Canonical History and the Questions of Bible and Biblical
The Perspective of Ancient Judaism
(From a paper presented in Landau, Germany)
This brief statement intends to attack the Bible and its canon in totally Jewish terms. We hope in this way to facilitate a realization of the extent to which the academic discussion of these issues has been conditioned by fundamentally Christian terms, definitions and issues, or by objective academic language that, while welcome, does not represent Judaism in its own light. Let’s save time and call this: “Reclaiming the Jewish Bible”—the title of a book I should probably write.
It’s not that Bible isn’t a Jewish term; it is. Ha-sefarim in Dan. 9:2 is translated as en tois biblois, and this is the origin of the term Bible, ta biblia. Judaism, in all its manifestations, has accepted the notion of a set of books that were authoritative. These are books that were believed to emerge from the experience of divine revelation: direct for the Torah; less direct for the Prophets, and indirect for the Writings. To be authoritative, a book must be believed to be divinely inspired in some way. Because they were not seen as authoritative, over twenty books mentioned in the Bible did not survive. Besides divine inspiration there was chronology. No book that did not claim to have been composed before the end of the Persian period could be accepted as inspired, since prophecy was believed to have ended then. So the corpora we call Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls were disallowed.
Yes, the Qumran sect and even the rabbis believed in the continuation of prophecy of some minor type, the “holy spirit” or bat kol (divine echo), but this was simply not the real thing and, hence, none of these later books was (I will use the modern adjective) biblical. Why do I avoid canonical? Because it assumes a meeting (synod)–on the New Testament model–that never happened. The rabbis do argue about whether certain books “defile the hands,” a description that seems to cohere with authoritative status. But we are never told directly that this is the same issue. Nor is there any convincing explanation, except for the phenomenological, for this halakhic category. In any case, the “canonical” debate in Judaism was resolved not by any authoritative body, but rather in a different way—by a consensus of the Jewish people.
Perhaps you have gathered that I reject the open canon theory for the scrolls? Correct. I argue that there was a closed canon, that is, a collection of specific books thought to be authoritative for the group at a specific time. But I also recognize that for some Jewish groups, at certain times, this collection probably contained a few books not in our canon. Why am I so sure? No Dead Sea nor other Second Temple text, nor New Testament nor Rabbinic text, uses any texts as authoritative except the same list we are used to, with a few exceptions that may have been part of someone’s “closed” canon. In the Qumran scrolls, the Hebrew or Aramaic term sefer designated authoritative books and, therefore, is never used–with one exception, sefer serekh–to refer to any books but our Hebrew Bible and the few other books that may have been considered authoritative. Of course we know that the Hellenistic canon included more books. But for Judaism, if it’s authoritative, we expect to see it in action, becoming a building block in the ever-growing Lego City we call the Jewish tradition. If we can’t find traces of its effects, it is because it is not authoritative.
Where did we get the idea of an open canon at Qumran? It is a theory, like the well-known three text theory, that seeks to elevate the Septuagint, with its additional books, as the basis of the New Testament. But, ironically, none of the deuteronocanonical books has been used in the New Testament, although Jude quotes Enoch. To open the canon beyond the deuterocanonical allows the acceptance of the New Testament as ‘”biblical.” Put simply, it is a reflection of Christian theology.
The group of books that were authoritative were the same in all the sects, give or take a few items: Esther, Ben Sira, Enoch, Jubilees and the Levi Document. Contrary to the confused report of one Church Father, who mixed them up with the Samaritans, the Sadducees had the same Bible as the Pharisees and later rabbinic tradition, although the Samaritans did not. In fact, as Josephus proudly proclaimed, to have this Bible was to be a Jew. It was and remains a unifier of the Jewish people.
For Palestinian Jews, this Bible was divided in three parts. I accept the indications of a tripartite (three-part) canon at Qumran, not as a finished product but rather with two stable portions, Torah and Prophets, but with the third still-developing and with some debate still going on. I see evidence for this in the Scrolls, New Testament and Josephus, not to mention the later rabbinic texts.
But to speak of the Jewish Bible is to speak about much more. The notion of some kind of biblical text divorced from its ritual and national-cultural place in Judaism, hence a Bible divorced from exegesis that is not literal or academic, what we call in academic terms the “Hebrew Bible,” is not Jewish. No Jew in the synagogue has ever heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” It is a termed coined by Society of Biblical Literature to solve a problem, and it is indeed a good solution. Pre-modern Jews, even in the Hellenistic period, never heard of JEPD, even though they had their own understanding of the manner in which the word of God was made up of a variety of what we call “documents.” It’s just that to them, all these sections were revealed by God to Moses.
So here is the big irony: Because Jews and Judaism believed that the Bible had been given to them by God through Moses, they were free to allow its traditions to expand through exegesis. Because they believed in a fixed text and canon, they could allow the Bible to become the starting point for an unending, in some views, even infinite oral Law. This ongoing Tanakh is the real Jewish Bible. This is the cultural phenomenon that made and remade Judaism over the ages. Sadly, this is a Bible that Jews started to fear when Christianity came into being with its interpretation of its Old Testament. This is the Bible that the traditional Jewish community moved further away from with the rise of modern biblical studies and the questions of faith it raised in an era in which Reform and Conservative Judaism had come to be. This is also the Bible that Israelis are reclaiming, whether they call it Miqra’ or Tanakh. Perhaps the great challenge to the Jewish Bible as a concept is that it still needs to be fully reclaimed. One final point: they told me to be controversial; I hope I was!