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How We Got the Bible Part. 3: The Scriptures Among Jesus’ Contemporaries

by Darren Johnson

In my former treatise/article, I discussed what the Bible might have looked like in Jesus’ day and why “Bible” is a misnomer at this early stage. First-century synagogues didn’t have “pulpit Bibles”— bulky, cumbersome volumes with several sacred writings bound together between two covers. You’ll recall that when Jesus addressed the synagogue in Nazareth, he wasn’t handed a Bible as such but the “scroll of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17). Instead of thinking about the Bible in Jesus’ day as a single book, we should think about the biblia (scrolls) that would later form the Bible as we know it.     

Last month we also examined how the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) came together in stages over several centuries. This is reflected in the traditional threefold canon of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The Torah (Law of Moses) was the earliest collection of sacred writings to gain authority among the Jewish people. Next came the Prophets, and finally the Writings sometime later.

There’s good evidence that most Jews recognized a canon similar, if not identical, to the Protestant Old Testament by the end of the first century A.D. I emphasize “most” for the simple reason that first-century Judaism was not uniform. There were divisions and branches among Jews much as there are among Christians today. And guess what? Some Jewish groups had very different ideas about what books counted as Scripture.

One area upon which all Jews agreed was the sacred standing of the Torah. Even the despised Samaritans accepted the Books of Moses as authoritative. The Sadducees also recognized the Torah as the holy word of God, and uniquely so. Unlike their rivals the Pharisees, they rejected the ancestral traditions (the so-called “oral Law”) as possessing any kind of binding authority upon Jewish life. The written Torah alone was their guide. Indeed, according to several church fathers, the Sadducees denied that the Prophets and the Writings possessed the same authority as the Torah. This would partly explain why they denied the resurrection from the dead, a hope clearly affirmed in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2-3. It’s worth noting that when Jesus debated the resurrection with the Sadducees, he cited neither passage but instead appealed directly to Moses’ encounter with the LORD at Sinai (Exodus 3:6; see Matthew 22:31-32 and parallels). Jesus was meeting the Sadducees on their home turf!

While the Samaritans and Sadducees held to a restricted canon, other Jewish sects embraced a much wider body of authoritative literature. The Essenes at Qumran are a case in point. The Qumran library—also known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls”—has yielded manuscript fragments from every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. (It isn’t difficult to see why a radical holiness sect, that considered the Pharisees lax by comparison, would’ve frowned upon Esther’s marriage to a pagan king!) While biblical books like Isaiah, Psalms, and Deuteronomy appear frequently among the scrolls, so too do the Book of Jubilees and several apocalyptic writings associated with Enoch. These works seem to have played at least a quasi-scriptural role among the Essenes at Qumran, informing many of their beliefs and practices.

The Essenes, to be sure, were a fringe group. Of the major Jewish sects from this period, the Pharisees wielded the most influence among ordinary folks. Their views about the contents of sacred Scripture carried much weight in the synagogue, where most Jews would’ve been exposed to the biblical writings.

Not surprisingly, it’s a Pharisee, the historian Josephus, who provides us with the clearest and earliest evidence for a closed threefold canon. Writing near the end of the first century A.D., Josephus puts the number of sacred books at 22—the same number as letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first five books belong to Moses, he notes. After these are thirteen books of the “prophets,” which cover the period from Moses’ death to the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia (r. 465 – 424 B.C.). The remaining four books contain “hymns to God” and “precepts for the conduct of human life.” While Josephus recognizes that there were many additional books written after the time of Artaxerxes, he concludes that these “have not been esteemed of like authority” since there has not “been an exact succession of prophets since that time” (Against Apion 1.38-41). Remember this point.   

Now, it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that Josephus’s numbering doesn’t add up to the 39 books of our Old Testament. Keep in mind, though, that Jewish scribes often combined multiple works into a single scroll. For instance, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets were each considered a single book. Do the math, and you’re left with a total of 24 books.

But Josephus states that there were only 22. It’s likely, as many scholars maintain, that Josephus included Lamentations with Jeremiah and Ruth with Judges—a practice common among early Jewish and Christian writers. Then again, it’s also possible that certain books we regard as Scripture were not so regarded by Josephus. We know from the Talmud that rabbis of this period continued to debate the status of works such as Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Esther (b. Baba Bathra 14b-15a). Whatever the case, Josephus’s statements about sacred Scripture do line up rather closely with the threefold, 24-book canon recognized by the rabbis a generation or two later.

So, to sum up: Jewish groups of Jesus’ day disagreed with one another (and sometimes among themselves) over which books constituted sacred Scripture—or, as the rabbis would later put it, which scrolls “rendered the hands unclean.” There was, however, a growing consensus among the Pharisees about the contents of the Scriptures. With the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the disappearance of groups like the Essenes and Sadducees, the body of Scripture embraced by the Pharisees carried the day in rabbinical circles and became the Old Testament that most Protestants are familiar with today. Case (and canon) closed.

Or is it? Next month, we’ll consider why the Old Testament recognized by our Catholic and Orthodox friends contains several books not found in Jewish and Protestant Bibles. The answers may surprise you!


Darren Johnson preaches for Central Church of Christ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa  

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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10