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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Scribes and Scriptures in the Ancient World

Scribes (Hebrew soferim) in the ancient world were highly esteemed, and were afforded a significant sacred status in the Jewish community. Often, whatever they wrote was considered very important, even though much of it was simply copying what others had said (Bar-Ilan 1990). Most of what was written was deemed important, and referring to it as ‘it is written’ came to refer to its divine authority (Davies 2002: 42–4).

The word ‘fulfill’ or its various forms (‘fulfilled’ or ‘as it is fulfilled’) also designates the authority and sacredness of ancient literature. All revelatory material, for example, was given special consideration. When prophets spoke, they were thought to convey the word and will of God. If they wrote down their prophecies, the writings took on the status of divine authority within the religious community. If one believed that a prophecy given earlier had been fulfilled in subsequent events, the prophecy was thereby validated, and the divine origin of the prophecy was affirmed. Prophecy-fulfilment motifs are frequently found in biblical literature, and were received as integral to authoritative sacred writings among Jews and Christians. In the New Testament, as well as in the early Christian communities, various designations were used to emphasize the sacredness of the body of literature that we now call the Old Testament by identifying it as ‘it is written’, ‘the writings say’, ‘the scripture says’, or ‘as the scripture says’ (Metzger 1987: 289–95).

The basic properties of ‘Scripture’, both for ancient Judaism and Christianity, appear to have included at least four essential ingredients. Generally speaking, Scripture is a written document believed to have divine origin that communicates the will and truth of God for a believing community, and it provides a source of regulations for the corporate and individual life of that community (Farley 1982: 58; Kelsey 1975: 89–94). When a particular writing was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative, it was eventually elevated to the status of Scripture, even if the writing was not yet called ‘Scripture’ and even if that status was only temporary (e.g. Eldad and Modad, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, Letters of Ignatius). There was limited discussion in the early church of such matters, and in the first two centuries there was only limited agreement on which books were acknowledged as Scripture.

Among the world's religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have defined themselves and their mission in terms of sacred texts. The development of a collection of Scriptures in these traditions appears to have come from a common belief in the notion of a ‘heavenly book’ that contains both divine knowledge and decrees from God. This heavenly book generally included wisdom, destinies (or laws), a book of works, and a book of life (Graham 1987: 49–50). This notion goes back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the heavenly book indicated not only the future plans of God, but also the destinies of human beings. An example of this understanding can be found in Ps. 139: 15–16: ‘My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed’ (NRSV). This notion is also found in Rev. 5: 1, 3, and in the description of the opening of a book in 6: 1–17 and 8: 1–10: 11. In Rev. 20: 12, 15, books are opened before the great white throne of God in heaven, and ‘another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books…and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’ (NRSV). According to Exod. 32: 33, sinners will be blotted out of God's book. The same notion of a heavenly book lies behind Paul's assertion about Clement and the rest of his colleagues in ministry, ‘whose names are in the book of life’ (Phil. 4: 3).

This belief gave rise to the notion that divine knowledge and heavenly decrees are contained in a divine book that is symbolized in written scriptures (Graham 1987: 50–1). In the Qur'an, reference is made to a divine book of destinies in which ‘no misfortune strikes on earth or in yourselves without its being [written] in a Book before we cause it to be. Truly, that is easy for God’ (Surah 57. 22; trans. Graham 1987: 50–1). Long before the notion of a biblical canon, the Law was believed to have come directly from God. Moses proclaimed the words and ordinances of God (Exod. 24: 3), and was commissioned by God to write them down (Exod. 34: 4, 27). It was believed that God was the writer of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments (Exod. 34: 1; Deut. 4: 13; 10: 4). The Jews came to believe that the Law of God was written and preserved in sacred writings, and this belief played an important role in the development of their notion of a revealed and authoritative scripture.

Although the belief in divinely inspired writings was widespread in Israel in late antiquity and also in early Christianity, what each group believed was scripture is not always clear. Even though ancient writers often cited written texts, this does not necessarily mean that they or their readers viewed them as sacred and inviolable scriptures. Likewise, when an ancient teacher cites a particular text as scripture, one cannot conclude that all teachers of that time and place considered that writing sacred. For example, Paul reportedly cited several non-biblical sources in his speaking and writings (Acts 17: 28, Epimenides and Aratus; cf. Titus 1: 12, Epimenides), but one cannot conclude that he cited them as scripture. Also, even though Irenaeus argued for a fourfold gospel collection, those four and no more, after him Bishop Serapion of Antioch initially allowed the Gospel of Peter to be read in the churches, but later, after examining its theological contents, he reversed himself on the matter. The reversal was not because of his discovery of a widely accepted closed collection of gospels, but because he subsequently became aware of its contents. Likewise, as late as the mid-fourth century, Athanasius published his twenty-seven-book list of the writings of the New Testament in his 39th Festal Letter, but it was not universally accepted in the rest of the Roman Empire, or even in Egypt itself in his generation. Widespread approval took much longer. Just because well-known church teachers cited ancient texts, one cannot conclude that such writings were a part of their biblical canons. Every citation or quote must be evaluated on its own merit before being added to someone's sacred collection.

The Church inherited its collection of Old Testament Scriptures from first-century Judaism before its separation from the synagogue. The writings that the Jews believed were sacred before this separation were also the same ones acknowledged in the earliest Christian churches. That collection was largely, but not completely, formed before the time of Jesus, and it included the Law and the Prophets, and an imprecise collection of other writings. It could be that these other writings were fewer than, the same as, or even more than those in the current Hebrew Scriptures. The early Christians apparently accepted several ‘apocryphal’ writings as ‘scripture’, since they cited them as such in the second and third centuries, and several of these writings appear in various biblical manuscripts in the fourth and fifth centuries as well as in various canonical lists from the same time (McDonald 1995: 108–18, 268–73). The variety in those collections diminished in time, but some diversity was present for several centuries—indeed, throughout church history. Had there been any understanding in the early church that Jesus had received and passed on to his disciples a fixed biblical canon, it is unthinkable that the early church would have considered producing another ‘Testament’ of sacred writings or receiving as sacred any books that Jesus had rejected. The development of a ‘New’ Testament in the last third of the second century CE is evidence that the church was not born with a fixed biblical canon in its hands, as some allege. How could a new collection emerge if there was already a fixed biblical canon widely acknowledged?

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