XIII THE FORMATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT CANON
[Sidenote: Israel's literature at the beginning of the fourth century before Christ]
Could we have studied the scriptures of the Israelitish race about 400 B.C., we should have classified them under four great divisions: (1) The prophetic writings, represented by the combined early Judean, Ephraimite, and late prophetic or Deuteronomic narratives, and their continuation in Samuel and Kings, together with the earlier and exilic prophecies; (2) the legal, represented by the majority of the Old Testament laws, combined with the late priestly history; (3) the wisdom, represented by the older small collections of proverbs; (4) the devotional or liturgical, represented by Lamentations and the earlier collections of psalms.
[Sidenote: The combining of the prophetic and priestly histories]
Even before all the Old Testament books were written, the work of canonization began; before the first large canon was adopted, the prophetic and priestly narratives, and with them the earlier and later laws, were combined. This amalgamation was the work of a late priestly editor. The Pentateuch and its immediate sequel, Joshua, is the result.
[Sidenote: The method of combining]
A study of these books makes clear the editor's method. Naturally he gave the late priestly versions the precedence. He placed, therefore, its version of the creation first,—a position that it well deserves. Probably as a result of this arrangement the older and more primitive prophetic version of Genesis 2:4a-25 was somewhat abridged, for it begins with the picture of a level plain, watered by a daily mist, and is immediately followed by the account of the creation of man. Genesis 3.and iv. are taken entirely from the prophetic, and practically all of v. from the priestly, group of narratives. Confronted by two variant versions of the flood, he joined them together into a closely knit narrative; but all the elements of both versions are so faithfully preserved that when they are again separated, behold! the two originally complete and self-consistent versions reappear. The story of Noah, the first vineyard-keeper, in ix.20-27, is taken entirely from the prophetic history, but in x. two distinct lists of the nations are joined together. All the story of the tower of Babel in xi.1-9 is from the prophetic, while the genealogical list in the remainder of the chapter is from the priestly history. The patriarchal and subsequent narratives are likewise combined with, the same remarkable skill.
[Sidenote: Later biblical analogies]
Thus the first six Old Testament books were given their final form. The method in general was the same as that followed by the authors of the First and Third Gospels in their use of Matthew's Sayings of Jesus and the original Mark narrative, or by the authors of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles in their citations from the older sources. In his close fusion of three or four parallel narratives the editor's work resembled most closely that of Tatian, who thus combined the four Gospels in his Diatessaron. So far as we are able to observe, the final editor of the Hexateuch preserved, like Tatian, most of the material in his older sources, except where a parallel version verbally duplicated another. The prophetic and priestly narratives also followed lines so distinctly different that cases of duplication were comparatively few.
[Sidenote: Deep significance of the work of the later editors]
To the latest editor of the early narratives we owe the preservation of some or the oldest and most valuable sections of the Old Testament. In that age and land of perishable writing materials, the prevailing method of compilation was one of the effective means whereby the important portions of primitive records were handed down in practically their original form. It is well that we are beginning to understand its significance in the realization of the divine purpose. Important beyond words, although often overlooked, were the services of the faithful editors who without the slightest desire for personal glory or reward, other than the perpetuation of truth, carefully selected, condensed, and combined material gleaned from earlier and fuller sources. To them is due the marvellous preservation of our Old Testament, To the honored role of the prophets and apostles, therefore, let us add the anonymous redactors.
[Sidenote: Date of the beginning of the cannonization of the Law]
The final editors were the immediate precursors of those who formed the successive canons of the Old Testament. Indeed, between the work of the former and the latter there is no clear line of demarcation. A period shortly after 400 B. c. is the date usually accepted for the work of the final editor of the Pentateuch; the canonization of the law, which included these five books, is dated between 400 and 300 B.C. The real canonization of Israel's laws had, however, begun much earlier. The primitive decalogue, represented by Exodus 34. and probably from the first associated with Moses, appears, in the earliest periods of Israel's history, to have enjoyed a canonical authority. The primitive accounts, in Exodus 19. of the establishment of the covenant by Jehovah with his people mark the real beginning of the process of canonization,—a process, that is, of attributing to certain laws a unique and commanding authority.
[Sidenote: Popular acceptance and promulgation of the earlier codes]
Likewise the successive civil, humane, and ceremonial decalogues appear from the days of the united kingdom to have occupied a similar position. Primarily this was probably due to the fact that each was based upon a divine torah or decision, received from Jehovah through the priestly oracle. The public reading and promulgation of the Deuteronomic laws in the days of Josiah, with the attestation of the prophets and the solemn adoption by the people, was an act of canonization far more formal than the final acceptance of the New Testament writings by the Council of Carthage.
[Sidenote: Adoption of the late priestly law]
The next great stage in the canonization of the law is recorded in Nehemiah 10.Then the representatives of the Jewish community entered into a solemn obligation and took oath to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe to do all the commands of Jehovah our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes (v.29.) This action appears to be the historical basis of the fanciful and incredible Jewish traditions concerning the work of the Great Synagogue and the authority of Ezra. The new law thus adopted was evidently the one gradually developed and finally formulated by the Jewish priests in Babylonia. It was accepted, as was the earlier Deuteronomic code, because it met the needs and appealed to the moral and religions sense of those by whom it was adopted.
[Sidenote: Acceptance of the completed Torah]
To set completely aside the Deuteronomic lawbook and the primitive decalogue of Exodus 20.xxiii., already in force among the Jews of Palestine, was impossible and unnecessary. Hence, as we have noted, it was the task of some editor of the next generation to combine these and the earlier prophetic histories with the late priestly law and its accompanying history. Naturally this whole collection was still called the Torah or Law and was at once accepted as canonical by the Jews. This step was also most natural because their interests all centred about the ritual, and for two centuries the dominant tendency had been to exalt the sanctity of the written law.
[Sidenote: Date of the final canonization of the Law]
It is possible to fix approximately the date of this first edition of the Old Testament writings, since the Samaritans adopted and still retain simply the Pentateuch and an abbreviated edition of Joshua as their scriptures. Although Josephus, following a late Jewish tradition, dates the Samaritan schism at about 330 B.C., the contemporary evidence of Nehemiah 13:28 suggests that it was not long after 400. It is therefore safe to conclude that by 350 B.C. the first five books of our Old Testament had not only been singled out of the larger literature of the race, but were regarded as possessing a unique sanctity and authority.
[Sidenote: Principles of canonization]
As the name Law suggests, the chief reason for this was the fact that these five books embodied laws long since accepted as binding. The second reason was probably because they were by current tradition ascribed to Moses. The third, and not the least, was, doubtless, because they met the need felt by the community for a unified and authoritative system of laws and for an authentic record of the earlier history of their race, especially that concerning the origin of their beloved institutions.
[Sidenote: Evidence that the Law was first canonized]
The priority of the canon of the law is also proved by the fact that, although it contains some of the later Old Testament writings, it stands first, not only in position but in the esteem of the Jewish race. Furthermore, it became in time the designation of all the Old Testament canonical writings. The term Law is thus used in the New Testament (e.g., John 10:34, xii.34; 1 Corinthians 14:21), in the Talmud, and by the rabbis, indicating that the later groups of historical, prophetic, and poetical books were simply regarded as supplements.
[Sidenote: Canonization of the prophetic writings]
The history of the canonization of the next group, known as the Prophets, is very obscurely recorded, and this largely because it reached its culmination in the Greek period, concerning which we have only the most meagre information. Here analogy with the history of the New Testament is helpful. The same influences which led the early Christians to add the Epistles and Acts undoubtedly operated upon the minds of the Jews. The Law represented only a limited period in their national and religious history. But the addition of the early prophetic and legal histories to the detailed laws prepared the way for the expansion of the canon. This included first, the four historical books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, with the exception of Ruth. These were designated as the Former Prophets. Thus even the later Jews recognized their true character and authorship. The second division of the Prophets included Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve, which contained the minor prophets.
[Sidenote: Evidence that the historico-prophetic books were first added to the Law]
The order of the book and the probabilities of the situation suggest that the Former Prophets, since they were the immediate sequel of the prophetic histories of the Pentateuch, and recorded the deeds of such heroes as David, Solomon, and Isaiah, were added first. That they also bear the marks of late priestly revision, is direct evidence of the esteem in which they were held by the late priestly school that completed the canon of the Law. They therefore may have been added as early as 300 B.C. They were certainly known to the author of Chronicles, as his many quotations from them show, although it is difficult to see how he would have felt as free as he does to substitute the testimony of later tradition, if they were regarded as equally sacred with the Law.
[Sidenote: Reverence for the prophetic word]
The reference to the prediction of Jeremiah, in the opening verse of Ezra, suggests the reverence with which the author of Chronicles regarded the words of this prophet. The post-exilic Jews never ceased to revere the prophetic word. The popular belief, current in the Greek period, that the prophets had ceased to speak only deepened their reverence for the teachings of Moses' successors (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). The devotion of the later scribes is evinced by the scores of glosses which they have added to the older prophecies. It is manifest, therefore, how strong was the tendency, even in priestly circles, to add the Prophets to the Law.
[Sidenote: Date of completion of the prophetic canon]
The process was probably gradual and perhaps not complete until the Jews had learned fully to appreciate the value of their ancient Scriptures, after martyrs had died for the sacred writings during the Maccabean struggle. Aside from supplements made to older books, as, for example, Zechariah 9.xiv., the canon of the prophets was probably closed not later than 200 B.C. From direct evidence it is clear that the book of Daniel (written about 165 B.C.) did not find a place in this canon. It is also significant that in the prologue to the Greek version of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus (132 B.C.) the translator refers repeatedly—as though they were then regarded as of equal authority—to the Law and the Prophets and the rest of the books, or to the other books of the fathers. But most significant of all, Ben Sira, who wrote about 190 B.C., includes in his list of Israel's heroes (xliv.-l.) not only those mentioned in the Torah, but also David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and the chief characters in the Former Prophets. Furthermore, Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel are introduced in their proper settings, and the panegyric closes with a reference to the twelve prophets collectively, indicating that Ben Sira was also acquainted with the Latter Prophets as a group.
[Sidenote: The beginning of the last stage in the canonization of the Old Testament]
The reference to the rest of the books in the prologue to Ben Sira indicates that even before 130 B.C. certain other writings had been joined to the canon of the Law. Ben Sira himself, to judge from his description of David (cf. xlvii.8, 9, and I Chron.25), Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Nehemiah, was acquainted with the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Chapter xlvii.8 apparently contains an allusion to a hymn-book attributed to David. Evidently he was also familiar with the book of Proverbs, including its introductory chapters. Thus we have a glimpse of the beginning of that third stage in the canonization of the Old Testament which, as in the case of the New, continued for fully three centuries.
[Sidenote: Canonization of the Psalter and Lamentations]
The Psalter doubtless passed through different stages of canonization, as did the Old Testament itself. The earliest collection was, in the beginning, probably made for liturgical purposes, and its adoption in the service of the temple was practically equivalent to canonization. When successive collections were added, they too were thus canonized. The result was that the Psalter, when complete, enjoyed a position somewhat similar to that of the Law and the Prophets, although the authority of each rested upon a different basis. That the Psalter was early canonized is further demonstrated by a quotation in I Maccabees vii.17 (about 125 B.C.) from Psalm 79:2, 3, introduced by the words, as it is written in the Scriptures. This conclusion is also supported by the significant reference in the New Testament to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). Jesus' use of the Psalter indicates that in his day its canonicity was already thoroughly established. Lamentations, by a late tradition attributed to Jeremiah, was probably also canonized contemporaneously with the Psalms.
[Sidenote: The other books of the fathers]
The canonization of the book of Proverbs, like that of the Psalter, was undoubtedly by successive stages. The Jews of the Greek and Maccabean period were especially appreciative of this type of literature, and it was doubtless accorded its position of authority primarily because it rang true to human experience. That it was attributed to Solomon also told in its favor. Ben Sira's indirect testimony suggests that it and the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which were in close accord with the point of view of later Judaism, were already in his day associated with the Law and the Prophets. The book of Ruth was probably at this time added to the other historical books.
[Sidenote: Canonization of the book of Daniel]
The absence of any reference in Ben Sira to Daniel is significant. The first allusion to it comes from the last half of the second century before Christ. First Maccabees i.54 appears to quote the prediction of Daniel 9:27, and in I Maccabees ii.59, 60, Daniel and his three friends are held up as noble examples of virtue. Thus it would seem that within a half century after the book of Daniel was written its authority was recognized. In New Testament times its canonicity is fully established (e.g., cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2, and Daniel 7:22).
[Sidenote: Date of the completion of the Hebrew Old Testament canon]
Concerning the canonicity of two books, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs or Canticles, the opinions of the rabbis continued to differ until the close of the first Christian century. From the Mishna we learn that the school of Shammai accepted Ecclesiastes, while that of Hillel rejected it. Finally, in a conference in Jamnia, about 100 A.D., the two schools finally agreed to accept both books as canonical. From Second Esdras and Josephus, however, we learn that the present Hebrew and Protestant canon of the Old Testament had already for some time been practically adopted by common consent.
[Sidenote: Contents of the last group of writings]
The last collection, which includes eleven books known as the Hagiographa or Sacred Writings, constitutes the third general division of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a heterogeneous group of histories, prophecies, stories, and wisdom books. Some, like the Psalter, were, as we have seen, probably canonized as early as the Prophets; although the final canon of the Old Testament was not closed until 100 A.D. Even later the canonicity of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Esther was sometimes questioned; most of them were regarded as authoritative as early as 100 B.C. Here, as in the case of the New Testament, the real decision was not the work of any school or council; but gradually, on the basis of their intrinsic merit, the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible were singled out of a much larger literature and recognized, at least by the Jews of Palestine, as the authoritative record of God's revelation through their race.
[Sidenote: Differences between the Palestinian and Alexandrian canons]
Jewish tradition, represented by Second Esdras xiv. and the Talmudic treatise Baba Bathra xv. a, states that all the canonical books were in existence in the time of Ezra. While the tradition is refuted by the historical facts, it appears to have influenced the Jews of Palestine in shaping their canon; since no books purporting to come from a later date or author are found in it. The broader-minded Jews of the dispersion, and especially Alexandria and the early Christian Church, refused to be bound by the narrow principle that divine revelation ceased with Ezra. Accordingly we find them adopting a larger canon, that included many other later writings known in time as the apocryphal or hidden books.
[Sidenote: Additional books in the Greek and Christian canon]
These consisted of three genuine works,—I and II Maccabees and Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus; two didactic stories,—Tobit and Judith; four books wrongly ascribed to earlier authors,—the Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremy, and Second Esdras (Gk. IV Esdras); and four additions to the Hebrew canonical books,—First Esdras, an expansion of the book of Ezra, the Prayer of Manasses, and additions to Esther and Daniel.
[Sidenote: History of the Apocryphal books in the Christian Church]
As is well known, these books were retained by the Christian Church, as they still are by the Roman Catholic and Greek churches, until the Protestant reformers relegated them, as a whole, to a secondary place. Ultimately the Bible societies, during the first part of the last century, ceased to print them in the ordinary editions of the Bible. The result is that the present generation has almost forgotten their existence. The last decade or two, however, has witnessed a significant revival of interest among the scholars of Christendom, and the wholesome tendency to restore certain of the Apocrypha to the working Old Testament canon is very marked. This is only a correction of the error of the Protestant reformers in estimating the Apocryphal books, not by the intrinsic merit of each individual writing but of the group as a whole.
[Sidenote: Great value of these later Jewish writings]
Some of the Apocrypha and kindred books like the apocalypse of Enoch, were quoted and recognized by New Testament scholars as having authority equal to that of the other Old Testament Scriptures. The rejection of I and II Maccabees and Ben Sira from the Palestinian canon because they were written after the days of Ezra and not associated with the names of any early Old Testament worthies, was due to a narrow conception of divine revelation, directly contrary to that of Christianity which recognized the latest as the noblest. These later Jewish writings also bridge the two centuries which otherwise yawn between the two Testaments—two centuries of superlative importance both historically and religiously, witnessing as they do the final development of the life and thought of Judaism and the rise of those conditions and beliefs which loom so large in the New Testament.
[Sidenote: The larger working canon of the Old Testament]
While they will always be of great value in the study of later Jewish history, literature, and religion, the majority of the apocryphal books undoubtedly belong in the secondary group to which the Palestinian Jews and the Protestant reformers assigned them. Three or four, however, tested by the ultimate principles of canonicity, are equal, if not superior, to certain books like Chronicles, Esther, and Ecclesiastes. First Maccabees records one of the most important crises in Israelish history. As a faithful historical writing, it is hardly equalled in ancient literature. Its spirit is also genuinely religious. The later but parallel history of II Maccabees is not the equal of the first, although its religious purpose is more pronounced. Its historical character, style, aim, and point of view are strikingly similar to those of the book of Chronicles. The proverbs of Ben Sira, while not all of the same value, yet abound in noble and practical teachings, very similar to those in the book of Proverbs. Not only does the Wisdom of Solomon contain many exalted and spiritual passages, but it is also of unique importance because it represents that wonderful fusion of the best elements in Hebrew and Hellenic thought which formed the background of Christianity. Probably the Church, will ultimately restore to its larger working Old Testament canon the beautiful Prayer of Manasses, already largely adopted in the prayer-book of the Anglican Church.
Our rapid historical study has revealed the unity and the variety of teaching reflected in the Old Testament, and has suggested its real place in the revelation of the past and its true place in the life of to-day. This older testament is the record of God's gradual revelation of himself through the history of the Israelitish race and the experiences and minds of countless men and women whose spiritual eyes were open and whose ears were attentive to divine truth. The same benign Father who has always spoken to his children has influenced them also to recognize the writings that most faithfully and fully record the spiritual truth thus revealed. Had the task been entrusted to our own or later generations, it is not probable that the result would have differed in any important essential. For a few brief centuries false theories and traditions may partially obscure the truth, but these, like the mists of morning, are sure in time to melt away and reveal the eternal verities in their sublime beauty and grandeur.