Seers, Sibyls, and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism

By John J. Collins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
BEFORE THE CANON. SCRIPTURES IN
SECOND TEMPLE JUDAISM

It is the nature of scholarship that the firm conclusions of one generation are reexamined and overturned by the next. The recent debate about the canonization of Hebrew Scripture is a case in point. The traditional Jewish view, which ascribes the fixing of the canon and its division into three sections to Ezra and the “Men of the Great Assembly,”1 has been discredited for some time. In the late 19th century, however, a new orthodoxy arose.2 On this view, the Torah was canonized in the time of Ezra, the Prophets were complete by the time of Ben Sira at the beginning of the second century BCE and the Writings were closed at the Council of Jamnia, about 90 CE.3 The larger canon of the Christian Church was believed to have originated as the canon of Alexandrian, and more broadly Diaspora, Judaism.4 But this consensus too has eroded in the last third of the twentieth century. A.C. Sundberg conclusively demonstrated that “there was no ‘Alexandrian canon’ of Hellenistic Judaism that was distinct from and different in content from a ‘Palestinian canon.’” Rather, he argued, “in addition to closed collections of Law and Prophets, a wide religious literature without definite bounds circulated throughout Judaism as holy scripture before Jamnia.”5 More recently, Jamnia itself has come under

1 This view is attributed to Elias Levita, in his book

in the first half of the sixteenth century. Levita was building on the work of David Kimḥi (1160–1235). The Talmudic tractate Baba Bathra 14b–15a credits the Men of the Great Assembly with writing the books of Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther.

2 H.E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament (London: MacMillan, 1892); F. Buhl, Canon and Text of the Old Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1892) 24; G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (New York: Schocken, 1971) 1.86; S.R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (New York: Meridian, 1957) i–xi; O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament. An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 564–68.

3 On the origin of this idea see D.E. Aune, “On the Origins of the ‘Council of Yavneh’ Myth,” JBL 110(1991) 491–93, who traces the idea of “a council of Pharisees” to Spinoza, and the location at Yavneh to Heinrich Graetz.

4 The history of the “Alexandrian Canon” hypothesis has been chronicled by A.C. Sundberg, The Old Testament of the Early Church (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).

5 Sundberg, The Old Testament, 102–03.

-3-

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