The questions of canon, inspiration, and authority deserve rethinking in our day. I come at things from the angle of early Jewish and early Christian tradition. The traditions are intertwined. Attention to both is necessary if the history of either is to be understood.
Jew or Gentile, believer or atheist, it doesn’t matter: this essay is meant to be intelligible to all. On the other hand, the discussion is not dumbed down to the level of unsupported generalizations, nor is my intent apologetic. Links to information and discussion are provided; for more bibliography, see the “Suggestions for Further Study” at essay’s conclusion.
The terms of the discussion are controversial and must be defined. I will use the term “canon” in a functional sense. A writing is canonical if and only if passages from it can be appealed to for the purpose of establishing a point of doctrine. A more pointed definition of canon is also helpful: a writing is canonical if it must be shown that its contents cohere with teaching developed on independent grounds. So defined, the term describes a usage that is not specific to a single epoch or religious group.
For starters, I will concentrate attention on matters Jewish. It must be emphasized that rabbinic Judaism came to possess not one but several sets of authoritative writings. The Tanakh, a heterogeneous corpus of narrative, law, prophecy, hymnody, lament, wisdom, love lyrics, and comedy, often referred to today as the Hebrew Bible, is the primal Jewish canon. Next to attain canonical status was the Mishnah (c. 200 ce), a collection of tractates meant to preserve tradition and aid in the regulation of Jewish life. Supplementation and commentary thereto collected in the Talmudim (Talmud Yerushalmi [c. 400 ce]; Talmud Bavli [c. 500 ce]) also became canonical. In a looser sense, the same applies to commentary on the Tanakh collected in the various Midrashim (redacted collections from c. 200 – 800 ce).
Another strand of tradition is called piyyut, a genre of liturgical poetry which originated in 5th cent. Palestine. Piyyutim inserted into statutory prayer (the Amidah) were composed for every Sabbath, and served to link the Amidah to specific Torah and festival readings by means of allusions large and small. Included to varying degrees in transmitted liturgical corpora, they engendered a corpus of exegesis in Ashkenazi Judaism.
Rival chains of tradition developed. Karaite Judaism (c. 850 - the present) came to possess a body of halacha distinct from that contained in the Talmuds. In its floruit, Karaism transmitted stimuli to Rabbanite Judaism, which nonetheless saw it as a threat. The achievement of Aharon ben Asher (fl. first half of 10th cent.), the Karaite behind the production of model codices of the Hebrew Bible, and of Yefet_ben_Ali (fl. second half of 10th cent.), whose exegetical writings are cited by Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), exemplify the legacy of Karaism. Saadiah Gaon (882-942), who inveighed against Karaism, left an immense legacy of his own. His translation of the Torah and other biblical books into Arabic, his biblical commentaries, and his Articles of Faith and Dogma (Emunot veDeot in translation), the first Jewish philosophical classic since Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 bce – 50 ce) wrote works like On the Eternity of the World and On Providence, all had a lasting impact on subsequent tradition.
In line with sporadic earlier custom, rabbinic authorities wrote binding responsa (teshuvot) to questions (she’elot) of observance from the 6th cent. forward. A famous answer is that of Amram bar Sheshna (9th cent.), head of the Babylonian academy of Sura, to a query about correct liturgy from a scholar in Barcelona. The answer contained a complete prayerbook replete with liturgical texts and halachic instruction. Repeatedly revised, it became known as the Seder Rav Amram, and was used across medieval Europe.
The work of biblical exegetes like Rashi (R. Shelomo Izhaqi, 1045-1105) and Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) came to be regarded as authoritative. Rashi is also the talmudic exegete par excellence. Commentaries on their commentaries are numerous. Additional bodies of thought and tradition, sometimes after heated controversy, came to rule life and practice, and were commented upon profusely. Examples include Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah, his Arabic Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim in translation) and Yosef Karo’s (1488-1575) Shulchan Arukh. Another stream of tradition, the Kabbalah, reached canonical expression in the Zohar of Moses de Leon (c. 1240-1305). All of these traditions contribute to what Judaism is today.
Historically speaking, Judaism is a canon-making machine. Time and again, disparate texts were strung together, loosely integrated, or juxtaposed to form corpora worthy of study, transmission, and comment. Time and again, one canon-in-formation imposed order, opened up, and relativized canons already in existence in a never-ending stream of interpretation.
From the first century of the current era forward, the practice of reading excerpts from Moses and the Prophets on the Sabbath in synagogue is well-attested (Acts 13:15; Josephus, Against Apion 2:175; Philo, Hypoth. 7.10-14; Theodotus inscription, Mt. Ophel. In addition, ancient homilies on Torah passages often cite and expound a verse from Psalms or Proverbs in conjunction with the Torah passage (Bereshit Rabbah, etc.). But the contents of Judaism’s most ancient set of canonical writings were not necessarily read and expounded on in public assembly. Beyond the Torah, vast stretches of the rest of what became the Tanakh had no fixed place in the reading tradition. Of the books later known as the Five Scrolls, up until the end of the Talmudic period, only Esther was read publicly. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Qohelet obtained a fixed place in the liturgy in post-Talmudic times, Qohelet last of all. A baraita states that on the Ninth of Av the Bible may not be read nor tradition studied, “but one may recite Job, Lamentations, and the sections of Jeremiah which deal with calamity,” (וקורא בקינות באיוב ובדברים הרעים שבירמיה b. Ta’an. 30a). Components of the Tanakh which never obtained a fixed place in the Sabbath and holiday reading tradition are (counting the Twelve as a single component): Job, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel. A text’s inclusion in the Tanakh and the reading of it in assembly stand in partial correlation.
The study of Judaism’s other canons is commanded, though some canons, e.g., the Zohar, are not accepted by all. The primary setting for the study of Talmud and other tradition was the beit midrash , where rabbis and students learned together, to be distinguished from the beit sefer, where boys under thirteen were introduced, beginning with Leviticus, to components of the Tanakh. The beit sefer, beit midrash, and beit ha-keneset (synagogue) are correlative institutions in which canon upon canon are commented upon.
Oral and written literature which made it into the prayerbook tradition was understood as consonant with sound doctrine, but insufficient as a basis for establishing said doctrine. The fact that something is repeated in worship does not imply that it could be appealed to as foundational to the teaching in the course of a homily. Prayers, hymns, and narrative that play or played a role in a liturgical setting but are not treated as a teaching instrument in the sense explained include the Megillat Antiochus which was read on Ḥannukah Sabbath in some times and places; the piyyuṭim, in some times and places read in a fixed cycle alongside readings from the Torah and the Prophets; and statutory prayer like the Amidah. Hellenistic Jewish statutory prayer analogous to it, it might be noted, became a vehicle of worship among early Christians. Redacted versions are found in Books Seven and Eight of the Didascalia or Apostolic Constitutions.
The reading of Mishnah excerpts on the Sabbath according to a fixed pattern was traditional in some times and places. The ban on the reading of deuterosis in the 6th cent. Justinian code appears to target this practice. The beloved Pirqei Avot has a place in the liturgy of many communities today. It is often found in editions of the siddur.
Textual function is the most reliable index of canonicity. The canonical component of synagogue oratory is the text or texts treated as foundational to the teaching imparted. Said component can have more than one layer. A canonical interpretation of a canonical text may be the true foundation to the teaching imparted (an authorized translation, a transmitted midrash, or the authoritative comment of a Rashi or ibn Ezra). Nonetheless, authoritative interpretation derives its authority from the text it interprets. Layer upon layer of interpretation may serve as a foundation in the oratorical moment. In most times and places, nonetheless, the presupposed point of departure has been a passage of Torah read out beforehand.
“Inspiration” and “authority” must also be defined. The functional loci of both range from the texts themselves, the authors reputed to be behind them, authoritative interpreters of said texts, past and present, and the community to which text and interpretation are vouchsafed. The charter of the Qumran community (1st cent bce) elaborates on the intersection of these loci (1QS 8:1-16). See Appendix A for a presentation. Viewed in isolation, the various lines of authority are subject to misunderstanding.
In Jewish tradition, a canonical book came to be defined as “composed under divine inspiration” (ברוח הקודש נאמרה; said of the scroll of Esther in b. Meg. 7a). Tradition also ascribed inspiration to the translators of the Torah into Greek (Philo, Life of Moses 2.25-44; b. Meg. 9a) and the translator of the Prophets into Aramaic (b. Meg. 3a). The last case is interesting. The Targum in question, attributed in the cited text to Jonathan ben Uzziel reputed to be Hillel’s foremost pupil, but there described as a contemporary of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, is paraphrastic at points and includes a number of aggadic expansions. As Philip Alexander points out, quotations from it are sometimes prefaced with the following words: “Were it not for the Targum of this verse, we should not know what it means” (b. Meg. 3a). Christians no less than Greek-speaking Jews before them often thought of the Septuagint, a term which came to refer to the received translation of the entire Old Testament, in similar terms.
It must not be assumed that the canonical reach of the five books of Moses, arguably the holy of holies of Jewish tradition, extended in all directions without encountering alternative media of self-understanding. Alongside the Torah and the Prophets on the one hand and the Mishnah on the other, partially or completely unassimilated masses of religious expression ruled the faith and practice of synagogue-attending Jews in late antiquity. The evidence is undeniable. Those who worshipped in a late antique Palestinian synagogue, before, during, and after the service, which presumably included a Torah reading , a Haftarah , a homily, and statutory prayer, gazed with absorbing eyes on a wealth of iconic representation. Perhaps a piyyut was recited, with allusions to traditions and understandings otherwise attested only in extra-rabbinic literature preserved in the “Pseudepigrapha” transmitted within Christianity. On the one hand, a Torah shrine and a facade recalling the Jerusalem Temple, of which the synagogue was a reflection, were represented, along with a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, an etrog, and an incense shovel, accoutrements thereof. The objects’ significance depends on post-biblical developments. On the other, scenes and figures from the Bible were depicted. Attested examples include: the Aqedah, Noah, Aaron and the Tabernacle altar, David with his lyre, and Daniel. Often, a representation of the zodiac and the sun god Helios, with halo, sun rays, globe, and scepter, stood in the center of the synagogue floor. Torah-centric worship contextualized these representations and subordinated the worlds of meaning they evoke to its own world of meaning. But the reverse is also true..
Biblical, post-biblical, and extra-biblical motifs were juxtaposed in late antique Judaism. Competing vectors of contextualization were no less typical of late antique Christianity. Post-biblical and extra-biblical practices include the commemoration and veneration of Mary and other biblical figures; commemoration and veneration of post-biblical martyrs, founders of churches, benefactors, and bishops of the past, the names of which were often read out in the context of the eucharistic synaxis (gathering); celebration of masses for the dead three days out and annually thereafter; and annual observance of the parentalia, in which the family mourned its dead with ten days of fasting and gathered around its dead on the eleventh day, in church (with a mass) and out (with a banquet), gave substance to the faith and practice of late antique Christians.
In thinking about canon, we mislead ourselves if we do so without integrating whatever knowledge we have of the larger context in which it functioned. It is one thing to say that canon is about a set of texts the contents of which are selectively deployed in a never ending stream of tradition, interpretation and reappropriation. It is another to say that said canon, which is supposed to rule faith and practice, actually does so. Realty belies the accuracy of prescriptive injunction. It doesn’t take a particularly acute observer of religious life to note that a canon, no matter how consolidated, codetermines rather than dictates actual practice, today no less than in late antique Judaism and Christianity.
Do I need to evoke contemporary realties to pound the point home? Probably so. I draw from experiences in the American Midwest. In attending a reformed or conservative synagogue, I note that the liturgy is rich with ancient, medieval, and modern components, juxtaposed rather than homogenized. The preaching cannot assume a shared halachic framework, because the congregation does not possess one. In attending an evangelical church, I note that the explication of scripture is governed by a baroque and post-biblical eschatological system, and that the preaching mixes motifs drawn from the Bible with elements drawn from the Horatio Alger myth and a Captain America plotline. Especially if it is a large church, or of any size if, like my own, it is a mainline evangelical church, the behavior and aspirations of the majority of those attending are codetermined by cultural factors in creative tension, to put it mildly, with everything that is said and done in the church on the basis of scripture and tradition.
Key aspects of a canon’s function include the following. The truth which a canon contains is held to be such apart from its conformity to reality as socially constructed beyond the bounds of the community which cherishes it. The excellency of its truth is all the merrier if it clashes with the touted claims of a competing locus of authority. Contemporary examples may illustrate. Consider the creation vs. evolution debate, a false polarity which admirably serves powerful interests on both sides. Or consider the pushback against the fait accompli, de jure, of an egalitarian status for women. The complementarian appeal to scripture serves to ground its protest in a paradigm of timeless value.
The cited examples may lead a few readers to jump to the conclusion that canon, after all, is a bad thing. Nothing could be sillier. The truth which the Tanakh contains, the judgment and salvation it foresees for Jews and Gentiles, contradicts reality on multiple levels. Its truth lies therein. On the basis of such truth, the Jews have survived and flourished against all odds.
The truth vouchsafed through the Old and New Testaments is no less counterfactual. It is understood after all to have been nailed to a cross.
It is the prophetic experience that truth stands in opposition to fact. Unless that is seen, the content of the canon is read as a registry of fact, not a fountainhead of truth. The truth it contains, more often than not, is simply ignored, but it is also understood that said truth cannot be evaded forever. An example may illustrate. The Wirkungsgeschichte (history of effects) of the message of Isaiah as the eponymous book understands it is described by Martin Buber in the following terms: “The message will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misused, it will even confirm and harden the people in their faithlessness. But its sting will rankle within them for all time.”
A canon is supposed to be a plumbline, a witness to truth extra nos. If not, it is not canon at all. If, as Buber suggests, the prophetic word is effective “for all time,” then prophecy and canon go hand in hand. Since the effect of prophecy on those who hear it is inherently unpredictable, the effect of a canon which contains it is beyond the control of the powers that establish it.
The authority a canon has, therefore, is affirmed quite apart from the extent to which it effectively carries said authority at a given point in time. Paradoxes of this kind are not limited to religious discourse. In the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies (July 4, 1776), it is said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It does not matter that it is obvious that human beings are not created equal. Some people are born poor, others are born rich; some people are blessed with two parents, others, with no parents at all. It isn’t true that human beings are created equal. But it ought to be true. Because we choose to believe what ought to be true, and not what is true, we allow ourselves to be transformed by what ought to be true. Truth, and more specifically, acting on the truth, derives its world-transforming power from its counterfactual content.
The transforming power of a canon is in direct proportion to the amount of counterfactual truth it contains. In the final analysis, furthermore, said power is not at the disposition of a locus of authority external to it.
TO BE CONTINUED
 TaNaKh is an acronym referring to three parts: the Torah (Law), the Neviim (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings).
 Philip S. Alexander, “Jewish Aramaic Translations of Hebrew Scriptures,” in Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (eds. Martin Jan Mulder and Harry Sysling; CRINT 2/1; Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 217-253; 223.
 For further discussion, see Lee I. Levine, “Art, Architecture, and Archaeology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (ed. Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 824-851; 829-39.
 Martin Buber, “Plato and Isaiah” (1938), in Israel and the World: Essays in Time of Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1963 ) 103-112; 112.