“The Formation of the Jewish Canon” by Timothy H. Lin— New Insight into the Hebrew Bible

the formation of the jewish canonLin, Timothy H. “The Formation of the Jewish Canon”, (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library), Yale University Press, 2013.

New Insight into the Hebrew Bible

Amos Lassen

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we were given new insight into the Hebrew Bible (what some refer to as The Old Testament) before it became permanently fixed. Timothy Lin gives us a complete account of the formation of the canon in Ancient Judaism from the emergence of the Torah in the Persian period to the final acceptance of the list of twenty-two/twenty-four books in the rabbinic period. Lim uses the Hebrew Bible, the Scrolls, the Apocrypha, the Letter of Aristeas, the writings of Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature as his primary evidence and he claims that throughout the post-exilic period up to around 100 C.E. there was no single official “canon” that was accepted by all Jews; rather, there existed a plurality of collections of scriptures that were authoritative for different communities.

Carefully examining the literary sources and historical circumstances which ultimately led to the emergence and acceptance of authoritarian scriptures in ancient Judaism, Lim formulates a theory that “the majority canon that posits that the Pharisaic canon became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism in the centuries after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple”.

The book’s focus is on the canonical debates that have been important to both the Jewish and Christian communities. These are important to biblical scholarship and importantly so to biblical scholars. We are now able to see that the Hebrew Bible is much more than the result of an adoption of texts that are considered universally holy. What actually happened did so in “fits and starts” and there were competing agendas.

What this means to the contemporary Jew is a key to the theological understanding of scripture. The texts that we have today were written by men who were inspired by the Divine which in a sense means that they could have been written by God but this is a bit difficult for a thinking man to accept. What about the textual, historical and archeological evidence? As a kid who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, I was taught to believe that God gave the entire Torah to Moses on Sinai. If this is not the case, we must admit that something about Judaism is lost in the process of not accepting this. I do not believe that we are forced into accepting Judaic law—it is our choice but now we see that the view of the traditional Jew is not far from the historical and scholarly Jew. The choice now becomes one of how to be religious—we have one side that admits the truth and the other that denies even with the evidence.  

Growing up Orthodox in New Orleans was not a question for me—it was a given. We regarded Reform Jews as gentiles and we even referred to the very wealthy reform Temple Sinai as “Our Lady of St. Charles Avenue”. But since I hate being labeled and I am now what they call a reform Jew who belongs to Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts (which is a long way from New Orleans and their Temple Sinai), I prefer to call myself just a Jew. I am observant and active in my Temple and I now feel that the importance of Jewish practice (religious) is separate from the myths and the stories that Judaism carries with it. The Torah is meant to be studied and interpreted and there is no denial to its existence even if it is an invention of a group of Jews somewhere, sometime. We acknowledge that God and truth go hand in hand but we must also accept what the evidence gives us.

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