Creating the Canon

The process and the product of the canonization of the Bible became the basis for a varied tradition of interpretation.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The term “canon” refers to the closed corpus of biblical literature regarded as divinely inspired. The Hebrew biblical canon represents a long process of selection, as testified to by the Bible itself, which lists some twenty‑two books that have been lost to us, no doubt, among other reasons, because they were not included in the canon. Books were only included if they were regarded as holy, that is, divinely inspired.

bible canonThe Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts, Torah (Penta­teuch), Prophets, and Writings. This division is not strictly one of content; it derives from the canonization process in that the three parts were closed at separate times.

Torah

“The Torah of Moses” was already the name for the first part in the various postexilic books. We will not attempt here to deal with the complex questions regarding the history and authorship of the Torah. Suffice it to say that a unified, canonized Torah was available to Ezra for the public reading which took place in approximately 444 B.C.E. Further, the various legal interpretations (mid­rashim) found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are themselves a result of the issues raised by a Torah in which there are apparent contradictions and repetitions. It can therefore be stated unquestionably that the canonization of the Torah was completed by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Prophets

Later rabbinic tradition asserts that prophecy ceased with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. E. In effect, this meant that books composed thereafter were not to be included in the prophetic canon, the second of the Hebrew Bible’s three parts. This view can be substantiated by the absence of later debate about the canonicity of the prophets, the lack of Greek words in the prophetic books, and the inclusion of Daniel and Chronicles in the Writings rather than in the Prophets.It must be the case, therefore, that the Prophets were canonized late in the Persian period, probably by the start of the fourth century

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Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.

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