Rabbinic Judaism, today’s familiar form of Jewish faith, recognizes 24 scriptural books — the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible — as authoritative. Western Christianity has inherited this same scriptural canon.
Judaism is a classic “religion of the book.” But it wasn’t always so. Neither Moses nor the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a Bible. It didn’t exist. Their religion rested, rather, on intimate contact with God, living revelation. Indeed, no Old Testament existed during the Old Testament period. Inspired writings arose gradually, circulated separately and (without printing, paper and widespread literacy) probably had few readers.
The destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 586 B.C. and the Jews’ subsequent Babylonian exile encouraged construction of a faith not dependent on sacrifices and shrines. The last Hebrew biblical prophet, Malachi, lived in the mid- to late 400s B.C. — the very time that Ezra and Nehemiah laid the foundation of the Hebrew biblical canon.
The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees says that Nehemiah “founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings.” (“Ta Biblia,” the Greek words from which our “Bible” comes, mean “the books.” The Bible is, really, a library.) The book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back to Jerusalem from Babylon.
Some scholars argue that the Hebrew biblical canon had been established by the time of the Hasmonean dynasty (Herod’s Maccabean predecessors, in the two centuries before Christ), while others argue that it wasn’t fixed until at least the second century A.D.
The first reference to a 24-book Jewish canon is found in 2 Esdras, which was probably written in the first half of the second century, but it also suggests the existence of other important but unidentified writings (perhaps including the so-called “Enoch literature”):
“Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people.”
The Pharisees debated the status of extra-canonical books; in the second century, Rabbi Akivah declared that those who read them wouldn’t share in the afterlife. The Mishnah, compiled at the end of the second century, records a controversy over the status of certain texts, and, in particular, over whether or not they rendered hands “impure.”
The founders of mainstream Judaism clearly saw a need to draw a line against writings that threatened their views. (They may have been concerned at the rise of Christianity, which brought its own new books and claims of revelation.)
The criteria eventually used in the determination of the Jewish canon were never clearly laid out but appear to have included the following:
1. The books had to have been composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2-7; a few texts attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-exilic Judaism; and Jeremiah 10:11. Hebrew was deemed the language of sacred scripture; Aramaic was the language of everyday speech.
2. The writing had to have been venerated in the Jewish community for generations. The use of Esther at Purim, for example, enabled that book to be included in the canon. Lacking such support, however, the book of Judith was excluded.
3. The text needed to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as Israel’s election or the covenant. The Song of Solomon was probably written simply as a love poem. By reading it allegorically, however, later Jews and Christians could view it as an expression of covenantal love between God and his people.
4. The text had to have been composed before the time of Ezra, because, it was said, inspiration had ceased then.
The barring of anything after Ezra, ostensibly because inspiration ended during his time, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Coupled with the requirement that a text have a long history, it guaranteed that no prophetic inspiration could be admitted after 400 B.C. Genuine ongoing revelation was impossible, by definition.
The decisive factor transforming the ancient Hebrew faith into today’s book-oriented Judaism was the final destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. and the Jews’ worldwide dispersion. The Sadducees, temple-linked aristocrats, lost their reason for existence and quickly disappeared. However, their rivals, the Pharisees, soon created the commentaries of the Talmud as a vast “spiritual temple” or “temple of the mind.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.