How Were the Jewish Scriptures Canonized?

How Were the Jewish Scriptures Canonized?  “…the same standard that was used to determine the canonical status of the books of the Jewish Bible would have decidedly INVALIDATED the books of the Christian Scriptures.” (Christianity Unmasked)

How were the Jewish Scriptures canonized? How and why were the Christian Scriptures excluded from the Jewish canon? The Jewish Bible is a collection of books written over a span of approximately 1000 years. Many different societies consider this collection of books to be divinely inspired. The decision that various societies took to arrive at the conclusion that these books are divinely inspired is known as “canonization”.

Canonization need not be a formal process in which elected officials pass judgment on a given book. The process could be one in which the common-folk accept a book at the grass-roots level. The process of canonization could be a combination of a grass-roots acceptance together with a formal judgment, but either way it is a process that involves making decisions. At some point someone had to decide that this book is divinely inspired, that this text is Godly and that this prophet is telling the truth.

Once we are talking about a process of making decisions we can call the validity of such a process into question. Whether the decision took place at the grass-roots level of the common-folk or if it took place in some formal setting – it is still a process of arbitration and the validity of this process can always be contested. If the decision took place in the formal halls of religious power, it could be argued that the judges were corrupt, crooked and motivated by nothing more than their own petty self-interests. If the decision took place in the minds and the hearts of the common-folk it can be argued that the judges were ignorant, swayed by the charisma of a popular figure, or simply acting on misinformation. Either way, if a society accepts or rejects a claim to prophecy or a prophetic book, the decision of the society could always be challenged.

At this juncture we have two paths open before us; we could either revisit the decision and arrive at our own conclusion, or we could accept the decision of those who already decided before us. If we chose the latter path (- accepting the decision of the previous generations) we need to be able to articulate why it is that we trust and accept their decision. We will soon attempt to reevaluate the decision of the earlier generations that gave us the Jewish Scriptures, but that will not be our starting point. Throughout history, most people have not revisited the decision but rather they accepted the Jewish Bible on the basis of the acceptance of the original generation who made that decision.

Furthermore, it is impossible to truly reevaluate the decision of those who knew the prophet or the authors of the Biblical books. One of the key factors in such a decision is the personal character of the claimant to prophecy or to divine inspiration. Is this person just, kind, moral, humble and holy? Or is this person insensitive, inconsiderate, dishonest, cruel and immoral? The people in the best position to judge a person’s character are the people who live with him every day. Once those people have passed on, we can no longer evaluate the person’s character with any degree of accuracy. There is no question that those who knew the prophet were in a far better position than we are to assess the personal qualities of the prophet.

Another factor that gives the generation who lived with the prophet an edge over us in the process of evaluating the given prophet is the simple fact that we do not know what the prophet did or didn’t say. It is entirely possible that the claimant to prophecy made predictions that did not come true and we have no way of knowing if this did or didn’t happen. It is because of their possession of so much more relevant information that it is foolish to dispute the decision of the generation who knew the prophet.

We could however question the validity of the process. What criteria did the original judges (be they religious leaders or the average citizen) apply in their evaluation of the claimant to prophecy? How can we know that the process wasn’t corrupted by immoral judges? How can we know that the opinion of the populace wasn’t swayed by the charisma of a smooth-talker which caused them to disregard evidence that would have overturned their decision? Until we can answer these questions there is no reason to accept any given book into the Scriptural canon.

In order to answer these questions we need to go back to the roots of the Jewish faith. The Jewish faith stands on the unique nature of the miracles of the exodus and the Sinai revelation. These miracles gave Israel a perception of God and these miracles established the credibility of Moses as a prophet. These miracles also established the status of the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. No other people claim that God established His truth in their midst in such an open and obvious manner. The Bible points to these miracles in order to establish the immutability of God’s covenant with the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 4:30-35).

Once it is established that the Jewish people are God’s witnesses (Isaiah 43:10) we can then accept their testimony. Since God so openly associated Himself with this people we can be sure that He will work to preserve His truth in their midst. The Bible records God’s promise that His word will not be forgotten from Israel (Deuteronomy 31:21, Isaiah 59:21).

This is especially true when we focus on the issue of false prophecy. God explicitly promises to ensure that false prophecy will not endure in Israel (Ezekiel 13:9). We cannot revisit the decisions of the previous generations, but we know that the Jewish people are the witnesses whom God appointed to pass on His word from generation to generation (Psalm 78:5,6). If God appointed a witness, then we can trust that He knew what He was doing.

The fact that the community of God’s chosen witnesses immortalized the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, tells us that these men were indeed prophets. The words of Jesus, on the other hand, were not preserved by the Jewish people. Any original Hebrew or Aramaic copies of Jesus’ words have disappeared off the face of the earth. The Jewish followers of Jesus, who could never be considered a significant statistic of the Jewish population to begin with, were eradicated by their gentile brothers in faith. The Greek versions of Jesus’ teachings never took root amongst Jews to begin with. God did not allow the message of Jesus to be preserved in the setting of His witness community. This tells us that Jesus was not a prophet sent by the God of Israel.

If we attempt to revisit the decision of our ancestors concerning the acceptance of the Jewish Bible and the rejection of the Christian Scriptures, we would not necessarily be able to justify the acceptance of every last book in the canon of the Jewish Scripture, but we would easily come to the same conclusion concerning the Christian Scripture. It is not easy to determine how it was that the previous generations came to the conclusion that every last book belongs in the Jewish Bible. What criteria did they use to evaluate narratives such as the books of Judges, Samuel, Esther and Ezra? How did they decide which poems to include in the Psalms and how did they know to give the book of Job its status as a part of the Bible? But we trust that if God appointed this nation as the guardians of His truth, then it is God’s will that we accept their testimony. But when it comes to the books of the Christian Scripture, we can readily see why they were not included in the canon of the Jewish Bible.

The first criterion for a true prophet is that he or she encourages worship of the God of our ancestors (Deuteronomy 13:2-6) and not of a god our fathers never knew. A true prophet will not speak in the name of a god we never knew (Deuteronomy 18:20). The Jewish perception of God precludes attributing divinity to a human. Thus the Christian Scriptures which encourage worship of Jesus and speak in his name do not qualify as prophetic books according to the Biblical criteria.

The Christian counter-argument which contends that the Jewish perception of God is corrupted – is refuted by the Bible itself. The Bible tells us that we should evaluate the claimant to prophecy by measuring his message against our perception of God. In other words, the Bible refers to the Jewish perception of God as the constant, the immutable axiom and the claim to prophecy is the variable. God commands us to judge the claimant to prophecy, disregarding all of his or her miracles, on the basis of our perception of God. It is clear that God considers the Jewish perception of God to be a valid standard to be used in the evaluation of any prophet. This is understandable in light of the fact that it is God Himself who taught Israel who it is that they are to worship (Exodus 20:2). He didn’t present this teaching through the medium of a prophet and He did not have His people read about it in a book. God personally spoke to every living Jew at the time so that they can pass on this message to their children in the living and loving setting of parents baring their hearts to their children. No prophet, theologian or miracle worker can dispute what God Himself taught us. It is as simple as that.

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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8 Responses to How Were the Jewish Scriptures Canonized?

  1. Pingback: How Were the Jewish Scriptures Canonized?

  2. john dawson says:

    So, what is to become, of a Christian, after his, or her last breath?

  3. Annelise says:

    Rabbi Yisroel, you wrote that the Bible teaches Israel to test a claimant to prophecy by measuring their message against your perception of God. You quoted the verses about not following a god your fathers never knew, but this feels different to me than speaking about perceptions of Israel’s only God. It would be very different for a prophet to say “We have to follow another god” than it would be to say “God appeared to me in the form of a man”. The second claim could be considered dubious, and dangerous, and it would have to be tested, but it doesn’t seem to fall into exactly the same definition. Similarly, if people were to say that God is infinite and beyond the categories of creation and yet somehow having a relationship within himself: it is a strong and potentially damaging claim to make, but it isn’t inherently the same as a polytheistic attribution of deity to aspects of nature or rival ‘gods’.

    I find it hard to know how a nation can test new claims about God’s nature just on the basis of their perception of him. There are aspects of this perception that are the same among all Judaisms that you would call legitimate; there are also differences in understanding or imagery. Some Jews say that God is so different from his creation that we can’t define what he is, we can only what he is not; that he makes himself known via messengers, while being in himself ‘outside’ the cosmos; that if a person were to see God, we would be totally lost in desire for him and cease to exist. Other Jews would find it easier to read the accounts in Genesis where God seemed to speak to people temporarily in human form, or the prophetic visions and other times when people saw God as a king, and take it at face value that the invisible God made himself personally present and visible in that place. Where there is diversity in the perception of the nation, I find it hard to understand who it is within the nation that is able to decide which groups are right in their understanding. God promised to preserve his truth among the Jewish people, but in what way and to what extent of teaching did he promise that would happen?

  4. Annelise
    every version of Judaism precludes attributing divinity to a human – the early followers of Jesus did not claim that they were following the tradition of their fathers. If they believed in the deity of Jesus (which is highly doubtful) – and you want to assume that they were so devoted to the Law of Moses that they wouldn’t have violated it (which is also doubtful) – then you could guess that they might have had some justification for believing this claim in teh context of teh Law of Moses – but that justification has not been preserved and the entire belief has not been preserved within the context of the covenant community.
    In any case – trinitarian Christianity doesn’t believe that God “appeared” as a human. It demands that a relationship with a human be elevated to the status of a relationship with God. One can believe that God appeared as a human or as any point in nature – that is still not idolatry – idolatry begins when a relationship is encouraged with that point in nature – a point in nature – that from our human perspective is but a recipient of God’s kindness

    • Annelise says:

      These thoughts feel true to me. They bring together part of the reasons why I have found the Christian beliefs so difficult to claim within the context of biblical Judaism.

      The reason I ask, though, is that some Christians will say that this is not exactly what the New Testament was presenting. In a way they did believe that they were following the tradition of their fathers. Peter claimed that the prophets longed to see the fulfillment of what God had already been unfolding, whether or not we can be compelled by that reading of the Tanach (1 Peter 1:10-12). Paul spoke about the distinction between worshiping the Creator and the lie of worshiping created things (Romans 1:25), and the largest theme of his letters seems to be how Gentile believers can be part of the community of Jewish believers without being pressed to keep the law. This implies that Paul thought it was only natural for Jews to keep living within that covenant (though he believed we all rely on God’s grace for our righteousness), and he never directly contradicted it, though I agree with you that he might have been willing to violate or redefine certain commandments for particular reasons. James, like the others, had a strong understanding of justice, holiness, and devotion for God that he believed was in the tradition of his fathers (James 1:27, 5:10-11). Even John 1 is framed in an interpretation of Genesis 1 and the traditional concept of God’s revelation through his ‘word’. These men claimed that their God was the God Israel had passed on a unique knowledge about, and they also personally believed that the idea of Jesus as Messiah had been foreshadowed within that tradition.

      I can’t see any clear teaching about the incarnation in most of the New Testament books, and I doubt that people so devoted to worshiping God alone would simply worship a man as God himself, incarnate, without clearly explaining their reason. Still, there are verses in many of these books that seem out of place and strange for people who merely saw Jesus as an exalted Messiah, and this makes me question my assumptions: I wonder whether they did somehow view the Messiah as someone who would be pre-existent, a revelation of the personal coming of God. So for me there is a small possibility that the conditions you described were met: that they believed they were preserving the tradition of their fathers, keeping the laws within Judaism and in the light of Jesus’ teaching, and that Jesus was (somehow known to be) God to be worshiped, as well as proving he was ‘from God’ by his resurrection and the presence of God impacting their community. Your next point was that if this were the case, the entire belief still hasn’t been preserved in the context of the Jewish covenant community. This is the reason why I asked what I did.

      Some Christians say that you’re exaggerating the sort of national testimony that God promised. Isn’t it biblically possible for many Jews to be wrong, while only a small group retains God’s message? I think it does matter, biblically, that the Jews who have eventually preserved the keeping of the Torah have been the ones who do not accept the New Testament. Also, the Tanach seems to imply that anyone who turns to God in obedience to what is already in the spirit and action of the law will be the ones who are in relationship with him. But some will still suggest that God could preserve his testimony outside the ‘traditional’ Jewish consensus, and yet still in such a way as some Jews at all times have believed in it (as they have), and as the nation will embody again in the end. I don’t find this very compelling, firstly because the apostles transformed the idea that all who call on the name of God will be saved, and said that only those who call on the name of the Messiah will be. Both Peter and Paul attributed covenant imagery belonging to Israel to the new body of the churches (Romans 9:24-26, 1 Peter 2:9-10), which seems to ignore the very promise they allude to? Apart from this, though, I can see some ways of interpreting the biblical promises about Israel’s testimony and remnant that don’t contradict with what has played out, because there have always been some Jewish believers in Jesus; because the Christian message claims to be based on Israel’s unique, true perception of God; and the NT clearly sees the Jewish people as having a unique role, both in the churches and in history. My main question in this post is, in what ways did God promise the visible nation of Israel would be bearing his truth at any given time; how could people tell if their parents and community were on track with the national testimony, or not?

      I agree with what you wrote about a human relationship being elevated to the status of relationship with God, and what that would imply. The kind of relationship that is described in 1 Peter most clearly, and in all the other books, of the exalted Messiah at God’s right hand, is distinct from the relationship with God: there are two personal relationships. How can they possibly be blended without awful consequences for our perception of God? If it’s all a lie, they can’t. A Christian may have a close relationship with God and understand him in his oneness, but the belief in Jesus will always have an impact on perceptions of him, of creation, and of his blessing. On the other hand, God makes himself known in the finite ways that he himself chooses. Christianity as a total faith system is quite different from polytheism or idol worship; love and glory are pointed towards God, and Christians surrender to him and trust him in a way that he responds to closely. I can’t see how Jews could accept these claims in the first place, but from my own background and experience (which is all I’ve been given responsibility for)… I’m cautious about saying a relationship with Jesus is a lie if it *is* with God himself. If God did do these things and I believed it rightly, within his own design and desire, and he is on a different journey with people who haven’t known that from the inside… but I should know better? I feel like neither voice or claim will fade away from challenging me, and I want to hear God’s voice; I don’t know.

  5. naaria says:

    Many Christians have little or no knowledge of how the NT was canonized, yet they will accept it as “gospel” truth despite it’s many internal contradictions and despite it’s history of writings & teachings by “heretical” followers of Jesus/Yehoshua (acknowledged within the NT itself), despite it’s record of fraudulent or forged writings by fellow Christians (also acknowledged within the NT itself), despite it’s documented record of additions & deletions of verses within the canonical books, and despite the several changes over time (or in different places or churches) made in lists of what was heretical and what was canonical Christian Scripture.  Who decided who Jesus was or what he taught?  Different & diverse communities made up of individuals with very different theologies, but all centered on belief in Jesus.  Canonization of the NT did little to bring the Christian community together  and did less to prevent further division.  The “one way” of Jesus began to fail and began to fragment from the beginning. 

    Those Christians who criticize Jews or Judaism are like the people who complain about a perceived (maybe not even a real) splinter in their “eyes”, but who cannot see the stick or branch in their own or in their fellow believer’s eye.  The Tanach is fairly clear about idolatry, the nature of the One God, the nature of man, who worship should be directed to, who the “redeemer” & “savior” is, what redemption is, etc.  It is clearly stated, in the Jewish scriptures, God is not a liar and God is not a man.  Why do people persist in arguing otherwise, making God a liar and picturing the God of Israel as a god as modeled in pagan theology.  Actually, we need no “witnesses”, other than the words of Tanach itself.  Major Torah principles are not just hinted at, they are clearly stated.  God isn’t known by searching for “clues” or for corrupted verses that “point to God”.  Torah answers everything and Jesus only either reiterates what has already been said in the Jewish scriptures or Jesus/NT writers add new teachings that mainly can be shown to contradict Tanach (& other parts of the NT as well) and return us to the pagan theology of Edom & the Canaanites, of Egypt, of Babylon, of Hellenist Greece-Rome. Once you understand the Egypt that Israel was liberated from & contrast that with what Tanach teaches, you will understand why those who truly know the God of Israel, the God of Torah & Tanach, cannot go back to Egypt.  They cannot follow Jesus to get to a god that their ancestors did not know (or gods they heard of in the “nations”, but gods they rejected).  That is why they were “chosen people”.  Those who know God first hand can’t connect to God though an intermediary, such as Jesus. Jesus is not a way to God, he is a distraction, a roadblock. 

    If Jesus was a man, he is less important than Isaiah or Malachi.  If he was more than a man, he is a god like the gods of the gentile nations and not God. 

    • naaria says:

      Once you study the history of Christian writing and it’s canonization process, you cannot say anything absolute about Jesus or any of the other characters in the NT. Except, that you cannot be confident of any belief you might have. You can only make assumptions and believe what you want to believe. You bias determines how you see Jesus & how you read the Jewish scriptures. If one starts from the Tanach, it is not difficult to see what about Jesus is unacceptable, unbiblical.

  6. Pingback: Fifth Response to Gil Torres | 1000 Verses

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