Timothy Lim on the Canon

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My book on the formation of the Jewish canon is about to be published by Yale University Press on the 22nd of October. Several years ago, while co-editing a volume on the scrolls, John Collins invited me to send in a proposal for the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library series.  I had written a chapter in the Oxford volume on ‘Authoritative Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls’, and as General Editor of the YUP series John thought that it would be good to have a full length study, reviewing the whole issue of canon in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My interest in the formation of the canon goes back a long way, ever since I investigated the textual characteristics of the scriptural citations in the letters of Paul and the sectarian commentaries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Over the years I have continued to research and write on various topics, such as ‘praise of the fathers’ in Ben Sira, the canonical notice in 4QMMT and the meaning of ‘the defilement of the hands’ in the Mishnah.  This long period of reflection was necessary given the scope of the subject and the burgeoning scholarly literature.  There were numerous terminological and conceptual issues at stake and they were, in turn, dependent on how key primary sources were interpreted.  To compound the challenges, these sources were found within the fields of several sub-disciplines that have as their research goal the study of the Pentateuch, Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, writings of Philo, books of Josephus, Pauline letters, and Rabbinic literature.

I felt, however, that there was advantage in discussing the subject as a whole rather than piecemeal.  Ever since the three stage theory was demolished in the past generation, scholarly opinion has been divided and no consensus has emerged.  Part of the reason may be found in the specialization of studies that tend to focus on narrower concerns and not address the big picture.  The emergence of the canon is a general issue that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

In this book, I advance the theory of the majority canon.  This theory suggests that while the 22/24 book Pharisaic canon eventually became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism between the second and third centuries CE there were diverse concepts of canon before this time.  There was no centralization of a Jewish ‘council’, at the Temple or Javneh, that prescribed which books are to be considered authoritative.  Rather the Jewish canon emerged from the bottom-up as  various Jewish communities came to regard the same books as canonical.

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