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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Was God involved in the formation of the Hebrew canon?

This blogger has advanced the notion that the Judeo-Christian Bible is the product of a joint effort between human and Divine. If that is the case, then it would be reasonable to expect some evidence of Divine involvement in the process of designating an official collection of writings. What about that? Does history offer evidence of anything other than a random, messy and much disputed process for arriving at the current canon of the Old Testament?

First, it should be acknowledged that most Christians are woefully ignorant about the history of the development of the Biblical canon. In fact, many Christians wouldn't even know where to begin looking for answers. Some have wrongly supposed that God told someone along the way, "These are the books that I want in the Bible." (Just for the record, that never happened!) Nevertheless, the reality is that many excellent books have been written about the formation of the canon. Hence, this post is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject - it is my intention to present a few thoughts for consideration within the context of this present discussion.

For our purposes, we will begin with Jesus Christ. In short, although it is an extremely interesting subject, I don't believe the long history of the development of the Hebrew canon prior to the arrival of Christ is relevant to our current discussion. The reason that I am able to make such a statement is that there is much evidence to suggest that the Hebrew canon was settled by the time that Christ appeared on earth. What's the evidence?

The First Century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his famous treatise entitled Against the Greeks or Against Apion in some detail about the content of Scripture in his day. He wrote: "For we [Jews] have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another (as the Greeks have), but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death...the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life." (Flavius Josephus Against Apion, Book I, Section 8 of William Whiston's Josephus: Complete Works)

If you're wondering why that book count doesn't square with the one in your Bible (39), then you should be aware of the fact that Christians divide the books of the Old Testament differently than the Jews. According to torah.org, the Jewish Bible is divided into twenty-four books: 1) the five books of Moses [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy]; 2) the eight books of the prophets [Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (minor prophets)]; 3) the eleven books of the writings [Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles]. Why two extra books in the present Jewish count? In times past, the book of Ruth was attributed to Samuel and associated with the book of Judges; and Lamentations was associated with Jeremiah.

That the Old Testament canon was settled by the time of Christ is further reinforced by the gospel accounts of his life. Not only do the authors of the gospels quote extensively from Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah, Christ himself is reported there to have quoted extensively form it. Jesus used passages from the Law (Deuteronomy 6 and 8) to answer Satan's temptations (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). He quotes the prophet Isaiah in his "Parable of the Soils" (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15). Christ talked about Moses, Abraham and Elijah. He also gave the people of his day "the sign of the prophet Jonah" as the proof that he was the promised Messiah (Matthew 12:39 and 16:4).

Christ's familiarity with the story of the Old Testament also indicates that Scripture was available to an average Jew of the time (Jesus was certainly not considered part of the Jewish or Roman elite). This impression is further reinforced by the story of his visit to a local synagogue. We read: "He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written (once again indicating familiarity with the text): The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:16-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)

That this familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures was not confined to priests and scribes is further reinforced by an account we have in the Acts of the Apostles. We are told there that the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians, because they "examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11) In this regard, it is also instructive to note that in his second letter to Timothy, Paul reminded his young apprentice that he [Timothy] had known the Scriptures from childhood. (II Timothy 3:15) This is followed by that favorite verse of the Fundamentalists: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." (II Timothy 3:16) How would this statement have been useful to young Timothy if he did not have access to those Scriptures? Moreover, whatever we might think about them, this statement also makes clear that Paul regarded the Hebrew canon to be inspired by God (Remember, there wasn't any New Testament at this time).

Was God involved in the formation of the Hebrew canon? Clearly, Christ and his disciples thought "He" was. Moreover, Josephus and the writings of the New Testament make plain that the Hebrew canon was settled by the time of Christ; and that they were available to the average interested Joshua (or should we say Yeshua?).

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