1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > Close of the Old Testament Development. Formation of the Canon.

(Part 3)


Close of the Old Testament Development. Formation of the Canon.

The Exile and Restoration

The struggle between spiritual and unspiritual religion was brought to a crisis when the prophetic predictions of judgment on national sin were fulfilled in the fall of the kingdom of Judah. The merely political worship of Jehovah as the tutelary god of the state was now reduced to absurdity. Faith in the covenant God was impossible except on the principles of spiritual belief. Nor did the restoration by Cyrus affect this result. No political future lay before the returning exiles, and continued confidence in the destiny of the race was not separable from the religious ideas and Messianic hopes of the prophets.

Reformation and Law Book of Ezra

To obey the law of Jehovah and patiently to await the coming Deliverer was the only distinctive vocation of the community that gathered in the new Jerusalem; and after a period of misfortune and failure, in which the whole nation seemed ready to collapse in despair, this vocation was clearly recognized and embodied in permanent institutions in the reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah (445 B.C.) But with this victory the spiritual religion passed into a stationary state. The spirit of prophecy, long decadent, expired with Malachi, the younger contemporary of Nehemiah; and the whole concern of the nation from this time downwards was simply to preserve the sacred inheritance of the past. The Exile had so utterly broken all continuity of national life, that that inheritance could only be sought in the surviving monuments of sacred literature. To these, more than to the expiring voice of prophecy in their midst, the founders of the new theocracy turned for guidance. The books that had upheld the exiles’ faith, when all outward ordinances of religion were lacking, were also the fittest teachers of the restored community. Previous reformers had been statesmen or prophets. Ezra is a scribe who comes to Jerusalem armed, not with a fresh message from the Lord, but with "the book of the law of Moses." This law-book was the Pentateuch, and the public recognition of it as the rule of the theocracy was the declaration that the religious ordinances of Israel had ceased to admit of development, and the first step towards the substitution of a canon or authoritative collection of Scriptures for the living guidance of the prophetic voice. A second step in the same direction is ascribed to Nehemiah by a tradition instrinsically probable, though of no great external authority. He, it is said, collected a library which, besides documents of temporary importance, embraced "the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David" (2 Mac. ii. 13.)

Second Canon

Certainly a complete body of the remains of the prophets, with an authentic account of the history of the period of their activity, must soon have been felt to be scarcely second in importance to the law; and so Nehemiah may very well be supposed to have begun the collection which now forms the second part of the Hebrew Bible, embracing, under the general title of The Prophets, the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings (Earlier Prophets),and the four prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets (Latter Prophets).

Third Canon

The mention of the writings of David implies that Nehemiah also began the formation of the third and last part of the Hebrew canon, which comprises, under the title of Ketubim (Scriptures, Hagiographa), the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the five Megillot or rolls (Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and, finally, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. It is certain, however, that this part of the collection was not completed till long after Nehemiah’s time; for to say nothing of the disputed dates of Ecclesiastes and Daniel, the book of Chronicles contains genealogies which go down at least to the close of the Persian period. The miscellaneous character of the Ketubim seems, in fact, to show that after the Law and the Prophets were closed, the third part of the canon was open to receive additions, recommended either by their religious and historical value, or by bearing an ancient and venerable name. And this was the more natural because the Hagiographa had not the same place in the synagogue service as was accorded to the Law and the Prophets.

Close of Canon

The time and manner in which the collection was absolutely closed is obscure. The threefold division of the sacred writings is referred to in the prologue to the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) about 130 B.C., but Jewish tradition indicates that the full canonicity of several books, especially of Ecclesiastes, was not free from doubt till the time of the famous R. Akiba, who perished in the great national struggle of the Jews with the Emperor Hadrian (Mishna, Jadaim, 3; Edaiot, 5). The oldest list of canonical books, given by Josephus (c. Apion., i. 8), is of somewhat earlier date.

Number of Canonical Books

Josephus seems to have had quite our present canon; but he took Ruth along with Judges, and viewed Lamentations as part of the book of Jeremiah, thus counting twenty-two books instead of the twenty-four of the Talmudic enumeration and of the present Hebrew Bible. There is other evidence that only twenty-two books were reckoned by the Jews of the first Christian century; and it appears that this number was accommodated to that of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Even in the time of Jerome, Ruth, and Lamentations were not uniformly reckoned apart. The expansion of the Talmudic twenty-four to the thirty-nine Old Testament books of the English version is effected by reckoning the minor prophets one by one, by separating Ezra from Nehemiah, and by subdividing the long books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. In this reckoning, and in the very different order of the books, we follow in the main the Alexandrian Greek and Vulgate Latin versions.

Alexandrian Canon

But the Alexandrian different from the Hebrew canon in more important points. The line of distinction between inspired and human writings was not so sharply drawn; and the Greek Bible not only admitted additions to several of the Hagiographa, but contained other apocryphal books, of some of which Greek was the original tongue, while others were translations of Hebrew or Aramaic writings. See APOCRYPHA.

In turning now to a literary and critical survey of the Old Testament books, we shall find it convenient to depart from the division of the Hebrew canon, in favour of a classification suggested by the order of the books followed in the English version and in most other translations. The Old Testament literature is made up of historical, poeticodidactic, and prophetic writings, and under these three heads we will arrange what remains to be said on the subject.

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