Lee Martin McDonald
An examination of the origin and development of the biblical canons of both Judaism and Christianity is essentially about the processes that led to the stabilizing of fixed collections of writings that undergird the core of beliefs and religious practices of those communities. The corollary of canon formation is the belief that the writings that make up those collections have their origin in God; that is, they are inspired by God, and consequently are authoritative for worship, instruction in core beliefs, mission activity, and religious and practical conduct. While the definition of a biblical canon has more to do with the end of a process—that is, with a fixed list of sacred scriptures—the authority attributed to those writings was recognized much earlier when they were in a more fluid stage of development and were more open to adaptability or change to meet the needs of the religious community. Many factors played a role in the complex history of the formation of the biblical canon, including the origin of the notion of sacred literature, the processes that led to the recognition of that literature, and the final fixing of a closed collection of sacred literature.
There is little agreement among scholars on when this ‘canonical activity’ began, where it began, and especially when it was completed. Resolving such problems is made more difficult by the fact that there are no discussions of the origins, development, and recognition of biblical canons in antiquity. By all appearances, this was an unconscious process throughout most of its development. Most information on the matter is tenuous, and it is generally drawn from an investigation of a limited but familiar collection of ancient texts (referred to below). There is no evidence from the time of Jesus that either the Jews or the followers of Jesus were even remotely interested in the notion of a closed collection of sacred scriptures.
The textual form of the Scriptures was also of little serious consideration in the early stages of the canonical processes, though at various times some texts and translations did receive widespread but not universal acceptance in the Christian and Jewish communities. For example, most early churches unofficially adopted the Septuagint (LXX), or Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, as its divinely inspired version, and the Jews later opted for the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, although the earliest complete witness to that text dates from 1008 CE. ‘Septuagint’ originally referred only to the translation of the Pentateuch, a point made forcefully, first by the author of the Letter of Aristeas (§3–5, 19, 30, etc.), who was the first to call the translation a ‘bible’ (§316), but also by Jerome in the fifth century (cf. his introduction to Hebraica Questiones in Libro Geneseos I/1). The translation gradually expanded to include all of the books of the Jewish Scriptures, including several that are not part of the Masoretic tradition (often called apocryphal or deutero-canonical in the Christian tradition). It was this Greek version which was used to translate the Bible into various languages.
The relationship between canon formation and textual or translation considerations has resurfaced recently as important issues for the Church, but these were not significant matters throughout most of its history and no certain decisions were made on these matters in the patristic period (c. second to sixth centuries CE). The differences in the manuscripts that survive from antiquity, as well as in the variety of translations of the biblical literature, show that the Church had little concern for such matters throughout most of its history. While most scholars who produce critical commentaries today focus at least minimally on the history of the text of biblical books, seldom do they emphasize the significance of this for determining a canonical text: that is, an authoritative text for the Church. Historically, the most common assumption has been that the earliest text of the Bible is more authoritative, but recently that view has been challenged, and many textual scholars no longer believe that an original text is recoverable.
The following discussion will examine the notion of canon in antiquity and its application to the writings that eventually received canonical recognition in the Jewish and Christian communities of faith. The investigation of the Hebrew Bible and the ‘First’ or ‘Old’ Testament of the Church, as will become clear, are inextricably bound together. The lack of agreement in antiquity on the definition of a biblical canon, as well as the books that comprise it, and the inconsistency in the use of terms to describe it and its processes make any investigation of the origins and stabilization of the Bible more difficult, but some inferences and conclusions can be drawn. This examination will begin with a focus on the context of canon formation, and then proceed to what can be discerned in the ancient sources.