The For­ma­tion of the Jew­ish Canon

Tim­o­thy H. Lim
  • Review
By – April 30, 2014

The for­ma­tion of the Jew­ish canon, or list of author­i­ta­tive Scrip­tures, has been high­ly con­test­ed among schol­ars. Since the three-stage the­o­ry of the devel­op­ment of the canon — which espoused that the three stages of can­on­iza­tion cor­re­spond­ed with the three divi­sions of the Tanakh: Pen­ta­teuch, Prophets, and the Writ­ings — was large­ly dis­pelled in the 1970s and 80s, there has yet to be a the­o­ry accept­ed as widely.

Lim’s expert treat­ment of the ancient liter­ary sources regard­ing this top­ic, rang­ing from the Let­ter of Aris­teas to rab­binic lit­er­a­ture, is of use to both laypeo­ple and schol­ars, giv­ing a con­cise overview of the cur­rent schol­ar­ship as well as con­vinc­ing argu­ments for his own posi­tion. He dif­fer­en­ti­ates between canon” and author­i­ta­tive Scrip­tures,” defin­ing canon” as a fixed list of books con­sid­ered author­i­ta­tive by a com­mu­ni­ty, as opposed to author­i­ta­tive Scrip­tures,” writ­ings that were con­sid­ered to be divine and inspired before the appear­ance of this list. The major­i­ty canon” that man­i­fest­ed itself at the end of this his­tor­i­cal process was a com­pi­la­tion of author­i­ta­tive Scriptures.

Suc­cess­ful­ly dis­prov­ing the­o­ries of the canon’s clo­sure dur­ing the time of the Mac­cabees as well as dur­ing the era of the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud, Lim shows through a thor­ough exam­i­na­tion of the avail­able lit­er­ary sources that a list of author­i­ta­tive Scrip­tures was large­ly agreed upon by the end of the first cen­tu­ry. He cau­tious­ly accepts John Collins’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the end of this process with the end of sec­tar­i­an­ism and major­i­ty consen­sus that came along with it after the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Temple.

Giv­en the lack of con­crete evi­dence, it is impos­si­ble to come to any his­tor­i­cal conclu­sions regard­ing the clo­sure of the Jew­ish canon. How­ev­er, Lim’s treat­ment of this top­ic pro­vides a con­vinc­ing the­o­ry for the canon’s devel­op­ment as well as how these Scrip­tures were treat­ed through­out antiquity.

Relat­ed Content:

Bernie Hod­kin is a Ph.D. stu­dent in Ancient Judaism at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. Her areas of inter­est include Jew­ish reac­tions to Sec­ond Tem­ple destruc­tion and Roman impe­ri­al­ism, apoc­a­lyp­tic lit­er­a­ture, and the rela­tion­ship between Pales­tin­ian and Baby­lon­ian rab­binic sources.

Discussion Questions