Biblical Misperceptions

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Biblical Misperceptions


Ticktin, Harold, Midstream


Though people constantly quote and cite from it, the truth is that few people have a clear understanding of the structure of the Bible. By "structure" I mean the manner in which the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament came to have their present form and, perhaps as critical, sequence. The question is important because of the simple fact that both books are placed together for Christians, giving the impression of one holy book following another as a kind of sequel, close in time. In fact, there is very little historical warrant for putting both volumes together since, at the very least, the final structure of each is separated by some 500 years.

Most contemporary scholars agree that the final form of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was reached after the return from Babylon when Ezra read "the Law" to the assemblage in connection with rebuilding the Temple. The latest acceptable date would put the event somewhere near 400 BCE. Since the last Hebrew king associated with a prophet was Zedekiah in 586 BCE, 186 years earlier, it is clear that both the Torah and the Prophets, which constitute more than two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible, were solidly in place for at least a half-millennium, long before the New Testament achieved its final form. Indeed, the New Testament was not canonized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The third component of Tanach (Hebrew for the sum total of Hebrew scripture) -- the writings -- was also probably in place at or about the same time as the Torah and the Prophets, though not yet integrated into a "final" text. That would await the fall of the Second Temple and rise of Rabbinic Judaism, circa the second century CE.

With the exception of the book of Daniel, most Hebrew books written between Ezra and Jesus were specifically excluded from holy writ. They were regarded as mere literature, commentaries on what was already fixed -- human wisdom at best, not revelatory. Though some of it was praised highly, e.g., Ben Sira and Ecclesiasticus, much was scanted, like the book of Maccabees, which was put into the Apocryhpha and is non-canonical for Jews and Protestants. The Pharisees and their successors, the Rabbis, who came to dominate Jewish life after 70 CE and the real rivals to Christianity, never regarded the Maccabee descendants as proper heirs to the Davidic dynasty. They considered them Greek assimilationists.

Unquestionably all halachic (legal) injunctions and ceremonies incumbent upon Jews were in place before what we now call the intertestamentary literature (400 BCE to 100 CE), all of which, modern scholarship tells us, was thoroughly Jewish (whatever the disputes) without a hint of Christianity until mid-first century CE.

Nevertheless, during that period it cannot be said that, regardless of agreement on what was holy text, Judaism was a single-set phenomenon. Both the history of the times and the virtually unanimous conclusion of modern scholarship point to many Judaisms, all relying on the same holy book for validation. Out of that intellectual cauldron was to come both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

Just as Christianity was accused of "superseding" Judaism, so did the Rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era supersede their forbears, minimizing what went before them. The opening stanzas of Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, illustrate this strikingly. "Torah" is handed from Moses to Joshua to "the Elders." No kings, priests, or even prophets are mentioned; a deft disposing of 1,000 years in the interest of making Judaism more Rabbinic and less priestly. It is precisely this Rabbinizing of Jewish life at the time of Jesus and after that constitutes the form of the dispute between Christianity and Judaism, not, it must be repeated, disagreement between the Old and New Testaments.

From what didn't make the "final cut" we may conclude that some 98 percent of the Hebrew Scriptures were in their present form almost 2,500 years ago, well before the appearance of Jesus and the early Church. …

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