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

The Significance of the Torah in Ancient Judaism

From the time after the Babylonian exile onwards, and especially in Second Temple times, written ancestral traditions, which were eventually collected and canonized as the Torah, Writings, and Prophets which make up the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), increasingly gained in importance as holy scriptures and symbols of Jewish identity. One may assume that even those Jews who were illiterate or barely literate and could not read and study the Torah themselves had a notion of the Torah as part of their national religious heritage. This notion did not turn ancient Jews into a ‘textual community’ or warrant calling Judaism a ‘religion of the book’. Only a small minority of male experts were able to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Nevertheless, the sacred writings would form the core of Jewish ideology in the late Second Temple period, on which the various Jewish groups would base their claims of religious truth and authority (see Baumgarten 1997; Cohen 1987). With the Torah's increase in significance, the role of the various Torah experts expanded as well.

One may assume that in Second Temple times the Temple scribes who were responsible for the writing and maintenance of the holy scrolls were seen, and considered themselves, to be experts in Torah interpretation. In addition, the group of the Pharisees emerged, who emphasized the significance of Torah study alongside Temple worship as a means of democratizing the Jewish religion. The sources about the scribes and Pharisees transmitted in the New Testament, Josephus's writings, and rabbinic literature are sparse, biased, and partly contradictory, so that a clear picture of these groups cannot be gained any more, but their dedication to the Torah is obvious (see Schäfer 1991). Once the ancestral traditions had gained a broad symbolic and ideological value amongst the masses, religious and political leaders could use them to gain and maintain their power. Not only the Pharisees, but also the leaders of the rebel movements in the First Jewish Revolt, were aware of the high value of the Torah in people's consciousness and tried to legitimize their actions by presenting themselves as defenders of the holy books (see Thatcher 1998: 134–6). Roman officials' destruction of Torah scrolls led to mass riots and popular opposition to the Roman occupation of the land (cf. Josephus, BJ. 2. 12. 2).

Although many of the early post-70 rabbis may have been of Pharisaic origin, the rabbinic movement was not the direct continuation of Pharisaism (see Cohen 1984: 36–42). It was not a sect which distinguished itself from other, competitive groupings within Jewish society, but a network of geographically dispersed, like-minded Torah scholars who tried to convince their co-religionists of the truth and validity of their teachings and practice. Rabbis did not function as formal communal leaders with institutional authority. They should rather be seen as informal teachers, legal experts, and moral advisors, whose authority was based on their personal Torah knowledge and skills of persuasion (see Hezser 1997: 185–239). They saw themselves as an intellectual élite and claimed a monopoly on the interpretation of the holy writings and their application to everyday life situations. One of the characteristics of rabbinic teaching in general, and midrash exegesis in particular, is the pluralism of diverse interpretations and derivations based on the basic indeterminacy of the biblical text (see Handelman 1982; Faur 1986).

The biblical canon was not fixed by rabbis at Yavneh, as is traditionally assumed (see Lewis 1964; Schäfer 1975; Stemberger 1977; Beckwith 1988; Leiman 1991). This traditional assumption is usually connected with the belief that rabbis developed a Jewish orthodoxy which declared certain beliefs and practices canonical and tried to exclude heretics from its midst. The notion of a rabbinic orthodoxy which held synods and councils is entirely inappropriate for antiquity, however, and did not develop before the Middle Ages. The canonization of the Hebrew Bible must rather be seen as a gradual process which started in the post-exilic and Hellenistic period and continued into the Middle Ages until the first printed editions were made (see Veltri 1990: 214–15). In the first centuries CE rabbis seem to have agreed upon the sanctity of the five books of the Torah and a number of other writings, but some biblical books continued to be seen as controversial, and no agreement was reached on them (e.g. Song of Songs, Qoheleth, Esther). The phenomenon that midrashic commentaries datable to tannaitic (70–200 CE) and amoraic times (third to fifth century CE) exist for the books of the Pentateuch only indicates that rabbis held the Torah, i.e. the five books of Moses, in much higher esteem than the other biblical writings, and based their teachings on them.

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