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

The Beginning of the Process

Ancient recognition of the divine authority of written documents was accompanied by the repetition of a story in believing communities and the ability to tell that story in a variety of contexts to meet the needs of the community of faith and offer it hope (adaptability). The primary function of canon in a community of faith is to aid that community in its own self- definition (who are we) and its guidelines for living (what are we to do) and the order of its beliefs and hopes (what we are to believe). Those traditions that eventually became canon for ancient Israel also empowered that community for life; that is, they gave hope even in hopeless situations (the Exile) and brought life to the remnant of the nation of Israel. The literature that spoke to the needs of one generation, but was unable to be interpreted or adapted to meet the needs of another, simply did not survive in Judaism or Christianity. There are several books mentioned in the Old Testament that did not survive antiquity (2 Sam. 1: 18; 1 Kgs. 11: 41; 14: 19, 29; 15: 7, 23, 31; 16: 5, 14, 20, 27; 22: 39, 45; 2 Kgs. 1: 18; 8: 23; 10: 34; 12: 19; 13: 8, 12; 14: 15, 18, 28; 15: 6, 11, 15, 21, 26, 31, 36; 16: 19; 20: 20; 21:17; 21: 25; 23: 28; 24: 5; 1 Chr. 27: 24; 2 Chr. 20: 34; 33: 18; Ezra 4: 15; Neh. 12: 23). These are listed more completely in McDonald 2006.

The survivability of the ancient scriptures had much to do with their ability to be interpreted afresh in new communities and new circumstances. The new interpretations were the product of hermeneutics that searched for relevance and meaning of this literature in ever new circumstances. The adaptability of this story ultimately led to its canonicity, and this became a primary characteristic of canonical material. The stabilization of the biblical text came later in the canonical process, though the church as a whole never opted for any particular text of the biblical scriptures.

The story that is at the heart of the earliest Jewish biblical canon is about a people who migrated from Egypt to Canaan under the guidance and protection of YHWH, who rescued them from bondage and brought them to their promised land. Other elements were added to this story, both at its beginning (the Genesis tradition) and at its ending (the prophetic tradition, wisdom literature, and the history of the fall of the nation). The earliest story did not include a Decalogue or other lists of divine commandments, but consisted essentially in telling the story of God's calling the Jewish people to a foreign land and preserving them through divine acts. They responded to these acts by recognizing YHWH as the one true God of Israel and their need to obey God's call to be a holy nation. There are many examples of this primal story in the OT Scriptures, especially in the Prophets (Amos 2: 9–11; 3: 1–2; 4: 10–11; 5: 25; 9: 7, 11; cf. also Deut. 26: 5–9 and Josh. 24), but also in the NT, where it continued to serve in establishing the true identity of God's people (Acts 7: 2–53; 1 Cor. 10: 1–11; Heb. 3: 5–19).

After the exile of Israel to Babylon, the Jews reconsidered their story from the perspective of the classical prophets whose witness to that story gave them life and hope. In the message from Ezekiel, for example, the people could, through the faithfulness of YHWH, look forward to the resurrection of the nation following its death (Ezek. 36–7). In the exilic sojourn, Ezekiel echoed the vision of Jeremiah, who spoke of the reforming of the nation (Jer. 18: 1–11).

After Israel had lost its land, national leaders, temple, and cultus in the terrible destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, unlike other nations before and after them, they did not simply merge with other nations, acknowledge other gods, and become extinct as a people who served YHWH. Instead, Israel was reborn. The only thing that remained that had not been destroyed, which was also commonly available, adaptable, and transportable, was the story of God's redemption that preserved the Jews from extinction. That story was transported to Babylon, and there it was adapted to the new circumstances of the Jewish nation in captivity, and there its faith and hope were reborn (Sanders 1987: 18–19).

Subsequent biblical writings reflect the belief that the revelation and will of God were disclosed not only in the mighty acts of God through which YHWH invaded history, (e.g. in the exodus), but also in written materials (as in the tablets of stone that contained the Ten Commandments) and subsequently in the Pentateuch, where the writing down of God's word was an important mark of God's revelation (Exod. 24: 12; 31: 8; 32: 15, 32; 34: 1; Deut. 4: 2, 13; 8: 11; etc.). Just as Moses wrote down the commandments of the Lord (Exod. 24: 4; 34: 27), so also did Joshua (24: 26) and Samuel (1 Sam. 10: 25). In the book of Deuteronomy, the king was called upon to write down for himself a copy of the Law of God for reading all the days of his life, to remind him of the statutes of God and to be humble in his dealings with his people (Deut. 17: 18–20). The people were also called upon to write the words of God on their doorposts (Deut. 6: 9; 11: 20).

The writers of the Old Testament literature do not generally reckon with a written ‘scripture’ as an acknowledged authoritative feature in the life of Israel, except toward the end of that period, as in the reforms of Josiah (cf. 2 Kgs. 18: 20a with 22: 3–13; cf. Mal. 4: 4) at approximately 622–621 BCE. Those prophets who earlier said ‘Thus says the Lord’, were not speaking on the basis of an already existing text, but rather from their understanding of the will of God that came to them by revelation. Almost nothing in the OT suggests that there were sacred scriptures to turn to when guidance was needed. Neither David nor Solomonn nor Hezekiah spoke about sacred books that were current and normative in the life of Israel. Individuals related to God more through persons (priests and prophets) and institutions (tabernacle and temple) than through sacred writings, except toward the end of the OT period.

While it is true that some of the Psalms, especially 19 and 119, emphasize meditation on the word, law, precepts, and statutes of God (all of these are the same), most of the psalms do not date before the time of Josiah's finding of the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) in 621 BCE. This is not to suggest that sacred religious traditions that functioned in an authoritative manner in the life and worship of the ancient Jewish people did not exist earlier. No religious community exists without rule or authority or a sacred tradition, regardless of whether it is expressed in scriptures, creeds, liturgies, or oral traditions, and, by its nature, that which is divinely inspired can be adapted to new circumstances of life or it ceases to be canonical.

At what point was the religion of Israel governed by or built upon the Law or any written authority? It was probably not much before the reforms of Josiah (2 Kgs. 23: 1–25; 2 Chronicles 34–5), but certainly no later than the reforms of Ezra one or more centuries later when the book of the Law was read to the people (Neh. 8: 1–8; 9: 1–3; cf. Ezra 7: 6, 10, 14; 9: 11–12). The Deuteronomic movement in Israel in the eighth to the seventh centuries BCE no doubt played a major role in effecting that change. This can be seen in the admonition not only to obey the commandments of YHWH, but also the warning against adding to them or taking away from them (Deut. 4: 2). When what was written down in Israel was later translated and explained to the people as having normative value in the life of their community (Neh. 8: 8–11), the notion of Scripture was present in Judaism.

During the Exile a remnant of Jews remembered the message of the prophets who had accurately predicted what would happen to the nation. As the truthfulness of the prophets' message of warning and judgement was remembered, that remnant also recognized a message of hope that allowed Israel to survive the terrible judgements that had been inflicted upon them in their captivity. These Jews accepted the message of the prophets, took responsibility for their failure as a nation, and accepted their captivity and destruction as judgement from YHWH for their own misdeeds. The Jewish remnant remembered and repeated this message. Earlier, the pre-exilic prophets, who had warned their nation of the consequences of their disregard for their covenant with God, had been accused of being ‘madmen, unpatriotic, blasphemous, seditious, and traitorous’ (Jer. 29: 26), but now they were remembered because what they had predicted actually came to pass. The remnant believed that the core of this prophetic message was contained in the Torah. This message was eventually expanded to include both the Former and then the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve) and finally the Writings (Ezra–Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, and 1 and 2 Chronicles). As the Jews returned from Babylon, their authoritative writings were primarily the laws of Moses, but soon this included the whole of the Pentateuch and subsequently (c.200 BCE) the Prophets also. In the repetition of this story within context (a feature of canon), the remnant of Israel discovered life and hope.

The fluidity of the transmission of this story, and its adaptability through the genius of hermeneutics, continued well into the time of Jesus when the lack of a fixed or stabilized tradition contributed to the existence of the variety of sects within Judaism (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Samaritans, and Christians) that flourished in the first century CE. After the destruction of the Temple and its cultus in 70 CE, and following the failure of the messianic movement in the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132–5 CE, rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity, and a small band of Samaritans were the only brands of Judaism that survived these traumatic events. The first of these began to restrict its sacred writings to a time when it believed that the spirit of prophecy had existed in Israel (from Moses to Ezra), and all other books were excluded, even though several other books, Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, continued to be read by pious Jews for several centuries. By the end of the first century CE, the biblical canon of the Jews began to reflect for some Jews the twenty-two or twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. This long and complicated process began with a fluid and adaptable story in the pre-exilic period that was finally fixed for the Jews in the fourth through the sixth centuries CE.

This process was completed for the Christians at roughly the same time, but for completely different reasons and with a different collection and ordering of books. The Hebrew Bible concludes with the Chronicles telling the story of the remnant of Jews returning from bondage in Babylon to their homeland to rebuild their land, homes, and temple (2 Chr. 26: 22–3). By contrast, the Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the Minor Prophets, which looks forward to the coming of Elijah at the end of the ages to bring both reconciliation to families and an escape from the judgement of God (Mal. 4: 5–6). The way that each scripture canon is ordered presents a significantly different message to its readers, although in both it ends on a strong note of hope.

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