More Vermes on the Canon

There is an overwhelming consensus in the most recent scholarship that there was no such thing as “Bible” or “canon” in the Second Temple period, and that is why I find it so entertaining how boldly and shamelessly Vermes says things like this:

Some colleagues found the phrase, “Rewritten Bible” anachronistic. It is maintained  by Dead Sea Scrolls scholars that Second Temple Judaism had no clear idea of either “Bible” or “canon.” These concepts, they claim, were not determined before the age of the Mishnah. For this reason rewritten or reworked “Scripture” has been suggested as a more suitable substitute. Frankly, replacing “Bible” by Scripture” strikes me as a mere quibble. The issue at stake is, however, more than verbal subtlety.

Academic scepticism concerning the existence of a Bible canon in the Second Temple period fails to pay sufficient attention to the ‘canon’ of Josephus. In Against Apion (1.38-41) he firmly states that among the Jews twenty-two books, no more, no less, enjoyed special respect and authority. Without citing individual titles, Josephus lists the five books of Moses, thirteen books of the Prophets and four books of hymns and wisdom. According to St Jerome, too, the figure of twenty-two was commonly held by Jews to represent the number of books in the biblical canon. So it can be assumed that the traditional Palestinian Hebrew canon of the Bible was already in existence in the late first century CE, or maybe even in the first century BCE.

I suggest therefore that we stick with the “Rewritten Bible” and let the music of the argument begin.

These are the closing words to the first essay in the book Rewritten Bible after Fifty Years: Texts, Terms, or Techniques? A Last Dialogue with Geza Vermes (Brill, 2014). I posted another quote from Vermes on the canon issue a while back.

He knew the primary and secondary literature as well as anyone, and he was not one to skew the data in favor of religious tradition, as far as I know. So what gives? How do we understand his firm resistance to the consensus?

3 thoughts on “More Vermes on the Canon

  1. He presupposes Judaism as a monolithic thing in the Second Temple or post-Second Temple period. This is untenable, for a number of reasons. More importantly, each sect held to a different canon (if you will) of Scripture.
    Just my uneducated two cents.

  2. Brian, you’ve read Müller, right? He makes a nice distinction (I’m sure you’re familiar with all of this) between “the recognition of a writing as sacred” and “the final fixing of its wording.” So actual books-of-the-canon vs. their final, fixed (textual) form are separated out, with a couple centuries dividing the two.

  3. Are we suggesting that Vermes was not aware of these scholarly distinctions when he rejected the term “Rewritten Scripture”? He seems to be aware of the sophisticated distinction between Scripture and Bible and then rejects it. The issue is did the ancient writers conceive of the matter in this way? Vermes argues that they did not. Josephus, and Jerome after him, have knowledge of a tradition of a 22 book canon. No question later scholars have made such a distinction, but do the primary sources indicate such a distinction? Anyways, thanks, Brian, for bringing this source to our attention.

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