The Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism

Herod's Rebuilt Second Temple

Herod’s Rebuilt Second Temple

The idea of the canon as a list of authoritative books would have been strange to Jews of the Second Temple period. For them, the Temple was the center of their religion. Lester L. Grabbe, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull, England, writes:

It is natural that people often assume that Judaism in the Second Temple period was more or less like contemporary Judaism, in which people meet weekly or even more frequently in synagogues to pray, worship, and hear the Bible read. The written scripture and its reading and study are assumed to be the focus of Judaism at all times. …Yet the Judaism of pre-70 times was formally structured in a quite different way from the Judaism of later times. The main religious institution was the Jerusalem temple, and temple worship went back many centuries in Jewish and Israelite history. …The main activity in the temple was blood sacrifice.[1]

Lester L. Grabbe goes on to discuss the issue of the supposed canon during Second Temple Judaism.

When and how the present canon became finalized is still not known, despite a number of studies on the subject. Some Jewish groups seem to have accepted a different set of books as authoritative compared to other groups.[2]

Jaroslav Pelikan agrees with Grabbe, and writes:

Not only is the use of the word canon as a designation for an authoritative list of sacred books a rather late phenomenon within the history of the Jewish community, but even the idea of a fixed and final list came about only after a long evolution.[3]

Julio Trebolle Barrera notes the idea of a canon was foreign to the Jewish mind. He notes the word canon is a term connected to “New Testament studies,” and Jews did not use it until “the 4th cent. CE.” He writes:

To apply the term «canon» to the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is quite unsuitable. Hebrew has no term which corresponds to Greek «canon». Rabbinic discussions concerning the canonical or apocryphal character of certain biblical books such as Song of Songs and Qoheleth, turn on the expression «defiles the hands». The supposition is that books of which it is said that «they defile the hands» were considered as canonical, whereas books to which this expression was not applied were excluded from the biblical canon. However, the expression «defile the hands» may have no more significance than to refer to ritual purification to be performed after having used such books and before starting any other secular activity.[4]

Saying Hebrew has no term corresponding to the Greek word ‘canon’ is not precisely true. The Greek word ‘canon’ is itself a loan word from the Semitic languages. In Hebrew, the word is קָנֶה (qaneh) meaning ‘tube’ or ‘reed’. The Hebrew word qaneh is related to the Assyrian word qanu and the Arabic word qanah, meaning ‘hollow stick’ or ‘reed’. While the Greeks and Christians used the word canon in the sense of a rule or measuring stick, this idea comes from Greek philosophy.

The concept of canon as the rule of faith is a Christian idea that developed rather late. The Jews eventually used that idea for the Hebrew Scriptures, but such an idea was unknown in Jesus’ day. Jewish groups knew which books they considered to be Scripture, but there were different Jewish groups with competing ideas as to the extent of their scriptures. More importantly, the concept of canon was a gentile concept; as such it would likely not have been used by Jews to delimit their Scriptures to a specific set of books.

The Swiss Protestant theologian Robert Hanhart, writing in the introduction to Martin Hengel’s “The Septuagint as Christian Scripture”, notes that Jesus ben Sirach’s introduction to Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus) “assumes the three divisions transmitted by the Masoretes”, and draws a distinction between the material described by these divisions and that of his translation of his grandfather’s commentary on Scripture.[5] He concludes that Second Temple Judaism distinguished between canon and Apocrypha. By stating this, Robert Hanhart is reading the medieval Masoretic traditions back into the Second Temple period, two periods separated by nearly a millennium. Lutheran professor and theologian Emil Schürer differs with Robert Hanhart: “The most ancient testimony to the collocation of both collections with the Thorah [sic] is the prologue to the Book of Wisdom. …We cannot, however, determine from it that the third collection was then already concluded.”[6]

The disagreement between Robert Hanhart and Emil Schürer illustrates the manner in which scholars disagree regarding the boundaries of the Old Testament canon in the second temple period and reflects the wide range of perspectives among Jews of the second temple period. The Baptist Professor Jeff S. Anderson writes about the diversity existing within Second Temple Judaism.

What flourished in the Second Temple Period was not a single, fixed, “normative” Judaism, but a developing, evolving religion… No straight evolutionary line of the Jewish faith emerges. Consequently, it is preferable to speak of multiple Judaisms rather than a monolithic ideology that views one brand of Judaism as orthodox and the rest as “sects.” All Judaisms, consequently, competed for an audience and for the authority that accompanies broad-based acceptance.[7]

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310–320 – 403 CE) describes twelve specific sects of the Jews: the Samaritans, the Essenes, the Sebuaeans, the Gorothenes, the Dositheans, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Hemerobaptists, the Nasaraeans, the Ossaeans, and the Herodians.[8] The Jerusalem Talmud (c. 200 – 400 CE) quotes Rabbi Johanan as saying there were twenty-four heretical sects of Judaism in the time of Ezekiel.[9] With different Judaisms competing for acceptance, it is no wonder there was no consensus on the limits of the Hebrew Scriptures.[10] The great Protestant scholar of Second Temple Judaism, Martin Hengel, writes:

We cannot prove the existence of a genuine Jewish, pre-Christian collection of canonical value, unambiguously and clearly delimited, distinguishable through its greater scope from the canon of the Hebrew Bible in the realm of the historical books and wisdom writings and written in Greek. Nor, especially, can it be shown that such a ‘canon’ was already formed in pre-Christian Alexandria. One can only proceed from the fact that the five books of Moses’ Torah, the so-called Pentateuch, were translated into Greek under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246), at the latest toward the middle of the third century [BC].[11]

The picture of Second Temple Judaism is much more complex than is commonly thought. There was the temple cult centered in Jerusalem, and there was the law which Jews agreed was scripture. Most Jews accepted the Prophets as well. Beyond that, we know different branches of Judaism accepted a varying list of writings as authoritative, and possibly as scripture. The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not settled until well into the Christian era.

Endnotes

  1. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 536-538; 540-541)
  2. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 561-562)
  3. (Pelikan 2005, 39)
  4. (Barrera 1998, 148)
  5. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 2-3)
  6. (Schürer, A History of the Jewish People, Second Division, Volume 1 1890, 308)
  7. (Anderson 2002, 5-6)
  8. (Epiphanius of Salamis 2012, Book 1, Section 1, Parts 9-20)
  9. (Bowker 1973, 161) The Jerusalem Talmud was written well into the Christian era, in a period after many of the competing Judaisms had died out. Thus, the reference to them as ‘heretical sects.’
  10. The scholar April D. DeConick writes: “Judaism and Christianity are companion expressions of Second Temple Judaism, sibling religions that developed simultaneously within comparable historical contextures.” (DeConick 2006, 3)
  11. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 19)

Bibliography

  1. Anderson, J. S. (2002). The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to the Second Temple Period. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.
  2. Barrera, J. T. (1998). The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible; An Introduction to the History of the Text. (W. G. Watson, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  3. Bowker, J. (1973). Jesus and the Pharisees. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. DeConick, A. D. (2006). What is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism? Retrieved August 7, 2017, from Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/definition.pdf
  5. Epiphanius of Salamis. (2012, April 25). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: A Treatise Against Eighty Sects in Three Books. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Masseiana Home Page: http://www.masseiana.org/panarion_bk1.htm
  6. Grabbe, L. L. (2010). An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: T&T Clark.
  7. Pelikan, J. (2005). Whose Bible Is It: A Short History of the Scriptures (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: Penguin Group US.
  8. Schürer, E. (1890). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ (Vols. Second Division, Volume 1). (S. Taylor, & P. Christie, Trans.) Edinburgh: T & T Clark.