach found final form at the rabbinic center of Javneh (also known as Jabneh or Jamnia) in response to Christians defining their canon, but this explanation has fallen out of favor for a number of reasons. There is a lack of evidence to suggest this was the case; the Rabbis did not yet dominate Jewish religious life to such an extent that they could impose such an understanding of “scripture” on all Jews; and the fact is that the Jewish “canon” seems to have been set by the 1st century A.D (C.E.).  Shaye J.D. Cohen says, “The rabbis debated the canonical status of various books, but for the most part they were not creating a canon but confronted by a canon that already existed” (From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 229). Other Jewish groups prior to the rise of Christianity had claimed a canon different than that which was accepted by the vast majority of Jews (Cohen,  From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 187) even if we do not know their exact sources of authority for doing so. The early Christians, therefore, would define their canon as other Jewish groups prior to them had done:  these are the texts we choose because we have the revelatory authority to do so. Interestingly, the issue was not settled for Judaism either, as the discussion moved not to other LXX texts, but to whether rabbinic texts, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, described as “oral Torah,” also had canonical status. For Christians, finally, the Reformation pushed the Catholic Church to define on the page at the Council of Trent what for centuries had been its practice: this is our Old Testament. Canon emerges, it is clear, not in one fell swoop, but through the vagaries of practice over time.

John W. Martens

(Please see Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Chapters 6 and 7, for a fuller discussion of the issues related to canonization and Judaism; please see the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Chapter 66, for a fuller discussion of the Catholic understanding of canonization.)


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