Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Lim, Timothy H., The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Pp. 288. US$45.00. ISBN 978-0-300-16434-3.

This book is a thoughtful and reflective study on the formation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The most well-known major studies totally devoted to this topic are about a generation old and have not provided a resolution to the current canon debate. These past studies resulted in the demolition of the old consensus, which held that the canon evolved in three neat stages corresponding to the three sections of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. But a new consensus has yet to emerge with scholars like S. Leiman and Roger Beckwith arguing for canonical closure in the second century b.c.e. and John Barton and Lee McDonald making a case for closure around four centuries later (second century c.e.). I have used the terms maximalist and minimalist to describe these positions, and Lim's study presents a fresh analysis of some of the external evidence. It is well written, carefully argued and non-polemical, and although it seems to be a mediating position between the above two positions, it is more in line with the minimalist view. By the end of the first century, he concludes, there is a rabbinical canon of the Pharisees, which is not closed until sometime between 150–250 c.e..

Building on a theory first proposed by John Collins about two decades ago, Lim argues that the canon represents a political triumph of the main sect within Judaism that survived the tumultuous post-70 c.e. years within Palestine. The Pharisaic party represented the majority of Jewish survivors from the Roman holocaust and as a result their collection of authoritative texts became the canon. Other collections of authoritative literature simply perished since the sects or groups associated with them did not survive. The resulting canon was that of the victors.

In order to prove his thesis, Lim examines the main lines of the external evidence: Josephus, the Torah in the Persian period, the Letter of Aristeas, Ben Sira and the Prologue of Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls sect and the Therapeutae, the Gospels and the Pauline Letters. The author does not attempt to cover all the external evidence, aiming for depth rather than breadth

This is mainly the study of an historian and the theological dimension is largely excluded. For example, Brevard Childs and his students are not mentioned and the issue of terminology is never seriously dealt with. The distinction between Scripture and canon is accepted, the former being a collection of authoritative writings and the latter a list. The validity of this distinction is questionable because it seeks to create an essential difference between the two categories, which is brought about by some discrete historical decision for which there is really no evidence. Moreover, Lim argues that the Pharisaic collection became canonical by the end of the first century but remained open until 150–250 c.e., for which the evidence of a baraita (Baba Bathra 14b) in the Babylonian Talmud provides the “smoking gun.” Thus, Lim must claim an open canon for the Pharisees rather than a collection of authoritative Scriptures which became finally canonical. Why could not such terminology be used to describe books before this period in order to show the genetic connection between authority and canon? Moreover, the only reason that this Pharisaic canon remains open is because there remained a question about the authority of certain books. But there have always remained questions about canonical books and this need not imply an open canon.

The studies of the main lines of evidence are in general carefully argued, well written, and non-polemical but at the same time explained in highly minimalistic terms. I will give a brief summary of the argument. Before 70 c.e., there were various authoritative collections but no evidence of a closed canon. Josephus exaggerates, and other evidence often presented for a closed canon is illusory (e.g., Ben Sira and the Prologue). There are, however, authoritative collections among various groups. There is one for the Jewish community in the Persian province of Yehud. It can be reconstructed from the works of Ezra and Nehemiah, and most likely consists of the Hexateuch, inferred from a passage like Neh 9, which provides a historical survey from creation to the conquest. Second, the letter to Aristeas is evidence for a Torah for the Jewish community in Alexandria, which is translated into Greek. Third, from 2 Maccabees there may be evidence of a collection of books about kings and prophets, the writings of David, and royal correspondence, which was used to form a library. Other evidence is considered, such as Qumran, Philo's observation of the Theraputae, and the New Testament. This evidence confirms the essential thesis, but it needs to be emphasized that from the various collections there was no unilinear progress from the many collections to the one canon. “Rather, there were the many collections and then there was the majority canon. Once sectarianism disappeared, so did the variety of collections” (p. 186).

While I appreciated aspects of Lim's book, in particular his concern to provide more depth than breadth in his research, there yet remain significant problems. For example, why should the evidence in Neh 9 not include more than the Hexateuch? There are clear examples within it of the period reflected in the book of Judges (9:27–28), and the ignoring of the words of the prophets (9:30), which had led to the exile and the present plight of the Jewish people (9:30–32). If Scripture itself is used to help determine the authority of biblical books, why not at least consider some other evidence within the text itself, e.g., that Chronicles begins with Adam, who initiates Genesis, and ends with a quotation at the beginning of Nehemiah, thus comprehending the entire canon in summary form.[1] Moreover, many scholars now recognize the extent of canon-conscious editing of the biblical text, in which superscriptions have been added to books stressing divine authority,[2] and also editorial additions which organize collections of books.[3]

Second, while Aristeas certainly stresses the translation of the Torah into Greek, it is an argument from silence to infer that other books were not translated. The existence of other Greek translations of biblical books which have been revised toward the Hebrew presupposes such a situation, which leads to another point which I will mention later. Third, the evidence in 2 Maccabees could be interpreted in the way that Lim understands it, but it is a very minimalist reading. This particularly comes out in the downplaying of the parallel of Judas's gathering of books after the war with Nehemiah's much earlier collection of a library. Whatever one thinks of the historicity of Nehemiah's collection, it is clear that the festal letter in 2 Maccabees is drawing a parallel with Judas's recent action. The fact that this has happened in a culture which has been attacked especially at its heart—the importance of obedience to the words of God—makes Judas's collection of holy books quite reasonable.

Let me briefly mention a few other problems. It would be helpful to provide a chart which shows all the examples of authoritative citations from the Dead Sea Scrolls, followed by all the examples of books which constitute Targums and Pesharim. The author cites scholars who have done some of this work and have shown the canonical implications but oddly discusses them only when he is discussing Paul's use of Scripture, and hence does not really come to terms with their conclusions regarding the Qumran community.[4] This would show more clearly the divide between books which were scriptural and those which were not for the sectarians. This problem can easily be seen in the example of any modern church library, which may have many Bibles but also many books about the Bible and various other religious texts. One has to be extremely careful about making conclusions about the church's canon in such a context. It would have also been helpful to provide a chart with all the authoritative citations in the New Testament. An overview would help readers see the big picture, which might help provide more clarity on the subject.

I am left with some other misgivings about the book. First, Lim claims that there is no evidence for a temple library or archive, which would have contained a collection of canonical books. But there is no question that sacred space in the Hebrew Bible itself was a location for sacred texts. Lim's description of the scroll during Josiah's time as a book of reform and not a canonical book is questionable (pp. 32–33). Would a book of reform cause the king to rip his clothes in grief? The fact that this book was used to institute widespread reform in Judah shows its authority. Moreover, the fact that “canonical books” were not popular or were abandoned or lost may say something more about the people at the time than the books. On the other hand, in times of spiritual renewal, I find it difficult to accept that a religion which revered the holy words of God would not have had a special place for the creation, preservation, and transmission of divinely inspired documents in its holiest sanctuary. The books which later made up the Hebrew Bible itself cry out for such an explanation. Where else would there be the necessary infrastructure for their production and their preservation? In this regard, a recent important work by Tim Stone notes the coincidence of lists of canonical books after the destruction of the temple. There was no need for listing them before since enumeration and order were assumed.[5]

Second, what might be said about the evidence of biblical manuscripts from Qumran? The majority of them are proto-MT manuscripts. How does one explain this? Where does this tradition come from which reflects the text type of the majority canon—the canon of the winners? Emmanuel Tov has argued in the past that such a text type probably derives from scribal circles associated with the temple, and this of course implies canon. This makes a lot of sense. Lim questions why a rabbinic tradition which mentions the authoritative function of standard Torah scrolls in the temple for establishing readings for the Torah might infer canonization. He concludes that “in establishing a standardized text, they were not fixing the extent of the scriptural collection” (p. 34). But this is to confuse the effect with the cause. Why would temple scribes be concerned with text-critical matters for these books? Probably because there already was a scriptural collection. Moreover, what about pre-first century c.e. Greek manuscripts which have been corrected to the MT? Does this not reflect the importance of a particular text type, which itself implies canon?

Lim's treatment of the lists of early Christian and Jewish lists and Josephus was refreshing. In particular, he shows clearly that early differences in enumeration and ordering of books as well as divisions of books do not equal different canons. He accepts Josephus's explicit statement of the canon as true for the time of Josephus's writing but not earlier. “If Josephus meant that most Jews in his present time at the end of the first century c.e. agreed on the canon, then that would have been a credible generalization” (p. 49). But alas, that was not what Josephus wrote. Lim, of course, has to reject what Josephus said, since it would disagree with his reconstruction, but if what Josephus said was not true it would be a great exaggeration and would damage his reputation as a credible historian.

Even if one were to accept Lim's revisionist Josephus and grant that Josephus's views represent the true state of affairs around 100 c.e., i.e., the triumph of the Pharisaic canon, how does this resonate with Lim's other claim that this canon was not closed until sometime between 150–250 c.e.? It is clear that according to Josephus the canon is closed, and his enumeration of the books is one of two methods attested in the first century c.e./p>

Finally, it is worth observing that in early Christian conflicts with Judaism there is never any debate about the extent and the content of the canon, only its meaning. In my judgment this is telling.

Timothy Lim has an obvious love for this topic and has done scholarship a service in providing a fresh revisitation of the problem of the Jewish canon/Old Testament. I appreciated his work on this difficult subject and consider it an important contribution to the ongoing debate. It is well written, attractively produced, and has helpful appendices. It deserves to be read, but it also needs to be read alongside other works which give a different interpretation of the evidence.

Steve Dempster, Crandall University

[1] Hendrik J. Koorevaar, “Die Chronik als Intendierter Abschluss des Alttestamentlichen Kanons,” Jahrbuch für Evangelikale Theologie 11 (1997), 42–76. reference

[2] Gene M. Tucker, “Prophetic Superscriptions and the Growth of the Canon,” in George W. Coats and Burke O. Long (eds.), Canon and Authority: Essays in Old Testament Religion and Authority (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 56–70. reference

[3] For example, among others see Stephen B. Chapman, The Law and the Prophets: A Study in Old Testament Canon Formation (FAT, 27; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000). reference

[4] J. Lust, “Quotation Formulae and Canon in Qumran,” in A. van der Kooij and K. van der Toorn (eds.), Canonization and Decanonization (SHR, 82; Leiden: Brill, 1998), 67–77; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament,” NTS 7 (1961), 297–333. reference

[5] Timothy J. Stone, The Compilational History of the Megilloth: Canon, Contoured Intertextuality and Meaning in the Writings (FAT, 2.59; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). reference