New College, University of Edinburgh

The Canonical Process Reconsidered

The canon of the Hebrew Bible was defined, if not yet finally closed, by the end of the first century CE.  The Pharisaic canon became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism, because the majority of those who re-founded the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans were Pharisees.  The process that led to this canonization needs to be explored.  How should we think about the books that were eventually included in the canon?  Unlike the early church, ancient Jewish communities did not have a central authority that defined the books of the canon. The formation of the Jewish canon was not prescribed by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem, it emerged from the bottom-up with each community holding to its own collection of authoritative texts.

I suggest that the books of the canon were not selected according to a set of criteria. One cannot explain why one book was chosen over another book by a set of standards or norms.  I avoid the terminology of “criteria” altogether and its connotation of an external standard. The canonical process was multifaceted and complex, both in the way that each community formulated its own understanding of authoritative scriptures and the rationale implied in the selection.  We need to apply a different kind of logic to understand how the process worked in defining the canon by drawing on the conceptual resources of analytical philosophy on non-essentialism, blurred definitions and family resemblances.  The result of this process, the definition of the canon, is explained by indicative logic.

Criterial Logic Questioned

Criterial logic was used in the Patristic period to explain why some books, and not others, were included in the canon.  It was thought that the canonical status was determined by criteria, namely the books’ use in the synagogue and church or by the original language of Hebrew in which they were written.  But these explanations are rationalizations “after the fact” and of a later time.  The Hebrew criterion, for example, does not explain why books that were originally composed in Hebrew (e.g. Ben Sira, Jubilees, the Temple Scroll) were left out of the canon.  Other books (Ezekiel, Qohelet, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Esther, and Ruth) were disputed by the Rabbis despite being written in Hebrew.

Another kind of explanation, based on criterial logic, is the divine inspiration of the biblical books.  This criterion is often stated, but seldom explained.  It is taken as self-evident. The criterion is believed to be so obvious that its invocation in a debate often silences awkward questions about the canonical process altogether. In fact, some feel that it is positively irreverent to be asking just how belief in a book’s divine origin explains its inclusion in the list of authoritative writings, for how could a divinely inspired text be anything other than canonical? Also absent is the reasoning for the exclusion of other books that likewise claim that God had revealed the content, if not the very words, of the book to the author.

But the claim to divine inspiration is not restricted to the books that were eventually canonized.  The book of Enoch, Jubilees, the Habakkuk Pesher, and the Pauline letters, to name only a few examples, all claimed divine inspiration, but were not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible.  The selection of books for the canon cannot be explained by this kind of logic, since the claim of divine inspiration depends on the validation of a community.  The claim-validation sequence required in divine inspiration follows the biblical pattern set at Mount Sinai.


Indicative Logic

The definition of the canon is better explained by indicative rather than criterial logic.  Indicative logic points to the fact that a group of texts (such as the Pentateuch and books of the prophets), authoritative in various ways, eventually came to be included in the canon.  It does not require that this group of texts meet certain external criteria that other texts do not meet.  The features of this group of texts are not sufficient and necessary; their characteristics can also be found in other texts (e.g. Book of Jubilees, 1 Enoch, the Temple Scroll) and their distinctive attributes are not constitutive of the definition of the canon.

A good way of thinking about these factors is to appeal to the biological analogy of the genetic makeup (DNA code) that manifests itself in the physical attributes of a family. Individual characteristics or traits are not all the same in a family, but the genetic information for eye, hair and skin colour, shape of the nose, face and head, and height and body-type are passed on and contribute to family resemblances. Each familial characteristic (e.g., blue eye colour) could also be found in others who are not biologically related to the family.  Similar combinations of physical characteristics, usually among the same ethnic group, could result in a coincidental family resemblances.

An indicative definition of the canon points to the family resemblances that are shared among the books that were eventually included in the canon.  The features of this family of texts are not unique, but may be found elsewhere among other non-canonical texts.  The fact that this rather than another group of authoritative texts was eventually canonized is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition.  It was not inevitable, yet it is meaningful and significant.

The Indicative Definition of the Canon

Indicative logic is implied in the study of authoritative texts that evidence the formation of the canon; although, I am unaware of anyone who has explicitly discussed it in relation to the concept of blurred definitions and family resemblances. The concept of family resemblances is assumed in much of the work on orality and scripturalization of traditional material: a group of texts, sharing similarities that are not unique to them, was nevertheless regarded as worthy of copying, commenting, updating, and transmitting and are instantiated in the canonical process.

The process that led to the canonization of the Hebrew Bible is complex and included various factors, both external and internal, that are indicative of its formation and constitution. I have suggested elsewhere that there were different collections of authoritative texts used by the various Jewish communities before the Pharisaic canon became the majority canon of Rabbinic Judaism. These collections shared a common core of the Pentateuch with or without a loosely defined corpus of prophetic texts. The impetus of collecting and defining the authoritative books arose from the outside as Jews elevated the law as part of the Persian policy of provincial governance in the Achaemenid period. Other outside factors include the standardization of the Homeric epics as “the Bible of the Greeks” in Alexandria and the emergence of the writings of the Christians.

There were also internal factors. Texts were increasingly used to support the development of Jewish religion before and after the exile. The observance of laws and rituals, both at the Temple and in the family home, required the textualization and scripturalization of the traditional teachings. These teachings, once committed to writing, themselves became the object of interpretation and comment.

Several books traced the story from creation to the election of the patriarchs, emergence of the people of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, the period of the judges, the establishment of the monarchy, its division, and the eventual fall to the Babylonians, the exile of the Judaeans and the subsequent restoration in the Persian period. Whether one wishes to call this “credo”, “confessional recital”, “myth” or simply “the story of Israel,” the origins of the people of God appear in several texts to support various aims.  The story of Israel is rehearsed in texts of the Second Temple Period: for instance, in the call to separate from foreigners (Neh 9:6-14), the idealization of the Davidic kingship (Chronicles), the praise of the fathers of old (Sirach 44-50), the admonition of sectarian leaders to follow Jewish law correctly (4QMMT, section C), the first century canonical notice (Josephus, Against Apion 1.38-41), and the definition of faith (Hebrews 11).

I propose to re-think the canonical process.  It is suggested that one cannot account for the books included in the canon by the use of a set of criteria.  The search for criteria should give way to a different way of thinking, an indicative logic that is non-essentialist and with blurred boundaries.  The indicative definition points to a set of texts that came to be included in the canon without having to meet the criterion of uniqueness.  Drawing on the game-theory of analytical philosophy, I have suggested that the concept of family resemblances is a useful, conceptual tool for thinking about the canon.  The biblical books resemble one another in memorializing the history of Israel, and they also resemble other books that do the same, but were not included in the canon.  The fact that these, and not those, books were canonized is nonetheless significant.  The indicative definition of the canon is a formal definition that recognizes that in the canonical process a group of texts transmitted the story of Israel and was eventually included on the list of authoritative books.


Adapted from “An Indicative Definition of the Canon” in When Texts are Canonized ed. Timothy H. Lim (Brown Judaic Studies, 2017), pp. 1-24.


Written by Timothy Lim


  • CSCO Team,
  • 17th March 2018


  • Wayne Brindle, 18th March 2018 at 8:59 pm | Reply

    Timothy, I can’t see that your reasonings and definitions clarify the issue of the OT canon at all. Your “blurred boundaries” lead to totally blurred concepts of how various writings became part of the canon. When the book of Joel has a “family resemblance” to Isaiah, why should that be considered indicative of a reason (historical or otherwise) to canonize either one of them?

  • William Donelson, 22nd March 2018 at 2:17 pm | Reply

    Greetings brother,
    I am concerned about your statement: “Unlike the early church, ancient Jewish communities did not have a central authority that defined the books of the canon.”
    Your above statement seems to infer that some early church “central editing authority,” much like the Quran, created an approved canon.
    The early church did not have a ‘central authority’ that defined the New Testament canon.
    The flow of New Testament documents came via multiple streams of times and places to form the river of canon… and while what the majority of churches were already using was later confirmed by various church councils, no single authority produced a New Testament canon.

  • Thomas Sandberg, 9th April 2018 at 6:45 pm | Reply

    Mr. Lim,

    I, like you, believe the early Church had a central authority that defined the books of the canon; could you elaborate on what that authority was/is in your opinion/studies? Thanks.

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