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