“Aha” Concept: The Reality of Scriptural Pluriformity

What books make up the Bible? It really depends on who you ask. A Jewish person would say that the Bible is made up of 24 books divided into three sections: the Torah (5), the Prophets (8) and the Writings (11). A Protestant would say that the Bible is made up of 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament. A Catholic has a Bible that consists of an Old Testament with “the 39” books plus 7 other books. An Orthodox Bible has even more additional books in their Old Testament.

Note: the way the books are listed under “Hebrew Bible” are NOT the way the books are titled in the Hebrew Bible

But which Bible was the one that Jesus and his earliest disciples read? None of the above! There was no Bible yet! There was no fixed collection of approved, authoritative texts, either in Judaism or among the earliest generations of Jesus followers. The texts that would later be canonized to form the Tanakh, existed as individual scrolls or small collections (i.e., the Pentateuch and the “Minor” Prophets). Many of these books existed in various “editions” that demonstrated some significant differences. Also, these pre-canonized texts existed in Hebrew and Greek, and possibly Aramaic. The New Testament authors obviously had access to a variety of texts in both Hebrew and in Greek, as evidenced by the many quotations and allusions to the Jewish scriptures in their writings.

The state of the biblical texts that would later form the Tanakh was what scholars call pluriform (i.e., existing in many forms). There simply was no one unified anthology of biblical texts that existed in the first century CE. In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries made it clear that at least for some additional books, which were not included later in the Tanakh, were nonetheless considered by some as authoritative (e.g., Enoch, Jubilees, additions to Esther and Daniel, etc.). It seems that the five books of the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy), most of the Prophets and the Psalms were accepted as authoritative by most, but not all, Jews in the first century CE.

The bottom line is this: there was no “the Bible” in the first century CE. While there were certainly texts that the New Testament writers referred to as Scripture, we really don’t know for certain exactly which texts each author had in mind.

  • When Jesus speaks of “Moses and all the prophets…and all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27), and again “the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44) we have no reason, other than our own traditional beliefs, to interpret that reference as including every one of the 24 books of the Tanakh (roughly equivalent in content to the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament).
  • When in 1 Timothy3:16 we read, “All God-breathed scripture is useful,” we have no way of knowing exactly what texts the author had in mind.
  • In the book of Jude 14–15, there is a clear quotation from the book of 1 Enoch 1:9. The author of Jude states that Enoch prophesied concerning the end times. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the books of Enoch were highly regarded, probably as authoritatively prophetic, by at least some Jews in the Second Temple period and apparently also by the author of Jude.  In fact, it was only in the fourth century CE when Enoch was no longer considered by most as canonical. To this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes Enoch in their canon of Scripture.

At some point during my undergrad and grad studies at UBC, it suddenly dawned on me one day that the first century followers of Jesus interacted with Scripture in its pluriformity and that it didn’t seem to bother them. They read, taught and quoted scripture from various versions of the texts including texts not later found in the Jewish or Christian canons. In fact, various groups of Christians, from the second through the fourth centuries CE, hotly debated which books should be included in both the Old and New Testaments.

The acceptance of the pluriformity of scripture emphasized for me the vital importance of learning more about Judaism of the Second Temple (ca. 515 BCE – 70 CE). Also, I realized how naïve I had been regarding the emergence of Christianity, starting with the early Jesus movement (ca. mid-first century CE) to the establishment of the Christian canon (late fourth century CE). The Bible(s) we hold in our hands were not the Bible(s) of the first century Jews nor of the early Jesus followers.

In the last decade, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the various Jewish texts of the Second Temple period, including those that were not later included in the Jewish canon. I’m also learning to appreciate the texts written by early Jesus followers that were not later included in the New Testament canon. Reading these ancient texts is painting a much broader, more complicated and, often, messier picture of ancient Judaism and emergent Christianity, than the sanitized and anachronistic picture I had in my mind when I only read the 66 books of my Protestant Bible. And the learning continues.

For further reading: