The Jewish Canon/Canons of Scripture
The root word for Canon refers to “a measuring reed or rod” and refers to an official standard or listing. As it applies to the study of the Bible, the canon of sacred scripture refers to Bible’s table of contents. The word “Bible” means library and the canon lists the books that are stored in the library. Various groups of Christians today, though they agree on many things, do not agree on the Bible’s table of contents. For example:
The Protestant Canon contains 66 books.
The Catholic Canon contains 73 books.
The Orthodox Canon contains 78-81 books
Do you want the good news or the bad news first?…OK, here is the good news. ALL CHRISTIANS AGREE THAT THERE SHOULD BE 27 BOOKS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND OUR LISTINGS ARE IDENTICLE FOR ALL CHRISTIANS.
Here is the challenge though for an Old Testament Bible Study. Protestants have 39 books, Catholics have 46 and Orthodox Christians have 51-54 depending on the Church.
Why the difference???
SURPRISE…Ancient Jews also had different camps with different canons of scripture.
A Brief History of the two main opposing Jewish canons of the ancient world
a. A canon of Jewish scripture was formed some time between 400-100 BC. This canon is sometimes referred to as the Palestinian Canon and it was endorsed by the rabbinic school of the Holy Land. This canon was only allowed to be written in Hebrew and proclaimed in Aramaic.
b. Enter Alexander the Great (who died in 323 BC). While still in his youth he successfully conquered the known world. His greatest lasting achievement? He forced all people to learn Koine Greek in hopes that a common language would hold the empire together. He was so successful in this that Koine Greek remained the common language of the known world until about 600 AD.
c. Archeology and historical documents clearly reveal that for reasons of exile, business, inter-marriage, etc. Jewish populations gradually scattered all over the globe. Not all Jews desired to live or remain in the Holy Land. Over time, as a result, the Diaspora (which is what these scattered Jews were referred to as) lost their ability to read Hebrew or speak Aramaic. Also, many non-Jews, out of academic curiosity and in forming ancient libraries sought to study Jewish teachings. For both of these reasons, Ptolemy II Philadelphia, ruler of Egypt, eventually requested that the Jews of Palestine translate their sacred scrolls into Koine Greek for him and for the Diaspora in Egypt.
d. Legend proposes that the rabbis secured six translators from each of the 12 Tribes and asked that these 72 elders complete the request. This event is recorded by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the Jewish historian Josephus and others. The end result later became known as the Septuagint in the time of St. Augustine (354-430 AD). Modern scholars refer it as the LXX (70) for short or as the Greek Canon. Over time, rabbis who adhered to this canon added other texts which were not included in the Palestinian Canon.
e. Finally, enter St. Paul. We know with a certainty that Paul used both canons because we can directly compare the wording of his quotes from the Old Testament. However, more than ¾ of them come from the Septuagint because it was outside Palestine that he had most of his missionary success.
f. The early Christian Church, while they were forming their own canon of scripture, opted to use the Greek Canon of the Old Testament. This canon remained the standard until Martin Luther, during the Protestant Reformation, when he opted to follow the Palestinian Canon. This change explains why such Protestant translations as the King James Bible have 66 rather than 73 books
* Modern Terminology To Be Aware Of Surrounding This Debate Over Old Testament Canons:
Proto-Canon = refers to the 39 Old Testament books common to all Christians and found in the Palestinian Canon (aka 1st Canon)
Deutero-Canon = a term used by Catholics in ecumenical settings to refer to the seven books and additions not found Protestant Bibles or the Palestinian Canon. These are attributed to official canonical add-ons over the centuries in the Greek Canon and include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (aka Wisdom of Solomon), Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees and additions to Esther and Daniel. (aka 2nd Canon)
NOTE: For Orthodox Christians the further additions have mostly to do with title breaks such as the naming of the additions to Esther and Daniel as separate books or the listing of Maccabees 1-4.
Apocrypha = A term used in Protestant Bibles to refer to the Deutero-Canon. The term allows the books to be listed in a separate section of ecumenical study Bibles (i.e. in a different order) for purposes of joint reading and discussion but the name clearly indicates the opinion that these debated books are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Catholics do not use this term (because we believe that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit).
The Structure of the Jewish Bible
Tanak (also spelled Tanakh) = The Hebrew Bible or Masoretic Text; This word forms an acronym for the three parts of the Jewish canon of scripture, which are; the Torah, the Neviim, and the Ketuvim…or ta na kh . We would translate these divisions as Law/Teachings…Prophets…Writings…or in our modern Christain Bibles as the Penteteuch/Books of Moses (which were the only books accepted by the Sadducees in Jesus’ time), the Prophets and Wisdom Literature. The Pharisees followed all three groupings which indicates another difference of opinion as to the proper Canon of Scripture.
A. Torah = The Pentateuch (5 Books) or Law (also known as “The Teachings”, “The 5 Books of Moses” or, to modern Christians, the first five books of our Old Testament)
NOTE: The Talmud was a collection of teachings on the Torah made up of:
A. The Mishna – Oral rabbinic teachings on the Torah
B. The Gemara – Written commentary on the Mishna
C. with the weight of the rabbinic schools determining which works would make the cut (aka the Seat of Moses)…This is directly parallel to our own Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition and Magisterium which forms our three-legged stool of assured truth.
B. Neviim = The Prophets (4 major prophets and 12 minor prophets)
C. Ketuvim = Writings (also known as Wisdom Literature)