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

Closing the Biblical Canon

A. Cessation of Prophecy

The belief that prophecy had ceased in Israel (1 Macc. 14: 40–1; Josephus, Ap. 1. 43–4) gave rise to the view that only writings produced during the time of the prophets (Moses to Ezra) were inspired, and so writings after that did not belong in the biblical canon. This position, of course, does not reflect the views of the Essenes, who believed that the Spirit of God was active in their own community as well as in their writings. For example, the author of the Rule of the Community says to the community at Qumran that one who spurns the decrees of the community also rejects the decrees of God. That one does not allow himself to be taught by the community counsel, and the author concludes: ‘For, by the spirit of the true counsel concerning paths of man, all his sins are atoned so that he can look at the light of life’ (1QS 3. 6–8, trans. Martinez). He later adds: ‘these are the counsels of the spirit for the sons of truth in the world’ (1QS 4. 6, trans. Martinez). The residents at Qumran believed that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit were present in their community and active through their teachings; for example, ‘you [God] have graciously granted us Your Holy Spirit. Take pity on us’ (4Q506 fos. 131–2: 11; for other examples, see CD 7. 4; 1QS 3. 7; 1QS 4. 21; 1QSb 2. 22 and 2. 24; 4Q213a 1. 14; 4Q287 10. 13; 4Q416 2ii. 13; 4Q418 8. 6; 4Q509 97–8i. 9).

Christians also believed that the Holy Spirit was active in their midst and that belief stands behind their production of a New Testament of scriptures. Indeed, Christians taught that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit came as a result of the activity of Jesus (John 7: 39; 20: 22; Luke 24: 49; Acts 1: 8; 2: 17–18), and that prophecy was still active among them. They recognized the gift of prophecy in their midst (Rom. 12: 6; 1 Cor. 12: 29; 14: 1, 3–5; cf. Acts 21: 4, 10–11). Paul believed that he spoke by the Spirit when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7: 40), as did other early church writers. For example, Clement of Rome recognized that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians ‘with true inspiration’ (1 Clem. 47. 3), but adds that his own epistle was ‘written by us through the Holy Spirit’ (63.2). The author of 2 Clement introduces 1 Clem. 23.3 with the words, ‘for the prophetic word also says’ (2 Clem. 11. 2). The early church father Ignatius (c.115–17 CE) believed that he also wrote in the power of the Spirit: ‘I spoke with a great voice—with God's own voice’, and says that some accused him of saying this because he had previous knowledge of a situation to which he spoke, but he contends that ‘the Spirit was preaching and saying this’ (Phld. 7. 1b–2). The Montanists of the late second century argued that the prophetic voice was still alive in the church, and they produced many writings that they believed were prompted by the Spirit. Their argument was so persuasive that even the great church father and teacher Tertullian (c.200 CE) joined their ranks.

Of all of the references to inspiration and being filled with the Spirit in the church of the first five centuries, the only time that something said or written was not considered inspired was if the writing or message was ‘heresy’, that is, something contrary to the truth of God. When Bishop Serapion (c.200 CE) rejected the Gospel of Peter, he called it ‘heterodox’ (or ‘heretical’): that is, contrary to the truth of God. He also spoke of ‘pseudepigraphal’ writings: that is, ‘writings which falsely bear their [apostles] names’ (Euseb. HE 6. 12. 2–3). The early Christians believed that the power of the Spirit was present and active in their midst, and therefore prophetic words were essential to their religious experience. Inspiration, at that time, was not limited to sacred writings of the past.

An eschatological perspective was at the heart of the early Christian view of the Jewish Scriptures (Hebrew Bible)—that is, the belief that the Scriptures had their primary fulfilment in Jesus (e.g. Matt. 2: 5, 17, 23; 3: 3; 4: 14; Mark 14: 49; 15: 28; Luke 4: 21; Acts 1: 16; John 17: 12; 19: 24, 28). Similarly, those at Qumran believed that the Scriptures were fulfilled in their religious community and activities. Although Paul taught that the Scriptures had fulfilment in the Christian community (Rom. 4: 23; 15: 4; 16: 26; 1 Cor. 9: 10; 10: 11), still for him the risen Christ was the primary norm for the understanding and use of the OT Scriptures in the early church (2 Cor. 3: 12–16). The early church uniformly held that the OT Scriptures were of unimpeachable authority (John 10: 35; Matt. 5: 18), and that they constituted ‘the authoritative declaration of the divine will’, but that its primary authority was found in its Christological fulfilment. Unlike in Judaism, the early Christians' basic stance toward the Jewish scriptures was moulded by their Christology. The Old Testament scriptures functioned as Christian scriptures for the church, because they bore witness to Christ. Both the Old and New Testament Scriptures were received as authoritative primarily because Christians believed that they pointed to God's redemptive activity in Jesus Christ.

It is important to observe that the author of Acts claims that the early church was focused on ‘the apostles' teaching’ and not on the OT Scriptures (2: 42), although there is no doubt that the teachings about Jesus and the coming of the Spirit were also presented as a fulfilment of the scriptures (2: 17–36). The book of Acts is sprinkled throughout with OT references, which were employed as sacred texts for preaching about Jesus (see Acts 2: 17–21, 25–8, 34, 35; 4: 25–6; 8: 32–3, passim), but one does not find any particular devotion to the study of the OT such as is found in the later post-Pauline texts of 2 Tim. 2: 15 and 3: 14–15.

B. Factors in the Selection Process

The limits of the scriptures that defined both faith and the will of God for the Jewish and Christian communities were largely fixed by the middle to late fourth century for both Jews and Christians, even though questions about some books continued for a while longer. Despite the complex and often unknown circumstances that led to the closing of the biblical canon, the available evidence allows some conclusions to be drawn.

The factors that shaped the contours of scripture collections were theological, social, and practical. In the first instance, there was a belief in Judaism that with the cessation of prophets following Ezra, the production of divine literature ceased. While the Christians did not accept that belief, they did acknowledge the scriptures they received from the Jews, but also came to the view that a new day had come and that new scriptures were also needed for their community. These scriptures were framed by a commonly accepted body of beliefs about Jesus that circulated in early Christianity. The social, or historical, factors that led the church to finalize its sacred collections included the Roman persecutions of the church under Decian (c.250–1) and Diocletian (c.303–13). In the latter persecution, Christians were required under threat of death to turn over their sacred writings to the authorities to be burned (see Euseb. HE 8. 5–6 and Gesta apud Zenophilum in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 26). These acts of violence forced Christians to decide which literature was sacred and could not be turned over to the authorities without violating conscience. Another social factor was Constantine's (c.314–40) push for religious conformity within the Christian communities, under the threat of banishment for those who did not comply. These factors do not appear to have influenced the scope of the Jewish biblical canon.

A third factor that surely influenced large communities of faith was Constantine's request of Eusebius to produce fifty copies of the church's scriptures to be used in the churches of the new Rome, Constantinople, which was the new centre of the Roman Empire (McDonald 1995: 182–90). The contents of whatever it was that Eusebius produced for the emperor must surely have had significant influence on many in the church in that vicinity (Greece and Asia Minor) and even further away.

As noted above, prior to the late fourth century, when the capacity of books was not sufficient to include all of the sacred writings, churches and synagogues often had unbound collections of books or manuscripts. This affected the ordering or sequence of the books, and probably also the contents of the biblical canons (Gamble 1995).

The major sects of Judaism in the first century CE (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Samaritans, and Christians) agreed that God spoke through divinely inspired writings, but they disagreed on which writings were sacred. The Sadducees accepted only the books of Moses as divine scripture, and similarly the Samaritans acknowledged a modified and enlarged Pentateuch; but the Pharisees accepted initially a much larger and undetermined collection of scriptures. By the end of the first century, they were beginning to be more limited in scope for the Jews, even though there was no universal agreement on their number. The Essenes clearly accepted a larger collection than did the Pharisees, especially the Community Rule, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll (VanderKam 2000, 2002).

The first discussion about a fixed number of books in the Hebrew Bible came at the end of the first century CE when Josephus wrote: ‘Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time’ (Ap. I. 38), and describes a closed twenty-two-book collection of Hebrew scriptures that, he says, ‘no one has ventured to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable; and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and if need be, cheerfully to die for them’ (Ap. 1. 42, LCL). He also identifies these books by categories of Law, or the ‘books of Moses’, the ‘prophets who wrote history, and hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life’ (Ap. 1. 39–40, LCL). The reason, he says, why no one adds to them is the ‘failure of the exact succession of prophets’ (1. 41): that is, the belief that prophecy had ceased in Israel and that writings after that do not have the same merit since they do not have their source in God (see discussion above). Cross suggests that Josephus's collection may actually have come from Hillel as an import from Babylon (c. late first centuryBCE–early first century CE), the early tanna' (or teacher who repeats traditions) and his school. This suggestion may have some merit, and it answers several questions, but it is still only a theory (Cross 1998: 221–5).

At roughly the same time (c.90–100 CE), the author of 4 Ezra (= 2 Esdras) acknowledged twenty-four books that both the ‘worthy and unworthy’ could read, but he also mentions seventy other books that were reserved for the ‘wise’ because in them ‘is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge’ (4 Ezra 14: 45–6). That the author of 4 Ezra drew different conclusions about the scope of a fixed collection of scriptures at the same time that Josephus argues that all Jews everywhere recognized the same books. The fact that both authors pegged their scripture collections to the sacred letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets (twenty-two and twenty-four letters respectively), and 4 Ezra's acceptance of seventy other books may reflect another holy number: namely, the elders of Israel or the divinely inspired translators of the Law into Greek noted in the Letter of Aristeas.

In the early development of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, there are signs that earlier written materials were recognized as having divine origins and authority in the Jewish community (Nehemiah 8; 1 Kings 22–3; Daniel 9), but there is no record of the processes that were at work in the religious communities that gave rise to the sacred collections that emerged in Judaism and Christianity. Something of those processes, however, can be discerned in the biblical and non-canonical sources that survive antiquity (see sect. V. A above); that is, some reasonable inferences can be made, but several ambiguities remain. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, there is no evidence that all Jews either in or outside Palestine agreed on the matter even at the end of the first century CE, contrary to the opinion of Josephus (Ap. 1. 42). Discussions about which texts ‘defile the hands’ continued in Judaism for several centuries, even if most of the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures had already been largely determined. The question at this time was more one of exclusion than inclusion: namely, whether Jews should continue to read questionable books.

Certain disputed writings among the Jews were probably produced in a later period (e.g. Esther, Song of Songs, Ezekiel), but especially Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), 1 Enoch, Wisdom of Solomon, Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 1–4 Maccabees, but references to them made their way into various Christian writings. The attempts to ban some of these books in the Amoraic period (c.250–530 CE) of the rabbinic tradition (see t. Yadayim 2. 13; y. Sanhedrin 28a, 100b; Koheleth Rabbah 12. 12) argues, in fact, for their continued reception in the Jewish community.

The number twenty-four, the number of letters in the Greek alphabet, prevailed in the rabbinic tradition during the period of the Amoraim writing in the third to sixth centuries (see b. Taanith 8a; Bemidbar Rabbah 13. 16, 14. 4, 18; 18. 21; Sir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4. 11; Koheleth Rabbah 12. 11, 12). Some rabbis contested the scriptural status of some of the books, and many opted for a more limited biblical collection and questioned the status of Song of Songs (m. Eduyoth 5. 3; m. Yadayim 3. 5; b. Megillah 7a; t. Yadayim 2. 14) Ecclesiastes (b. Shabbat 100a; see also Jerome on Ecclus. 12:14); Ruth (b. Megillah 7a); Esther (b. Sanhedrin 100a; b. Megillah 7a; cf. t. Megillah 2. 1a;); Proverbs (b. Shabbat 30b); and Ezekiel (b. Shabbat 13b; b. Hagiga 13a; b. Menahot 45a; for other examples, see Leiman 1976: 82–108).

Neither Josephus nor 4 Ezra identify the books in their collections, and neither speaks of the three categories that eventually identified the books of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, Writings). The author of 4 Ezra describes how Ezra was able to drink a special potion of ‘something like water, but its color was like fire’ (4 Ezra 14: 39), and his memory increased allowing him to remember all of the sacred writings including the twenty-four that were for general dissemination, and the seventy more that were for those who were wise (14: 46–7).

Although Josephus claims that all Jews everywhere acknowledged the same sacred books, there is no evidence of any agreement at that time on all the books that eventually belonged to their scripture collection. In fact, the surviving evidence points in the opposite direction: namely, the large collection cited by the Christians in the first and second century. For example, Jude cites as prophecy a pseudepigraphal writing (Jude 14; cf. 1 Enoch 1. 9). An appreciation of apocalyptic books among the Jews waned following the devastating consequences of the failed messianic movement in Israel when they once again sought independence from Rome (132–5 CE). This was not so among Christians, who continued appreciation and use of such literature through much of the rest of the second century and even later.

The Essenes also had a much larger collection of scriptures than those that finally attained canonical status in rabbinic Judaism and in the Protestant church. These extra books were often called ‘apocryphal’ (apocrypha = ‘hidden’), a term originally used to speak of legitimate ‘hidden’ texts that were read in the churches and used in theological discourse; but eventually the term was used to identify heretical teachings (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1. 20. 1; cf. also Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 3. 4. 29). Jerome is the first to use this term for the ‘deutero-canonical’ or apocryphal writings that were eventually both marginalized and contested in the Church, but were often used in catechetical instruction (Prologus in libro regum 365). The pseudepigraphal writings were marginalized in the early church and eventually rejected (Euseb. HE 6. 12. 3).

Later, Christians also acknowledged the importance of the twenty-four letters in the Greek alphabet to enumerate the books of their OT scripture canon and, by various combinations of books, they continued to acknowledge the same sacred number, but were able to accept a variety of additional materials into their collections (Hengel 2002: 57–74).

Without question, the Law, or Pentateuch, was at the heart of all scripture collections for the Jews. The Law was followed by the Prophets (that is, the Former and Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Bible = Joshua–2 Kings and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets), and eventually also by an ambiguous collection (at first) eventually called the Writings. What precisely was included in the final group is unclear until the middle to late second century CE, when its contents are listed under the name of Hagiographa (lit. ‘sacred writings’), or called Ketubim. Before then, the books that were later called Writings were called Prophets. All of the Hebrew Scriptures were eventually identified by the term Tanakh.

In New Testament times, the most common designations for the sacred scriptures included ‘the Law’ (e.g. Matt. 5: 18; Rom. 8: 3–4), or ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (Matt. 5: 17; 7: 12; 11: 23; Luke 16: 16, 29, 31; 24: 27; John 1: 45; Acts 13: 5; Rom. 3: 21), or just ‘the Prophets’ (Acts 7: 42; see the only exception in Luke 24: 44 below). Initially, the rabbinic tradition also regularly spoke of ‘the Law’ or ‘the Law and the Prophets’ as designations for all scripture (m. Rosh Ha-Shanah 4. 6; m. Megillah 4. 3, 4; t. Baba Metzia 11. 23; t. Terumoth 1. 10). Only gradually (generally after the fourth to fifth centuries) are the three parts of the Hebrew Bible regularly mentioned (t. Rosh Ha-Shanah 4. 6; y. Megillah 73d) or identified. In the first century BCE–CE, and for a considerable time afterwards, ‘Writings’ were not a part of the lingua franca of either Jews or Christians.

C. Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Christianity

The early church fathers not only cited many OT and early Christian writings, they also cited apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings, although less frequently. The earliest Christian citation of Sirach (4: 31), for instance, occurs in Didache 4. 5 and the Epistle of Barnabas 19. 9. Later Clement of Alexandria argued that Sirach was written by Solomon, who inspired the pre-Socratic Heraclitus (Strom. 2. 5. 17, 24). Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, and Augustine also cited Sirach. The ancient prophecy called Eldad and Modad was cited as an authoritative resource in the Shepherd of Hermas (Vis. 2. 3. 4), and the author of the Epistle of Barnabas cites 1 Enoch three times, twice employing scriptural designations (see 4.3 which begins ‘it was written as Enoch says’ and 16. 5 citing 1 Enoch 89. 55, 66, 67 beginning with the words ‘For the scripture says’). It continued to be cited well into the fourth century, but generally not by name. It appears that in the fourth century, the offence of Jude was not that he made use of 1 Enoch as other Christian writers had done, but that he referred to it specifically by name. The use of 1 Enoch was acceptable in the church in the second century, but not in the fourth! The early church frequently cited 1 Enoch, Assumption of Moses, Jubilees, Apocalypse of Baruch, Prayer of Joseph, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Adler 2002). Not only did many Christians read apocryphal writings, they also produced many apocryphal Christian writings, such as gospels, acts, and epistles, that were read in churches in the first three centuries. Writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla and others were quite popular in the early church for several centuries. Debates and doubts over this literature are well noted by Eusebius in the fourth century (HE 3. 25) and in the Muratorian Fragment.

Whatever led the church to reject the pseudepigraphal writings, they were also a part of the Jewish heritage of early Christianity, and in some cases were cited as sacred scripture (Adler 2002). The books that were accepted by the church varied ‘at the fringes’ for several centuries, but the core writings (the four gospels, letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John) were widely accepted and used in churches. After the fourth century, there was more focus in the church on the hermeneutics that enabled them to adapt the story of God's activity in Jesus to the ever new and changing circumstances of the church.

D. The Emergence of the Christian ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments

Because the term ‘Old Testament’ is not found in the Christian community until the end of the second century CE, in the writings of Melito, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, it is premature to speak of an ‘Old Testament’ or a ‘New Testament’ before the end of the second century. Irenaeus (c.170–80) was apparently the first to use these terms to distinguish the two parts of Christian scriptures. He writes: ‘Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly…For as, in the New Testament, that faith of men [to be placed] in God has been increased, receiving in addition [to what was already revealed] the Son of God, that man too might be a partaker of God’ (Adv. Haer. 4. 28. 1–2). Likewise, Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c.170–80), speaks of ‘the books of the old covenant [= testament] (ta tēs palaias diathēkēs biblia)’. These words are preserved in the fourth century (Euseb. HE 4. 26. 13 f.), but we also find similar references in Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 15. 5. 85), Origen (de Princ. 4. 11), and Tertullian (c.200), who states: ‘If I fail in resolving this article (of our faith) by passages which may admit of dispute out of the Old Testament, I will take out of the New Testament a confirmation of our view’ (Adv. Prax. 15).

At about 220 CE in Alexandria, Origen argues that his teachings are ‘found both in the so-called Old Testament and in the so-called New, appears so plainly and fully’ (Comm. John 5. 4; cf. 10. 28 and de Princ. 4. 11; emphasis added). The terms ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ were originally identical not to the OT and NT canons, but rather to the biblical covenants. They are found in both the OT (Jer. 31: 31) and in the NT (Luke 22: 20; 1 Cor. 11: 25; Heb. 8: 8, 13; 9: 15; 12: 24), as well as ‘first’ covenant (Heb. 9: 1) for the ‘old covenant’, but such terms are never used in the Bible as a reference to a body of literature. These uses emerged in the second century, but they still had to be explained to the churches even in the fourth century. Eusebius (c.325 CE), describing Josephus's canon of scripture writes: ‘he gives the number of the canonical scriptures of the so-called Old Testament, and showed as follows which are undisputed among the Hebrews as belonging to ancient tradition’ (HE 3. 9. 5, LCL). Later, while speaking of the NT, he says: ‘At this point it seems reasonable to summarize the writings of the New Testament which have been quoted’ (HE 3. 25. 1, LCL). The distinctions were used by some of the church fathers in the late second century, but were not generally and regularly employed until the middle of the fourth century. In canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea (c.360) we read: ‘[It is decreed] that private psalms should not be read in the church, neither uncanonized books, but only the canonical [books] of the New and Old Testament (oude akononista biblia, alla mona ta kanonika tēs kainēs kai palaias diathēkēs)’ (emphasis added).

The notion of ‘old’ in antiquity did not mean the same as it does today. Then it meant good and reliable, or trustworthy. Whatever was new, religiously speaking, was unworthy of consideration. Indeed, having roots in antiquity was critically important for the mission of the early church, and the attempt by Marcion to sever the church's relations with its past in Judaism and in the scripture tradition it had received from Judaism was resolutely condemned, and he was excommunicated. The marvel for the church, then, was not that it had accepted something old, but rather that it had accepted something new!

The early Christians' acceptance of the notion of new scriptures is rooted in their fundamental belief that God has acted decisively in the activity and fate of Jesus. From the beginning, the church recognized the value of those writings that told of Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection (the gospels), and they were quickly and readily used authoritatively in churches precisely because they contained the words of Jesus, the Lord of the church. The gospels were cited in the early churches from the beginning, and were used in their catechetical and apologetical mission; but they were not generally cited as ‘scripture’ until the end of the second century. They were cited primarily because they contained the words of Jesus. Only in the middle of the second century do they gain any other recognition, such as ‘memoirs of the apostles’ (Justin, 1 Apol. 67). Their authority resided not in who wrote them, but rather in what they said about Jesus and in their reporting the words of Jesus.

The obvious value of the continuation of the story of the mission of Jesus in the church (Acts) and the call to faithful living and obedience to the mission of Jesus (the epistles) was also acknowledged and received early on in the church. This recognition, coupled with the church’s belief that the authors of these writings wrote in the power of the Spirit, easily moved the church to collect and circulate these writings in their churches. Their usefulness in the church’s life, worship, instruction, mission, and apology was obvious in regard to the gospels (especially Matthew) and the epistles (especially Paul’s), and they circulated widely among the Christians in the first and second centuries. When the churches began to read these writings alongside the Old Testament scriptures in their worship, the process of scriptural recognition and canonization had already begun (McDonald 1995: 142–64).

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