How Did We Get the Bible? Part VII

The past several posts have discussed quite a few details about the development and canonization of the Old Testament. For those outside the academy some of this information might be surprising. We don’t typically learn these things in Sunday School. That is unfortunate. How God collaborated with human beings to convey truth is essential for understanding the nature of Scripture and interpretation. I’m also concerned that lack of education on these issues can cause harm. Too many who have been taught a faulty doctrine of Scripture lose their faith. They were told Scripture has no contradictions or discrepancies of any kind. Scripture is perfect because God is perfect. When these individuals discover, for example, that some books had more than one edition or that some narratives have conflicting details, it shocks them. Some conclude the Bible is full of error and falsehood and, as a result, abandon Christianity. But Scripture is not purely divine. God worked through and with humankind. God spoke via ancient Near Eastern rhetoric and culture. God spoke via ancient methods of text production. In other words, the Bible looks like it would and should if God speaks to people in their cultural context.

In the discussion and debate on the formation of the Bible, I sense two energies. One that wants to protect God and Scripture by denying the Bible’s human fingerprints and one side that wants to diminish the power and influence of Scripture by denying its divine breath. The debate is stuck in the misguided paradigm of inerrancy vs. error. This battle has seeds in the Enlightenment. Rationalists accused Christians of believing in a superstitious book riddled with errors. They said, “Look, your book of Genesis has conflicting accounts of the order of creation.” Christian apologist, Jean Astruc (1684-1766), responded with a defense using secular literary critical methods of his day. He ably demonstrated that certain discrepancies in Genesis are not error but the result of two different traditions (sources) being intentionally spliced together. Astruc was one of the fathers of historical criticism, a methodology that currently dominates the academy in biblical studies. Ironically, that same method is now used to deconstruct the Bible. Thus, both sides have turned to historical critical approaches to either pull Scripture apart or to keep it from falling to pieces. Postmodern and modern scholars are using the same tool to obscure (if only unintentionally) a central truth: dual authorship of Scripture. God and human beings created the Bible together. [1]

There are hints of Derrida laced in some scholars’ overemphasis on the fluidity, instability, and indeterminancy of the Bible’s development. Deconstruction is a means of resisting authority and shaking off any obligation to submit oneself to an external power. Some camps have appropriated scholarship on textual fluidity as a means of eagerly discrediting Scripture.[2] Interestingly, those who emphasize instability are often more likely to propose a late date for canon closure, as well as deny any canon at all unless it is closed. Yet, as Stephen B. Chapman points out: “Scholars who maintain that canon only properly refers to a situation in which a scriptural collection has obtained absolute literary boundaries are inevitably forced to concede at some point in their argument that the biblical canon has never actually been absolutely ‘closed’ at all.”[3] There has never been universal agreement on every single book of the Old Testament. Different traditions have slightly different canons. Thus, to say there is no canon at all until the list is finalized is to render the concept of “canon” meaningless. In this case, there never has been or likely will be a canon of authoritative texts.

On the other hand, those who propose the earliest dates for canon closure are more likely to over-emphasize the stability of the biblical texts. In these circles, the Holy Grail is an “original” text devoid of any fluidity whatsoever. These proponents seek to save the Bible from Derrida at all costs even if it means denying reality. Ultimately, both sides fail to affirm dual authorship of Scripture. Postmodern scholars minimize transcendence and divine intentionality in the shaping of the biblical texts and canon. In contrast, modernist (evangelical) scholars are apt to deny human involvement, seeking a pristine, unblemished, completely transcendent “original” text. Or perhaps more accurately, modernists are so overly confident in humankind’s omniscience and competence that humanity is denied in humanity itself.

Neither posture is sound. Postmodernists and modernists fail to hold the tension of divine-human collaboration. On one hand, the Bible did not come to us haphazardly or without order. Many of the texts demonstrate quite a bit of stability. For most of the biblical texts we don’t possess extant history of significant textual fluidity. Our manuscript evidence only goes back to the 2nd century B.C.E. What we find is mostly inconsequential variants (however many). Only a few books demonstrate significant diversity,  especially Exodus, 1-2 Samuel, and Jeremiah. As D. Carr asserted, evidence for elaborate revisionist histories comprising 10-20 transformations is lacking. That being said, the Bible did not come to us without revisions. The distinctions between the Masoretic Text, Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and the many non-aligned texts at Qumran clearly indicate that fluidity was a natural part of the Bible’s development. There is no pristine “original” text. Some argue the autographs were perfect in their original condition even if we do not have them now. But such an argument is meaningless. God has spoken to us through the texts we do have, not the texts we don’t have. If such autographs existed they are not God’s words for the people as much as the revised Bible we currently use. To suggest otherwise is to say we do not have adequate access to God’s revelation. Furthermore, such an argument overlooks the reality of ancient text production. Each biblical book was not created in one sitting. This does not mean the Bible is only a product of constant redaction–there were certainly original texts such as dictated oracles. But these texts were short and the books of the Bible are made of many different smaller texts with various scribal histories. Each came together through the work of different prophets and scribes. Each came to us, not through copy machines, but through years of painstaking hand copies by human scribes.  In essence, what we have are scriptural texts that bear the marks of both God and humankind together—precisely what orthodox Christian doctrine affirms.

Review of the Series

Having said all that, what can we say about how we got the Bible? Obviously, there are many questions that will go unanswered. But from the evidence examined in this series, I propose the following:

1. Scripture is God-breathed. God illuminated human beings. This revelation came in a variety of ways (visions, dreams, oracles, the Spirit of Christ within etc).

2. Scribes were involved in the development and transmission of biblical texts, including copying, collating, and editing etc. This is a natural result of ancient text production and not a problem to resolve.

3. Different textual traditions developed including the Masoretic Text, Septuagint, and Samaritan Pentateuch among others. God has used these different traditions simultaneously. The Septuagint was important for the New Testament writers. At the same time the Masoretic Text became the Jewish standardized edition, and it too was cited by the New Testament authors. Similarly, most modern Bibles today benefit from multiple manuscript traditions. Thus, plural use of traditions is not contrary to the nature and meaning of Scripture. The canonical differences between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox need not be a barrier to ecumenism.

4. As E. Tov affirms, each text most likely reached a final composition and then was copied from there. The final composition of a biblical book comprises a collection of shorter texts organized together. It’s reasonable to believe that prophetic oracles were copied and written individually and then collated. While oracles might have undergone some redaction, the notion that texts were completely deconstructed and revised so as to practically obliterate any original tradition is nonsensical.

5. The evidence indicates Temple priests were scribes and responsible for preserving and passing down scriptural texts. Many citations point to the Temple as the archive where texts were stored. As such it makes sense that a standardized edition would eventually be organized through Temple personnel.

6. The standardized edition was the proto-Masoretic Text. This version combines majority readings as well as unique readings. Each book has its own scribal history. It appears to have become stable by the 2nd or 1st century B.C.E. Whether or not it was the majority at Qumran, it was still a solid presence there. Most significantly, almost no other manuscripts except proto-Masoretic were found at Masada, Naḥal Ḥever, Wadi Murabb‘at, Wadi Sdeir, Naḥal Ṣe’elim, and Naḥal Arugot.[4] These sites were associated with the first and second Jewish wars (between 66-135 C.E.) According to Lange’s analysis, only proto-Masoretic texts (among Hebrew manuscripts) are evident after 68 C.E.

7. The development of the canon is not synonymous with the redaction process. The canon consisted of relatively stable texts. Redaction was not a process of creating new texts but of copying, collating, and editing the received tradition for the purpose of preservation.

8. A canon does not have to be closed for canonical texts to exist. Canonical books are authoritative texts that form the core tradition for the whole community’s faith and practice. G.T. Sheppard’s suggestion of Canon 1 and Canon 2 or S. Chapman’s suggestion of a “core canon” might be useful for affirming the existence of a canon even as it is still subject to some changes before being finalized. As Chapman points out even those who deny a canon’s existence unless it is closed admit a “core canon” of Torah and Prophets early on, even though the Writings were not yet finalized.

9. The first canonical texts for the Israelites were the Decalogue and other laws of Moses. Eventually, the first five books of the Bible, Torah, became the primary canon. All other biblical texts developed around that. The Prophets are books that exhort the people to follow Torah. The Writings are helps for following Torah. Dating the precise canonical development is difficult and perhaps not as important as some make it out to be. However, the first mention of Israel outside of the Bible is dated to circa 1200 B.C.E. with a possible reference in 1400 B.C.E. The inscription for 1200 B.C.E. indicates Israel was already large enough to be named and attacked by the Egyptians. That means the Israelites had leaders and authoritative traditions by that time. Israel didn’t just spontaneously sprout up out of the ground. Every nation or tribe has leaders and authoritative traditions in order to function. Conservative dating places Moses between 1500 B.C.E. and 1300 B.C.E. Thus, there is no reason to object to the idea that a man named Moses was the key leader in the development of the people of Israel and that he promulgated laws for the community. This means, canon development begins with Moses. It strikes me as very odd when certain scholars say Moses is not responsible for any of the Pentateuch and that the first five books of the Bible were not written until much later. Certainly, the Torah developed over time and scribes contributed to its creation. But what exactly do they imagine? A people group simply existing with no leadership and no authoritative traditions until the 6th century?

10. As to when the Torah closed and all five books reached their final shape that is not certain. Some point to King Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century after the high priest found the “book of the law” collecting dust in the Temple (2 Kgs 22). Others suggest it occurred in the 5th century under Ezra’s guidance and Persian encouragement. The Letter of Aristeas puts the Greek translation of the Torah in the 3rd century B.C.E. By the 2nd century B.C.E. most scholars agree that Sirach alludes or refers to virtually every book of the Hebrew Bible (c. 200-180 B.C.E.) Similarly, by the 2nd century B.C.E. we find references to the “law and prophets.” Thus, the Torah and Prophets seem to be closed lists by the 2nd century B.C.E. We already see the Twelve Minor Prophets on one scroll by this time.

Sirach mentions many of the Writings in his work and his grandson, in the prologue, refers to the law, prophets, and “other ancestral books.” Thus, the Writings were being collected. However, what this collection consisted of is uncertain. R. Beckwith makes strained arguments that the tripartite canon is evident by this time (and earlier under Judas Maccabaeus). However, his arguments are from silence. There is no specific list indicating books. Those who argue for a late canon closure also do so from silence. For example, they suggest that because Josephus does not spell out every book in his 22 book canon we cannot know if it was closed at that time. Regardless, most scholars on all sides believe the tripartite canon was essentially formed by the 1st century C.E. with only some remaining discussion about Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and some of the deuteronocanonical/apocryphal books like 1 Enoch or Sirach. By the 2nd century or 3rd century C.E. we see all the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Baba Bathra list. And as van der Toorn suggests, this list may very well reflect the earlier 1st century C.E. tradition found in Josephus and 2 Esdras.

With regards to the Septuagint canon, it’s unclear what was included. Some have erroneously assumed the Christian Septuagint canon today represents the exact same content of an ancient Jewish collection of Greek translations. But, this is not necessarily the case. The oldest Septuagint codex we have is from the 4th century C.E. In the first century scriptural texts were on various scrolls and not bound together. As with the Hebrew texts, there were various Greek texts circulating. We know that several of these extra books were highly esteemed by Jews, but ultimately not included in their canon. However, at Qumran books like 1 Enoch were clearly treated as Scripture, and this book is cited in the New Testament as well (Jude 1:14-15). 1 Enoch did not make it into the Septuagint. But, it seems clear that in the 1st century C.E. there was still fluidity for both Jews and Christians regarding some of these Jewish deuterocanonical/apocryphal texts. The New Testament writers tend to quote primarily from the books of the Hebrew Bible. But I Enoch is referenced and there are canonical books they don’t cite (e.g. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther).

In any case, the early church determined that the extra books were canonical. The Old Latin translations from the Greek date back to north Africa in the 2nd century C.E. And the Old Latin includes deuterocanonical texts. Thus, the early church ultimately adopted some of the Jewish texts that did not make it into the Hebrew canon. This does not seem to be a late acquisition. Rather the early church simply found these texts useful for faith and practice. Jerome’s and Martin Luther’s bias against the deuterocanonical books in favor of the Jewish canon seems to be reflective of: 1) tendencies at various times in Christian history to view Jewish interpretation and practice as superior because Scripture came through the Jews; and 2) the Renaissance influences of return to “pristine” classical texts and languages (Reformation). Martin Luther considered Hebrew and the Jewish canon to be the most “original.”

11. The New Testament writers used both Septuagintal and proto-Masoretic texts, as well as apparently other traditions. The early church adopted a canon based on the Septuagint. Jews adopted the Masoretic tradition. Christians incorporated the Masoretic tradition in the 4th century C.E. when Jerome decided to translate from the Hebrew instead of Greek. However, other Septuagintal books were (and are) still affirmed by the Catholic Church. Protestant Christians adopted the Masoretic canon in full in the 16th century C.E. The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Greek tradition. All the traditions include the books of the Hebrew canon. It’s simply a matter of whether or not some additional books are included.


[1] To be clear, its not historical criticism that is the problem, but rather how and for what purpose any particular methodology is used.

[2] I am not suggesting this is true for any of the scholars I have surveyed here per se. Rather its something I have noticed in how this scholarship is appropriated.

[3] “The Canon Debate: What it is and Why it Matters” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 4 (2010): 281.

[4] A. Lange, “The Textual Plurality of the Jewish Scriptures,” 58-59.

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