Canons of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament


Judaism is a religion of the book. When and where did that begin to be the case? The various historic Christian churches treasure various collections of Jewish writings. Why is that?

A collection of authoritative religious texts may have begun to be assembled early, in the 6th century BCE, among Judahite refugees in Babylon. By the 2nd century BCE, the development of a canon of authoritative texts was in full swing among those who saw themselves as heirs to the promises that are found in the Torah, the Prophets, and David. 

In the first centuries of the current era, across the lands and languages of the countries in which first Jews and then Jews and Christians resided, the inner core but not the outer edges of a canonical collection to which all might appeal was widely acknowledged.

This meant that when Jews of diverse provenance became Christians they brought with them the collection of texts their community of origin treasured.

Some collections were more extensive than others. To this day, therefore, an Old Testament canon of identical breadth is not found among Christians. At the same time, a common core is readily identifiable: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings of rabbinic fame, identical to the Old Testament as defined by the churches of the Reformation.

For a brief introduction to the canon of the Hebrew Bible and three historic canons of the Old Testament, go here.


3 responses to “Canons of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament”

  1. Hello Mr. Hobbins,
    your post on the canons of Bible is both interesting and scholarly.
    Something which is overlooked today, though, is that the differences in the Protestant and Catholic canons did not markedly exist during the Reformation and for some centuries after.It was the recent influence of the Bible Society and printing in the 19th Century US that made this unnecessary distinction.
    I am no expert, but I understand that the situation for the first two hundred years after the Reformation was something like this:
    * the early Protestant Bibles in English included an Apocryphal section.There is a Book of Tobit in the 1611 Authorized (King James) Bible, for example.
    * This trend started right from the go : Luther included the Apocryphal books in his translation
    * the early Protestant Bibles moved the Apocryphal books to a special section in the Bible, rather than leaving them in the places where they had been in the Catholic Vulgate
    * The continued use of the Apocrypha after the Reformation explains why names such as Toby and Judith continued to be common in English in Protestant England and America
    *(Interestingly as regards the pre-Reformation Bible, a special section for Apocryphal works had also originally been St. Jerome’s unfulfilled design for his Vulgate, though the Latin Bible finally opted to mark rather than move the books.)
    As I say, I am no expert. What I say above might not be the complete picture ; and I may have missed something essential. But I do have an eye for rooting out those occasions when we injure historical accuracy by taking today’s received opinion for granted ( as we all can so easily do).
    Thanks – Jonathan Lee

  2. Unfortunately, the Council of Trent (1534-1549), in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, made the Apocrypha equal to the Scripture (except I & II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses).
    In 1827 the British and Foreign Bible Society separated the Apocrypha entirely from the OT canon. There was a lengthy and very intense debate over this issue (American Bible Society followed suit shortly thereafter). The Anglican Church of England (Episcopal in the United States) makes much use of the Apocrypha. This, in my opinion, is due to the differences between the High, Low and Broad Churches with Anglicanism. The High Church is very close ritually and ecclesiastically to Roman Catholicism. Thus, the lengthy and intense debate with the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1827.
    Finally, the Council of Trent also made Church Tradition and the Church Fathers EQUAL to the Scriptures.

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