Bible Review 5:4, August 1989

Glossary

Canon—How books of the Hebrew Bible were chosen

By Marc Zvi Brettler

Bible Review

The canonical books of me Bible are those books included as opposed to those excluded.

The English word “canon” derives from a Greek word meaning measuring rod. Canon thus refers to the books that “measure up” to being included within a particular literary corpus. By definition it implies a process through which various books are judged, and suggests that certain books were excluded as noncanonical. As a result, books that are included within a canon have much greater prestige and authority than those that are excluded.

Most Jews and Christians have grown up with the notion of canonical scriptures, but the idea is really quite radical within the context of the ancient Near East. To the best of our knowledge, no other ancient Semitic civilization attempted to sort through its literature and relegate part of it to a higher status by deeming it canonical while demoting the status of other literary works by denying their admittance into the canon.

Why did the notion of canon develop specifically in Israel? Unfortunately, the process by which the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible were canonized is not clearly described either in biblical or rabbinic literature. All we can do is reconstruct the process based on hints and clues.

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