John Meade Reviews T. Michael Law

John Meade is doing a multi-part review of T. Michael Law’s book, When God Spoke Greek. At one level neither Law’s claims nor Meade’s response is new. At another level, these questions are constantly being re-examined, and the re-hashing of the debate can bring things into sharper focus. Like Martin Hengel and Lee Martin McDonald, T. Michael Law claims there was no OT canon prior to the second century AD. Like Robert Hanhart and Roger Beckwith, Meade responds that the evidence can be read another way. Here are some excerpts from Meade, with whom I agree:

“As stated in the first post, Michael Law set out to write a narrative history of the Septuagint, a worthwhile endeavor to say the least. So much goes into writing a history but the first obstacle one must face is that the facts are not self-interpreting. To be sure Law no where claims that they are, but it should be stated in a critique which is going to offer an alternative way of analyzing the data.”

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“Law portrays the forming and perhaps closing of the Hebrew Bible as occurring in the 2nd CE. This is not a new view and can be found in many manuals on the Old Testament. As one attempting to read Law’s book carefully, the question is does Law deny even a canonical consciousness or a developing canon in the period before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE? In the book he does not admit of a canonical consciousness in the the preceding period, but I am open to correction on this point. In his recent blog post on the question he does treat some of the relevant evidence but he still does not speak of a canonical consciousness or developing canon. Here is the problem with Law’s view: during the time of Jesus and long before Jesus the Jews refer to a collection or corpus of books, which means they had at the very least some consciousness of their collection and what that final collection might be; an idea of which books would eventually be in and which books would eventually be out. The assumption is that the authors and readers shared a mutual understanding of what these titles denoted. The alternative assumption is that the author wrote nonsense when using these titles and therefore the titles do not refer to a set collection or corpus of books and therefore they do not communicate to the readers. The following are only the so-called tripartite titles (there are many single and bipartite titles which refer to the same reality as well)”

Meade here discusses evidence from Ben Sira, 4QMMT, the NT Gospels, and Philo, mentioning also Josephus, drawing two conclusions:

“(1) What does this evidence mean? On page 71 Law comments on Sirach, “‘The other ancestral books,’ according to this assumption [complete Hebrew Bible by 132 BCE], would be the Writings (Ketuvim). Most scholars, however, do not accept this hypothesis since the ‘other ancestral books’ could refer to anything, including the books that never became canonical. At best it seems that the Torah and Prophets might have been a known collection by this time, but we should not read this statement in the Prologue as a confirmation of the later canon of the Hebrew Bible” (WGSG, 71). At the opening of chapter 3 (cited at the top of this post), Law claimed that prior to the second century CE there was no way of knowing which books would be included in the collection. Here his skepticism recedes, however slightly, and he now holds out the possibility that Torah and Prophets (and on page 42, the Psalms) were already a collection and perhaps canonical by the end of the first century. If Hanhart’s reading of the Prologue is correct, as I am inclined to think, then there was already a categorization of books into canonical and non-canonical, Sirach already being one of the excluded books–a work of edification and reflection on the Law, Prophets, and other books. This would mean that by 132 BCE there is at least a developing canon or a canonical consciousness, not simply in retrospect but in prospect. Prospectively, then, the Jews had a view as to which books they considered canonical.

(2) Two ways to view the evidence? As in all matters historical, there are different ways to view the evidence. The titles for the Old Testament corpus of books indicate to me that there was at the very least a canonical consciousness, a recognized corpus of books by 132 BCE and more probably a closed canon by that time complete with a categorization of the canonical and non-canonical. There are more reasons such as the numbering of the books and the ordering of the books which corroborate this point. Part of the historian’s difficulty is that there are not allot of sources to examine from this period. There is no list of books from this early period. This fact does not mean there was no canon. In the period of the temple there would have been no need for a list of books since those books were all laid up in the temple following ancient precedent (cf. Deuteronomy 31:26; cp. 2 Maccabees 2:13-14). If a Jew during this early period wanted to know her holy books, she would need to go and inquire at the temple. Therefore there is a good reason why no such list was composed at this time–it was not needed. It is interesting that the first lists appear after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (Bab. Talmud Baba Bathra 14b).”

The whole.