The Formation of the Jewish Canon


The Formation of the Jewish Canon

Timothy H. Lim
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 304 pp., $45 (hardcover)
Reviewed by James C. VanderKam

A canon is a list of books considered an authority by a group of people, a list to which no more books may be added and from which none may be subtracted. The list is fixed. The most famous canon is the list of books that make up the Bible. In the case of the Jewish Bible, the canon contains 22 books. The task Timothy Lim sets for himself in The Formation of the Jewish Canon is to examine how that Jewish canon came about.

There is a basic problem with studying the subject: We do not have enough evidence to trace in detail the process through which the books passed from the times they were written to the time they were gathered into a canon. We have a fairly good idea about the date by which the books in the Jewish Bible (the same as the ones in the Protestant Old Testament) were completed (the latest seems to be Daniel, finished in approximately 165 B.C.E.), and we know that in the Rabbinic period a specific list of 22 books constituted the canon. Between these temporal poles many texts were written, but they rarely address what we would call canonical issues. Some of these later sources drop hints that certain texts were authorities or make outright claims for them; mostly, however, they offer less clear statements or speak only about groups of books (e.g., “the law and the prophets”). Moreover, there is no term in Second- Temple literature or the New Testament corresponding to our word “canon.” And no surviving text before Josephus’s Against Apion (the 90s C.E.) gives the specific number of texts considered reliable (22).

In view of this rather frustrating situation, anyone wishing to study the issue must have recourse to those scattered hints and statements about various texts and try to decide what can be inferred from them.

It would be tempting to confine our search to references to books that eventually made it into the canon. However, that would ignore the evidence that some books (e.g., Enoch) which did not become part of the official canon were regarded authoritatively by some groups. So the problem is extremely complicated, as well as obscure.

Timothy Lim now joins the group of scholars who have struggled with the topic. He largely covers the usual series of texts thought to bear on the issue, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. He does this quite comprehensively and in a more detailed and often fresh manner than his predecessors.

Because for the Second Temple period and early Rabbinic times there is no evidence for an official canon, Lim, like others, prefers to speak of “authoritative scriptures,” by which he means “collections of writings that were accepted and used by a particular Jewish or Christian community. The term refers not to a fixed, official list of books but to the divinely inspired nature of these writings. That these divinely inspired writings were gathered in ‘collections’ is evidenced by the titular descriptors, such as ‘the books of Moses,’ ‘the books of the Prophets’ or ‘the Psalms of David.’”

In the end, Lim concludes that the present-day Jewish canon is essentially the Pharisaic canon (though presumably “canon” would not be the word to use for it) that was adopted in Rabbinic Judaism and that it was closed “probably between 150 and 250 C.E. But this ‘closing’ did not end all debates.” Discussions about the status of Ecclesiastes, for example, continued well after this time. Other authoritative collections existed at earlier times (e.g., for the people of the Scrolls). But the Pharisaic “canon” became the majority one. Outside factors, such as the rise of Christianity, probably played a part in moving Jewish authorities to define a canon.

Lim has written a disciplined and detailed study of the texts and issues. His book should prove a valuable, upto-date resource.

James C. VanderKam is John A. O’Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in literature and history of early Judaism and is a member of the team that edited and translated the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts.

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